Time to write
At a time of crisis for public musical life, performers can remain positive by practising a different way of communicating – with words. Elbow Music is here to help
In happier times, I’m sure I’ve overused the cliché of a life without music being ‘unthinkable’. Yet here we are. Concerts and shows cancelled; self-isolation making even chamber music with friends seem life-threatening.
Musicians may be better used to being alone than average, from hours in the practice room, and may even be more resilient. However, the prospect of weeks without the electric current of live music seems tough (although we must keep perspective and feel lucky if we are healthy).
Ultimately, new models and values may emerge – I’m optimistic that we might reboot the system. But in the meantime, what can musicians do? Many are already doing live streams of performances and living room concerts, and that’s great. But as you might guess if you’ve been to this website before, I’m about to bang on about content – specifically editorial content. Videos and podcasts are the rage, but I believe there’s still a vital role for print and the written word.
I’ve written about what content is and why you should be doing it here, but to sum up, it allows you to convey your unique musical personality, specialisms, passions, stories and history, and to connect with audiences in your own specific way. It might even sell more tickets and downloads, and promoters will love you – the perfect virtuous circle. At its best, at a time like this it can also rally, inspire and comfort.
The reasons most musicians give for not writing are lack of skill and time. Well now you have the latter with which to address the former! And as a player, you are much closer to being a good writer than you might realise – there are many transferable skills in music that are similar to writing:
Structure: studying a piece begins with understanding its structure. Writing is usually the same, in that you have a sense of how your story will stand before you start. This might change as you work on it, but by the end the reader should be able to discern a clear, logical structure.
Detail: studying music is all about the details of notes, intonation, markings, just as writing is about nit-picking grammar, spelling, accents, facts etc. When you practise you clean up bad shifts, tune notes, examine articulation – which is just like the work writers do to make their work shine.
Communication: whether through notes or words, we’re all trying to communicate with our audience, so at the back of our minds we must be conscious of that communication itself – our tone, our subtexts – and try to empathise with the audience in order to understand its response. There are a few basic principles: don’t exaggerate or self-aggrandise; be honest and personal; be disciplined and a little pragmatic; try to reach your audience’s soft spots but don’t manipulate them; think of the big picture. These ideas cross every artistic medium.
The likelihood is that (if you’re any good!) you have plenty to say. I know this from having interviewed musicians for the last [ahem] years. You’ve done the hard work and research, you know what you’re doing, you’re interesting and passionate. You just need to order your thoughts a little, which is where I usually come in as an interviewer and editor – prodding musicians for details that they might not even think are interesting, and then structuring and editing them. (You can read some of these interviews here.) You could start by blurting out every thought you have – maybe by dictating into a voice recorder or transcription app and then mould it into shape.
What should you write? Here is another article to help you work that out, as well as a little offer.