Monday, September 20, 2010

The Frustrated Saxophonist

Before I took up writing, my creative outlet of choice was music. I've had formal instruction on instruments in all five categories - keyboard, string, woodwind, percussion, and brass - and have been in a number of musical groups over the years.

During high school, I played both the saxophone and the xylophone. I wasn't able to find a picture of myself with my sax, but here I am with my xylophone in the 1983 Aloha Week parade.

However, it was while playing my tenor sax that I learned a lesson I've been able to apply to my writing these many years later.

The jazz band had already played our formal concert several weeks before, but for some reason we'd been invited to play at another school somewhere else on the island. It was my senior year, and graduation was just around the corner. A ton of homework and class projects had worn me down, and I was not particularly happy about what was to be the final concert of my high school career.

School was stressing me out - probably my pending AP exams - and I was tired from all of the studying. There was also some tension between myself and the baritone sax player - we had dated earlier in the year, and the relationship did not end well.

I was really not in the mood for this concert, especially since we'd be playing Help Me, Rhonda, and I didn't want to do the solo again. Although I had practiced it to perfection and executed flawlessly during the regular concert, my solo still fell flat. I could tell the band director was disappointed, as he usually was with my solos. I just didn't get it, whatever "it" was.

So the concert came, and I went through the motions, playing everything the way I had practiced. Then it was time for my solo.

In my bad mood, I didn't bother to play the solo the way it was written. I just blew. The notes were close, I stayed in the right key, but all I was really doing was venting my frustrations through my horn. It was the worst solo I'd ever played. It was also tremendously therapeutic.

After the concert, the band director approached me. "What was that up there?" he asked. I braced for a good chewing out. "That was the best I ever heard you play."

I was shocked; here I thought I'd completely messed up the whole thing, when in fact I'd done what he'd been trying to get me to do for four years - play with feeling.

All the time I'd been working on executing the notes exactly, what I'd really done is scrubbed away all of the emotion. Precision and conformity is exactly what's needed when playing as part of the band, but during a solo, it's the passion that counts.

Now that I've traded a mouthpiece for a word processor, I notice I tend to be the same way with my writing. I edit and edit until the voice is thoroughly sanitized.

This would be fine for a newspaper article or users manual, but I'm writing fiction. And in fiction, it's the voice that counts.


Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is a fantastic post, and I love the analogy. :D

Michael Knudsen said...

Great point, Don. I for one don't get much writing done until I feel my life is clear of obstruction. We need to make more effort to "transmute" (old word from the self-help gurus of the early 20th century) our anger, frustration, stress and distraction into the energy that produces good fiction. And learn to disable that pesky internal editor while drafting.

Angie said...

Great post, Don. My boys are all in band and I can really relate. Great story.

Gail said...

This is really great post. I have been struggling with the voices of my characters and find that I do edit the life out of them. I played the piano for Jazz band and the one solo they did give me I messed up because I was so nervous. Thanks for this story.