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music and writing

October 31, 2010

here, i will give you a fact from my past, that some of you may already know. know that anything i write here is not boastful, but is only my past, and i want to give it to you as a background, so that you know where i am coming from.

i used to play clarinet. i actually played for about ten years, from age 8 – 18. my teacher, nicolai tarasov, was also eastern european (russian) and was the best teacher i could have hoped for, because the two of us argued and yet got along beautifully. it’s funny. i don’t think of him so much nowadays, but i saw him at least once a week for 10 years. the wonderful thing about having a teacher who was born and raised and trained in russia is that he picked very interesting pieces for me to play. granted, there was some shitty mozart (i’m not a mozart fan) and some boring bach, but my concert pieces were often very challenging, very slavic, very gripping.

i took private lessons because one day when i was a child i decided i wanted to play the clarinet. in reality, i was thinking of another instrument, so when my father brought the case home and opened it, i was disappointed. ha. a great start. so i started off taking private lessons, and then in school i joined band, which was too slow for me, so i got boosted into the advanced band, and to the symphony orchestra, which only had two clarinet seats. i was first clarinet in my last year of high school, and i sat at the second stand – at least, if not at the first stand – for most of my years in band. i placed in kiwanis, i performed at my conservatory’s concerts (there are recordings, actually), and i did about half of the royal conservatory of music’s grades until i got bored and fed up with that grading system. i won a music scholarship in my final year at my conservatory. nicolai wanted me to go to undergrad for music. i refused, because i knew, deep down, that my skill came from hours and hours of practice, and wasn’t prodigious like some musicians i knew.

after i turned 18, i put my clarinet away and i never touched it again. i don’t know why, and i suppose that is a topic for another blog post. if you have any ideas, go ahead and psychoanalyze me. my past with the clarinet is very, very close to me, and it is the one thing i can’t properly put words to. it was such a huge part of me, of my life, of my upbringing.

i will say this one thing. that an orgasm has nothing on the feeling i got, in the last bars of the last piece of a concerto, when i was playing a set of runs, and i was hitting all of the notes, and i could hear my heart screaming at me in my head and in my ears, and i knew i was running out of breath but i had to hit the right keys i had to keep going and then it was there, the end was there, and i would hold the last note and then there would be that moment of silence before the audience realized i was done, and before i could meet their eyes, where i would be breathing heavily and still. that is the best feeling in the world.

i don’t want to brag about my musical past. i wanted to talk about the connection between music and writing. even as i write this, i am listening to my favourite composer (tchaikovsky) because it is helping the stream of words.

i’ve often wondered if learning music as a young child helped facilitate my writing, or vice versa. i think of it this way because i think of music as a language. it is a language! i cannot speak to the people who can’t read sheet music and who learn something by ear (something i’ve always yearned for, that skill!) but i can speak to myself, a person who read sheet music by the ream. music is a language! here, look at this section of tchaikovsky:

from "trepak" from the nutcracker

every note is a word, every stem is a piece of punctuation, every clef is a change of tone. it took me years to learn how to properly read sheet music, and i wasn’t even close to learning everything about everything. that would have taken tenfold more years. the brain is plastic as a child, and i wonder if forcing it into learning the words of music also helped me to learn how to write as a writer. there have been studies done where children who took music young have performed better in school than children who have not. it makes me wonder.

or is it that writing taught me how to play music better? i wrote in high school (not well, not a lot, but i did) and as i grew, and my creative mind grew, and my writing got better, at the same time, i was getting more and more involved in music. was it just that my right brain was growing and so therefore all areas of creativity were growing, or was it that my different languages were connected to each other? (i was also taking french, too. maybe that ties in somehow.) in grade 12 i was not only taking english classes with a progressive and existential english teacher, i was taking writer’s craft (a bastardized version of a creative writing class), french, and i was also starting to enjoy practicing for my clarinet concerts and classes. i was also in symphony orchestra and senior band, and was taking band class, alongside my private lessons.

if that is the case – that writing positively affects music – i would be really interested to see how i play the clarinet – now, now that i am insanely into my writing, so much that it is my lifestyle.

but maybe we can’t extricate the two.

i do know that i write listening to music. i cannot write with silence. a lot of writers i know cannot write with music. i wonder if that is also connected to the fact that i was an extremely musical child and teenager. people sometimes seem amazed when i tell them i write with music, often with classical music. i can’t help it. it puts me into a sort of trance, and the words just come easier, flow with the music and the changes in the music. i have playlists designed for my specific pieces of writing, too.

here is the best part.

i had stagefright when it came to playing the clarinet. oh god i had such stagefright. i hated playing in front of people. music seemed so personal, and i didn’t want to be judged on how well i handled myself in front of an audience. and now, with my writing, i never submit it to magazines/publications. (it is very rare that i do this.) it is a stagefright of sort, and it is also that i believe that my writing is a personal thing, and i don’t want to be judged on how well i am received in publications. it’s hard to explain, but a part of me believes that i write for the people in my stories. my thesis – i am writing my thesis not to be famous and worldly, but to get the story into the world. i want people to read it, not so i become rich and famous, but because the story needs to be read. so maybe that ties into my performance anxiety with clarinet.

any other musicians out here? anyone at all?

i miss it, the clarinet.

check out my previous blog post about music to hear some of my favourite pieces of classical music.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2010 12:31 am

    Fascinating! Wonderful insights and revelations … it makes sense to me now that your first love was poetry … must have been the inherent musicality.

    I do think you should write about/explore why you put the clarinet away. Do you forsee a day when you might dig it out of storage? I would love to hear you play.

    • November 1, 2010 9:02 pm

      i didn’t even think about comparing poetry and fiction to the language of music… brilliant!

      it’s in toronto, my abandoned instrument. maybe a reunion is in order for christmas break.

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