Many years ago, in a land far, far away (Nottingham), a young man sat with a guitar on his lap, his hands poised to play a new (and fiendishly difficult) composition. Luckily he was exceptionally able. When the red light screamed ‘recording’, however, his hands failed him. Time and time again he tried, but he simply couldn’t play it. Several bottles of beer later, and with the lights switched off, he flew through it perfectly. He just needed to realign his head. A year or so later, as he ripped out solo after solo in a studio in Ladbroke Grove, he found himself strangely unable to assess their quality, so he turned to the band’s singer, asking what he thought of the latest take. ‘I don’t know what was wrong with the last fifteen. Will you shut the fuck up now?’ Came the response. Seven years after this, playing acoustic guitar at a music school open mic night (he taught at the school), his hands refused like a horse at Becher’s Brook. He didn’t play live again for another eight years, and that was the last time he dared.
It’s instructive, if not downright ironic, that I struggled to settle on an introduction to this post, though of course you only know that because I told you. It’s the wonder of editing. I struggled because I’m trying to tie together music and cricket via an Bloomian pun (a chiasmatic one, to boot), and an anecdote or two. To put it simply: I retired as a professional musician because I was ill. This is something I’ve only recently understood, let alone come to terms with, but my usual story, that my short stint with a once famous band on the European reunion circuit broke my spirit is only one paragraph of that final chapter. Far more telling was the severe performance anxiety I developed, which, when coupled with my ridiculously high standards (both of my playing and my expectations of my playing), proved a potent force for self-silencing. My search for perfection manifested itself badly. A friend mentioned my name to the CEO of a big guitar company. ‘Great player: total cunt.’ Came the reply. ‘Oh, you know Pete, then?’ He joked. ‘Never met him.’ He said.
My anxiety meant that at times my fingers simply refused to move, and I’d sit, noteless, for hours at a time, metronome burning, trying, and failing, to start playing: luckily that only happened onstage at the very end. Otherwise I was simply locked into survival mode, just playing what I had to. No freedom of expression, no risk-taking, no connection, no real music.
I was a pretty fine guitar player, as perhaps my ex-students and peers will attest (hopefully in the comments section of this blog, just so I don’t sound like too much of a dick). It got to the stage, however, where I simply avoided the stage. And that meant the lectern, too. Typical that my next foray was into academia. I couldn’t cope with being so scared of being criticised, of fucking up, of being so fraught with fear I knew I never played anything worth a damn. That and knowing full well that I was simultaneously both my harshest and most astute critic. So I hid. It worked. Offstage, I had no fear of being onstage.
But it didn’t go away. My fear of failure remains. It merely manifests itself differently.
So what the fuck am I doing playing cricket?
If ever there was a game that impales its players on the horns of a Cartesian dilemma quite like cricket does I don’t know it. Cricket is, as its players know, a team game played by individuals; a series of duals carried out in the middle where for the batsman one mistake is all it takes. And like a dual, you are never so vulnerable as when you attack. ‘I get more nervous before I bat than before an exam’, a young cricketer said to me yesterday. A young cricketer with considerably more talent than I ever mustered, and with a gracious manner to boot. Of course, batting is more like a sudden-death multiple choice quiz than an exam, so it makes perfect sense. But nerves before an innings is one thing, anxiety quite another: anxiety breeds even off the field of play.
Recently there has been an upswell in recognition and acceptance of mental health problems, particularly anxiety-related ones, emanating from the cricket field. Marcus Trescothick, Jonathan Trott, Graeme Fowler and, most recently, the properly gifted ‘keeper Sarah Taylor, have all talked honestly and openly about their mental health and a very good thing it is too. For a sport which indulges in ‘mental disintegration’, Australian captain Steve Waugh’s description of the verbal barrage that is sledging, such openness is astonishing indeed. And it is this openness, this drive to show that even the very, very best can be crippled by anxiety, and that this anxiety needs to be treated like any other injury, that is so refreshing.
If only this discussion had been opened twenty-five years ago I might have continued playing the guitar for long enough for my parkinson’s to wreck it.
I struggle on the cricket field. The combination of parkinson’s and performance anxiety paralyses me. My lack of any real talent doesn’t help. But I no longer suffer from anxiety proper, so to speak.