Mark Terry

Friday, May 02, 2008

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?


May 2, 2008
It's the old joke, right? Somebody stops a pedestrian in Manhattan and says, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

The pedestrian says, "Practice, practice, practice."

My youngest son, Sean, had a 4th grade concert on Tuesday. When we got to the auditorium at the high school, we seemed to have an opening act--2 or 3 adult musicians were off to one side playing violin and viola and cello.

As it turned out, one was a professor of violin at the University of Michigan and the two ladies were string education majors. Oxford Schools has a strong music program, but they don't have an orchestra program... until now. So they were there to announce that Oxford was starting a strings program in the 5th grade next year and the professor gave a little talk and then the two ladies played a couple tunes. They were great.

The professor commented that when you first get a violin it sounds like this: and then he played a creaky, squeaky bit. And commented that typically after 7 or 8 weeks you wanted to throw the damned thing away. But that it took a lot of hard work and time to get as good as the ladies who were about to play.

I've been a musician of sorts for most of my life. I started playing piano at the age of 8, began saxophone when I was in 5th grade. And now I'm taking guitar lessons after a nearly 20-year hiatus from actually making music. At one time I taught both saxophone and piano.

I really do understand that there's a learning curve and I really do take my understanding of this to my study of guitar. I do understand that a little bit of work over a long period of time will have significant benefits. I know the value of repetition and rarely get bored with it. I understand that when I have a problem with a particular section of music, the thing to do is to isolate that section and repeat it slowly over and over and over and over again. I do understand that, yes, it takes time, but you do improve. I understand that improvement is usually incremental, but sometimes you do take leaps. I understand that listening carefully to music and other guitarists is part of the educational process.

I have noted, however, that aspiring writers don't seem to get this. I think it has something to do with being taught to read and write in first grade. So by the time everyone's an adult, they figure they know all they need to know about writing. That the only difference between their writing and a professional writer is the professionals are getting paid. (A not insignificant difference).

Sometimes they're right.

Most of the time they're wrong.

There is a big difference. And most professionals writers have put in their time. They have written a million unpublished and probably unpublishable words. They have figured out how to rewrite. They have figured out that when there's something wrong, they need to work on it to fix it. They have figured out that there are different techniques involved in good writing and they don't always work in the same situation. They have written a lot over a long period of time. They have read a lot. They have read critically, reading why Dickens works, why Stephen King works, why Lee Child works, why some other writers get published, but maybe don't work. (I'm often surprised, though, when, for instance, I hear all the criticism of someone like King or, more recently, all the criticism about Dan Brown and "The Da Vinci Code." Particularly from already published writers who are having a seriously case of green envy. "He's a hack," "his characters are wooden" etc, etc. But they're missing the point. Read Dan Brown and don't look at his failings as a writer--okay, go ahead, but try to make sure you don't do the same things--but look at Dan Brown's books and figure out what he does right and why his books are so successful. Maybe it has to do with pace, with texture, with the scope of the story. I, for one, find the concept of a treasure hunt where the clues are hidden in great historical paintings to be a great one; that it also ties into one of the most potent religious controversies based around one of the world's major religious doesn't hurt either).

Anyway, that's how it's done.

Oh, and that guitar? It's a Taylor. I play a very old Hart. It's a nice guitar, but not a great guitar or probably, even a good guitar. It's an adequate guitar. (Which is perhaps appropriate, being merely an adequate guitar player on a good day). Yesterday, on the way back from my guitar lesson, I stopped at a local music store just to check it out, bought a capo, and test-drove a couple decent Taylors. (Decent meaning they were in the $700 to $1000 price range). Awesome. I came right home, got out a glass canning jar, put it on my desk, stuck a piece of tape on it and printed: NEW GUITAR FUND and threw $5 in it. It's good to have a goal.

Cheers,
Mark Terry

11 Comments:

Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Mark:
Perfect post, as always.

First I have to brag. When my oldest was three, she saw a violinist on the stage at Lincoln Center, looked at me and said, "THAT is what I am going to do with my life." After pestering me for an entire year, she got a violin 1/32 of the usual size and started lessons. She's 18--and off to the Crane School of Music--with a partial scholarship. She's amazing. But that first year? Squeaks.

As for writing . . . commented somewhere this week that writing has a STEEP learning curve. That there are people who "invest in the dream" of writing a best-seller who think they will write that book the FIRST novel out of the gate. No one expects to play Lincoln Center after a year of lessons. So you have to really be dedicated to craft. The fact that anyone COULD write (i.e., it's notlike playing violin where you need lessons a visible practice time week after week) makes it seem as if it's " nothing"--coupled with its subjective nature, you have why freelance writers are often underpaid.

I sold my first novel (well . . . second. I wrote one at 22). But there were YEARS and YEARS of writing short stories, poetry, and children's stories, practicing craft, being in a writers' group. It was an investment of years of "practice."

5:04 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks, Erica!

In terms of publishable fiction, I would no longer discount the importance of a "good hook." That's not my strength. My strength is clear, efficient, smooth writing. That aids me a great deal in nonfiction where I am typically providing information. I think I make difficult subjects easy to read.

In fiction I'm probably good at dialogue and action, my sense of pace. There are weaknesses, though, and I'm aware of at least some of them and continue to try and improve them.

Oh, and for anyone who read this before I made the edits, that's a Taylor guitar, not a Martin, and the guitars I checked out were Taylors. I'm enamored of Martins, too, but I'm not sure there is such a thing as an affordable Martin. I've played a couple Martins at Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan (an awesome store) and thought they were great, but wasn't really sucked in like I was yesterday trying the Taylors (at Limelight Music in Rochester, Michigan).

6:27 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh, and Erica,
In case you haven't picked up on this, my brother and his wife are both college music professors--Bluffton College in Ohio, and they both teach at Interlochen in Northern Michigan in the summers. (Not violin. My sister-in-law is piano faculty and my brother teaches music composition, theory, and computer music).

6:33 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Mark:
The hook is my strong suit. Characters. Dialogue. Check and check.

Plot? I struggle.

And very cool about your brother and his wife. My daughter, lately, has been writing arrangements for the orchestra for some old Beatles tunes--and the rock cocnert she's performing in (professional) next weekend is using her arrangements. Meanwhile . . . she did them in five minutes because it's innate. I am constantly awed at her gift.

E

7:12 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Mark:

My prized possession is a Strat signed by Eric Clapton. I won it in a writing contest. :)

I have an old Yamaha acoustic I play around the house most of the time, though.

You're right, most people don't understand how much work and craft is involved in writing a novel. I don't think anyone can really understand unless they've written one.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Jude,
Worth it just to have it signed by Clapton. Very cool.

9:50 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Piano has taught me how to be a learner, too. It's a difficult skill. It can be a mental minefield for adults, but once one learns how to be a learner, there's so much joy in it.

It's interesting. We praise kids for what they know, but the fun is really in what we don't know.

I got my start with a hook, too, but that was a fluke. I'm not much of a hook-person, I don't think. I really don't know my strengths. I'm not saying that humbly; I've really tried to figure them out. I can figure out my weaknesses real well, though.

I do practice hard. Well, I'm on a two-week hiatus, it seems, but other than that, I read hard and write hard. :-)

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