June 15, 2012 at 3:28 PMTonight, Nik Wallenda, of the famous Wallenda family of acrobats, is planning to walk across Niagara Falls from Terrapin Point on the American side, to Table Rock on the Canadian side. Aside from this event taking place near where I grew up, it stands out to me for another reason: in 1978 I saw Karl Wallenda, Nik's great-grandfather, fall to his death during one of my violin lessons. My teacher at the time taught in his home, and his teenage son was watching TV in the next room. All of the sudden, the son called to us, and my teacher interrupted the lesson to go in and watch. He motioned to me to watch as well. I wasn't sure at first what I was seeing. It wasn't immediately obvious: Karl Wallenda was walking a wire between two towers in Puerto Rico, holding his long pole. But then he stopped moving, squatted, paused a second or two, and fell. I don't remember any screaming or yelling, just a kind of quiet horror. And then having to get back to the rest of my lesson. I had a hard time doing that. I think I was learning the Bach A-minor concerto.
It was only later that I heard performing on the violin compared to a tight-rope walk, although I think I was familiar with that feeling, unconsciously, much earlier: that there is danger on all sides, that you're out there alone with no safety net, that mistakes are not forgiven. What remains unfamiliar no matter how many times I hear it, is the idea that this comparison is supposed to be a good thing. Performers who feel this way, whether they walk on a wire or tightly stretch smaller wires over a wooden box and try to make music out of it, tend to use the same language: they talk about "dreams" and "exhilaration" and "doing what they love." They talk about risk as a "spice" and danger as something that "makes life worth living." "Don't cry out loud," admonished a popular song, also from 1978. "Fly high and proud, and if you should fall, remember you almost had it all."
Many years later, I was talking to a fiddler in a bar. She was performing with the band later that night, and had started to play the instrument only as an adolescent--no Suzuki for her. She was largely self-taught and fiercely proud of that. "Learning to play the violin is like learning to roller skate . . . " she began, and then paused before finishing ". . . BACKwards . . . . in a TREE!" I was left with a mental vision of her, with her fiddle, roller skating down a tree limb, and rolling right off the end.
My mother assures me that she read that Nik will be wearing a safety tether over the falls, but he is on record as being against that. "I'm wearing a tether because they're making me wear a tether," he says. There is speculation that he might take it off. If he does, I don't want to watch. Because, the fact is, I'm still angry with his great-grandfather, Karl, who wasn't wearing one. I'm angry that I had to watch a man die on television during my violin lesson. Yes, of course I've seen worse things since then, on the news and elsewhere, but that doesn't change how I feel.
As of this writing, I don't know if I'm going to watch Nik Wallenda tonight or not, but I do wish him all the best. The American side of Niagara Falls has fallen on hard times and frankly, could use some good publicity. So I hope they get the feel-good, family-friendly event they are hoping for. And I hope Nik achieves his dream. But I still want to add another voice to the conversation: there are some of us for whom these metaphors, this overwrought language of flying high and magic and dreams, is empty and faintly ridiculous. There's nothing wrong with crying out loud, if that's how the music moves you.
Yet none of these things are an actual threat to our lives or safety. Circus performers do occasionally die during their high-wire acts; we as violinists do not. We have the luxury of fear, where as anyone named Wallenda does not. They lose concentration for an instant and they may literally die. We lose face, or auditions, but not our lives.
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