In Ken Waldman’s post for 49 Writers “Late-Bloomer, Are You?” he listed five lessons that helped him. The very first one on the list is one that I’m currently going through:
“1) In the late 80's and early 90's, I read all the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series. In the volume by Robert Bly, Talking All Morning, he advised that if you want to learn to write, don't take a writing class, but, rather, apprentice under a master in a field you're passionate about. According to Bly, as an apprentice, you'll learn what it takes to become truly expert, and from there it's a relatively easy process to adapt those kinds of skills to writing. Bly went on to explain that the biggest benefit in working this way is that when you do turn to writing, you have fresh stories from the field in which you apprenticed, as well as an authentic vocabulary from that field.”
I just survived the 37th Alaska Folk Festival here in Juneau. Our folk festival is a uniquely amazing event: it’s a week-long festival, totally free, and anyone who applies can play for a fifteen minute slot. Two folk fests ago I played for the first time on the main stage. Last year I was at the AWP conference for most of the festival, so this was really my first festival in which I was a true player.
Andrew and Erin
My partner, Andrew Heist, is the mandolin player for The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band (which includes Scott Burton on the guitar (Scott is a non-fiction student in this program). Andrew and I celebrated our sixth anniversary on the Monday of Folk Fest. While I’ve always loved music, and especially traditional American music, I was always on the outside until I met Andrew. After I met him every party we went to was a music party. The majority of the people would play and I would sit on the outside listening and chatting with other listeners. Finally, four years ago I asked him to start teaching me guitar. Three years ago I sang in front of him for the first time.
Finally, when I got up the courage to start jamming with our friends, and then jamming with people I knew less well, the learning truly started. The kind of music we play is mostly bluegrass, but includes old timey, country, and now Cajun. All of these are kinds of music that are played socially, featuring improvised solos, simple structures, and no written notation.
So how do you sit in and play with a group of people you’ve never met playing songs you’ve never heard?
By learning new kinds of communication.
The first step is starting to understand that for each kind of music (bluegrass, honky tonk, Cajun, old timey fiddle tunes) there are common structures. Songs are “straight” or “crooked” based on whether or not they adhere closely or deviate from these structures. The next step is a numbering system in which the chords on a scale are given a number. So if I’m trying to explain a new song to someone I might say: “It’s in C and it’s a little crooked, there’s a quick 2 on the B part.” Translation: “We’re playing in C and while it’s going to go from C to F to C to G to C, on the chorus it’s going to go from C to F to C, quickly to D, back to C, up to G, and the C again.”
But regardless of what is said, what you’re doing is looking for other non-verbal cues: listening as hard as you can for the changes, watching other players’ fingers to see any obvious signs of changes, and sometimes watching their faces to see if they’re going to signal you in any way. Solos are dished out by whoever started the song, usually the person singing, by nodding or pointing at someone. That same person is the one who decides when it’s over, often indicated by kicking your leg out.
These are the universal forms of communication amongst the different genres I listed (as far as I can tell), but every single group of people is different. If you’re playing with a group that has played together for a long time, the communication is much more subtle, maybe a glance, maybe nothing.
So much of it comes down to listening. (This is where I get to the point.) If you’re not listening carefully enough and not teaching your ear how to listen, you’ll throw everything off.
I think every single teacher I’ve ever had has recommended reading written work out-loud, even academic essays, because your ear can find the truth much more quickly than your eyes can. Eyes play tricks, skip over sections, make you believe that a word works because it takes up the space and provides the meaning you’re looking for. But your ears can hear when a sentence is false and overreaching, when dialog is hollow, and when a word sticks out like a sore thumb.
I think the goal for every writer should be to inspire the reader to read the work out loud. I’m sure we’ve all been there, when a book is too beautiful to be read silently, when the words beg for sound.
Bly’s advice via Waldman rings true in another way: mastering a craft takes time, dedication, and the understanding that you will always be learning something new. Speaking to some of the musicians I most admire, it’s clear that they’re always searching, always working, always listening. While awe-inspiring, it’s good to remember that a master of a craft was once a beginner and someday, if you put in the time, you could come close to mastery, too.
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