Five Music Lessons for Writers

The great thing about being a writer is that no experience is wasted. I’ve spent most of my life (thus far) as a classical concert and opera singer and as a teacher of classical singers. When I began writing, I discovered to my great relief that I had already learned a number of valuable lessons–music lessons–that set the stage for my life as a writer. I had lots of work to do on the art of writing, but I didn’t have to learn a whole new business; I already knew my business, which is to say, I had learned the discipline of artistic life. Teachers of singing teach technique, repertoire, and all the other large and small details that go into making a classical singer. They also teach students to live as singers. A singer can’t wait until a performance to breathe properly, stand erect, keep her support muscles exercised. These behaviors must be second nature. In other words, singers are singers every day, not only on concert days. This is the essence of discipline.

Discipline always works. An artist without it is doomed to fail. Great talent can draw attention right away; but the application of talent, the training and practice and organization, the honing and development of it, are what make it last. Talent without discipline is like a lightning storm; you never know when, or where, it might strike, and it’s a darned unreliable source of power.

The following are the most important of the lessons my musical life taught me. Wouldn’t you like some music lessons? Come into my voice studio now, stand beside the piano, and let’s begin.

Your first music lesson: Practice.

The late Ben Hogan, a famous and successful golfer, said of his particular art, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Magic happens when the connection between the mind and the body is exercised regularly. Playing scales, practicing plies at the ballet barre, sitting down in front of your PC and facing the blank screen–these are things to be done regularly. Inspiration and insight lie in wait, ready to spring forth when an opportunity presents. Regular, scheduled practice presents regular, dependable opportunities.

If you practice only when you feel like it, it won’t be enough. We all know piano students have to practice. And baseball players, and martial artists. But practice writing? Absolutely! An artist can sleep when he feels like, eat when he feels like it, but he has to practice whether he wants to or not. That’s discipline.

The warning “Don’t quit your day job” can have different meanings. The professional artist knows that her art is her day job, and a daily job it is, even if that means, as for most of us, that she works two jobs (or more.) A singer with a concert date looming stands at the piano every single day to vocalize and practice her program. A writer with a deadline goes to her computer or typewriter or legal pad.

The Wizard of Menlo Park laid down the law: Genius is 99 percent perspiration, 1 percent inspiration. If the wunderkind is to develop into a career artist, it’s discipline that makes it happen.


Your second music lesson: Study.

When an opera singer undertakes a role, he learns not only the notes, the rhythms, and the language, but he works on technique with his voice teacher and his musical coach. He learns the historical framework of the opera, the performance practice of the time in which it was composed, and the traditions of the singers who have sung it before. A singer attends master classes and performances, listens to recordings, and reads books on stage techniques. And, in addition to all of that, he has to study his market as well as his repertoire if his career is to flourish.

A writer of fantasy and science fiction, or of any genre, should surely have a grasp of what has been written before. It may be true that the more we write the less we read, but we still need to know in what way our work builds on or departs from the existing body of literature. There are a multitude of ways for the writer to study: take classes, attend workshops, subscribe to–and read–publications like the one you are wisely holding in your hand. Your mind must be not only open, but active. Then, when you form an opinion, or have a story idea, it will be a knowledgeable one.

I once heard a teacher of musical composition say, with touching New Age sincerity, that his students would rather draw pictures of their compositions than write them out in musical notation; in other words, they wanted to have the experience of composition without doing the work. He apparently wasn’t bothered by the fundamental flaw in such indulgence: that no one could read, therefore no one could play, such a “composition.” Art is a dialogue between the artist and the audience (the listener, the reader, the viewer.) It’s the responsibility–I may even say the sacred duty–of the artist to make himself as intelligible as possible. Study prepares him to do that.


Your third music lesson: Be professional.

The late, great Erma Bombeck wanted to be a writer. She was no professional; she was a young housewife with three kids and no office space. La Bombeck made a desk out of a plank braced on two boxes in her garage. She told her children they could only bother her if they were bleeding. Did that make her a professional? Well, her humor columns made her not only famous but wealthy. Her many books are treasures that have been reprinted all over the world. If she had waited for the office, the computer, the time . . . we would never have laughed over Motherhood, the Second Oldest Profession, or The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank! (Still, this housewife, mother of three, and rich and famous writer claimed that her husband would come home in the evenings and ask, “So, what have you been doing all day?”)

