Teresa Dybvig

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On My Mind:
Relaxation

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".


Relaxation has been on my mind. I think it's over-rated.

Recently a new student telephoned me to ask for help with a student who suffers from forearm tension. "I have noticed that when I point out to students that they're playing with tension, and they try to relax, they get even more tense," he said.

His experience is not new. The fact that he can see it clearly is unusual, though. When I began retraining to turn around my own playing twenty years ago, I was informed by Dorothy Taubman that my hands, arms, and shoulders were tense because I was trying too hard to relax. This made no sense to me. Like many pianists, I had been trained so thoroughly to relax in order to play, that I had unquestioningly come to think of relaxing as a pinnacle of human existence. The misguided piano training I had received was abetted by endless messages from advertising and well-intentioned self-help books on the importance of relaxing, taking it easy, not allowing ourselves to become stressed. It was as if the U.S. Constitution had been changed to protect our right to the Pursuit of Relaxation.

This concern with avoiding tension is not without cause. We know that countless physical and emotional discomforts and illnesses are stress-related. We know what it's like to be stressed. So, what is wrong with relaxing to avoid all these problems? Here is a clue in a 1984 speech by Dorothy Taubman, partially reproduced in The California Piano Teacher in 1992: "The feeling of being relaxed is not the same as, for example, actively relaxing the hand. Being relaxed is the comfort felt from coordinated movement." Put another way, we don't feel relaxed in movement when we let go of muscle tone; we feel relaxed when we move in a coordinated way. Piano playing is an athletic event that requires coordinated, balanced movement. The feeling of playing in a lively, coordinated way, maintaining rather than collapsing one's alignment, is even better than relaxed. It feels like… playing!

Is it possible that the same concept applies to life? That we cannot avoid stress by trying to relax? Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who spent his career researching joy, creativity, and happiness, suggests that this is exactly the case. In his book, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, he describes the results of many of his studies on happiness. Contrary to popular belief, people were generally not happy when they spent their leisure time trying to relax by avoiding activity -- watching television, or unwinding with a drink after work. They were largely dissatisfied. On the other hand, when they were engaged in something that challenged and interested them, they experienced a feeling that was better than happiness: the "flow experience," as Csikszentmihalyi came to call it. The flow experience, as he described it, is characterized by a feeling of oneness with the activity or even the world, the loss of awareness of time passing, and a lack of self-consciousness. This sounds like a "relaxed" state worth trying to achieve.

I think it is the flow experience that makes musicians enjoy playing and listening to music. There is nothing heavy or flaccid about this state, just as there is nothing tense or held about it. The lack of self-consciousness means there is almost a lack of sensation in the flow state - no excitement, no depression, just a feeling of being, or well-being. In the best playing too, there is almost a lack of sensation. It is this subtle "sensation of no sensation" that makes it difficult to find that middle place between tension and relaxation. Having felt the flow state through music, it is ironic that we let ourselves be convinced that relaxing all our muscles and joints will help us get to that state. When we consciously relax our muscles and joints, there is a lot of sensation - of heaviness and sluggishness. The human body is meant to move, just as the human mind is meant to engage. There is only one activity which succeeds best when all muscles are completely relaxed: sleep! When we are not sleeping, we can find our flow state by engaging completely in whatever activity we're doing, physically and mentally.

I have lost count of the number of students who needed help ridding their playing of fatigue and pain, who were literally suffering from the misconception that relaxing is more important than anything else. I have come to realize that my first job with these students is to move relaxing out of its place of top priority. Often their belief in relaxing, and their fear of not relaxing, is so deep that it takes many coaching sessions, and many experiences of lively, balanced movement, before they are willing to feel their hands make an effort.

One of these students recently wrote to me, "Now that I've been released from that heavy, ponderous weight of relaxation, I feel like I've been allowed to move, like I've discovered a new freedom and rhythm in my hands." Some of my students also mention positive changes in their lives resulting from their pianistic journey away from relaxation and toward engagement, and I see those changes in many others.

What a gift it would be if we could manage to introduce our students to a way into the flow experience. I vote to enshrine the Pursuit of Engagement, both mental and physical, in our studio constitutions!


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


Copyright © 2006-2010 Teresa Dybvig