Getting back on the horse

horseI was a horse-mad teenager. Though I could never own a horse, since my family lived in the city and could neither afford nor house one, I went on horse treks an hour away every weekend. I loved everything about the horses — their appearance, their soft noses, their horsey smell — and felt utterly exhilarated when I was galloping across the countryside on one. I have always been a cautious, shy person, and riding seemed to take me out of myself. I had never felt so free, or free to be reckless.

And then one day the horse I was riding threw me. It had been a busy day at the stables, and the horse I normally rode, a gentle mare called Sugar, was out when I arrived. The stable owner instead assigned a horse called Buccaneer that I hadn’t ridden before. He was much bigger and more lively than Sugar, but since I was an experienced rider, she figured I would be OK.

I’d never fallen off a horse before, so when Buccaneer’s foot went into a hole and he went one way and I went the other, I was more astonished than anything else to find myself flying off the saddle and landing with a sickening crunch on my right elbow.

I found out later at the hospital that the joint was dislocated and the ulna fractured, but all I knew at the time was that my arm wouldn’t move and that I was miles from the stables. Miles, in fact, from anywhere. There was nothing for it but to get back on Buccaneer and, holding his reins one-handed, walk back. I don’t remember pain or fear — those came later — just the single-minded determination to get to the stables.

Everyone said it was important to start riding again (“get back on the horse”) as soon as my arm was better, but I didn’t. It wasn’t a deliberate decision, but after eight weeks of plaster and another eight of physiotherapy, I found other hobbies that took the place of riding in my life, and the stables were forgotten.

A few years later, I got on a horse again while on holiday at a friend’s farm, and while I wouldn’t say I was terrified, somehow the thrill had gone out of the activity. After that, my interest in horses was mostly limited to watching races on television.

I guess it’s obvious that I’m going to make a comparison with performing now. As cliched as it might sound, I really do regret not making horses my friends again while I still had the time for things like that, and I’m glad that I’ve always managed to find a way to keep cello as a friend and not a betrayer. There were times during my studies with a demanding teacher that my cello lesson would make me feel so bad about myself, I associated the cello with bad feelings and didn’t want to practise it, which led to a vicious cycle of having another bad lesson and more bad feelings. But ultimately the cello remained a friend.

I’ve spent a lot of the past few years writing and lecturing about stage fright, so the horse metaphor does tend to come up. It’s so easy for a bad performance to be totally off-putting to the performer, or to lead to a sort of “doom spiral” of a run of bad performances and the destruction of self-confidence.

What can I say to students who are really suffering?

Here are some of my ideas.

  • Your worth as a human is not defined by how well your last performance went. You may have done a D- concert, but you can still be an A+ person.
  • Why didn’t it go well? What specifically was the problem area? Can you recall the specific things that triggered or exacerbated the problems and your responses to them?
  • What might we adjust in the practice room that would prepare you better for your response to the situation next time?
  • Let’s compile a mental check-list of all the things we need to have in order before we can perform. (Here’s mine: endpin out, bow tightened and rosined, strings tuned — even if I’m going to tune onstage — hair secure, shoes secure, clothing checked for malfunctions, music binder in order with all page turns sorted out and no loose pages that could fly away and get lost, secure solution for endpin sorted out well in advance, arrangements for repeats and da capos thoroughly sorted out with colleagues, etc, etc…)
  • Don’t quit.

I actually think the last one is the most important because it’s so, so tempting to quit attempting to make music. Of course some soul-searching after a bad performance is important, but it’s equally important to make sure you have another performance really soon so that you can hopefully follow it up with a good experience.

I live in a college town surrounded by farmland now, and last weekend at the county fair I got to pet a horse who had won a prize for its beautiful appearance. I breathed in that unmistakable horsey smell and stroked the lovely creature’s nose and remembered that wonderful free feeling of galloping across pastures.

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New tricks

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This is my old dog. He’s awesome.

Sixteen (!) or so years ago, when I was a student in London, I often supplemented my income from music with a few moderately well-paid temporary secretarial jobs.

I could make more money than most temps, because I had a typing speed of 116 wpm. This was faster than most people’s. I had taught myself to type using a touch-typing program that happened to be installed on a computer in my school when I was 11, and my finger dexterity from playing the cello and piano enabled me to build high speeds. Because of this, most of my jobs didn’t involve filing, photocopying, or answering phones; for the most part, it was audio typing and copy typing. The other secretaries in the offices where I worked were jealous that I could make £4 or so more an hour than they did. It wasn’t a fortune, but it paid the rent and enabled me to save enough money to live comfortably for the next three years in Texas without going into debt.

The kind of pay bumps I enjoyed largely don’t exist any more. These days no one needs a typist, because everyone does their own. If someone really can’t type, there are voice-activated software and scanners and so on. My skill that I prided myself on is now both universal and obsolete.

I was thinking about this the other day when I overheard some undergraduates complaining about a class that compelled them to learn to code even though it wasn’t a class in computing. And I thought, “Wow, why would you not want to learn to code?”

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I happen to be learning to code myself. The reason I’m doing this is because my husband and I are co-authoring an online open-access textbook on college theory and aural skills, and though we have the assistance of a coding expert, we have to figure out a lot of this ourselves.

And it turns out I love coding. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because I’m thinking about all the cool things I learned about coding that day. Then I fall asleep and dream about coding and all the cool things I’m going to do with it tomorrow. Coding is incredibly fun and geeky, and I feel that knowing how to do it sets me apart as a writer and a teacher.

When I considered this, I started to wonder whether coding wasn’t the new typing — a skill that is prized now because not everyone knows how to do it? But a skill that 15 years from now will likely be universal. And then maybe I won’t be so exhilarated that I know how to do it, because it won’t set me apart any more, but right now it feels like the kind of heady high I used to get from typing fast and accurately while the other secretaries looked on enviously.

And then I thought about the skills a subset of modern cellists have now that aren’t considered mainstream yet, such as reading lead sheets, swinging the rhythm, improvising over agreed-upon chord changes, the kind of extended techniques that you can use in pop or rock or Latin jazz and so on, singer-songwriting…. I greatly admire the cellists that do this, but I don’t (yet) have any skills in those areas. Will they be the norm fifteen years from now too?

To get some historical perspective of shifting skill sets, we should consider that fifty years ago it wasn’t yet completely mainstream for performers to attempt to perform early music in a historically informed style, but today just about everyone has some knowledge of it even if they’re still using modern instrument setups. And sixty years ago, mainstream cello technique was so “un-extended” that for many years a piece like Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto was more or less the exclusive property of Mstislav Rostropovich because not that many people could play it. Now it regularly appears on the required repertoire lists for cello competitions.

One day playing popular styles may be the only credible way to earn a living as a cellist — in part because so much of contemporary classical music is unpopular with the already dwindling audience of people who enjoy mainstream classical music.

So I’ve sort of decided that my next geeky hobby is going to be learning electric bass, and maybe I’ll translate some of those skills to cello playing, and who knows what I’ll do next.