What Writers Can Learn from Musicians

Before I was a writer, I was a musician (I still am).

Of all the arts, I think music is the one that best understands that non-glamorous word: Consistency. You’re not going to learn that song if you don’t sit your butt down (almost) every day and play. You’re not going to improve your vocal range if you don’t use it (almost) every day. And you know that even if you do improve it, you’ll lose it just as fast and faster if you stop singing for a long period of time.  That’s how it goes and every musician knows it. Any musician-to-be who tries to cheat consistency is either a) one of those gifted geniuses (Note: You’re probably not) who could play practically from birth, though without consistency that genius is still going to have a LOT of undeveloped talent going on (or not going on as it were), or b) not a musician. Because you don’t learn to play the piano without consistency. Your brain needs it; your muscles need it; your heart needs it.

But in my experience, other artists–writers among them–don’t always quite get the whole consistency thing. Maybe that’s because we can ALL write, at least if we’ve completed the 2nd grade. But we can’t all play the piano. So pianists know they have to try day after day, whereas writers might be lulled into believing their sloppy, half-bottomed habits are leading them to the next NYTimes bestseller list (Note: They’re probably not.)

Whatever the reason, I believe there are a few things most writers could learn from the musicians.

1. Practice. Musicians simply have to do it or they won’t ever become musicians or stay musicians. Even once musicians have achieved a certain level of mastery, they can relax their practice habits a little if they just wanted to maintain their skills, but if they want to improve or even just maintain, they know that a certain amount of practicing is required. Not practicing at all will backslide a musician pretty quickly. In fact, I’ve met ex-pianists in my life who can’t play a simple child’s song, although they took lessons for years as kids. But then they stopped. Totally stopped. And now those skills are gone. (So as to not get too judge-y, I should point out that I played bassoon for 6 years in junior high and high school and I played it extremely well. But I put it away after high school and now could barely make a sound come out.) What you don’t love enough to practice, you lose. Writers have to practice too. No, we don’t want to; neither does your junior musician over there. But if you want to improve, you practice. The best way to do that is through a…

2. Daily habit. Okay, it doesn’t have to be quite daily. You can take a sick day or a vacation or observe your Sabbath. But your habit has to be pretty darn consistent. If you pay for your kids to take piano lessons, you probably make them practice. Because otherwise you know you’re wasting your money (and, as a piano teacher, let me assure you that–without practice–you are). Make yourself do the same thing. You can use writing exercises or challenges if you’ve got nothing else. Otherwise, keep at whatever project you’re working on or find a new call for submissions that intrigues you–they’re all over the internet. But practice. And do it almost every day. (Note: You don’t always have to practice long. But you do have to practice regularly. I often tell my students–and their parents–that a few minutes almost every day is better than a big hour-long practice once a week.)

3. Get a teacher. Most musicians have or have had one. Many writers haven’t. You can go a traditional route and take a class. But you can also buy books about how to write better (there are GOBS of good ones) or even hook yourself up with a good critique partner or editor who can help you shape your work. But don’t be afraid of criticism. If you paid for piano lessons for your kid and she sat there through her 30 minute lesson playing whatever sloppy crap came from her fingers, and the teacher said nothing until the end of the lesson, when she was like, “Great. That’ll be $20. See you next week”–you’d get your kid a new piano teacher. Because we learn from correction. Don’t fear it. In fact, it’s a really good way to spend your writer time and money.

4. Everyone makes mistakes; the important thing is that you recover from them. This is what I tell my students every time they’re preparing for a recital. They’re simply NOT going to play their piece perfectly. Literally. Ever. I do not think there is ever a time I–at any stage of my musical life–have ever played a piece perfectly for a recital (or probably otherwise). What makes a performance good isn’t perfection; it’s the ability to quickly and smoothly recover when you do make mistakes. If you master this skill (which is just as important as any scale your piano teacher can throw at you), most people will not realize you’ve made a mistake. That’s right. You’ll go on your merry way with that song where you missed that B flat and no one will ever know. Even if you make a significant stumble, but keep on going, most people will easily forget or overlook the mistake and enjoy the song as a whole and not remember the mistake. But if you stumble and stop. If you slow down. If you make the dread I-just-muffed-my-song-and-I-hate-everything-about-my-life face, then people will know you messed up. And they will take note. Don’t let them. As writers we’re going to stumble sometimes; we’re going to miss a note. I’m not sure any book is perfect any more than any live performance is perfect. It’s your job to throw enough passion, joy, and (yes) skill into that piece so that when you blow an occasional bad note, almost no one notices, and those who do don’t really care. Don’t talk badly about yourselves. Don’t point out errors. If you do mess up–whether it’s a grammar mistake in your first book, or a faulty career move, just smile and move on. 

5. Wear something sparkly in your ears. At the end of high school, I gave an hour-long senior recital. It was just me playing songs I’d been working on for months and years. My teacher had studied at Julliard. She was talented and smart and delightful. She’d corrected billions of mistakes and shown me millions of examples, and given me tons of advice. But the week before my recital when everything else had been said, she told me to choose a nice dress and “wear something sparkly in your ears.” Something that would catch the light when it was just me and that grand piano. And I did. You should too. Now, you can take that advice however you want. You can take it literally and put in some twinklers for your next book signing (or a Part Wolf t-shift and some red lipstick as it were). Or you can take it figuratively. Pay attention to the finishing touches, the final details, the small things that will take you and your book to the next level. Allow yourself that moment of performance, of enjoyment, of beauty. But no matter how you take it, remember: It’s about shine. Don’t be afraid, my loves, to sparkle. 

Don’t be afraid, my loves, to sparkle.

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  1. M. Dianne Berry

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