What my piano teacher taught me about writing.

piano

My husband signed me up for piano lessons a couple of Christmases ago. It was a bold and loving move, and I was excited and terrified when I read the card. I wanted to play the piano so much. For years, I dreamed about one day learning how to play. But I was too afraid to sign up for lessons myself, and he knew that.

It wasn't easy, those first few weeks. I felt like a dolt: my fingers didn't work right, and everything I played sounded childish and stunted. But after about five months of practicing, I learned some chords. I learned that they were called triads. The whole piano is divided up into triads. There are twenty-four of them, and they repeat.

One day, my teacher gave me this exercise: put all twenty-four chords in a jar. Pick four of them at random. Loop them. Write a stanza. Play along with the words. In other words: write a song.

What? Five months of basic, primer lessons, and now she wanted me to write a song? I did not feel ready for this. Far from it. I balked at the four random chords. Why did she want me to pick them at random? Wouldn't that sound terrible? This is what she told me:

All of the chords are connected.

They all have a relationship to each other, she said. Your song will find the relationships.

She was right. I picked four chords that sounded awful together. And with enough attention, I stopped hearing them as awful. When I stopped thinking about it that way, I could hear them as a conversation. The different chords were in a relationship, and it was the way I played them – the context I put them in – that turned them into an aural kind of story.

If you've completed the Lesson Six assignment in the Story Course (I see you nodding, Story Intensives), you may have just had this experience yourself, through writing.

I learned many things from my piano teacher, and not just about music. I'm not a singer-songwriter now or anything, but I am so grateful for the faith-filled gift that my husband gave me for Christmas that year. I would never have signed myself up for those lessons. Too much was at stake!

But it was one of the best gifts I've ever received.

xoxo,  

Sarah Selecky


ps. If you know a writer who wants to sign up for the Story Course but is too scared to make it happen, and if you're feeling bold and loving, consider gifting it to them this year (just check off "This product is for someone else" in the order form.


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10 comments

Wow, Sarah. [sigh] I took piano lessons for five years as a child and do you think that any of my Polish-steeped-in-Chopin-and-List teachers ever thougth about teaching me that?! You were supposed to be a child prodigy or you were bust. With some teachers I was bust the momemnt I took out my music out, wiht others it took until my first few timid notes played. After all, they were all former child prodigies (not! but they had the persona down pat). I never felt the love of music, or felt fhe music itself. My husband plays cellos and he loves it. I have tried over the last few years to play a bit on our little electronic stand-up. The most fun I have when we play simple pieces together - that's when I feel the music and feel that maybe, maybe one day I could play more. May be I will try some more? May be I will get a teacher? May be she will be different and more of your teacher's ilk? We'll see. Now I am off to Lesson Seven!
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Loved this post today........as it's the exact opposite of the reason I follow you. I experiment with writing to help shed new light on my creative process with music. Fun to see you dabbling in my realm. I've taught piano lessons for years with the idea that music is a language (see here - http://www.fortemusicschool.com/why-forte/), and love incorporating improvisation into lessons. It's a tragedy that most music lessons only focus on reading music, as the capacity to improvise and make up music is within us all. For example, 99.9% of humans are able to improvise a conversation. Variations in talent/proficiency aside, it's simply about building up a vocabulary and then practicing with that vocabulary over and over to express ourselves. Music is no different - just involves a different vocabulary. To add on to your post - the musical conversation is also about locking into a tempo, finding that pace where the music "grooves." As I deepen in my compositional practice, I spend more time than ever finding that right tempo - as it makes or breaks the song. It's almost like the tempo is "out there," and my work is to intuit and settle into the current where those vibrations are already moving. Finally, music is never static - it's either building or releasing tension. Like writing, it only "exists" in the flow - how it unfolds over time with each listening. Cheers!
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Missy A Kitchell

Fascinating thoughts. Sometimes I feel like my writing is actually a conversation, and other times there are just some disjointed words on paper. I like the thought about letting the conversation begin, and then listening.
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I just want to know how you get such a thoughtful husband. Maybe you could start a new course...Husband is a State of Mind?
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Mary Montanye

I have just finished Lesson Six of the Story Intensive. I've worked hard, done all the practices and assignments, listened to the audios, read and commented on the work of the others in my group, and I AM starting to have this experience you described. It's magical to me. Thank you, Sarah. I don't want the program to end. Your writing, your teaching, and my fabulous TA has literally changed my writing life.
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Margaret! You know, I think there ARE many more intuitive music teachers out there, and it's not crazy to think that you might find one someday. (There's one in this comment thread, in fact!) Ideal: a music teacher who can teach you about connection as well as appreciate Chopin. (Obviously, Chopin and Liszt knew the magic of connection deeply.) Thank you for your lovely comment here. Enjoy Lesson Seven! I can't believe it's already here. xo S
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Sarah Selecky

Woah, Jonathan - thank you so much for your thoughts. I looked up your music school right away - alas, you're in Portland, not Toronto! Lucky Portland. I love what you've added about tempo. Right away I understood it in terms of pacing and voice (in writing). And what you said about music and tension - that the music is in the development of tension (building or releasing) - makes me think of the work of choreographer Crystal Pite, who has said the same thing about dance. It's a brilliant way to explain the feeling of full scene writing. Even a very subtle scene can have that tension within the writing, and you can feel it when you write it. Readers feel it, too. As it is when playing music, and listening to it. Or dancing - and watching the performance. Thank you again!
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks Missy! I know, it's hard to be a good listener sometimes - because it necessarily involves a lot of uncertainty to truly listen. But when I'm writing without listening, I feel like the nervous chatty person at a gathering who keeps talking because she's afraid of the blank space (or silence). It's not really fun, either.
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Sarah Selecky

Ha ha ha! He'd love that.
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Sarah Selecky

Oh Mary, thank you so much for these beautiful words. I'm thrilled to hear that you had this experience in Lesson Six. YES! It is magical to me, as well. Enjoy Lesson Seven. May the magic continue. xo Sarah
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