Teresa Dybvig

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On My Mind: Finding our Passions

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".

The importance of finding our passions has been on my mind. I think helping our students find and nurture their passions is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

When I was a child, I was painfully shy and insecure. Maybe pathologically shy. It was hard for me to make friends, and I couldn't even produce a short answer in class without trembling voice and crimson flush. My father thought that tennis class would help. If I played tennis, I would make friends that I would play with. After all, tennis had given him many happy hours.

Wrong. Tennis was misery for me. I was the slowest runner in my grade due to a condition causing muscle weakness on one side. And slightly crossed eyes gave me such poor hand-eye coordination that I probably never returned a ball that came toward me. Finally one day I screwed up the courage to tell my father that I didn't want to take tennis anymore. He brought me to tell the teacher myself. The teacher looked at my father and said, "A lot of kids get cold feet right before the tournament." Tournament? I had no idea a tournament was coming up. Not that the teacher hadn't told us, but the information hadn't penetrated the wretched haze in which I endured class. Of course I couldn't convince them that fear of the tournament wasn't why I wanted to quit, but I didn't care. By the end of the evening, tennis class was a thing of the past.

Whenever a student of mine wants to stop taking piano lessons, I tell her parents the story of my tenure as a tennis student. The messages I hope they receive are that a child can grow up and live a happy and productive life even if she doesn't engage in certain activities; that even with the best of intentions, parents don't always know what the best activities are for their kids, that even if parents love some activity, it's not necessarily right for their children. It's all an experiment. And that's ok.

I had been telling this story for years before I realized the enormous contradiction embedded in it: painful shyness, muscle weakness, and crossed eyes aren't exactly helpful for playing the piano either. As if that weren't enough, an ignorant though well-intentioned teacher taught me a technique that eventually led to such pain I had to stop everything and learn how to play all over again. So how was piano different from tennis?

I loved it.

Playing the piano is my passion. Wanting to play my best makes me face my greatest challenges instead of letting them defeat me. In order to sit for hours at the piano I persevere in bodywork and physical therapy. To cure my double vision and finish my doctorate in piano, I did years of eye therapy. I retrained my technique from the bottom up so I could play again.

Sometimes I had weeks of pain before I integrated a better movement. Sometimes onstage terror sucked the joy right out of performing. But solutions exist, and my determination to play led me to them. Painful focus on elusive details alternated with empowering discoveries. It's thrilling to feel the speed and agility that results from training in efficient movement. And disciplining my mind to think in a different and more positive way feels surprisingly adventurous.

My life is better in every way for my efforts. I am a better pianist than I ever dreamed I could be. I'm in better shape than I was 30 years ago, and not only is performing easier for me, I even enjoy public speaking! Yet I know I wouldn't have worked so hard, and made all those gains, if not for the hope of becoming a better pianist. Although I have many interests, only the piano matters enough for me to push so far beyond my comfort zone.

Playing the piano was my passion from as far back as I can remember. Teaching others how to play the piano was an unexpected passion that developed later. When I teach I see that my challenges have morphed into strengths. Some of my students just need to know how - how to read music, how to move, how to make Beethoven sound like Beethoven. But many of my students need to know how to change - how to change their posture so their shoulders don't hurt, how to change the way they play so their arms don't hurt, how to change their mindset so it doesn't kill their joy in playing. Because of my journey, I can help both kinds of students.

When a student's passion is the piano, I do everything I can to nurture that passion with support and exciting repertoire and the best information I can find. At this moment in my life I am lucky to have all passionate students. But I have no doubt that, sometime in the future, another student will realize that the piano isn't for him. I will urge his parents to allow him to move on. I want that child to have the time to explore: explore until he finds the activity that so enlivens his spirit that he faces his challenges until they become strengths.

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

Copyright © 2009 Teresa Dybvig