I recently joined an orchestra in the city where I live. It’s for people who played earlier in life, became adults, got busy with stuff, and haven’t picked up their instrument in years. I play the violin. Second violin, to be exact.
I used to play in a band in college. I went from reading sheet music and playing scales to looking at a piece of paper with a few guitar chords and lyrics on it and needing to improv a solo. It was a daunting transition. I didn’t achieve it admirably, nor did I particularly always play superbly.
Now that I am playing in a symphony orchestra again I have to remember how to read sheet music. I find that a lot of it is muscle memory (TOTALLY conquered third position the other day without even remembering that I could), and the ability to read sheet music came back after the first 20 minutes or so of the first rehearsal.
One thing that hasn’t come back very quickly is phrasing. The idea that when you’re playing a part in an orchestra that part might be very boring. You may, in fact, be playing the same series of four notes over six stanzas and it can sound incredibly boring and monotonous if you don’t do something with that piece of music.
Phrasing is important in music – the crescendos, the tone quality, and note values – all of these things work together to create a sense of emotion for the audience. Professional musicians do this really well, especially in the context of a symphony with dozens of other moving parts.
It is the same thing with writing. How you write is just as important as what you write.
Have you ever read bad writing? Poor grammar, bad spelling, mixed metaphors, terrible usage, etc.
We’ve all been there.
Have you ever read mediocre writing? Good grammar, excellent spelling, but something just didn’t…well, for lack of a better term…sing?
Have you ever written something bad? You weren’t inspired, the perfect word was on the tip of your tongue but you couldn’t quite complete the thought. You had a deadline you had to meet so you plugged and chugged and threw in a couple of clichés to fill it out.
Ever experience any of that? We all have.
Now have you ever written something that sings? You get in the red zone of writing and when you finally emerge and proofread your draft you think, “Holy cow, I wrote that???” The perfect words tumbled from your mind and each sentence now flows with a kind of orchestrated syncopation.
That’s what I mean by phrasing.
When you read a great piece of writing, even if it’s just a particularly clever turn of phrase, it’s like a symphony. Each word chosen provides just the write tonal quality. The mix of simple and compound sentences, and, yes, sometimes even a sentence fragment are the “note values” that drive the crescendos and tempos in the waltzes, marches, and allegros that you are writing.
Keep this in mind the next time you write and you may just create a symphony for your readers.