Hornmasters on Performance Anxiety, Part II: Cousins


Farquharson Cousins has an extended examination of “the mental side” of horn playing in On Playing the Horn. He suggests that “For those whose anxiety borders on ‘nerves’ there is a path back to normality.” That path includes the elements of health (exercise), playing form (mechanics), and the mental approach to playing the horn. The mental approach is for Cousins in part geared around balancing positive and negative thinking and positive and negative mental images. For example

We might remind ourselves that negative thought consists of seeing enormously in the mind’s eye the approach of a lonely entry of which we are terrified. Such thought convinces us that we are going to crack it. That we shall feel even worse when the moment comes than we do now. That everybody is waiting for us to mess it up. That the entry (which is a delicate pianissimo) is going to sound like a tomato splashed off a whitewashed wall, and that we shall be found petrified, holding a note that sounds not unlike a lost sheep on a mountainside. This—and I pause to wipe the moisture from my typewriter keys—is negative thinking. Join me as I wipe that paragraph from my mind. Positive thought must stand heavily on the scales and hoist such thoughts away from us—for ever.

As did Farkas, Cousins offers several deep thoughts that go beyond the topic of nerves.

The horn is a strange and unpredictable mistress. It has to be wooed to be won. Show fear and it will recognize it as easily as the horse senses the novice rider. The horn is not difficult. Like the game of golf we make it difficult through our own inadequacies….

We have said that true music-making sometimes demands the suffering performing. The suffering may start days beforehand. It is a perfectly healthy sign. Usually, as soon as the artist starts to play a sudden calm descends upon him and he gives of his best. This is a common phenomenon and one which many players deliberately cultivate. In fact many artists are suspicious of themselves if they find that their emotional life is unaffected prior to an important performance. They know that there is then a likelihood of a serious attack of nerves coming on whilst playing—a wretched business for all concerned. The added danger of such a nasty experience is that there is a deeply implanted fear that it will happen again….

Sooner or later all hornplayers are asked why they took up the horn instead of some other instrument. We can only mumble. Perhaps our superficial replies hide motives about which we are hazy, if not oblivious. Of course the instrument has an irresistible charm and a thrilling sound and we love music. But few play it well. We all knew all this even before we blew our first note. It was a musical challenge and a little voice dared us to accept.

Cousins further speaks to the topic of there being “some instinct, drive, intelligence or whatever” that seems to be found more commonly among horn players.

Cousins closes with one more topic of importance, that of medications and alcohol, and a caution.

We have left to the last a somewhat delicate matter. In any orchestra it is estimated that half the performers resort to a little something to ‘steady their nerves’. These players are usually seniors. Perhaps a harmless pill is employed, but more often a modest shot of alcohol. This latter, though not recommended, is often resorted to when all else fails. It is a dangerous habit…. Many an ageing player has prolonged his playing life by the judicious use of a little something. But the cure can be worse than the disease if not properly understood and rigorously controlled. Each of us must work out our own system for dealing with fear. The trained embouchure will work well under limited sedation, but the key lies in the word ‘limited’.

Certainly words to heed. Any professional today can tell you stories of people they have known that have seen their career ended because of the stresses of aging as a player leading them to the wrong solutions, hinted at above.

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