What’s The Trick?

Playing Mozart has a way of straightening you right out. The clarity of his sonatas is bracing. No covering up mistakes by overuse of a foot pedal. He is what he is. And your playing is what it is.

Yesterday was one of those foggy, sultry days that is the hallmark of panhandle Florida winters. The pattern goes like this, usually in a seven to ten day cycle: warm and wet, then windy, then bright and cold to hover around freezing, then warming into the seventies, sultry, foggy, rain, then windy, bright and cold again. Never put away the shorts and tank tops, but keep long pants and a jacket handy, too.

I played Mozart yesterday from the late afternoon gloom until it gathered into full darkness. The big old sexy beast of a piano treated me like a spurned lover, formal and distant at first. "You don't love me anymore," it seemed to say. "You've found other toys to play with."

But it couldn't resist my earnest heavy breathing, and soon became supple under the ministrations of my wandering dilletante fingers. With Amadeus as our spirit guide, we went in search of truth.

A dark cloud of self-doubt had been hovering in that space between my eyebrows for a day or two, rumbling and threatening to storm. The cloud was like a chorus in an ancient play: "You're too old to start writing seriously; you don't have any formal study in creative writing; who are you kidding?"  You probably have a voice like that too. The cloud of self-doubt tailors its negative, nagging harangue for each individual.

Mozart reminded me of the years I spent learning how to play, the hours of doing it badly, of learning all that boring technique, so that I might sit now at the keyboard at any hour of the day or night and make difficult passages look easy.

I laughed out loud remembering the former wife of a late friend of ours. She was a young woman hungry for objects to fill up the road and block passage between her poor childhood in the hills of Appalachia and her current, hard-won life of comfort if not ease. She pestered her elderly husband for a grand piano. He finally caved, and bought her one, along with a set of lessons.

She went to a few lessons. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk.

Our telephone rang one day. It was her. "Learning to play the piano is taking too long. I want to play like you. What's the trick?"

"What?" I wasn't sure I had heard her right.

"Come on, what's the trick?" she said it again.

I realized she was quite serious, and so, after a moment, I said, "Well, I guess the trick is to start when you're about nine years old, take lessons for at least ten years, practice five hours a day for years on end, and then keep up with it as an adult. That's the really tricky part."

"Oh," she said. "You're not going to tell me."

Soon thereafter, she persuaded her husband to pay for surgery on the new piano, gelding a noble instrument to play compact discs of Reader's Digest-style condensed versions of music — "light classics," "pop classics," and even "light" versions of rock and roll, for God's sake.

And so, today, I'm back to writing before dawn, studying words, structure and formats during the day, and reading the Paris Review interviews into the night. We have to meet our urge for creativity wherever we are on the path, to find joy in the work of it, the sheer workmanlike mechanical action of words on paper and the metallurgical transformation that some bright morning might astonish even our indwelling critic.


 Suzanne holds the mirror, while a volume of her author's work holds the pages. Let's play.


4 thoughts on “What’s The Trick?

  1. Oh, Beth, I really like this. And how I can relate! Can’t play the piano, or the guitar, or the dulcimer, or even the didgeridoo, but not for lack of trying. What I can do is encourage others, so consider yourself encouraged to keep on writing.
    Love, Gullible


  2. TOO OLD?!?!? My dear friend, I can’t imagine the years of writing ahead of me without being able to pull inspiration from your writings such as this. With the piano you are learning from someone elses muse, such as Mr. Mozart, thus the years of practice. With writing you are learning from your own muse, and my dear, you are definitely becoming a Mozart.


  3. Oh, I wish I’d started playing the piano at 9 instead of the trumpet at 10. You can’t just pull the old axe out of its case and amuse yourself with it – it takes about 3 weeks before the embouchure can pull its weight. Even then, you can’t amuse yourself with it unless you’re playing in an ensemble.
    I’m honored to find myself in your blogroll. Very nice pieces here, AAA ball to my sandlot.


  4. Beth, you have a wealth of experience to share with us. Continue sharing your thoughts in whatever format pleases you.
    There are always things that can be learned. Do not let the learning process get in the way of communicating.
    How good does a writer have to be? Basically, only good enough so that her technique does not interfere with the message.
    Those who labor long to polish their delivery of empty rhetoric are pursuing the wrong goal.
    In my humble opinion, you have already surmounted the greater hurdle of accumulating information and ideas worth sharing.
    Have at it! 🙂


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