The musician as a writer

Being a musician does have advantages when it comes to writing. This came as a surprise, as I started my journey as a writer.

After many years as a performer and teacher, I was recently prompted to write a book, the idea for which had simmered within me for quite a while. I had a real desire to share with a wider audience my discoveries about creativity and music, and how my life had shaped these insights. But my writing had to reflect the need for increased imagination and the range of emotion I was advocating. This is when I learned a wonderful new lesson.

I grew up in England with a traditional schooling, and learned to write for academic essays, exams and tests. The goal was to reveal critical thinking and prove that I had mastered my subjects, with a tone that was dispassionate and objective. This ingrained mode served me well through university, and I didn’t question this approach until recently, when my purpose for writing changed.

Now, venturing outside my musical expertise, it was hard to realize just how much there was to learn, how much I didn’t know, and thought should know. I had finished my rigorous education at the Juilliard in New York City, experienced a rich musical life, and I certainly knew how to perform at a high level in my own sphere. So the decision to open up and be coached as a creative writer came at a vulnerable moment.

I was fortunate to find Ian Graham Leask, my writing coach, who started with an honest appraisal. He said I write well, but that I was still stuck in an academic mode—not surprising, since that was the last time I needed to do any serious writing. It took some time, encouragement and great patience, but gradually, after playing catch up on all those missed creative writing courses, he teased out connections I could make with my skills as a musician. I was quite relieved to realize I already had a creative source to build upon.

Words have sound and rhythm and other musical qualities that pop and crash around. Put together they can have tempo, build a crescendo, and there are soft words, hard words, elongated words, extended sentences and staccato phrases. In English, words can be easily reordered in many combinations, without losing their essential meaning—much like rearranging notes of music. Of course, all writers learn that first drafts need to be revised and edited through several versions.

Ian helped me link the art of creative writing with my musical ear, as we discussed reading out loud what I had written, as many great writers recommend. Then I had the epiphany that there really is a relationship between writing and editing and that of practicing or composing music, which I know how to do.

How does the text sound? Does the rhythm work and enhance the meaning? Do the sounds of the words evoke a feeling in the reader? When you read aloud your written text, you can hear the flow, or bumps and awkward juxtapositions. In response, you can work to edit a text, by playing with the order, and can cut, change or add words to help with rhythm and sound. Editing is very similar to practicing the piano, or rehearsing a choir, orchestra or any musical group.

When you practice, you can play with various elements of sound, dynamics, tempo and accents. You ask yourself  “What effect do I want to convey?” I always look to improve the flow of a piece and make technical adjustments, during my practice or rehearsal. This is an evolving process and nothing emerges perfectly formed. It needs time and experimentation.

When I found this connection, I started to breathe easily, and was able to improve my clumsy first drafts and move ahead with confidence. It was fun and familiar to search for the rhythms of words sounded out, and play with all the possible choices. You know something is right when a text flows and pleases the ear, with few awkward stumbles.

Likewise, when I compose a piece of music, I look for shape and structure, sub-plots, patterns of repetition, and exposition on a theme, along with variations and referrals back to ideas already stated. An incoherent composition has no reference points and seems chaotic and meandering. This same thinking that helps pull together a musical piece, orchestrates a work of prose.

Surprising connections? What a delight it is to have the fun of playing with the music of the written word. Sometimes we underestimate the talents and skills we already bring to new endeavors and can build from a creative base.