Wednesday, July 03, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love "the Rules"

(CC-BY-NC-ND)  by tamaki
My mother is a musician. She's a harpist, which is part of why my social media avatar is a cat playing the harp (I play, too, but not well). So when she had children, it was no wonder that she wanted all of us to have music lessons.

My brothers played the violin, learning via the Suzuki method, which is a method that teaches young children to play using the same principles of language learning—first you listen, then you imitate, then, when you are already proficient at producing speech (or music in this case) you learn to read.

When I was four or so, I started dancing to my brothers' "listening tapes," the music they were learning to play. My mother, instead of taking this as a sign to get me dance lessons (which was what I wanted), decided to get me piano lessons instead.

Now, in the grand, grand scheme of things, I don't play piano very well. I took lessons for seven years, until just after I turned eleven. One thing I remember most about piano lessons is how unbelievably tedious they were—having to learn to put my fingers in exactly the right order, practicing scales. I remember my teacher telling me things like "this needs to be even" or telling me to bend my wrist more. Her rigid insistence that it wasn't enough just to get all the notes right, I also had to bother with the mezzo pianos and the mezzo fortes (there's a difference?) and that even though fortissimo was a super fun volume, the keys still had to be struck just so.

And every day I had to practice for at least a half an hour. Crazy.

I quit piano at the end of fifth grade so that I could take saxophone lessons instead, and be in the middle school band. I played sax all through middle school, high school, and college (there is absolutely nothing comparable to being in a Big Ten marching band, let me tell you that right now).

But a weird thing happened when I was in high school. One of my mothers' harp students mistakenly bought the Suzuki Piano books four, five, and six, thinking they would have the right music for her. They didn't, but my mom offered to buy the books from her since the music was still playable (for those of you who don't know, harp music is written the same way as piano music, it just gets extra notations and more care is taken regarding what notes the harpist is likely to be able to hit in succession).
So I put them at the piano. And I started practicing.

Four years after I stopped taking piano lessons, I started coming home from school and practicing one, two, sometimes four hours a night. No one was holding me accountable for learning the music, I was just learning it.

And weird things started happening. When my fingers kept tripping over a passage, I looked at the music for...the written fingering. I put my fingers in the order the page said to, and the passage became easier to play. When I tried to learn Für Elise, I got to the section with the repeated note in the left hand (2:11), and it kept speeding up and slowing down and it just never sounded right. I read the fingerings and switched back and forth between my second finger and thumb...and I made it even.

All those crappy things that drove me crazy, the things that I felt were totally arbitrary and got in the way of me making teacher had insisted on them not because they were rules, but because they constituted good technique. And employing them was the difference between playing smooth, beautiful music, and banging on the piano.

I didn't understand that at eleven. But at eighteen, I got it. I used it. Not because someone was telling me it was how it was best done, but because I could see it was how it was best done.

I've written before about "the rules" of writing. Things like, try to avoid using speech tags if you can. Make your sentences active. Show, don't tell. When I took my first few writing seminars, I remember having the same, bristled response to being told what to do. What if I wanted that sentence to be passive? And this character to "sigh" their words instead of say them? Who were these people to tell me what to do?

But as I went on writing, I found the same things happened at the computer keyboard that happened at the piano one. This section is weak? I removed the passive voice. This dialogue reads clunkily? I edited the speech tags. When I started trying to make my writing sharper, I found myself doing all the things people had told me I should do...not because they'd told me to, but because it made the "music" more beautiful.

This post is mostly written as the result of conversations with a friend of mine, who is struggling with her first crit group and being told that she needs to do certain things. I've become better at explaining exactly why those certain things result in more beautiful music (which, in my opinion, is the part music and writing teachers often skip!), but it's still a process she has to go through. There's a time when you're just listening to your piano teacher, and doing things because she said so. And it chafes, and you don't get it, and it's maddening.

But then there's the moment when the changes come from within, when it's you trying to make the music.

And then comes that amazing realization that people were steering you right all along.


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