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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