Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Lessons From My Piano

I desperately wanted piano lessons as a child. Too bad for me my parents couldn't afford them. Instead, I watched enviously as my classmates carried their music books under their arms and marched off to meet their piano teachers. Why couldn't I do that?

When I was 20, I took up the flute. I still would have preferred piano, but there was no way I could squish one into my tiny apartment. 

But when my triplets started lessons at age 5 — we had a house and piano at this point — I joined them. The trouble was, as a very busy parent who also ran a business, I just didn't have the time to practice. I quit after six weeks.

Fast forward 13 years and now I'm trying again. This time, I think it's going to take. And, funnily enough, I bet my piano-related suggestions, here, will help you improve your writing:

  1. Be specific and concrete about your goals. I could have said I want to play piano, just as you might say, "I want to be a better writer. But what, exactly does this mean? It's way too vague! Now, I'm saying that I want to be able to play the grade 6 repertoire for Royal Conservatory. Be as specific as possible about what you want to accomplish.
  2. Allow the necessary time for your practice. I call this the Goldilocks strategy because just as porridge can be too hot or too cold, any sort of practice can be too little or too much. If it's too little you won't improve and if it's too much you'll regularly feel you're entitled to take a "break" from you practice. 

    Singer Tony Bennett, at the age of 86, still practices singing every day. If he skips a day, he says he notices it. If he skips two days, he says his band notices. And if he skips three days, he says his audience notices. For my piano practice, I set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes and try to practice for two back-to-back chunks. If I'm really tired or fed up, I allow myself to quit after just 15. But most days I do 30. How much time do you spend writing?
  3. Try to practice at the same time of day. This will help turn your practice into a habit. I play piano directly after dinner. (This works because I have a few social engagements right now and I'm able to reschedule for the occasional dinner date. If we were social butterflies, however, I'd pick a different time.) When it comes to writing, the very best time is almost always first thing in the morning. In fact, that's still when I do most of my own writing.
  4. Give yourself regular rewards for practice. I'm convinced that none of us rewards ourselves nearly enough for the work we do. Sure, we may reward ourselves for accomplishments but don't you think you should also be recognized for the day-in, day-out slogging? So, set your schedule and give yourself a weekly reward for meeting it. The reward doesn't have to be expensive — a book, a magazine, even a latte can be enough. The important thing is the recognition.
  5. Concentrate ONLY on your immediate goals. Right now, I'm learning how to read the bass clef (the part you play with your left hand.) But if I look at or listen to some of the complicated music my 18-year-old children play, it's really easy for me to freak myself out. How will I ever be able to play a Chopin etude? It feels impossible for me to coordinate my left hand with my right! How does anyone even count all those crazy sixteenth and thirty-second notes? 

Fortunately, my teacher is very calm and has me proceed in a slow and orderly way. Anything she gives me to do is only a little bit difficult, but always conquerable with a modest amount of practice. Similarly, you should not start off wanting to sound like Ian McEwan (assuming he's a writer you admire.) It takes thousands of hours of practice to reach that level. But, of course, the term "thousands of hours" is daunting. So, instead, focus on the three to seven hours you can accomplish this week. 

If you write seven hours per week, you'll accumulate 364 hours in a year. That means you'll hit 1,000 hours in about three years.

You'll do that a whole lot faster than I'll be able to hit grade 6 in piano. Get going!

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 20th 2013, 6:38 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
Good for you, Daphne, finally pursuing your dream of learning to play the piano. I grew up playing the piano (I wanted to study dance, but we couldn't afford it along with piano, and my grandmother and mother wouldn't allow me to quit piano lessons). However, years later, as a young adult, I appreciated all those years of study, when I would play rock and roll with my boyfriend and another couple. But now I haven't played in nearly 20 years. I just had my piano tuned and, when I sat down to play, I was as tight and clumby as a beginner! So your wonderful writing lessons can help me with getting back my long-abandoned music playing. Thanks for valuable advice in two areas of my life!

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