Teresa Dybvig

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On My Mind: Curiosity

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".

Curiosity has been on my mind. I have come to think of it as our greatest teaching tool and our greatest responsibility.

Curiosity helps our students overcome the difficult initial learning stage. What does this music sound like? What is the story line? When learning becomes difficult, curiosity helps them. A student's unfettered curiosity can outweigh worries and fears, propelling her to experiment with different solutions with a happy heart.

I have heard teachers say that we hold the lives of our students in our hands, but in reality, very little dangerous activity happens in a piano studio. Instead, it is their precious curious and eager spirits that we hold in our hands. If we help to foster their curious spirits, we help improve their whole lives. If we contribute to squelching them, their lives may be terribly limited as a result.

When I'm teaching, I strive to engage a student's curiosity instead of just telling them what to do. I have learned to respond to reading errors with, "Did you know you didn't play the note the composer wrote? Let's see what it sounds like when you play that note!" "Will the music change when you play the written rhythm?" is another one of my favorites. Errors in reading or performance become interesting guides to a student's thinking process when viewed through the lens of curiosity. When I see how their minds are working, I don't keep it to myself. I have learned that they can take it -- and run with it! One of my teenage students recently heard a discordant note -- and made an unusual decision. We have noticed that she tends to ignore the left hand, so she decided to check it first, and voilà! She found the problem, she solved it, and was rightly impressed with herself.

Sometimes a student comes to us apparently devoid of curiosity. I do not believe it. Somehow their precious curiosity has become squelched. What makes a person squelch his inborn curiosity? There must be many complicated reasons, but I believe they all stem from the interaction between their experiences in the world and the spirit they were born with.

Many parents have told me that they could see their child's perfectionism, for example, from their earliest days. Without a lot of tender guidance, perfectionist children will respond to our educational system's marks for correct and incorrect answers with a desperate need to get everything right. Some will get to the point where they won't even try anything new because they can't risk getting something wrong. Their need for everything to be in place mixes treacherously with external judgment. Curiosity has no chance when there is a perceived danger in every misstep.

I have other students whose judgment of themselves is so harsh that external judgment has no effect on them. They are curious, they aspire, they fall short of their expectations, they punish themselves, they fall into despair, they recover, they give in to their curiosity again, and go on to repeat the cycle of curiosity and judgment and despair every time they want to learn something new.

I taught a little boy for a few years who repeated this cycle endlessly in our lessons. He was so eager that he resisted all my urging to check meter, key signatures, or patterns before he launched into a piece. But at the first mistake, he gave up on the piece and refused to try again. If you think that means we started a lot of new pieces that we didn't finish, you are right! Finally, I told him I thought he had two character traits that didn't go together well. I was surprised by how interested he was, at age 10, in this train of thought. I thought it would be presumptuous to inform him of his own feelings, so instead I asked him how he felt when he started a piece of music, and what he felt that made him give up a piece of music (we had a handy example that he had started and abandoned that same day). He settled on "curious and impatient" for how he felt before he started a piece, and "easily discouraged" for a how he felt when he got into a piece and realized he wasn't playing it perfectly. It didn't take too much examination for him to agree that these traits did not go together.

He saw that this unfortunate mix of traits caused him a lot of worry and anxiety. I informed him that he had a choice about these traits (I always point out to children that one of the things that makes us humans different from other animals is that we can choose to do something differently the next time). He could decide to plan ahead better from now on, or, he could decide to be a better problem solver so he wouldn't be so easily discouraged. I asked him which trait he would like to keep, curiosity or discouragement. The best choice was clear to me, but it took him several minutes. He verbally weighed the pros and cons, talking about how it would be different one way or the other to work on his music or homework with one or the other trait. Then he was silent for a bit, and I wondered if his mind had wandered! But no, soon he announced that he had made a decision. He would give up being easily discouraged. Yes! He even agreed that I could remind him of that in the future.

This boy was probably never going to be a great piano student, if only for the fact that he often stayed with the parent who did not have a piano. His lessons became more joyful though, as he allowed himself the luxury of curiosity without judgment. He good-naturedly accepted my reminders that he had chosen to give up being easily discouraged. I hope the choice he made about learning music helped improve the rest of his journey.

Solutions that work for children often work for adults too! Recently I was speaking to a curious and aspiring adult student who tends to heap judgment upon himself when he doesn't master a new skill right away. I told him how my student had chosen between curiosity and discouragement, and suggested he could himself choose between curiosity and judgment.

He reflected on that and said, "I like that. I like that. I get to choose." He laughed and rubbed his hands together with relish, and said again, "I like that."

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

Copyright © 2007-2010 Teresa Dybvig