…is what my student said to me when he arrived for his saxophone lesson in early December. While we were both reluctant to admit it, this particular lesson was significant because it was his final weekly lesson of his undergraduate degree before his student teaching assignment this coming spring semester.
With curiosity, I obliged his invitation, because after all, I have been lobbing seemingly non-lesson related questions and statements at him for the past four years. There were times he would arrive for his weekly lesson and we would talk about mountain biking. Another few times the lesson was moved into his practice room instead of the usual routine of my studio. There was a South American music ensemble playing a concert in our school of music one day during his lesson time and I had him put away his saxophone so we could go listen to the concert instead. There are of course a few lessons where walking to get coffee was critical so that we could open conversation that might not otherwise occur in a studio setting – a setting that by nature produces anxiety, high expectations, difficult questions that sometimes aren’t ready to be answered, and fear of the dreaded F Word…failure.
We began walking across the University of Georgia campus until we arrived to the woods full of trails that led us to an amphitheater of sorts, a gorgeous stone fireplace with recently burned ash and log benches in front of it. The initial small talk turned into rich symbolism as he began recounting the process of personal and musical discovery he experienced through the saxophone over the past four years, discovery that connected deeper dots he never imagined existed.
You see, this student is an avid mountain biker, has been since high school. Mountain biking is dangerous and full of legitimate risks that put the body in harm’s way on each ride. He has no fear in mountain biking. His body and mind know instinctively what to do as he is suspended in the air on his bike. He describes with accuracy the feeling of flow he experiences in these moments – time stops, distractions cease, his body is relaxed as muscle tension is the kiss of death, trust in the unknown is always present and, most importantly, so necessary. Total freedom. He is in the zone, as they say. This is part of the addiction, understandably so.
Yet, when he held the saxophone during the first few years of college, his nervous system was paralyzed to a point of tension and fear that nothing else triggered, not even the legitimately dangerous sport of mountain biking. (For those who follow me on Facebook, he was the subject of this post.) These two activities were worlds apart in his mind, unrelated in every way. Anyone who witnessed his stage fright could have never guessed the courage he displayed on the trails. This gap was the heart of every music lesson we had from the day I learned that he was an avid mountain biker.
Trail by trail, muscle by muscle, note by note, dots were connected and fears were identified and released. His saxophone is to him now what his mountain bike has always been. He couldn’t have suggested this walk otherwise. The hours he spends on scales and technique in the practice room are the hours he has spent on trails learning the intricacies of riding. The mental and emotional demands of a typical lesson or recital reflect the physical demands he endures on a typical trail. The choices he now makes on stage that either avoid or cause a crash are parallel to the choices he makes in split seconds while on his bike. He has learned how to recover from crashes in music just like he learned how to recover from crashes on his bike. The trust he has built with the saxophone feels similar to the trust he has built with his bike. Freedom in music performance mirrors the freedom on the trails. His reduced lack of fear in performance mirrors the lack of fear on his mountain bike.
Before we made our way back to reality on one of my favorite walks to date , he had a poignant thought, worthy of closing this post dedicated to his resilience and discovery: “Nature has amazing feng shui. Just look around us, nothing looks or feels out of place. It all belongs and it all just makes sense.”fear of unknown > risks