Two passing occurrences this week. One, Rhian and I were talking about our kids and their music lessons, and just how hard they should be expected to work on their instruments. I was on the side of greater lenience, mostly because that's how I learned music--after a few years of piano, I just fooled around until I figured stuff out. And Rhian said, "Well, you don't like practicing anything." It's true--I generally get just good enough to play something, then I record it, then I never play it again. I get bored practicing--I only like performing, and usually in front of a microphone, not an audience.
And then today I was listening to the radio and heard an interview with the legendary guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, and he was talking about trying to play a certain style of guitar that he once knew how to play quite well. And he said that he can no longer play this way unless he really practices for an hour, and even then he's still not so hot.
Okay, his not so hot is, to most people, virtuosic, I'm sure. But I suddenly realized how foreign this way of thinking is to me. Practicing for its own sake--it's true, I've always hated it. And I think this is why I ended up becoming a writer. The musician rehearses in private far more than he performs in public--indeed, most of his effort is not supposed to be heard. But the writer generally thinks whatever he's doing right this minute is going to be presented to the world.
Well, I do anyway, sort of. Rationally, I know that my first drafts are merely my first drafts. But when I write them, I am indeed performing to the audience. That audience, in my mind, is often just Rhian or Ed, my co-bloggers, but it's an audience. The difference is that this is a performance that can be refined over time, before anyone actually ever "hears" it. The practice and the performance are the same thing. As a writer, I only perform, and every performance matters.
And in the end, bits of every performance do make it into the final work; the work is a palimpsest of drafts, a secret patchwork. I suppose this is why I got back into music, after a break of many years--because audio recording technology now makes it easy to play like a writer, trying different things, and only keeping the best bits.
But writing will always be different from music performance in one particular way. Though everyone is born with the ability to understand and appreciate music, playing it is something that must be learned. The body has to be trained to do it. It's natural, but it is accessory to the necessities of living--you will do fine in life without it. Language, on the other hand, is necessary, a vital part of being human. Everyone learns how to do it without even trying. Writers are merely people who strive to make this ordinary thing extraordinary--to wield a familiar tool in a new way.
Ultimately, I am more impressed by musicians, perhaps especially because I've tried to be one, and know how hard it is to be a good one. Good writers work hard, of course, but I suspect they rarely feel like they're doing something special. Rather, they are doing what they do, and learning as they go. The feeling of virtuosity in performance, on the other hand, must be transcendent. Not that I'd know.