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Wednesday, 25 November 2015 04:32

Things I Learned About Writing From Playing the Violin

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When I first started writing I kept calling the chapters of my novels ‘movements’ and the pacing ‘tempo’. I didn’t do this intentionally, those words just slipped out. But I guess it’s easy to see the connection.

What’s perhaps not as easy to see are some of the other parallels I’ve found between writing and playing an instrument:

#1 Practice something and you’ll get better at it.

This was possibly the greatest gift music ever taught me. That if I work on something every day my skill will improve. It’s something I’ve carried over to every other aspect of my life.

The results of practicing are easy to see when you’re learning an instrument. There’s a passage in the piece you’re working on that’s currently beyond you but after days of focused practice it starts to improve. You know you’ve progressed because today you can play that passage and yesterday you couldn’t.

It’s not as easy to see how your writing is getting better. Sometimes the only way is to pull out something you wrote months or years ago and compare it to your current work, but even then it’s all subjective. Still, the one thing that can be guaranteed is you won’t improve if you don’t keep at it.

#2 Patience and determination

When I first got to college (Eastman School of Music) I wasn’t a very good violinist. In fact I was one of the worst ones there. The first week of classes the head of the string department, Millard Taylor, came up to me in the hall and told me (in front of all my new friends) that the only reason I’d been accepted was because the school hadn’t filled its quota of violinists for that year.

My friends were appalled on my behalf. But I eventually came to understand that Taylor did me a tremendous favor. He made me angry. I thought I was pretty hot just getting into a place like Eastman and possibly I would’ve cruised along without really applying myself. Maybe he saw that and said what he did deliberately to help me. In any case he snapped me out it. I started to work like I never had before.

The payoffs didn’t come in the first year. Or the second. And there were many times I was reduced to tears at the sheer frustration of being overlooked and discounted as someone who would never excel. (Another similarity to writing!) But ultimately my efforts paid off.

#3 Talent is over-rated

I didn’t just learn this one at Eastman but from my more than twenty years of teaching violin. So many times I’ve seen kids with little ‘natural’ ability progress well beyond ‘gifted’ ones simply because they practiced harder.

When someone has to struggle and work for every advancement, they end up taking obstacles in their stride. Students to whom things have always come easily, often give up when the going gets tough.

#4 Bouncing back

I remember once getting really depressed about my playing. I thought to myself, ‘No matter how much I practice, no matter how good I get, there will always be someone better than me.’

In the end I found an answer to that one: ‘Just because we can all speak, doesn’t mean we all have the same thing to say.’

I learned it’s not about being ‘the best’, it’s about acquiring the skills to communicate what’s inside you. What you learn when you practice your scales and exercises is the technique of your instrument. You’re learning how to speak the language of music. But once you’ve learned it, you alone decide what you will say.

So it doesn’t matter if someone has a better technique than you. (Or more style than you as a writer.) As long as you are proficient enough to communicate, you can and will say things no-one else can.

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