Thursday, March 15, 2012

Writing, Music and Revision

During the last twenty years I taught English, the teaching of writing came under the fortuitous influence of the National Writing Project. This program changed the way writing is taught in our schools. Moving from an imitative errors marking approach to one involving a collaborative process among peer writers, the local arm of the project, the Northern Virginia Writing Project, has influenced thousands of teachers over the years and hundreds of thousands of their students. The results are evident to anyone who works with writing and with students.

I know that at Robinson High School in Fairfax that we as an English department moved from a primary trait scoring rubric (so many points for content, so many for mechanics, so many for organization) that produced “safe” writing unlike that which real writers wrote, to a holistic approach where the readers of the paper (not just me) considered the total effect of the paper, taking into account such components as voice, tone, mood, purpose, meaning, rhetorical devices and effect on the reader. This total paradigm shift also emphasized revision, revision, revision and it is that process and its connection to the rehearsal of choral music that I wish to speak.

We were tiptoeing our way through our first rehearsal for the Mozart Requiem Tuesday night at the Manassas Chorale. The first rehearsal after a performance is always an, uh, memorable event because we go from singing music that we practically have memorized for a concert and have worked on for months to reading with music we either have never seen before or haven’t seen for a while. It’s a humbling experience.

As we repeated passages and corrected mistakes in pitch, tone, diction and rhythm, it occurred to me how much this was like a writer’s revision of his or her work. We as writers go over and over what we have written, listening for a false note in the sound of the words and sentences, paying attention to those details and parts that convey a total effect to the readers, just as a director pays attention to those things that make up the sound of a choral group. 

The main difference that I can see is that once a writing has approached the state of being about as good as it is going to get, it stays that way. I can tell you with certainty that problems in music that are dealt with one week don’t necessarily stay fixed the next week. That is why repetition makes up such a  large part of rehearsal and why the time spent in rehearsing—about five hours for every minute of music—does not seem efficient. But that’s what it takes to produce art and beauty. As Antoine de St-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “It is the time you spend on your rose that makes it smell so sweet.” 

And so,  here’s to all those who spend their time on their roses. May they all smell sweet.

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