George Plimpton on The Difference Between Professional Sports & Orchestral Synchronicity (1968)

“I am often asked which of the participatory exercises I have been involved in was the most frightening. People are always startled when I say the one that frightened me the most was not playing football with the professionals, or basketball, or boxing, but when I played with the New York Philharmonic.

I played the triangle. And some of the other percussion instruments.

One reason it was terrifying was that in music you cannot make a mistake. Almost all sports are predicated on the concept of an error being a determinant in the outcome: in tennis you put a twist on the ball in the hope your opponent will make an error; in boxing you feint and hope the other fellow is going to drop his guard so you can pop him; football is an immense exercise in trying to get the other people to make mistakes – not to be where they should be.

But in music you cannot make a mistake. It is not part of the zeitgeist. If you make a mistake, a big one, you destroy a work of art. The thought of doing this nags, of course, at the consciousness of all musicians, even the very good ones. In the rehearsal rooms of the great concert halls the musicians getting ready for an important concert have that same glazed look I have seen on the faces of professionals going out to face the Chicago Bears. In fact, I got to know a violinist with the Philharmonic who told me he was so frightened of making a mistake – especially in rehearsals, where the conductor can stop everything and glare at you and point out that it’s a B-flat not a B – that he toyed with the idea of putting soap on the strings of his violin so that when he played it hardly any sound would emerge off it. The idea was to do this until he got a surer sense of where he was – got his confidence.

(Excerpted from The Best of Plimpton)

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