Five Ways Music Is Like Writing

You might not know this about me, but I’m a professional cellist. I’ve got two college degrees in cello performance and over twenty years’ experience as a paid musician. I perform with orchestras, teach private lessons, play weddings and other gigs, and improvise worship music with our church’s band.  As “day jobs” go, mine is the best. I get paid to make music.

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

As I embark on a writing career (not to replace music, but to add to it), I can’t help but compare the two fields. Some things I’ve been through as a writer make me smile at how familiar it feels. Other things are new, sometimes refreshingly so. This week, I’m going to examine the ways the writing and music fields are similar, and next week I’ll take a look at how they’re different.

1. Like writing, music is competitive.

Every time I turn around, someone is telling me how stacked the odds are against anyone trying to make it in the writing business. “96% of author submissions to agents are rejected!” trumpets one article. “Fourteen Reasons Why Your Odds Of Making It As A Writer Are Forty-Seven Zillion To One,” says another. And I can’t help but smile, because the music world is just like that.

The number of musicians trying to find jobs is exponentially greater than the number of positions available in any given year. Orchestras generally have between eight and twelve cello positions, and if all the positions are filled, you’re out of luck with that orchestra until someone gives one up. When there is an opening, there are auditions. For the bigger orchestras, applicants have to send their resumes and sometimes a recording of their playing even to be considered for the audition, and those that are lucky enough to make it find themselves up against a hand-picked handful of the best players in the country.

One walks away with the job. The rest? “Thank you very much.”

Also, as with writing, the level of talent is extremely high. There are musicians who graduated from Juilliard (widely considered the top performing arts school in the country) who can’t find employment. Many musicians, even incredibly talented ones, must support themselves working jobs they don’t particularly enjoy because the money simply isn’t there as a musician. It is a very difficult career field to break into.

Sound familiar?

2. Like writing, music is subjective.

Athletes have it easy, don’t they? The person who runs the fastest, scores the most points, jumps the highest, lifts the most weight…that person is the winner. If I can run a 100-meter race in 12 seconds and you can run it in 11, you win. The end. It isn’t up for debate.

But writing isn’t like that, and neither is music. Jobs, competitions, reviews, and all the rest are decided entirely by human opinion. And for each human on the planet, there’s an opinion, and they don’t necessarily agree.

Some people think Jacqueline du Pre is the greatest cellist ever to live; others say her playing is sloppy and maudlin, and prefer the tighter, crisper, more technically-correct playing of someone like Janos Starker. Some think Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach cello suites are the gold standard, while others say, no, Pablo Casals’ recording stands the test of time. One audition judge might absolutely love your sound and your interpretation, while the person sitting next to them can’t stand either one, and shudders at the thought of you playing in their orchestra.

Both fields require an incredibly thick skin, and while my skin is not as thick as it could be, it’s a whole lot thicker than it would be if I weren’t a professional musician. Musicians, too, face criticism at every turn, and not all of it friendly. The only way to survive the gauntlet is to remember that when a conductor criticizes your intonation or a professor tells you your bow hold is crap, those people aren’t criticizing you. Divorcing your essence as a person from something you’ve created, no matter how personal, is essential for your mental health in both fields. With music, as with writing, criticism done well, and taken well, will motivate rather than devastate.

3. Like writing, music is expressive.

Think about your favorite piece of music. Why is it your favorite? Chances are, it’s because the first time you heard it, you felt something.  It made an impact on you. Odds are extremely high that the performer felt something, too.

The goal of both music and writing, at their core, is communication. To let the reader or listener know that they’re not alone in this world; that someone else feels the same thing they do. Music and writing seek to move people. Inspire people. Provide what they need, whether it’s a good swift kick in the pants or a sweet moment of escape from how hard life can be.

A well-written book makes you feel what the characters are feeling. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, etc. Sometimes, I get a small amount of perverse pleasure in manipulating the emotions of my readers. (Hope that doesn’t make me a bad person. ;). Well, musicians are the same way. Some of us joke that if someone in the audience cried, then it was a successful performance.

But it’s not pure emotional manipulation. Chances are, that scene that made all the readers cry made its author cry, too. A musician giving a truly emotional performance will be feeling all the things up there on stage, right along with the audience. It is a very personal, vulnerable, and sometimes terrifying way to make a living.

4. Like writing, music is hard.

Being a good writer, and a successful author, takes years of work. Studying craft books. Attending conferences, workshops, or taking writing classes. Meeting with critique groups. Trying different approaches. Reading inside and outside the chosen genre. And, above all else, writing. Writing, writing, writing.

Becoming a professional musician is the same way. Instead of craft books, we have scales, etudes, and other things specifically targeted to improve our technique.  Instead of “editing” or “revising,” we spend hours in a practice room. Instead of sending a chapter to a critique partner, we take private lessons. When writers are going to conferences, we’re going to concerts and music festivals. Instead of reading, we listen to music. All the time. And we play as much as we can, wherever we can, whenever we can.

And, as we’ve already discussed, it’s very hard to make a career in either field.


5. Like writing, music is worth it.

It is so worth it. No matter how hard the piece is, no matter how stressful the rehearsals, when a performance goes right, it makes all the pain worthwhile. Being onstage, playing a great piece, feeling the Holy Spirit flow through you, mingling with your own in a joyful song of praise, knowing that God is pleased with your efforts…there is absolutely nothing like that feeling.

Similarly, I’ve had moments in my writing where it felt like God took over, where the fingers moving on the keyboard were mine, but the words were His, and then I read it back and went, “Wow…” I’ve had moments when I’ve been puzzling over something that just doesn’t work, and then I change one or two words, and all of a sudden everything falls into place. Or when something early in a story that the characters insisted was important turned out to be huge toward the end. Those moments make all the editing and revising worth every painful minute.

Next week, we’ll discuss how music and writing are different, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What’s your “day job?” Is it something you love, or something you merely tolerate? Have you found any similarities between it and writing?