Dan O’Shea’s blog, Going Ballistic, got my attention today. He pondered the question of whether or not writing can be taught. He cited several writers and each of their takes on the subject, and they more or less agreed: good writing can NOT be taught. It has to come from within. Dana King added a comment that the same is true for a musician.
Well, this is where I come in. I’m an author now, but I spent decades as a professional musician, and I can say that I wholeheartedly agree with all of the above. Up to a point.
When I was 13, my mother made me take piano lessons. Now, we had a piano in the house and I was always fiddling with it, but couldn’t really play anything of any consequence. On top of that, at age 13, I had other things on my mind way more compelling than major scales. But Mom ruled, so I took the lessons.
Fortunately, my teacher was a guy who worked in the Post Office and played in a little trio on weekends. They did old standards and jazz and whatnot. He didn’t know from classical. One night a week, he would come to the house and show me how to make chords. “This is a C chord, Mike,” he would say before hitting another one. “And this is an F chord.” He got me to listen to the intervals between these chords and how one resolves into the other. Anyway, without getting too technical, what he did was, he effectively taught me to play by ear.
I can’t overstate the significance of this. Within about two or three weeks, I could string a couple of chords together and make a half-assed attempt at a song that was on the radio! Â Holy shit! The light clicked on, and from that moment forward, my Mom never had to make me practice again. I was all over that piano.
One night, some eighteen months later, my teacher announced to me that this would be my final lesson. “What, are you leaving town?” I asked. He said no, he just didn’t have anything more to teach me and he didn’t feel he would be earning the money my parents paid him to carry it any further (BTW, he was getting $1 per lesson. That’s one dollar.). Seventy-some-odd little half-hour lessons, and it was all over. So I felt like I was in a rowboat being pushed off into an unstable sea, as he stood on the dock waving goodbye.
Remember what I said about practice? That’s what I did from that day on. Every chance I got. When my parents would go out for the evening, I’d sit at the piano trying out new stuff. And they certainly didn’t mind. They thought it would be just great if they could pull me out for company and have me play a little tune. You know, be the hit of the party. Little did they knowÂ I’d been bitten andÂ they’d created the Wolfman.
When I started playing for a living, I took a portable piano with me out on the road so I could practice in my hotel room late at night with headphones. I even took a turntable with me to cop stuff from records (yes, I’m that old!).
Now, you could say that my teacher just guided me rather than taught me, since I had the aptitude for it already, and you may be right. But when he showed how to listen for those chord changes, I put that down as pure teaching. That was something I was just totally unaware of.
So now, I’m writing. My first novel was picked up by a publisher and is coming out this year. I’ve got two more right behind it and working on a third. The writing thing took me a lot longer to pick up, since I didn’t have anyone to show me anything or give me guidance. But I believe I had the ability deep down inside myself, struggling to get out. The cry of the artist, you could say.
Or as Dan O’Shea says, the magic is in the repetition somewhere.