Teresa Dybvig

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On My Mind: Fun!

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".

Fun has been on my mind. I've been re-evaluating it.

In my first years of teaching (I won't say how long ago this was!), I developed a feeling that "fun" was the enemy of the joy of accomplishment. Why? I lost a few students whose parents didn't want them to have to practice, because they didn't want their children to spend any moment of the day not having fun. Each of these students eventually felt the humiliation of coming to a lesson (actually, many lessons) unprepared. Even though they had been coached on every note of an assignment at their previous lesson, they forgot everything in the intervening week. After a while, these students didn't have any fun at their lessons, and neither did I! Worse still, they never experienced the joy of getting lost in the music, or the satisfaction of accomplishment.

I worried about the message their parents were giving them. They had made it clear that practicing wouldn't be fun, and that the children didn't need to do it if they didn't want. This implied that if one has to think, or focus, or apply oneself to do something, it's by definition not fun, and therefore not worth doing. There is something wrong with that message. Several things. Glaringly obviously, what could be more fun than playing Spinning Song, or Squirrel in the Tree (an early favorite of mine), for that matter? Sure, you have to figure them out, but what a huge reward for the amount of effort put in! Also, who says concentrating and mastering a new skill can't be fun? Then - at what point is the child supposed to learn that many activities in life that offer immense satisfaction require diligent application? Most worrisome, if they are taught that it is acceptable to avoid even mild difficulties on the grounds of temporary not-funness, how will they develop confidence in their own problem-solving skills?

The attitude that practice can't be fun follows even music-loving children into their futures. I've lost count of the number of adults - some of whom even teach music for a living - who have confided in me that they don't dare prepare for performances, or even take lessons to improve their skills, for fear that playing their instrument won't be fun any more. Every time I've heard that, I've felt more certain that fun is the enemy of the joy of accomplishment.

Until. One day a friend told me that she realized that everything she does is for the purpose of having fun. I would have thought, "Here we go again," except for the fact that this woman happens to be one of the country's few French horn soloists, with numerous concerto and chamber music engagements every year. She is also in great demand as a teacher and clinician, renowned for coaching singer and brass players to use yoga to improve their breathing. "Seriously," she said, "I practice high notes because they're fun to play. I practice scales because they help me play fast, and it's fun to play fast. I work on piano technique because it's fun to feel powerful and capable."

Now this I like! Listening to her, I understood what troubled me all these years: we are taught to have a synthetic dividing line between work and fun. We learn somewhere along the way that if we have to work at something, it can't be fun. By this definition, if we enjoy something, we don't want to pollute it by working to improve it. Yikes! At this rate, we can't even go into a profession we enjoy. We must choose one we dislike. We don't even dare try to reach our full potential, lest we lose our love for our subject.

I refuse to accept these arbitrary limitations. I don't want the children in my life to feel them either. So, now, after they've worked to learn a new skill, I point out how fun it is to feel on top of it. I teach them how to plug their problem-solving skills into new pieces, and then ask them if they feel clever and capable because they figured something out. When they are going to learn something new, I tell them they'll be amazed with themselves when they can do it. The other day, my student Catherine mastered the scary dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth rhythmic combination. She had to focus and concentrate, for a short time, but during that time she worked hard. After she did it three times in a row correctly, I asked, "Isn't it fun to feel on top of that?" She rewarded me with a beaming smile and an emphatic, "Yes!"

Playing music on the piano may not give each of them the reward it goes me - after all, the definition of "fun" changes from person to person. I hope someday to look back on my teaching career, though, and feel that I helped students be conscious of feeling such joy of accomplishment that they regard future challenges as opportunities to feel more capable and powerful.

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

Copyright © 2004-2010 Teresa Dybvig