In our family, my portly but genial brother was not academically inclined. This was cause for worry on our mother’s part, but “Little Billy?” she would say, “No need to worry about him, he’ll be alright at whatever he turns his hand to”. This over-flattering assessment of my modest capabilities I took to be an expectation: it was expected that I would do alright, maybe even shine in life.
Quite soon I was at an institution that expected a lot of its pupils. The four houses in this post-war prep school were named after national military heroes: Nelson and Drake for the Navy: Marlborough and Wellington for the Army. They competed fiercely at everything. Perhaps it’s in the English soul: “England expects every man to do his duty” ran Admiral Lord Nelson’s signal before the great naval encounter of 1805.
There was an unwritten assumption that we would fulfil these expanding parental, academic, athletic expectations. It was expected, and it was catching. Pretty soon not-so-little Billy too was expecting something similar of himself, and I began to perform to expectations, real or imagined, self-imposed or imposed by others. In early adulthood I began to perform in music.
For decades all went well, in the sense that expectations were met. Early success allowed me to put these expectations to one side; I was performing well. But in the late afternoon of my career, it seemed to me that I was no longer performing to my own expectations. The pressure was internal, not external. No-one else appeared to hear my project unravelling, the sound of un-met expectations crashing to the floor. The gulf between what I expected of myself and my perception of what others expected of me widened, until eventually I was unable to function at all as a musician. After a final decade all at sea, I limped in to the safe haven of retirement, fatally wounded below the water line, and never performed again after 2009.
My personal anecdote has little interest for anyone else, except perhaps the scholar working in the area of performance anxiety or the psychology of music performance. At what point might an intervention from such a person have helped restore a balance between the deadly, self-imposed high-achiever syndrome and some sort of psychological stasis: I do this, and I do it well enough? I never did find out where ‘well enough’ was.
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