Playing the language…

I thought I’d talk about music for a moment…

It’s something I know a bit about since for most of my young years that’s where I was headed.  Actually, that’s where I was headed for longer than that.  Music.

But first I’m going to say something which most musicians know but which many others don’t really like as a concept.  It’s this:  genius is very rare.  Very, very rare.  So is virtuosity.

And even if you are one of those very rare few–a Daniel Barenboim or a Lang Lang, a Joshua Bell or a Yo Yo Ma…well, there is always what Maestro Barenboim will tell you, virtuoso performance comes down to about 10% talent and 90% hard work.

And that’s the way it is.  That’s the reality musicians accept.

There are, from the off, the years of learning the necessary technique.  In my case, the hours spent on Czerny’s exercises for the keyboard.  These teach and build on the skills a pianist needs until they become almost a part of that individual’s identity, as natural to them as using a knife and fork. 

Alongside these, one is always learning new music–eventually becoming acquainted with the great composers and their more difficult compositions, and building a foundation of these works, expanding one’s repertoire to include sonatas, nocturnes and fantasias. 

Then there are the competitions–and these are great opportunities, great platforms from which to launch a career as a soloist, for example.  But here’s a thing that should be remembered–before they even think about entering one of these, that musician will already be in top form.  He or she will have been working, playing, practising, learning for years.

Anyway.  A list of the required performance pieces is published probably three to six months before the competition itself.  With any luck, some if not all of the required works will be in the musician’s repertoire already.  Those unknown must, of course, be learned and mastered before the competition.

And that learning curve isn’t just about memorising the notes, the markings, and playing it until it’s a part of one’s physicality…there will be all the practice hours once the music is learned, the hours and days of devoted work before the performance.  Because everything has to be perfect.  Not just the middle bits, or the slow bits…it all has to flow effortlessly.

In many ways, it’s a bit like learning to ride a horse.  They say a rider only starts to learn truly to ride once they’ve been riding for somewhere between two and four years–before that, the rider is too focused on ‘staying on the horse’ to learn anything.

But back to music.

There’s the memorisation as well.  As a skill, it’s something one works hard at as a child–particularly for that first or second recital.  But some time after that, it becomes incidental; it happens naturally through the frequent playing of the music.  And once memorised, the music becomes like a part of one’s skin–there are sonatas by Beethoven and nocturnes by Chopin that I’ve been playing since adolescence.  They’re there, permanently imprinted upon the cheek of my memory, woven into my my muscles, even into the shape of my hands and the reach of my fingers.

I can sit at the piano and play them anytime.  I don’t need the score.  I can’t not play them. 

Anyway, there you are.  As a musician, it’s a lifetime of practice, every day and for hours a day.  That’s what you expect–the work on the trills, the arpeggios, the fingering and flexibility–and that’s even if you are a prodigy.  But that’s how you learn to play music.  Real music.  The good stuff.

And always you go on learning.  Taking lessons.  Listening with one ear laid against the sounding board to discover whether those pianissimos are soft, are quiet enough…do they brush the heart with tenderness?

You go on re-examining the scores you know, certain that you will find something in Beethoven’s markings or Bach’s polyphony that will give you a far greater and deeper understanding of that work than you ever had before…

All of that, and then there’s performance.  And performance requires an even greater dedication and focus to the particular music on the programme…

(I can tell you too that an accompanist often practises twice as hard; first by himself or herself, then all of it all over again with the other performer.)

So why, I have to ask, why do writers and novelists these days believe their art is different?  Why do they imagine they don’t have to practise this art?  Learn its skills and techniques and how to use its ornaments?  And practise?  Practise until the bastardy bits are smooth–learn and practise the linguistic equivalent of the trills and cadenzi, the thirds and triplets, the sevens against sixes? 

Because imagine what kind of books would be written if writers would only learn to play the language the way a musician learns to play Debussy…and Mozart…and Brahms…

Imagine that!

How great would that be? 

Because there is no instant gratification in music, no “I want it now”.  Not even for virtuosi.  So why do we think writing is different?  Or that the art of using the language, of writing a novel doesn’t matter?

And that concept of prodigy or genius I mentioned earlier?  As I say, there are and have always been very few of them about.  Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt van Rijn, JMW Turner, Tallis, Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schubert, Brahms, Einstein, Shakespeare, Donne, probably Stoppard…

But here’s a thing all of them have in common–with the exception of one.  They all rewrote and repainted and resketched and reworked.  All of them. 

Beethoven’s scores are always recognisable for the amount of crossing out he did.  Rewriting and reworking passages until he knew they were perfect.  Hamlet went through many, many changes and edits over the years–quite probably some of them the result of the playwright sitting listening to the actors and thinking, “Eugh!  That doesn’t work!” 

Only Mozart didn’t rewrite much–but then, the poor chap was writing so fast, the melodies and notes just falling out of him like breath from his lungs, I doubt he had much chance.  (Though I fancy there are those who feel he could do with a good edit now and again.)

But imagine if writers and novelists had the humility of Beethoven.  Or Brahms–he famously burnt everything he’d composed before the age of 40 because he deemed it “not good enough”.  

For that library, I should need to live to be a thousand so that I had time to read all those wonderful, wonderful books.

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5 comments on “Playing the language…

  1. linda collison says:

    A music lover who dreamed (s) of being a musician, I have not the genius for it but appreciate the need for practice, practice, practice (even if I had the genius). In some parallel life I may be a musician. In this life I am a wordsmith and as you point out, that too requires practice, practice, practice. Thanks for reminding me, and for putting a little word music in my day.

  2. M. M. Fahren says:

    Glissando, arpeggio, trill and triplet. Hannon, Czerny, and a bit of Bartok to you, Bennetts.
    Some of us visit old bookstores for our new acquirements for the above reasons.

    Yes, ‘Genius’ is an ill-used idiom applied to the occasional literary prodigy who actuallizes what she visualizes. In the present fabric of publishing, a crafted story troubles the grain. In the imaginative eyes of the present public, a writer whose imagism excels the average coffee (or tea) table setting is considered flowery at best, over-stimulated. A plot not as barbaric as the latest crimsonings of war and gore, or one not excelling the tabloid standards of debauching humanity is not deemed generative or even interesting by dazing ‘literary agents’.

    One would think that polished writing carried arsenic in its ‘varnish’, One would think fine writing which takes decades to elocute should be banished to readers of other galaxies.

    “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains to perfect”–or nearly so. Problem is, those who would and could simply don’t because the performance halls with all their stages and curtains and velvet seats have been effectively burned to the ground. And so have the ‘players’.

    Glad to meet a few survivors, some who even thrive.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Having my hand still in–as it were–the music world (sorry about the pun), though not as much as previously, I’d say the true music world is still as demanding as it ever was. And practising those bastardy bits in Brahms Von ewiger liebe is still one of those necessities of life. (One which I may possibly a little have been shirking recently…)

  3. Music (violin) was part of my life long ago, but I very foolishly allowed other things to muscle it out the door. A couple years ago I tried to start over, and was impressed by how much I remembered, but there just isn’t the bandwidth for sustaining that at this stage of life. One of my major regrets.

    However, I very much agree with your analogy between music and writing. Far too many people bang out a bunch of nonsense on their word processors, apparently see no need to agonize over their sentences or even their grammar, and claim to be writers.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I blew off a major piano competition solely on the grounds that the one selection I didn’t know (the Beethoven, Bach and Chopin were already in my repertoire), Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, looked too much like work. All those notes! And I liked it easy–as I’d always understood how both Beethoven and Chopin thought, their music had always been a doddle to learn. (What a slacker I was.)

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