Teresa Dybvig

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On My Mind: Fear

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".

Fear has been on my mind.

Fear is such a powerful force in our lives. So many of life's experiences give us an opportunity to feel fear. We experience fear of death, fear of loss, fear of change, fear of betrayal, fear of intimacy, fear of pain, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of humiliation, fear of rejection, fear of attachment, not to mention all the obvious ones like fear of flying, fear of snakes, fear of heights...

But for all the forms fear takes, I believe our responses to fear all fit into two categories: life-limiting or life-embracing. When we fear and therefore avoid something truly dangerous, we embrace life. When we fear and avoid something that is simply challenging, we limit our lives. Pema Chodron, in The Places That Scare You, tells about the parents of a friend. Because they were worried about crime, they moved into a gated community outside of Miami. In that environment, their fears escalated rather than abated. They limited their movement outside the community, hired people to do their shopping, and ceased their social activities outside the gate. Then their fears focused on the people from outside the gate, the plumbers and painters and landscapers, who came to work on their house and property. None of us wants to live in that kind of mental space, in which we willingly limit our lives so drastically. We can see, though, that a logical progression of giving in to ever escalating fears could bring a person to that point.

Musicians are used to dealing with the kind of fear that shows up as nervousness in performance -- not that we all deal with it as well as we would like. However, I remember noticing when many of my friends were getting married, that all my non-musician friends had a much more difficult time in the part of bride or groom than the musicians! They hadn't developed strategies to deal with the spotlight. When I realized that fear of flying was becoming an unacceptable problem for me, I changed it by calling upon my performance experience. My overall strategy for dealing with fear in performance is to concentrate on the music. I decided that when I felt waves of fear in the air, that I would find something - anything - and concentrate on it. The red dress of the woman in front of me. The gray hair of the man across the aisle. The pattern of fabric on the seats. These thoughts kept me in the moment, in reality, rather than letting my imagination turn every bump and turn into a fiery death.

Two fearful children came into my piano studio this year. One was tremblingly eager to get her hands on the piano, but her fear of doing something wrong nearly prohibited her from playing even a note at our first meeting. The other loves playing and improvising, but he is so afraid his work won't be adequate that, although he plays the piano all week long, he never works on his lesson material! Both of their mothers say they were cautious children from the beginning, and both struggle in school.

I am fond of these children. I don't want them to struggle in school or feel so fearful that they don't even try to learn. The girl knows she is afraid, so I can deal with it directly. At her second lesson, she came to a complete stall because she didn't know in advance if she would play every note right in her one-line piece. After all my attempts at coaching and encouragement failed, I asked her how many things she could do, including things like words she knew, that she had learned since she was born. She's very clever. She said she could do about a thousand things. I said, "So is that it? Are you going to stop at a thousand? Seven years old and you've done everything you'll ever do? What'll you do until you're 102?" She giggled, so I kept going, and said she could bring it up to 1001 if she just played the first measure of the piece. She did, so I whooped, "1001!" We continued in that way through every measure in that lesson. It was exhausting, but she felt great about herself by the time she left. She had taken the risk and she had succeeded.

The boy has a lot more armor, so he's trickier. Everyone who cares for him can see his fear, but he doesn't admit it to himself. Instead he says he doesn't like practicing, he didn't know what his assignment was, I'm confusing him. As his fear increases, he talks louder and faster, and won't let me guide him or explain anything to him. The sad thing is that he's a fast learner and quite gifted, so his fear is getting in the way of real accomplishment. But I have a new strategy: the same one that enables me to fly, and play recitals. I get him to concentrate on the music. I don't ask him to practice anything I want him to learn. Instead I turn to it and say I wonder how this piece might sound, would he play it for me? He's a very curious boy, and perfectly happy experimenting, as long as he doesn't think I expect him to play a piece well. I can ask him what he thinks it might sound like if he did the dynamics or articulations the composer wrote in, and he's happy to try them out. I never let him finish a piece we start at the lesson. After his curiosity is engaged, I turn to another piece and start the process again. Taking a cue from my SPTF colleague Rose Koch, I assure him I understand he doesn't like practicing, and I suggest he just explore and play whatever he's curious about at home. I recently started him on a new and much more difficult piece, and I won't even let him take the book home. My plan is to keep the book until I know he feels he can play it.

It's working. Four days after performing in the festival recital, he came in with a new piece practically memorized. But I wasn't to think he had practiced it! No, sirree! He doesn't like practicing! Sometime we'll come to some common term about exactly what he's doing at home that makes it possible for him to learn new music so fast. In the meantime, I hope he gets so much experience of success that the next time he's afraid of learning something new, he feels the confidence to go ahead and try.

For that is all we can ask when it comes to fear - that if what we fear is not truly dangerous, that we go ahead and try.

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

Copyright © 2004-2010 Teresa Dybvig