The Secret Musicians Know That Can Help Writers

I am grateful that I came to writing after years spent as a practicing musician, where I learned perspectives that make my writing life easier, and I came to understand the core secret behind any creative endeavor. First, the perspectives.

1/Practicing is an act of faith

When I grew frustrated in my piano lessons with Maria, one of my most important teachers, she would say that sitting down every day at the piano is an act of faith.  Some days it goes well, my hands feel great, the phrases come together with ease, and I can stay at my instrument for long stretches without feeling distracted.

Other days, I look down at my hands and wonder who they belong to.

On those days, my fingers feel stiff, I'm fighting the piano, my mind drifts off, and the music seems boring.  But I stay anyway.  I've been in this place before and know that tomorrow, or the next day, or perhaps next week, I will feel connected and fulfilled.  I know that the music will eventually yield to the repeated application of hard work and diligence.

And that if I stop, the ground will be steeper when I return.

2/ Daily time is a necessity

I often tell my piano students, "Even concert pianists practice every single day."  Cellist Pablo Casals said he had to find the E  in first position on the cello daily, a simple task that beginners face.

The difference between writing and playing an instrument is that I write every day for many different reasons, so it is easy to lull myself into complacency because I don't feel a physical disconnection from paper and pen, the way I do from the piano, or cello.  For writing, it's the connection between my hand and brain that needs to be sustained; the connection to my characters and my story that benefits from the consistent attention.  I want to stoke that sense of living in my characters' heads, of hearing their voices, of watching them come alive on the page. They will sulk in the corner if I ignore them, and the music I'm working on does the same thing.

Yes, life sometimes interferes, and I miss a day of practice or writing, but I never think about stopping.  In fact I become irritable when I cannot get to the writing, and the playing.  It's a physical craving that is only soothed by engagement with my art.  I come back to the instrument and the writing, and start again

In my studio I have an engraved stone sitting on the piano.  When a student comes to a lesson ill-prepared because of a skimpy--or non-existent-- practice week, I pick it up to remind them: Begin Again.

 Begin Again

3/ The beauty is in the details

Once I learn the basics of playing a piece of music, i.e., the notes, rhythm, fingering, then the music making begins: working out the phrases, refining the sound, working on technique to create the sound "image" that's in my head, experimenting with the dynamics, grasping the inner story and emotions of the piece.

It's the same with writing. Every sentence, every word, is crafted until there is nothing that stops the flow of the words.  I don't know who first said "Writing is revision" because I've heard it so many times, but it is true.  When I came to writing, I never had a problem with this because I know how long it takes to polish a piece before it's "performance ready".  The repetitions required to master a piece of music are like "piling hairs", another teacher told me.  At first the difference is imperceptible, but eventually it adds up.

Bottom line: a first draft is the starting point, not the finish line, just as the first run-through of a piece is the beginning of the journey, not the destination.

4/ The commitment is to something bigger

My teacher Maria once performed the four Chopin Ballades by memory. For those not familiar with piano repertoire, rest assured this is quite a feat.  After the concert, an audience member came up to her, score in hand, and pointed out a few measures where she had missed notes.  I would have been furious.  All she said was, "It just shows us that the music is greater than us."

Whenever I open a new piece of music, I think about the thousands of players who have done the same thing, who learned and performed these notes in front of me. I sense the presence of a long line of people behind me who have learned and loved this piece.  With my writing, too, I am participating in an act that others before me have, as well as others that will follow me.  It gives me a sense of belonging to something greater, a sense of being part of a larger, unseen community of seekers of self-expression and beauty.

When I participate in making art of any kind, I belong to a greater community.

And the secret: Making art is, in the end, an act of devotion.  I give myself over to the mystery.  The commitment is not just to the page, or to the music, but ultimately, to my connection to that sustaining power.

I honor that commitment because I know it's the only path to the treasure.