by Lisa Black
Whether you begin as a child or an adult, we learn more from playing with a group than just how to tell a treble clef from a bass.
1. We are not all playing the same notes, and we shouldn’t be. That would be a very boring song and a very boring story—and a very boring life if we didn’t have side melodies and off-beats and undercurrents and characters who each have their own goals and their own fears.
2. Tempos change. There is a time to move fast and there is a time to move slow. Some passages have notes in the strict formation of a light Baroque piece with precise and equal spacing, and other times the notes come so short and so fast that they seem to trip over each other. The pace of your life and your writing do the same when you or your character have to decide whether to think something through or act on instinct.
3. If you can’t play it as written, just do what you can. Mozart likes his speed. Sometimes he has series of eighth or 16th notes going so fast that I in my very amateur abilities cannot keep up. At those times I might play just the downbeat, the first note of every four. This allows me to contribute something while not detracting from the performance, and keep my place so I don’t get entirely left behind. Don’t worry about writing the Great American Novel. Just tell your story.
4. Everything a writer needs to know about building tension can be heard in Ravel’s La Valse. On the top it’s a beautiful melody of a lovely and graceful dance—but underneath that light tune is something else entirely. Something horrific is lurking, growing louder and more fatal the closer it comes. Think of the doors that won’t stay open in The Haunting of Hill House or the cat brushing Louis’ ankle in Pet Sematary, maybe even the flashing green light in The Great Gatsby. Something bad is going to happen. Give it a listen and you’ll see what I mean.
5. Don’t criticize the bassoon player until you have marched a mile playing a double reed instrument. Each instrument is different and every life, every story has its own challenges.
I played a clarinet for about twenty years. A clarinet has keys; each key or combination of keys is a different note—you hit the right keys and you’ve got the right note. But the difficult part of playing a wind instrument is what’s called the embouchure (ahm-boo-shur), the muscles of your mouth, cheeks, lips and tongue, getting that all coordinated and then maintaining that strength for an hour or two or three of playing.
Then, recently, I took up the violin. I didn’t have to worry about losing breath any more but…a violin has no keys, just four strings with nothing to indicate where your fingers are supposed to go. You simply have to learn where to put them. (And just to make things more complicated you can often play the same note in two different places on two different strings). Those strings were an alien and not-too-friendly landscape. But I persisted, and eventually got more comfortable with uncertainty. I still squeak on occasion and can’t self-tune to save my life, but the college orchestra I play with hasn’t kicked me out yet.
Do you play an instrument? What life lessons had it provided?
I loved reading this piece about music contributing to writing – and especially learning about all the musical talents of our Rogue, Lisa (very impressive). Yes, music is important – throughout life. My mother had a Masters in Music and taught piano until she was 90 (she started me at age 4). Wish I had kept it up better over the years — now you're inspiring me to dig that music out of the piano bench and get back at it. Thanks for a great post.
I wish I had started on anything at 4! Maybe I’d actually have some real ability!
$600 worth of piano lessons and I can play "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins. But, I do sing, and I do read music. I love singing in a choir.
What a remarkable essay, Lisa. Your comparisons between playing music and writing are so apt, and give me a new way to look at both. I particularly enjoyed your remarks about how we are all different, and sometimes we can't play all the notes exactly the way they're written, but that's all right, and sometimes it's actually wonderful. Thank you! ❤️
I played violin and then viola for 12 years. Best thing I ever learned. Thanks for this wonderful post!