Zadie Smith’s Rules for Writing adapted for musicians

Zadie Smith, rules for musicians

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith, acclaimed author of White Teeth (which she wrote at 21 years old, btw!) gave some advice to writers in an article in the Guardian recently.

Some of this advice, adapted slightly, also makes a lot of sense for musicians.  First, her original list, then the adapted list:

1 When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

1.  As a child, listen to a lot of music and go hear concerts.  Spend more time doing this than anything else (although reading is also really good because developing your imagination helps develop you as a musician).

2 When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3.  As an adult, learn to listen to your own playing as a stranger (or enemy) would.  Learn to be self-critical.   This advice doesn’t mean you should be self-deprecating,, mind you, but just means you should cultivate self-awareness.  A great many musicians have trouble hearing what they are playing and therefore have trouble improving beyond a certain plateau.  Listening is vital to this process.  After all, isn’t the goal to make good sounds?   And if you aren’t enjoying listening to your playing, you are missing most of the experience and joy of being a musician.  So learn to listen.  I can’t emphasize this enough.

Learn to listen WHILE you play, not just by recording yourself and listening to playback.  While recording oneself is a useful tool and one that is increasingly more accessible for a growing number of musicians, being able to adapt how you play to the moment you are in and the emotions that strike you is a hallmark of being competent musician.  So listen WHILE you play.

3 Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

This one is a little harsh.  If you are trying to be a professional, I think a healthy bit of skepticism and tough reality is necessary to make sure you aren’t chasing an impossible dream.  But for the rest of us, just try not to get caught up in the BS of being an “artist.”  Make good music.  That should be your only concern.

Now of course, any musician worth his or her salt is also a performer and therefore, by extension, somewhat of an actor.  Even if you aren’t Lady Gaga, you may need to develop a persona.  This is not what I mean by not getting caught up in being an “artist.”

4 Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

As a musician, I would say that you should confront your weaknesses in practice but avoid them in performance (unless of course, your weakness is nerves, and then you must absolutely confront it in that way).  But Smith’s advice to avoid “mask[ing] self-doubt with contempt” is generally good advice – just because you can’t play Bach doesn’t mean people who play Bach are somehow inferior or that playing Bach isn’t worthwhile; they just do something different from you.  Know the difference.   This is a good life lesson all around.

5 Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

This one you can adapt to say that leave a decent space of time between learning a piece and performing it (if you have the luxury).  Sometimes pieces need to stew a little and you need to really live with them awhile before you can be ready to perform them.

6 Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

Not relevant.

7 Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

Don’t keep interrupting practice sessions to check out other people’s performances on YouTube.  Use the internet to consult other performances sparingly and only at the end stages of learning something.  Put yourself into the music first and then see how you can add to your version through entering the conversation with other musicians (by studying how they interrupted the music).

8 Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

Make your practice space apart from other household distractions and try to practice without the interference of other noises, e.g. TVs in the next room, phone constantly ringing.

Also, treat your practice time as a religious necessity.  Schedule your practice time in your calendar at regular times and intervals and make sure it is a priority and happens rain or shine.  Cram \-practicing is the worst kind – practice daily for 30 minutes rather than for 2-3 hours the night before your lesson.  Your hands need time to settle into new movements and your brain and body need the constant repetition of the same motions and ideas in order to create a lasting memory.

9 Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

Blah.  This one bores me.

10 Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

This first bit isn’t really relevant, but the second statement is.  If you are going to be serious about music, or any art for that matter, know that you will likely rarely be satisfied with yourself because there is always room for improvement or someone who is better.  But that’s ok because every step along the way is an exciting step and that fire to continue improving is what keeps you coming back to your instrument day in and day out.  Without it, you would cease developing.  So it’s sad to some extent, but it’s also what keeps you going.  I guess you can take assurance in knowing that you aren’t alone – everyone feels this way even the best musicians.

So there you have it.

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