For the past two years or so, I have spent roughly three hours a week in music lessons—a combination of cello, violin and piano. That’s a lot of hours. Can you imagine if I’d spent that time running? Or sleeping? Ah, I’d be so fit and well-rested. But, I digress.
Sadly, I am not a student in any of said music lessons (my children get that privilege), so my status as tone-deaf and talentless remains unchanged. However, I have developed a decent musical vocabulary and learned a whole host of things I didn’t know before. It’s like getting a peek into a world I didn’t know existed.
Last week my boys attended a Suzuki music camp. For those of you not familiar with the Suzuki method, parental involvement is required, so I was expected to attend all of their classes—and by “attend”, I don’t mean relax in the corner with a juicy book. I mean be present, take notes, pay attention. So this week alone, I sat through 12 hours of music instruction.
During the very little time I’ve had to myself, I’ve also been revising for my agent*, which has made the two experiences combine in an interesting way for me. (Incidentally, this is how most ideas are born, but that’s a whole other topic.)
There are several things that music can teach us about writing:
Technical skill is a must
In music this is everything from note reading to knowing how to hold a violin properly. There is no music without knowing something about how music is put together. Even those who play by ear have absorbed something about the rhythms and dynamics of music. Sitting down and banging on the keys is not the same thing as playing a piece with skill and passion.
Writing is the same way—to write well, there are technical details that must be mastered and I don’t just mean knowing how to put a sentence together or knowing that all your subjects and verbs need to agree. It takes time to develop your voice, to learn how to weed out unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, to avoid the passive voice and to tell a good story. And just like a musician who improves by listening to others play, reading as much as possible will attune your inner ear to good prose.
There is no such thing as perfection
This has been one of the most fascinating aspects of attending my children’s music lessons. I have yet to hear a child play a piece and have the teacher say, “That was perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.” It never happens. There is always something that could be tweaked and made better. Even after a performance, when the piece is so good it has moved the audience to tears, there is always a measure that could have used more polish or a section where the bow strokes could have been longer. That sounds like a negative, but I don’t think it is. It just means we can always keep reaching. There is no final destination where we can sit back and bask in the knowledge that we know everything there is to know. Writing can always be improved, but that shouldn’t stop us from sharing our work. Which brings me to my next point.
Eventually a piece is “polished enough” to be performed
Last week during music camp each of my boys had a Master Class with an accomplished musician. I sat through both classes. Each of my sons was asked to play the piece they were currently working on and then the instructor worked individually with them for 30 minutes on all the changes that would make the piece more polished. For one student, the tempo slowed slightly in one section. For another, longer bow strokes would give more dramatic effect and would contrast more with the dynamics in an earlier section.
Listening only to the corrections, one would think that the pieces were far from perfect. However, at the end of the lesson, both teachers said, “I think this piece is definitely performance ready and I’d like you to play it in the recital today.” What? But we just spent half-an-hour talking about how it isn’t perfect! But it doesn’t have to be. There comes a point when a piece is polished enough and the musician can play with enough skill and raw emotion that the minor flaws won’t detract from the audience’s enjoyment of the piece. Music is meant to make people feel something, and it doesn’t need to be technically flawless to do that.
Writing is like that too. Everyone gets edited and an author’s fifth book is often written with considerably more skill than the first, but that doesn’t mean the first one wasn’t good. The trick is to write enough and to get enough good feedback that you reach the tipping point between “not ready” and “polished enough” that an agent or editor will stay up late devouring your book. This could happen on your first manuscript, but more likely on your second or third or tenth. (One of my favorite authors wrote twenty full length manuscripts before getting an agent.) But if you keep writing, you will eventually reach that tipping point. And even then, you’ll still be asked for revisions because (see above) there is no such thing as perfection.
It’s all subjective
After a certain level of skill has been reached, the rest is subjective. One music teacher may prefer a faster tempo on the exact same piece that another teacher likes at a more leisurely pace. Music is open to interpretation and no two musicians will make exactly the same artistic choices. During my son’s cello Master Class, his instructor wanted a particular section played differently than his regular teacher did. After class, he said, “But, Mom which way is right?” I told him that neither one was right or wrong. The music could be interpreted either way. The important thing is which did he like more? He’s the artist, after all.
Writing is subjective too and nothing has ever been written that was universally adored. The sooner that sinks in the better. Think of your favorite book, the one you’ve read over and over again until the corners are dog-eared and the book is falling apart in your hands. Someone else loathes that book. Don’t believe me? Go to Amazon and peek at a few of the one star reviews. They will make you cry with how wrong the reviewers are. And that book you loathe? Someone else thinks it was the greatest thing ever written. Read those reviews too.
So go write. Improve technically, read, study good books and write some more. Get feedback from people smarter than you and when your work is finally ready, don’t be afraid to submit.
*My agent! It still gives me a little thrill to type that.