Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Musical Precision

I thought I’d continue my series on what I’ve learned about writing from other media with a little song and dance.  I’m no musician, but I like to watch music being made.  Fingers moving like spiders over the fret board, hands rolling like the ocean over the ivories. Over the years I’ve seen a wide range of performances, both live and recorded.

I’ve noticed there is a sharp dividing line between the amateur and professional levels of performance.  It is possible to have a good performance and still not quite reach that level of great performance that the pros hit consistently.

A music teacher once explained to me that music works on the principle of creating expectations, which create tension in the listener, and then fulfilling them, which eases the tension and gives the listener a pleasurable relaxation.  If one were to play, for example, the first seven notes of a major scale, the listener knows exactly what the eighth note is supposed to be before it is played.  If you play them in rhythm, the listener also knows when the eighth note is supposed to be.

In the professional performance, the right note is always there, right when it is supposed to be, without hesitation. I’m not saying they never make mistakes – I have a recording of Pete Seegar, live in concert, saying, “Now I can’t remember the second verse,” but he says it without ever losing his place on the guitar and without losing the attention of his audience.

The last concert I was at had people dancing in the aisles. Most were hoppin’ and boppin’ and just havin’ fun as they should, but there was one lady I’d wager had professional dance training.  Her moves repeated exactly, starting and ending with the beat of the song every time, enacted without hesitation.

So if you’ve been following my blog at all, you know I’m going to apply this to writing.  The secret for musicians and dancers seems to be precision.  The right move, the right note, the right time.  And people wonder why writers spend so much time stressing over just the right word.

There are a lot of places for writers to get it right.  Keeping an interesting variation of long and short sentences.  Avoiding eye-glazing paragraphs that never end.  Little grace notes of metaphor and analogy.  Pacing that builds, leading to the inevitable climax the occurs at just ahead of the reader’s expectation.

There’s a rhythm, too.  In my last play, I wrote a line where one character hesitates before saying the name of another character (indicated, if you must know, by an ellipsis).  An actor asked me about the pause, whether it was connected to a previous scene where his character was corrected on the name.  I said no, it was more of a pause to marshal his argument.

What I didn’t say, what I couldn’t articulate with an actor there in my face, was that it was a pause for rhythm.  That it just plain sounded right.

And you know how professional performers do it, right?  How they get that level of precision, time after time?  How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.  It seems more ephemeral for writers somehow, but the more you do it, the more you know why you are placing this word here, that word there.

Here endeth the lesson.

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