After undergoing a massive brain surgery to stop seizures she’d had since childhood, at age 37 Stephanie Sawyer had a new lease on life. While the seizures reintroduced themselves years later, she had found her calling as a piano teacher and has made it her personal mission to help others reach their full potential through music, no matter what may be standing in their way.
What compelled you to choose a career in music?
Following a major brain operation for the correction of weekly seizures when I was 37, I was given the chance to start my life over and make decisions in freedom as never before. I had only abandoned [the piano] when faced with a mandatory recital for graduation. My fears of a potential seizure on stage kept me boxed in shame. All had changed, and I was liberated to finally follow my first calling. I felt more than compelled to [do] music. I knew I had to share my gifts.
How has music been a healing factor for you?
Music was my only safe place in the year after my brain operation. Despite improved health, my marriage collapsed, I faced extreme financial ruin, and my social world crumbled. I crumbled inside, but finally turned to a place I had long ago abandoned, and suddenly rediscovered a tried and true friend—my piano, a faithful companion I could trust. I could not have gotten through that time without my piano! It had been sitting there idle for about twelve years, but suddenly it pulled me in like a magnet. I could not resist. Daily, for hours, I poured my heart and grief out in that safe place where I knew no one else could compound my sorrows. It was highly therapeutic. It was there that I continually heard, “Share your gifts.”
How important was it to you to have a teacher who could nurture your talent and see past your struggle?
I had the very best mentor the country could give me as she [Betty Shaw] reshaped my line of thinking. She set me free from a victimization mindset, one of familiarity in my childhood. She spent countless hours on the phone with me as she oversaw my student growth. Her loyalty and devotion has always been the very highest and guaranteed my success. I am blessed that we have adopted each other out as mother/daughter.
How has music given you confidence?
Music gives me the power of knowing I do something well. I may be lacking in other areas, but music—this I know. I believe having gone through that extreme pain as listed above gave me a richer jewel from which to perform. I teach students to perform, to express from within, to release their inner energy. It is, as all musicians know, far more than notes on the page. It is the life from the energy that must be realized. Pain brought that to a deeper understanding, and music was always a safe place for me.
What advice/message would you give to other teachers who struggle with overcoming a challenge?
We must create safe boundaries surrounding our challenges in order to carry out our mission. For me, it means only private teaching in my home as crowds and commotion are neurologically disabling. It means not being able to participate in conventions due to noise levels and commotion. The gifts will outshine the challenge. Mine certainly have. As a teacher I am highly capable and highly confident.
What advice would you give to teachers who have students with special needs?
We have such a special opportunity. We have an opportunity to give the student something to feel good about. Get on the level of the student and bring the music to him. Encouragement in the smallest factors will drive the course. It is imperative the student have victory and find the music to be a safe place. Remember that the brain sends off various signals with music study for overall student advancement.
Do you feel it’s necessary to let your students (or their parents) know about the chance there could be a seizure during a lesson?
I handle these matters in a couple of ways. When a student is brand new, I make no comment on my health. I want to establish the relationship. However, about the third or fourth lesson, when all is going well, clients and students have usually noticed the framed Houston Chronicle article about me and the brain operation. That’s my door of opportunity. They also see my framed books next to it and are fascinated. It is then that I can educate them about epilepsy and break any stigma they may carry. I am careful to give assurances and allow them to question me as much as they desire. Usually, they are simply fascinated and bear no concerns.
I have had seizures in front of students. Usually, it involves finger twitching, drooling, totally inability to speak for about five minutes depending on the severity of the seizure. Sometimes, I have been able to pull out of it and carry on; other times, I have offered make-ups. My students have been highly affirming and there has been no need for the natural anxiety that surrounded me in my full cognizance during the seizure. My embarrassment was completely unnecessary.
Last fall, I briefly decided to leave the safety of my home studio and teach at a larger studio without realizing the hyper nature of the director and its impending impact on me. I had been medically warned to avoid over-stimulation. During the first lesson with a new student, within the first five minutes, I had a seizure and was completely unable to dialogue. She saw signs of my drooling—it was highly awkward, and I was highly concerned. I was cognitive the entire time and wondered how to handle it. Finally I held up one finger and managed to state, “Scale” or “Again,” which gave me time to recover. Within five to ten minutes, my facilities were improved and we went on gradually to have the full lesson. I shared this the mother and asked if there were any questions. She was quite pleased because the student had her own set of difficulties that were holding her back. Suddenly, we were bonded. I wanted her to overcome obstacles, and we were a team from thereon.
How do you help students realize their own maximum potential?
My primary aim is to get the student to focus on what they can do, not cannot. I am a firm believer in breaking shame and I want the student to build success on their instrument in building blocks. The student must feel capable from the smallest foundation in order to achieve bigger goals. I am a classical teacher, but I always try to include an interest of the student’s to give a well-rounded palate.
Do you feel like you continue to learn more about yourself from teaching others?
My heart and ability to relate to others with different needs continues to expand. In particular, I can think of one highly demanding teenager, bright in music, who is short in respect. This same student is worthy of all my service, shaping, and attention. I continue to learn how much I can expand to not only accept, but to embrace others who do not regularly fit in my code of behavior. Service is my call, and sharing my passion for music is far more than a duty. It is my joy.