Not Quite Like Playing the Cello…

Not Quite Like Playing the Cello…

I saw a really neat quote being re-tweeted on Twitter today:

“Why is it that we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration?”-Ann Patchett

Now … I have a bachelor’s degree in literature/writing, cum laude to boot. Also, I used to teach the piano to students of all ages, and I am now teaching myself to play the ukulele. So this will probably sound a little strange coming from me, but no…

Writing is not quite like playing the cello.

I agree with the quote, to a point, but having a background in both writing and music, I have to disagree also.

How many people do you know can play the cello just from having listened to other people play? I’m sure there are many aficionados of cello music, people who attend Yo-Yo Ma concerts religiously, people who love the sound of the instrument and can truly appreciate a virtuoso. If any one of them suddenly decides they would like to create the same kind of music, I doubt they could just go out and buy themselves a cello and start playing, based on all that they’ve heard, all the cello music that they have soaked in all their lives for the love of it. They could play it without instruction, of course, but the music they make might sound like a dying whale, or like Jaws in his old, old age. There’s a whole lot more to it than just sitting in a chair with the cello between your legs, your fingers on the strings, one hand pulling at a bow to slide across a string for sound. How would you play a C? A G? An F? Let alone an entire song?

Yes, so with that part of the quote I completely agree. It takes a lot of work to play the cello, especially since music isn’t even considered a required subject at most schools. Learning the simple alphabet of music isn’t something most people even get to do, let alone learning how to read music and learning how to play a musical instrument. They don’t get to practice that hand-eye coordination with a musical tool, connecting the notes they see on a page to the movements they make with their fingers and to the sound that a particular move makes. They don’t normally get to learn that special muscle memory of playing this or that musical phrase. Music appreciation can be learned very easily on your own, since you don’t need to know how to read music to appreciate how it sounds; music making, on the other hand, is quite another thing altogether.

That said, reading — the non-musical kind — IS a required subject in schools. The alphabet is one of the first things they teach, and it moves from letters to words to sentences to paragraphs, essays, school reports, dissertations, and the like. From your first year to your last year in academics you’re made to read all kinds of things — stories, articles, textbooks, etc. Then you’re made to write about them in great length, comparing this novel with that one and comparing this author with that one. Even if you’re studying art history and not English, you’re made to write papers. I remember even having to write a few papers in my dance class, where I had to review a performance I’d seen or where I had to describe what a plié was. No matter what you study in school, you can’t escape having to read a lot and then having to write a lot. It is a very heavy part of the curriculum, and it never needs to fear statewide budget cuts.

When you’re done with school, you continue reading for the rest of your adult life — magazines in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, newspapers on the commuter train, even blogged articles about the latest gossip on your favorite celebrities as you loaf around on your lunch break. There is no end to it. Your entire life is all about reading — and writing. When your high school friends write you an e-mail asking what’s new with you since you last saw each other at graduation, you’re expected to respond, and if you do so in a like manner, you’ll probably write your answer out in a somewhat narrative form, chronologically, like a story of your life from college through today.

And if you don’t write — if, instead, you call your friends to share your gossip — you might go into more detail with more emotion, voice rising and falling, perhaps acting out the different characters in your life, describing situations, adding drama to the emotional or physical struggles you go through, building up the suspense so that your friends lean forward and say, “Uh-huh? Yeah? Go on.” You tell your story.

In other words, we are all pretty much very well versed in our own written language, the form of a sentence, with its nouns and its verbs, its adjectives. Even if we don’t know what to call those parts and pieces — the past participles, the adverbs, the semi-colon and other such things — chances are we’ve seen them used in all ways, for all means, and we know how to use them. We can craft our own sentences because we’ve been taught to.

And for those of us who have read extensively? We’ve done our extra credit. We’ve read piles and piles of books, beyond those we were ever required to read, and we’ve absorbed the various forms and styles of reading material and the people who created them. By internally comparing this story with that one, we begin to understand conflict, a build-up to a climax, and denouement. Again, we might not know what to call those parts and pieces — what a protagonist and an antagonist is — but we understand their function through regular reading and regular storytelling.

This all comes from a cum laude writing major, remember. I have an actual degree in writing, so I’ve been taught all the mechanics of it, and I can tell you this. I didn’t need any of it. I didn’t need that higher formal education on literature and writing because I’d already learned it all myself simply through reading, and I learned it through writing in school about The Scarlet Letter or about Huckleberry Finn. In fact, I was inspired a lot after reading something, and I often wrote little stories, novellas afterward, long before I studied writing in college. It didn’t take much work at all. It wasn’t like practicing the piano, which I hated because it was like work, because it was something I didn’t use everyday in communicating with people.

Granted, writing can be like work, but if you’re already well versed in the craft through practice in school or just for fun, then writing can be like the magic of inspiration.

Playing the cello can be like the magic of inspiration, too, if we were as well versed in that mode of communication. But we’re not, are we? We’re not as a rule taught to play cello from our first years in school. So yes, playing it would be a lot of work.

But writing … hey, if you’re already pretty good at it through a lot of reading and writing, a lot of practice, then it’s not quite like playing the cello, is it?

Try writing a book, and try playing a concerto on a cello. Trust me. Unless you’re already a musician or you have that rare ear and Mozart-level genius, you’ll likely find writing a book much, much easier.

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