Monday, June 8, 2009

Practice makes...

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.


J. said...

I don’t know. To me, the “performance” of language is innate. Appreciation of it is not. Music is the opposite. It’s enormously difficult to master an instrument (even to be adequate requires dedication). But to appreciate music appears to be an almost primitive ability. I guess it’s the mathematics of it. Music speaks to something deep down inside. Language is already in there. It’s less exotic. If that’s the word.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I disagree with any of that. In fact, it's better put than my post by several powers of ten.

Paul said...

I feel about writing and music the way you do about music. I practice both but have not been successful at either.

I agree that language is something we all do, but not writing. Despite the rare "natural voices" out there, (like the self taught musicians), good writing results from assembling and refining a number of specialized cognitive tools.

I think that in general, we will be more in awe of something we are not that good at (maybe even more than something we cannot do at all) and undervalue and be more likely to deem universal what seems easy to us.

I do know from my own experience that when making music (and I use the term loosely), I find that the notes precede the thought, I follow my fingers rather than direct them which makes me think that you are probably right that it could be transcendent; thoughtless in the best of ways.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, learning music involves muscle memory...when you're really cooking, you aren't "thinking" at all. Whereas for me, writing rarely happens in bursts of "inspiration," whatever that's a lot of sitting around and cogitating.

I'm definitely not suggesting that writing is an automatic skill! I'm with you, it's something you do have to learn. I'm just pointing out that it's an extreme refinement of a natural skill.

Diana Holquist said...

Remember Suzuki?

His music/practice theory was based on his observation that even the dumbest Japanese kid could still speak Japanese. He was in awe of this. Surely, he thought, if some dummy can master something as complicated and complex as the Japanese language, he can play the violin if taught in a slow, childlike way (tiny steps, lots of praise).

I'm no fan of Suzuki, but I did like the comparison. Such hope! Such optimism! Anyone can play if 1) they're taught with childlike compassion and 2) they practice every single day.

Also, if when they want to, say, ask where a bathroom is, they need to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with no mistakes and perfect tone.

Which is where I found his comparison btw. music and language broke down. There's so much reason to learn a language--first and foremost, to communicate. But what's the reason to learn music? For the ones who love it, it's also to communicate. But for most kids, it's an adult-enforced chore. I don't make my kids practice any more than absolutely necessary to get by in orchestra, which they like for social reasons. I figure, if they don't have an innate feeling of expressing themselves with music, they'll never have it.

(Another Suzuki bit I still like: "Practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect." I like to quote this when I give writing workshops and people say, "Write every day!" I say, "No. Please don't. Write one day. Then stop. Edit. Get criticism. Read great writing. Try again. Don't just write for the sake of writing...")

rmellis said...

I remember when the Suzuki thing started to fall apart for us: Owen added a happy little flourish to the end of one of his songs, which delighted me -- he's getting into it, expressing himself in his playing! But his teacher cut that stuff off without a single positive word. That's NOT how the song goes, end of story.

But I was still in love with the sight of all those little kids on stage making beautiful (if oddly passionless) music, and the breakup was extremely difficult.

Recently Owen saw a picture of some kids in a Suzuki orchestra and he said, That looks like the most boring thing in the entire universe.

Okay, kid, you win!

Paul said...

My daughter who showed no interest in the piano nor in my offering to teach her one day heard Pachelbel's Canon and decided she wanted to learn it. I figured it out and showed her and she practiced hour after hour until she had it. Next stop was a Phillip Glass tune.

It was like that story (which became a book) about the man who engaged someone to teach him how to play one particular song on the piano, and on his anniversary presented it to his wife, with tails on.

I find these intriguing because the practice is not devoted to any general facility but to delivering one outcome. No scales or theory, just pragmatics, like that analogy to language where almost all practice is performance.

j said...

See, I view writing and music in almost the exact opposite way. When I write, I write as practice, unless I know that it is going to be published. I know that I've got about a million pretty horrible sentences in me before I get a paragraph of good work. Not that I don't take it seriously. I do try to write the best I can, but I consider it a cleansing of the pipes, so to speak.

With music, though, I view almost everything as a performance. Granted, I keep the tape rolling a lot of the time, but I rarely think that I'm "practicing" when I sit down to play. I think of it as just playing music in the same way it would be if I were in front of a room full of people.

Although i will say that performing with a group is something that writing, at least in its modern form, will never be able to match. Being surrounded by talented people who are doing unique things to make one collective piece is - without a doubt - the most fun I can possibly have. It doesn't matter if anyone else is listening to it or not.

Unknown said...

This reminds me of the debate over the studio trickery of Glenn Gould--one of my favorite musicians. It must have been an odd scene in the late '60s and throughout the '70s: Glenn Gould acting for all the world like a rock musician, splicing together alternate takes of Bach and fiddling with tempo, horrifying the purists. But for a "performance" intended entirely for stereo reproduction in the privacy of the listener's home (or earphones), why not? Gould, like you, clearly preferred to perform in front of a live microphone rather than a live audience, and his perfectionism is admirable. As for practice, some children can be made to do it. I like that Horowitz supposedly did not need to practice much toward the end of his life, claiming that he'd already practiced. Rubinstein, on the other hand, always hated to practice, something he was obliged to make up for later in life: He retreated to a French barn in the summer of 1937 (at age fifty), determined to fix his technique for the new era of recorded piano, so that his kids wouldn't think he was a horrible pianist. This practice paid off: his recordings of Chopin in the late 1950s and first half of the 1960s are far better than most of his earlier recordings of the same. Gould, by the way, was also a great writer: e.g., "The Glenn Gould Reader," ed. Tim Page [ISBN: 0679731350]. Rubinstein—perpetual showoff—was not. His long-winded memoirs amount to more than a thousand pages of boasting and setting the record straight. Horowitz, even more of a showoff (an adult child, really), apparently did not write at all.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, I hadn't considered that wide range of practice habits.

I agree, Gould was an excellent writer--that essay collection is indeed terrific--and Gould also tried making those voice collages in his later years, didn't he? A kind of musical/literary hybrid.

ed said...

This is a very interesting post, John. But the framework here becomes problematic because different writers approach writing in different ways -- for you, the final work may be a patchwork; for others, it's a continuous first draft. There are some writers who "perform" after spending long periods of rumination on a subject or an idea -- the "sitting around and cogitating" that you allude to in your followup comment -- and they gush much of their words out in one go. Perhaps thinking along those lines serves as its own rehearsal process. Because you're "rehearsing" a story or a piece in your head. But you may not always know it.

Perhaps it's really just a question of how much a writer cares about his appealing to his audience. You're either Gould or Horowitz. It all depends on what you care about.

Anonymous said...

It's true, this stuff is totally impossible to generalize...every time I think I've thought of something that's common to all writers, I meet someone who has no idea what I'm talking about.

Can I please be both Gould and Horowitz? An uncompromising arteest whom everyone loves to pieces? Please?