The point to the story is that the artist must take himself as seriously as if he’s already being paid for his work. Waiting for that first check to come before beginning the life of a professional creates a chicken or egg impasse. Family, spouse, children, roommates, and most especially, the artist himself, need to know that the work is important. Whether you’re a dancer stretching every night so your muscles won’t be too tight in the morning, a singer who can’t attend a smoky part the night before a performance, or a writer who needs to go in the study and shut the door to concentrate, do it. Live like a pro. It’s what the pros do.

And remember: Just because you like doing something and you want to do it, or just because you don’t have to suffer an hour of commuter traffic before you can begin it, doesn’t mean it’s not work!


Your fourth music lesson: Sing with your own voice.

Luciano Pavarotti, Kiri Te Kanawa, Marilyn Horne–these are great singers with special gifts. Their recordings and televised concerts are everywhere, and their successes are legendary. It’s easy for singers to be tempted to imitate them, to copy their style, their technique, their sound. A little imitation can be instructive to a singer, but too much can spoil a voice, distort it, strain it. Attempting to sound like a famous singer is a doomed effort, because every voice has unique characteristics and capabilities.

Singers have to employ all the lessons already listed and then discover through honest effort and diligence what their own special ability is, their own unique sound. That’s the voice, the only voice, with which they can build their success and communicate their special message to their audiences.

Writers have to do the same. Who among us wouldn’t like to write a bestseller, or have lists of rave reviews? But imitating Connie Willis or Anne McCaffrey or Greg Bear won’t do it. No one has a clue what the next bestseller is going to be anyway. All you can do is write the story you, and you alone, are meant to write. Only your own voice–your individual blend of style, rhythm, color, and form–will resonate with your audience. That voice, and only that one, will have the ring of veracity.


Your fifth music lesson: Persevere.

Someone has said that for a singer to succeed she needs the voice of a nightingale, the brain of an Einstein, and the hide of a rhinoceros. It’s a tall order, whether you’re a singer, a writer, a painter, a chef . . . whatever discipline (that word again) you pursue.

Rejection is part of artistic life, whether it’s a part in an opera that you audition for but don’t win, a painting you’re proud of but nobody buys, or a short story coming back in the mail three days after you mailed it out. The fine YA writer Patricia Hermes begins her talks at conventions by proudly unrolling a room-wide strip of paper made by taping together hundreds and hundreds of her rejection letters! She says the only reason she doesn’t have more is that now her agent gets them–and keeps them.

Rejection hurts. It devastates. You doubt your talent, you doubt your luck, you doubt your material. You think of quitting, you threaten to change careers. Then, despite all of it, your discipline puts you back in your chair before your open manuscript.

My college voice students are disappointed to discover that when they walk out the door of their school a bachelor’s degree in their hand they don’t walk right into the nearest opera company to begin their careers. Some are discouraged when they learn that artistic studies never end. And it is often the case that the singers who make successes are not the ones with the best voices or the greatest talent . . . they are simply the ones who never give up.

Yup, it’s tough. I once asked a voice teacher for some assurance that my lengthy study would pay off, and she told me, “If you can do something else, go do it.” She wasn’t being cruel; she was saying there are no guarantees, no promises. She went on to say that the work itself has to be its own reward; if there’s some other work that will give you the same satisfaction, you had better find it.

But perseverance does pay off. I’ve seen it happen over and over in my students, I’ve been much blessed by having it pay off in my own life, and I see it succeeding all around me. If this is the work that makes you happy, that gives you joy, then stick to it. Try everything. Live like an artist. And I wish you all the best in your pursuit of the artistic life . . . in whatever discipline you choose to follow.

Copyright © 1998, Louise Marley

This article was originally published in 1998 in Speculations, a publication for writers and aspiring writers. Its focus is speculative fiction, but it’s full of useful information for writers of any genre.