Teresa Dybvig

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On My Mind: Frustration

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".

I have come to feel that frustration is misunderstood. I might even go so far to say it is underappreciated.

Since popular thought dictates that we should never be uncomfortable or experience anything negative, too many people interpret frustration as a sign that it's time to turn around and run the other way. In reality, frustration merely shows us that there is a difference between where we are now and where we would like to be.

The type of frustration which signals that we have a problem and don't know the solution to it simply alerts us to the situation. The frustration is not the problem. As a matter of fact, the discomfort from the frustration urges us to find an answer to our problem.

Then there are times when we undergo a period of frustration in the course of learning a new solution or skill. Some years ago, I spent a day teaching a friend's students. I saw five of them. An amusing pattern developed during the three lessons before lunch. Each of the lessons started with a welcome and happy greeting -- I had taught all of them before, and we were all happy to see one another again. They proceeded with showing me their progress since our last meeting. Each of them had put the information from our previous session to good use, and had worked profitably with my friend during the intervening months. They were eager to show me the results.

After celebrating their progress, they presented their questions. Some solutions came easily, but around 30 minutes into the lesson, we would come to a sticky problem. The answer in every case was new, and difficult for them to implement. As they experienced difficulty in implementing the new skill, they would begin to feel frustrated. By 45 minutes past the hour, their faces had lost their happy and welcoming expressions and they were discreetly checking their watches to see when they could escape. I am pretty sure that only social convention kept a couple of them from hitting me.

I wasn't there to make them like me; I was there to help them improve. I persisted. The skill they needed in order to advance to the next level was not beyond them, it was just different from what they had imagined. Finally, voilà, at 55 minutes past the hour, each student was smiling with the joy of new understanding. They were happy to see me again!

At lunch, my friend and I discussed this pattern, which she had also observed. "Human nature," we both said, and then we forgot all about it as our conversation drifted to different topics.

We finished lunch and moved on to lesson number four. This is a woman I had seen many times, and we were happy to see one another. Her lesson followed the same course as the lessons before lunch. My friend and I could not contain our laughter when it got to the part where she was happy again. It was exactly like all the previous students, right down to the timing. Slightly offended, she asked what was so funny. When we explained, she made an interesting observation. She pointed out that this is the same series of experiences babies have when they learn a new skill, master it, and then struggle to learn another new skill. When babies are learning to roll over, for example, they go through what she called an "intensely fussy stage." When they finally succeed in rolling over, they are immensely pleased with themselves -- until they start to learn another new skill. Soon, frustration sets in, and they are not satisfied again until they succeed. They go through another short period of satisfaction, followed by another period of frustration, followed by another new success, and so on.

What does this say about frustration in the course of learning? It seems that it is a natural part of our learning process. As a matter of fact, it seems that it makes its appearance when we are nearing success.

Going one step further, I would say that frustration helps us succeed, if it is accompanied by adequate problem-solving. Last year I watched as all my students but one left my studio with a long and worried face after the first time they ran their entire Guild programs. I knew they were going to play well, but nothing I said could reassure them. Their expressions tugged at my heart, and according to my husband, I developed a similar one. Of course, in the process of running their program, they learned exactly what they needed to focus on to ensure a successful performance. The next week they all came to their lessons with their problem spots substantially improved.

I started feeling that this period of frustration wasn't such a bad thing for them. We would all like to save our children and our students from uncomfortable experiences, but this is impossible. Isn't the next best thing to show them that frustration does not signal disaster, that they can survive frustration, and teach them how to interpret frustration?

Conducting an informal survey of people I respect, I asked if they had ever accomplished anything significant without undergoing a period of frustration, even self-doubt, on the way. All of them acknowledged that frustration had been a part of every success. Frustration seems to urge us to improve ourselves.

As I predicted, all my students played well at their Guild auditions. I was interested to notice that the only student who did not perform as well as she wished was also the only student who had not undergone a period of frustration in the weeks prior to her Guild audition!

I asked my students if they felt good about their playing. All of my previously frustrated students were thrilled with themselves. All agreed that the good feeling they had after playing for Guild was worth the frustration.

I no longer worry when I feel frustration, or when I see my students experiencing frustration. If we are problem-solving well, it signals that a breakthrough is imminent!

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

Copyright © 2006-2010 Teresa Dybvig