The tour was going well. My friends, oboist Allan Vogel and Janice Tipton, flute, were fun to travel with, and along with my wife Carol, we found time to enjoy ourselves. However, Allan and Carol needed to leave Costa Rica a few days early, so Janice and I were going to perform the last concert as a duo. The performance was to be at a hotel in Monteverde, a mountain rainforest preserve that required a bumpy three-hour van ride. 

Upon arriving at the hotel around 9:30 in the evening, Janice offered to make the arrangements with the hotel desk as I waited in the van with our luggage and instruments. A half hour later, she returned to say that there was a mix-up, the hotel was full and there was only one room reserved for us, which meant, of course, that I was out of luck.  Janice said that a porter would take me to another “lodge” where I would have a room. I said fine, gave Janice her luggage, and we made arrangements to rehearse the next day. 

Moments later, a uniformed porter met me carrying a pen-flashlight, and asked me to follow him. Our pathway, which could not be mistaken for a trail, took us straight into the rainforest jungle. It was nightfall by now, so we trudged along, brushing aside vines (making sure they were vines, not snakes) and large jungle foliage, accompanied by the sounds of exotic nocturnal animals beginning their day.  I half expected Tarzan to swing by.  We walked for a good 15 minutes, and with my confidence about the situation sagging with each step, I wondered what sort of lodge could be out here.   Finally, we came to a clearing where a simple, white-washed, rectangular building with 3 doors stood. The porter used a key to open the first door and explained that this was where rainforest researchers often stayed. I thanked him, and he left without a tip. After all, he never offered to carry my luggage or guitar, probably figuring they would slow me down if we were jumped by a jaguar. 

Inside, the small room had a bed, table, lamp, and small bathroom. The cubicle smelled of powerful disinfectant, so at least it was clean. Evidently, I was the only guest that evening. I decided to read for awhile, and then get some sleep. After about an hour, I noticed something crawling under the door. It was a brilliant red and black furry caterpillar, about 5 inches long, with a triangular shaped body. On the one hand, I had never seen an insect as beautiful and unique as this creature crawling towards me. On the other hand, I was horrified to see that the gap under my door was about 2 inches high, allowing who-knows-what access to my room! 

I let the caterpillar crawl onto a piece of paper and then carefully shuttled it outside and continued to read for another hour. At this point, it was well past midnight and I was getting pretty bleary-eyed. The moment I set my book down, a medium-sized tarantula scampered out from underneath the bed.   Frozen, I sat paralyzed, as the 3 inch hairy arachnid turned and eyed me. It didn’t like the looks of me either, and immediately disappeared back beneath the bed frame. “What do I do now?” I pondered. Thorougly fatigued, I decided simply to go to bed and try to put it out of my mind. There were no blankets on the bed, just two bleached-white sheets and a couple of pillows, which I inspected to be sure my 8-legged guest didn’t have friends already bedded down. 

Sleep came surprising easy, until it began raining inside the room. The humidity was such that moisture was collecting on the ceiling and when heavy enough, raindrops would fall. I contorted my resting position so that the drops missed me – no easy task.

My mother used to tell a story of how when I was about 3 years old, she found me with a stick playing with a black widow spider. So I was not always arachnophobic. That development came Christmas day when I was 6 years old. My brother Paul had been given a microscope, so I went out and found a simple garden spider in order to get a closer look. The image of the insect’s hairy legs, multiple eyes, and blood-sucking fangs was immediately and permanently etched into my memory - the nightmares began soon thereafter. Perhaps this was a kid’s karma at work. 

I still get the creeps with certain spiders - mainly the large, menacing kind. Seeing tarantulas crawl over television personalities is always cause for a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. While living in the dorms at Cal Arts, I was returning to my room late one evening and needed to pass through a group of 6 people standing a few feet before my door. Carrying my guitar and a bag of music, I walked to within inches of a girl standing with her hand held out.  Stationary in her palm was an enormous orange and black tarantula, as large as her hand. I let out a choked little yelp - “ah!” and spun around, breaking into cold sweats as I walked back down the hall and down a flight of stairs to the floor below. This enabled me to get to my room from the opposite direction.  Mind you, I had been only 5 steps from my door before my panicked retreat.  

It turned out that the two guys in the room next to mine had an unusual pet.  That explained the odd chirping sounds coming out of their room at night, not quite like any cricket that I had ever heard.  

Whether I would I have had a phobia if I had not peered at the dead spider through my brother’s microscope, I cannot say. Certainly many people develop fears of snakes, heights, cats and so on without having had traumatic childhood experiences.  
With upwards of a thousand students in my teaching career, one common trait with virtually all of my students is that having been accepted to the Claremont Colleges, they are exeptionally bright and disciplined people.  A few students who start lessons as absolute beginners never, ever, make mistakes when they play their pieces for me.  Others, no matter how I council them on practice habits, make mistakes by the bucketload, while most students are in between the two extremes.  Certainly, one can debate issues of how our brains are “wired,” or other neurological matters, but I have no business discussing those points.  I suspect, however, another cause may be the critical factor. 

Our effort to play music speaks volumes about ourselves.  Quite simply, our success or failure to perform a piece well is likely determined the first day that we began practicing that piece.  I am certain that the best musicians make a habit of playing their pieces virtually perfectly from day one, and that when they do make an error, they analyze the problem and make sure it doesn’t get repeated.  They will figure out whether it is a fingering issue, a technical problem, or perhaps the passage requires a re-write.  The rest of us flub a spot in a piece, try it again, maybe getting lucky on the third or fourth try, and move on, doing nothing to guarantee success. 

A number of years ago I read an interview with a world-renowned musician who stated that he thought that most people practiced too much. His feeling was that musicians should play through the section or piece, once, perfectly, and be done with it. Repeat this the next day, and so on. At that time, I thought this was a holier-than-thou attitude and dismissed it. Of late, through my teaching and own practicing, I am certain that whenever we practice we are creating a behavior pattern:  either we traumatize the music with our mistakes, or we develop solid, confident, habits. The better musicians establish habits of positive reinforcement, while the rest develop varying degrees of destructive habits.  For the most part, we create a negative history with each piece where we are satisfied to make “X” amount of mistakes the first time we practice a piece, with the hope of making “X-minus 1” then “X-minus 2” errors in the ensuing repetitions.   

In order to improve as musicians, we need to constantly evaluate our efforts. Therfore, it is important to make a concerted effort to have realistic goals at each moment, with focused, clear concentration and disciplined habits.  There are many fine articles dealing with the specifics of how to practice, most recently Francis Perry (Vol. 35, No.2); Jason Vieaux (Vol. 35, No. 1 & 2); and Scott Tennant’s (Vol. 34 No. 3) articles in Soundboard.  Also, spend some time with Aaron Shearer’s method published by Mel Bay, Learning the Classic Guitar, Vol. 1; it has wise words for players of any level. 

And no, I didn’t look under the bed to see how many buddies my friend had, I didn’t need to compound my arachni-nightmares. Sweet dreams.