Teresa Dybvig

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On My Mind: Changing habit

This is one of a series of articles on teaching I originally wrote for the Suffolk Piano Teachers Foundation Newsletter, in a column called "On My Mind".

Changing habit has been on my mind.

Pianists and piano teachers constantly ask ourselves and our students to change habits. We might have to change habits as simple as correcting a misread note and as complex as changing the way our hands and arms move.

I think there are four types of habits, in two levels of depth.

The easiest type of habit to change is a simple physical habit, such as correcting a note or changing fingering. Physical habits can be changed by simply thinking a new thought. I teach my young students to think, for example, "4 ahead," a half measure or so before a fingering they need to change. Like a traffic sign, "4 ahead" signals a need to focus the attention. When they do it, they feel on top of a passage that was previously anxiety-provoking. What is so interesting about planning to think a new thought is that we can anchor the thought in the music. If we asked ourselves to think a thought at 2 p.m. tomorrow, we couldn't. But if we practice thinking a thought at a certain point in the music, it will be there every time we play, as long as we need it.

I believe that the hardest type of habit to change is what I call a deep belief of the body. My injured students often have deep beliefs of the body, but I have learned that the injured are not the only ones. This is what's behind people learning new ways of moving, but behaving as if they had not. I was the first person I saw this in. I was trying to practice a movement that my frustrated teacher tried to teach me. There by myself, I reflected that I knew what she wanted me to do, but I would not do it. Pinning down a quiet thought that slithered along at the periphery of my consciousness, I realized that somewhere deep inside, my hand simply did not believe it would work. I realized that, although I knew just what to do, I had never truly tried it. Following my train of thought, I wondered what would happen if I really did it. So I tried, and… it was a revelation. Not only did it work, it worked with no effort whatsoever! I repeated it several times that day and that week, and never looked back. I'm sure that one reason I felt the change so deeply is that the new movement was an improvement over the old. Since that experience, I know that when I am up against a student's deep belief in the body, I have to help them consciously execute the new movement very purely. If they only approximate the new movement, using a little of the old while trying the new, their body will still feel that the old movement is the one that created the success. If they do the new movement without any remnant of the old, and the new movement really is an improvement, then their body will be convinced.

Thought habits can be interesting to pinpoint and change. When I see a student stiffen up as he approaches a new section, I know he has a habitual negative thought about that section. I'll stop them and ask what they were thinking right then. Last time I asked that, my student pointed ahead and said, "This section is hard," as if that were the obvious thought to have there. There are more productive options, though! They can teach themselves to think about the solution to that passage instead, to loosen up their shoulders or listen to the bass, for example. Then, they will both avoid stiffening up and have a positive cue to hang on to. Like the new thought that solves simple physical habits, the music will anchor the thought for as long as they need.

An attitude habit is related to the deep belief of the body, in that it is deep in the subconscious. People have attitudes about everything from what practicing is - testing themselves, problem-solving - to what living a life is. Attitude habits are established without awareness. Like deep beliefs of the body, they are the sneakiest of thoughts, creeping along in the dim shadows of the mind and ready to run out of your head when you look their direction. Like prejudices we don't know we have, they influence us deeply until we see them clearly. If we carry around the attitude that piano playing is hard, we can try to play freely all we want, but we will not succeed. We will always make it hard. [Recently I had a conversation about attitude habits with a high school student who had previously studied jazz, and had come to me to learn to play classical music. For a long time after she knew it was important and rewarding, she found it difficult to learn the exact rhythms, dynamics, and articulations in a piece of music - not to mention the technique she needed to play it. She felt that once she played the notes in a row, she had learned the piece. Last week, she told me that to become comfortable with exploring these issues, she had had to overcome a "habit of neglect." I was thrilled that she could define her attitude habit so clearly. I'm hoping this will lead to a change in that habit, which should make it easier for her to take in a piece, notes and drama and all.

Several years ago, one of my students told me that she realized that she grew up with a really sad attitude toward learning. Her family's attitude was that learning was work, and studying wasn't worthwhile unless it felt and looked like work. No wonder her playing sounded and felt like… work! However, you just can't develop free and joyous movement and expression at the piano while trying to make sure it feels like work. It was our work towards developing freedom of movement and expression that made her look at her inner attitude and see it clearly. Soon after she realized her attitude habit, she made a huge leap in her playing.

Whether simple or deep, there is a common element to changing all types of habit: awareness. We can change what we know. When we are willing to look, and when we teach our students to look, the possibilities for growth are endless.

I am interested in your thoughts on this subject! I invite you to share them with me.

Copyright © 2005-2009 Teresa Dybvig