Teresa Dybvig

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On My Mind: Perfectionism

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".

Perfectionism has been on my mind. It seems to me that we piano teachers are all alert to the kind of student who makes little progress because of lack of motivation, no attention to detail (maybe even no attention to the basics!), and being overscheduled. It takes more time for most teachers to realize that some students progress slowly because they fear imperfection. For these students, a belief runs deeply underneath their conscious thoughts, that a catastrophe of some vague and fearful nature will result if they do anything "wrong."

I currently teach two perfectionistic children and many perfectionistic adults. My heart goes out to all of them - truth to tell, I have probably experienced much of what they are going through! The children touch me most of all, though, because these are young people with exceptional gifts, who are afraid to start new music, afraid to read through music the first time at home, who worry themselves sick before their -- always stellar - performances. This paralyzing perfectionism is making them miserable and holding them back.

I don't want them to live like this, now, and I don't want them to grow into adulthood this way. I do my best to give them tools to ease up on themselves, accept their human imperfections, and realize that they are just fine people no matter how perfectly, or not, they accomplish any one task. I try to teach them to think of playing notes as written, or not playing notes as written. It takes the pressure off, unlike thinking about "right" and "wrong" notes, which ratchets up the pressure. Over time, I have gotten into the habit of saying, "Interesting!" when they depart from the written score. Because it usually is interesting! Those little departures give us clues to their thinking, their priorities, and where they are putting their attention. Also, they sometimes sound interesting, even if they're not the sounds the composer intended! I like the worst case scenario too - "What will happen if you don't play the music as written? Will it be a DISASTER?? Will it be a CATASTROPHE??" "What will happen if you play terribly on the recital? Will your parents leave you outside in the cold all night??" Of course, they realize, at least consciously, that nothing bad will happen. As a matter of fact, they will probably all go out for ice cream after the recital, no matter what.

I have been working with one student on her perfectionism for a couple of years now. She is growing in maturity and understanding of herself, and recently said to me, "I know! I'll make a list of all the things that will still be there even if I don't play the notes as written." Right away, she named seven or eight things she enjoys in life that would remain in the absence of playing the notes on the page. I was thrilled for her that she could think of so many good things in life on the spot! But the next week, the deer-in-the-headlights look returned when I asked her to play a new phrase in her Clementi. I said, "Remember the list of good things?"and she said blankly, "List?" I reminded her what the list contained, and mentioned that her fellow student had also thought the list idea was interesting. She said she thought she better write down the list to refer to, and she also asked for some details about my other perfectionistic student, so she the list would be meaningful to her too! I was so touched that she wanted to help another student. Then she decided to make the list into a poem. She started it at her lesson, and finished it at home and emailed it to me:

"There will still be…

There will still be flowers,
there will still be sky.
There will still be teddy bears
and fresh-baked apple pie.

There will still be sunshine
and flavors of ice cream.
There will still be Saturdays
for you to smile and dream.

There will still be snowflakes
to fall upon your nose.
There will still be skiing
in all your winter clothes.

There will still be softball
with which to free your soul.
There will still be soccer
so you can score a goal.

There will still be stories
and friends to tell them to.
There will still be laughter
and a miracle or two.

Family will still remain
with all their love and care.
There will still be the gentle breeze
Combing through your hair.

If you don't play as written,
don't back into a cage.
For there will still be music,
though it's not what's on the page."

I just love this poem!

Eventually, I hope all of my students will develop respect for the score and of each composer's style and language. I want my serious students to use scholarly editions and learn how to look past the surface in interpreting dynamics, articulation, and tempo markings. I also want them to be able to perform with freedom and abandon after they have learned the music well. But for now, I want these students to let go of their fear of disaster at every misstep. I know that only then will they find the courage to allow their curiosity free rein, so they can enjoy making music, learn music without me at their side, work out challenging passages, and begin to play to their enormous potential.

I know this poem does not signal the end of my student's perfectionism. She will have to read it to herself many times before we will find her launching by herself into an unknown piece! And I have seen perfectionists ease up on themselves a bit, only to find a sneaky way back to putting the pressure on themselves again. Here is what they say to themselves that gets them back into their old habit: "But this really IS important." And it may be. None of us wants to play badly on a college audition or degree recital - or score badly on SAT's or AP tests.

Still, if perfectionists honestly put it to the test of whether a catastrophe will result -- a disaster -- an end to flowers, teddy bears, ice cream, skiing and soccer - they can grow to see that there is enough room for them to face a challenge without paralyzing fear.

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

Copyright © 2007-2010 Teresa Dybvig