As I gazed out of the French doors and into the garden this afternoon, I noticed a lone magpie perched in a tree. I watched and observed it’s menacing behaviour, and I immediately recalled the famous magpie nursery rhyme. For those unfamiliar with this ditty, it goes like this:
“One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret, never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss,
Eleven for health,
Twelve for wealth,
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.”
In essence, the rhyme tells the person that the number of magpies they see will determine whether they have good or bad luck. Although I am not a particularly superstitious person myself, I did feel a sense of relief when my single magpie in the garden (One for sorrow), was soon joined by a friend on the neighbouring branch (Two for joy.)
This lead me to thinking about this rather fascinating topic of superstition and strange beliefs, and just how many musicians are of such a disposition. There are lots of people who have a particular pre-concert routine that they absolutely need to follow. It could be anything from a friend of mine who simply must eat a banana before a recital, to the great Shura Cherkassky who insisted that someone spat on his cheek before he stepped onto the platform with his right foot first. It had to be his right foot first. For such people, they truly feel that if their specific needs are not met then they will not play well. Such eccentricities have always intrigued me, and even lead me to try and find my own golden rules and beliefs to optimise performance. There must be a special food to eat, or a treasured object, a lucky charm, to have about my person? No. I have searched in vain. I have found the best preparation to be a good nights sleep and thorough practice. For me, it is best to hold no such beliefs at all. Rather dull, I know.
The danger is that while they can provide comfort and consolation in the stressful situation of a concert, they can just as easily derail you when they don’t provide the magic we seek. What if the local Pret a Manger has sold its last banana? You left your lucky socks at home? The nearest person to you is suffering dehydration and is unable to produce enough saliva for your cheek? Will you really play the worst concert of your life? Probably, but only because you have placed so much faith in a system that is ultimately unreliable and out of your control. If you inadvertently walk under a ladder on your way to a venue, or your umbrella bursts open of its own accord in the hall, then you could be giving yourself unnecessary stress and worry about ‘bad luck’, when your focus should probably be on the reality and practicalities of the event ahead!
I’d like to recall at this point a favourite story of mine in which the great American virtuoso Earl Wild was listening to a student playing in his masterclass. As the student was wrapped in their performance and thoroughly enjoying their own fantastical music-making, they gazed up to the ceiling with a look of total serenity gracing their face. In response to this rather sickly and seemingly rehearsed chain of events, Mr. Wild commented, in his inimitable dry and charming manner, “God won’t help you, son.”