The many-headed guillotine and the ski slopes

They’re out there. It doesn’t matter whether there are 20 or 2000 of them, they’re out there and they’re just waiting to get you. There are so many things you could do wrong! So many uncontrollable factors! And all those people sitting there staring at you are just waiting to pull the cord and let the blade fall onto your neck.

Classical musicians have a few bad habits, and one of them is to pretend that everything is just fine, that they’re seasoned professionals just playing another show, when in reality they see those sparkling lights out there reflecting brilliantly in the newly sharpened blade of that ever-present guillotine. Yes, going out on stage can feel like stepping up to the guillotine. You’ve never had enough time to prepare. You never feel physically as good as you did when you were practicing. You never feel fully able to execute (pardon the pun) all those runs as cleanly as you did just an hour beforehand. Or if you do, if all these things come together and you feel great, you savor the moment as if it were your last on earth because the next time will be completely different and you may not feel this good again for months, maybe years.

Recently, I was in South Tyrol with my husband for a few days’ vacation. We were planning to go sledding and maybe snowshoeing and to consume lots of northern Italian food and wine. When we got to the winter sports area, though, I couldn’t help envying the skiers, the way they carved graceful curves into the slopes, the way they seemed so confident in their relationship to gravity. I had only ever been skiing once in my life, when I was thirteen. It was a spontaneous decision to go and I didn’t even have gloves. I spent the day with my friend on the bunny hill, swooshing down the short slope and falling in a pile of snow at the bottom, since no one had taught us how to stop. Needless to say, that was a long time ago and it was only one day.

Nevertheless, my envy and curiosity got the better of me and we rented skis the next day. My fearless husband hadn’t gone skiing either since he was fifteen, but he had at least had years of experience as a child and teenager and soon found that skiing, like riding a bicycle, is something you never forget how to do. We put on our skis and he went gliding down the little slope from the grown-ups’ lift to the bunny hill lift. “Come on down!” he called from down there, which suddenly seemed an impossible distance away with these long skinny pieces of metal attached to my feet. “HOW??” I said. Standing there, I felt more vulnerable than I have in about the last two decades. I realized that I hadn’t learned to do anything really scary in probably that long, and that I had no idea how to cope with the situation. I’m not afraid of heights and I love the mountains. I know how to ice skate and rollerblade. I wouldn’t think twice about riding a mountain bike down such a harmless slope. But I was scared out of my wits to go careening down a hill on an unpredictable substance (snow) with unpredictable equipment (my legs).

My husband took off his skis, walked back up the hill, and stood there patiently explaining, teaching, and coaxing until I worked up the nerve to just try it at the risk of landing on my face or, more probably, my behind. Yes, I’m a musician and I need my arms and hands, but that wasn’t actually what I was thinking about while I was standing there trembling like a newborn deer. If I’m really honest with myself, I was thinking about how stupid I was going to look when I went flying straight onto my face in front of all these graceful, skillful people and daredevil three-year-olds. I stood there for what felt like an hour watching other people do what looked so easy and finally decided to convince myself that since it looks easy, it must be easy.

Think about rollerblading, I told myself, think about your bowarm while playing the cello. I started to think about what I tell my students about trusting their right arm. You don’t want to force a sound out of the instrument; you want to just use your natural weight and momentum to draw the sound out. The moment you start to force, you actually lose your control because you’re trying to make a sound that isn’t already in the instrument. I stood there in the brilliant sun contemplating all this and decided to try to trust my legs and gravity the way I trust my bowarm and my cello when I’m playing something soft and slow or loud and passionate. I’m always telling my students to test their limits, to pull the bow as fast as possible or as slow as possible, as close to the bridge or the fingerboard as possible, with as little muscle control as possible, with a maximum amount of trust. Why shouldn’t I take my own advice?

I pushed myself off with my ski poles when there was no one else on the hill in front of me and pretended I knew what I was doing. I leaned to the left and amazingly went in that direction. I leaned to the right and changed course again. I leaned to the left again and tried to do the ‘snowplow’ my husband had showed me. It almost worked before I doubted my legs and fell onto my butt. It didn’t matter though, I had survived! I had actually skied and felt like a skier for about thirty seconds!

I practiced all morning on the bunny hill and started to love the feeling of trust I had to have to make this new thing work. I fell a lot, and the three-year-olds were definitely outdoing me in every possible aspect, but it didn’t matter. After a few hours, we took the grown-ups’ lift to the top of the mountain where there was supposedly another easy slope. When we got up there it was pretty clear that their definition of easy was different from mine after three hours of skiing experience. I panicked and nearly took off my skis in the middle of the slope to walk back to the lift. I was sure I was going to break my neck on the way down. Why, actually? It wasn’t that much steeper than the other hill, it was only a longer stretch and there were other skiers there who obviously knew what they were doing, whereas I had no clue. Once again, my amazingly patient husband stood there with me until I decided to go through with it, if only to rescue my pride. I took off again and went swooping down, left, right, left, right, until I was going too fast. I don’t know what came first, thinking that I might fall or actually falling. There was no reason for me to fall at that point; I didn’t hit anything or make a bad turn, I just stopped believing that I could do what I was already doing.

The snow was powdery and I came away with just a big black-and-blue on my right hip and a pretty interesting insight. I didn’t really know how to ski and I certainly didn’t know how to stop well enough, but when I trusted myself down there on the bunny hill, I wasn’t afraid. Up on the big slopes with the grown-ups, I doubted myself and fell harder.

Playing concerts is like being up there on the grown-up slopes. Of course we know what we’re doing, we’ve been studying music and playing concerts all our lives. I’d like to believe that my cello technique is about a thousand percent better than my skiing technique, and yet when it comes down to it, my music-making is no better than my skiing if I suddenly doubt myself when I step onto the stage, a.k.a. the grown-up slopes. There is real, physical danger in screwing up on the ski slopes; there is no real danger in screwing up on stage. And yet it does feel like you are risking everything when you start to play.

Before my last concert, I spontaneously decided to play from memory although I had been planning to play with the music, and it felt exactly like standing at the top of that ski slope and pushing off. Putting myself at the point of maximum tension and fear and relinquishing my control. Trusting my body, my mind, and natural law. Wow. What a rush. I guess when you willingly step up to the guillotine, it turns out to be actually just a magnificent picture frame with a shiny, slanting top.

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