The High Wire Act

by Lorna McGhee

Imagine being at the top of a skyscraper, one kilometer above the ground, with one foot still on the edge of the building and one foot on the high wire that has been strung across to the neighboring skyscraper. Imagine in that moment, making the decision to commit to walking the wire. Now imagine all the demons that could gnaw away at your confidence – the self doubt, the what-ifs, the inner critics, the outer critics – would you still decide to put one foot in front of the other, or would you become immobilized? Now imagine reconciling yourself to possible failure (after all – to brace against disaster is to invite it)! Now imagine enjoying walking the wire, not just once but many times back and forth — lying down on the wire, kneeling on the wire, saluting on the wire, at peace. The crowd gathered one kilometer below is moved to tears by the beauty of the spectacle, moved by this generous offering that could symbolize many things… triumph over fear, grace under pressure and most of all, overcoming one’s own limitations to offer a moment of sheer beauty. Transcendence. 

Man On Wire Movie Poster

This is the story of Philippe Petit as told in my favorite film, “Man on Wire.” His story is one that resonates deeply for me. As musicians at the level of the Pittsburgh Symphony, we are always striving to work at our edge. As principal flute, my heart is sometimes beating so fast before a solo, because I don’t want to let my colleagues down, I don’t want to let myself, or the music down. In concerts, we NEVER want to let you down, our dear audience! We work at our edge on a daily basis. It’s a form of walking the wire. We inspire each other – sometimes I get goose bumps in rehearsals listening to a beautiful solo from one of my colleagues and it encourages me to raise my game. This is a regular occurrence at the PSO. There is so much talent on stage – sometimes it’s the strings who soar, or the brass who offer the warmth of a perfectly blended chorale, or the witty conversation between woodwinds or a flash of brilliance from the percussion.

An ensemble like this is a highly sophisticated and well-oiled machine. These are not just players who can execute their own parts well. They have incredible radar and imagination. They breathe together, react so quickly to conductors’ gestures, and have the technical prowess to handle any score and the psychological strength to walk on any stage in the world without fear of falling. They can handle ANYTHING.  They also have a generosity of spirit, giving 100% commitment, no matter if it’s a kids concert or the Berlin Philharmonie. This is not just a job. This is an attitude and a way of life. This is courage, and a willingness to be vulnerable, to go the distance, to risk everything.

To reach the level of the Pittsburgh Symphony you need rocket fuel. You need a will and a passion and a belief that borders on madness, that allows you to get up from the inevitable rejections and defeats and bruises along the way and keep going.  No one is exempt. In Michael Jordan’s words, “I’ve failed over and over again and that is why I succeed.” Over time you build up strength and experience. I often tell my students, for potters the medium is clay…. As musicians, you are artists of time – time is your medium. As flute players you are also artists of the breath. How are you going to move from one note to another? It’s not just mechanical. Can you do it with mastery of all the technical, physical and psychological demands?  With an open heart?  With an ear out for your colleagues, allowing room for all, knowing how to lead, and how to follow and how to surrender to the incredible flow of the music? Allowing the ideas of the conductor to become second nature, giving up your own ego, but not your sovereignty? Can you communicate something human in those notes, something meaningful that we can all recognize and share? These are the layers and layers involved in what we do, and it is a life-long study. It is deep and rich. We never fall out of love with music.

That’s why we keep going and keep striving. Time and breath – it’s all we ever have.  How do you move from note to note? How, on the high wire, will you put one foot in front of the other? We live for the moments you can transcend yourself and be part of some creation where ordinary time stands still, a moment of sheer beauty… that takes your breath away.