As a travelling musician who’s been based in the American West for some time, I now take it as a matter of course that I’ll be required to travel in dangerous conditions to get to gigs. My husband and I are currently in the resort town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where we’re playing principal trumpet and principal cello, respectively, in their wonderful orchestra. Getting here involved a 90-minute drive from our home in the Idaho Panhandle along icy back roads to Spokane Airport in Washington, a two-hour flight from Spokane to Denver, and a perilous three-hour trip through several mountain passes to Steamboat Springs. Snow was falling heavily, and the steep, winding highways were thick with hard-packed snow and slippery layers of ice underneath. We drove at about 20 miles under the speed limit in that peculiarly Coloradan mountain darkness–the darkest, most treacherous darkness you can imagine. Skidding off a cliff was, in some ways, the lesser of our worries. It’s wildlife season in the remote mountain areas, and while a collision with a deer could severely damage a vehicle and endanger our lives, there would be no contest at all if an unwary moose should wander into our path. I’ll admit it, I was pretty scared.
And yet, the thing we were travelling to do–performing music in front of an audience–is apparently far scarier for most people than the thought of driving through mountain passes in the snow, which of course is a fact of life for mountain people anywhere. According to this piece in Forbes, some of the commonest fears are snakes, spiders, heights and public speaking. I’d say performing music pretty much falls into the same category as public speaking. It’s a fear of appearing foolish and professionally inadequate in front of others. And yet, for people like me, it’s something we thrive on. Perhaps the people drawn to professional music-making are slightly (or not-so-slightly) narcissistic and exhibitionistic? Is the possibility of appearing foolish less dreadful, or at least more of a trade-off for the adrenaline high of executing a difficult solo perfectly, of bringing tears to the eyes of the audience, of attracting adulation? That could certainly explain why we practise a profession that is neither secure nor, in the vast majority of cases, well-paid. The love of music is only part of it, since good amateurs love music too–indeed, the roots of the word amateur come from the Latin amare, to love.
I started thinking about the human delight in doing scary things for fun this morning when some of the orchestra members and I went out for brunch in the main street of Steamboat, which was blocked off for a winter carnival. While we were waiting for a table to be free at the restaurant, we stood on the pavement outside, watching cowboys on horses gallop down the snowy street pulling children of no more than six or seven on skis behind them–children who had obviously been skiing more or less since birth and didn’t appear to know to be frightened. I wasn’t sure whether I was more worried for the children or for the horses. But everyone involved was manifestly having a thrilling time. Was it, I wondered, a common human trait to take pleasure in danger, whether that was physical danger–as in snow sports–or the psychological danger of public performing? Were the compulsions really that different from one another? Is that why people become professional athletes even though in most cases the financial rewards are no greater than those in the music profession?
My own main fears are about being hurt or killed, or my loved ones being hurt or killed. Not really from spiders or snakes, which I don’t especially fear. I’m more afraid of the things that are far more likely to kill you, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as cancer, strokes and, that’s right, accidents. I consider those rational fears. I don’t consider fear of public performing a rational fear. I experience my fair share of slight performance anxiety–the elevated heart rate, the cold hands–but I don’t let it sabotage me. What I do for a living would be unutterably terrifying for thousands of people who think nothing of driving on American multi-lane highways, whereas I’m far more afraid of being in a car accident than I am of playing the cello in public.