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Managing pressure

I was talking to a parent in the Yard the other day about what Lieutenant George from Blackadder Goes Forth might call ‘coming a cropper’, or the process of going ‘goose over stumps’… Namely, boys in a solo performance situation who hit considerable difficulties, make a series of errors, fluff their notes or who even have to stop, and then have to pick themselves back up to complete the piece.

These two weeks are a real season of instrumental performances: Commoners Concert, Quiristers Concert, Choristers Concert, ABRSM music exams… One or two boys have found – and no doubt will find – themselves in such a situation.  

It is a scenario I can very much relate to from my own time at the School. I have told the anecdote at a few occasions about my ‘Once in Royal’ solo in the Cathedral at the College Carol Service, where I effectively went a semi-tone flat, unaccompanied, before the organ entered for verse 2 and brutally rectified my pitching. I also relayed to aforementioned parent the occasion where I was meant to be playing the piano as boys came into assembly, started, immediately faltered, and fumbled through about 8 bars before the Director of Music came and gently released me from my purgatory by ushering me back to my chair. This time there was no picking myself back up to complete the piece: adrenalin does not do good things to my hands… 

When boys do manage these situations, however – when they do gather themselves, take a few calm deep breaths, get back on the proverbial horse and finish – what lessons they have learned! What heroes of the hour! As parents, of course, we just want to dash up, hug them and try and protect them from the psychological slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune. As third party audience members, however, our hearts go out, we will them with every ounce we can muster and we applaud all the more loudly at the end. Because fundamentally we understand a crucial life lesson has been learned and another few inches of character growth has taken place.  

We must allow our boys to be put in these positions. We must expose them to the chance metaphorically to swim or to sink a little before being buoyed back up. And, crucially, it is not only how they respond but how we respond that matters. I’m not sure I would go so far as The Dread Pirate Roberts in the all-time classic film The Princess Bride (“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something,”) but life will certainly have its incredibly challenging moments, and it is the preparation for these through repeated opportunity and practice – even (or is that especially?) failed practice – that best serves our boys. It is important that we do not rush around pandering and doing 90% of it for them. They must experience a judicious amount of pressure (which in turn can induce fear); they must experience how to manage it; they must get the chance to do so independently and repeatedly. 

In the documentary ‘Free Solo’, neuroscientists perform an MRI scan on rock climber Alex Honnold’s brain. They conclude it doesn’t respond to fear stimuli like a ‘normal’ brain. Honnold later says, ‘I find that slightly irritating, because… I’ve spent 25 years conditioning myself to work in extreme conditions, so of course my brain is different – just as the brain of a monk who has spent years meditating or a taxi driver who has memorised all the streets of a city would be different.’  

He goes on to comment that, if anything, it’s his preparation that is abnormal. For years he was afraid of the vast 3,000ft rock wall ‘El Capitan’ in Yosemite National Park. He’d look and he’d say, ‘No way.’ So, ‘to gradually expand [his] comfort zone’, he climbed it hundreds of times with a rope, doing incrementally harder and scarier ascents. In June 2017, he finally became the first to climb ‘El Capitan’ without a rope.  

Honnold’s experience is apposite: no one comes predisposed with the ability to respond abnormally calmly to fear stimuli. There is plenty of research to support the fact that emotions like fear are shaped by past experience. Preparation and the management of fear are proportional. I applaud all the boys who, day in day out, take their opportunities, confront their nerves, have their best go and learn how to be that little bit better next time. This is just one of the ways in which Pilgrims’ helps the boys’ preparation for life. 

Tim Butcher

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