Music Lessons

For years my wife, herself a writer, was my first and only beta reader. Every draft of every novel went under her nose, and she’d return with her likes and dislikes. It was not a peaceful arrangement. Often her dislikes outnumbered her likes. I came to hate this process. I didn’t really want her feedback; I just wanted her to love it so I could send it to agents or editors with some confidence. Eventually, I relieved her of her duty as beta reader, and there was peace in the kingdom.

About the same time I stopped showing my wife my books, I started writing music. I discovered that using Garage Band I could compose anything from a pop tune to a piano sonata to a symphony. I was thrilled. I’d wanted to compose music my entire life but I hadn’t the time nor discipline to learn to play the piano well enough to write what I heard in my mind. Now I could put little black dots into the program, press play, and hear what I’d written. Sometimes what I’d written sounded like what I heard in my mind, and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes I liked what I’d written more than what I’d imagined and sometimes I did not. I was my own beta listener.

I was so excited when I finished a song or a little symphony. Even though I had chosen every little black dot, the song still felt a bit like something I’d discovered on the radio. I was the beta listener, after all. And since I always liked the songs, and since whenever you find a song you like you share it with someone you love, I’d play it for my wife.

At first, she was as delighted as I was. “You wrote that?” she’d ask. “Yes!” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?” Once she’d gotten over the shock that her husband of fifteen years was now writing music, she began to listen with a more critical ear, commenting, “Oh, that beginning’s really dynamic.” Or, “The middle kind of bogs down, don’t you think?” And then one day, after listening to my latest piece: “That just doesn’t work for me. It has no center.”

And that was when a miracle occurred. I didn’t care. To my own amazement, I did not care one speck that she thought it had no center. What she or anyone thought of this or any piece could not change my relationship to it, could not change why I’d written it, or what I’d learned writing it, or what I thought of it. The two experiences were totally separate. And I thought to myself, “If I learned to write music for this lesson alone, it will have been worth it.”

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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What’s the Point?

My wife and I have been homeschooling our youngest son Sawyer since he was thirteen because he could not cope with the traditional classroom. Neither Jen or I had any regrets about choosing to homeschool him, but as he got older Sawyer became increasingly worried that his education was not preparing him to lead a normal, independent, successful life. Now that he is 18, he voices those concerns nearly everyday.

I must point out that Sawyer’s worries are not totally unfounded. Even by homeschooling standards his education has been very unorthodox, a situation for which he is almost entirely responsible. Sawyer, you see, simply cannot make himself do something if he doesn’t want to do it. We would start many a lesson only to have him abandon it mid-class from lack of interest. This is why traditional school was impossible. In school, we are always asking children to do something whether they feel like doing it or not. My wife and I, like a lot of people, could manage this. Sawyer could not, and so here we are.

I happen to know there is nothing wrong with where we are, but it is hard for Sawyer to see what I see. These days, in the middle of our class, he’ll bury his face in the couch cushion and moan, “What’s the point? I’ll never go to college. I’ll never be able to sit through a GED test.” The other day, instead of bucking him up, I suggested we just start our music class. “What’s the point?” he asked again.

“You like it,” I said.

“Fine” he replied, and trudged over to the piano.

One of the things I’ve seen is that Sawyer has an intuitive musical understanding. I’ve seen this since he was three, when he drummed along to Hey Jude and his rhythm was spot on. This afternoon we were working on composition, for which he also has a knack. “Don’t modulate,” I told him as he started playing. “Just for this exercise, stay in the same key.”

He agreed, and began a chord progression. In the middle of the song he stopped and looked up at me conspiratorially. “You see what I did there? I skipped over C Major. I hate C Major. It’s such a boring, vanilla chord.”

I quite like C Major, and so we began to have little debate about its value. I suspected that Sawyer, a natural contrarian, didn’t like C Major because it’s sort of the mother of all chords, making it too mainstream. I had an idea. I told him to sit on the couch while I played a series of major chords. I was so certain that his objections weren’t based on the sound of C Major, but the idea of C Major. If he didn’t know a C Major was being played, he’d have a different idea of it. So I started. A Flat Major, D Major, G Major, E Flat Major, C Major—”

“See what I mean? It’s just so boring.”

I looked at my son. He was not even mildly impressed that he could easily identify a C Major chord by ear. His attitude suggested he believed anyone could. Anyone could not. I thought of how often, when I was 18 – and 28, and 38 – I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I just wanted some certainty that the seeds I was planting would grow into something meaningful and interesting. Yet all my plans and ideas could offer me no guarantees other than my interest in them.

I’m in my own garden now, and everything that bloomed tallest and strongest grew out of what came most easily to me, what I often assumed everyone knew and everyone could do. The point, I continue learn, is always right in front of me – in the next most interesting step, the next most interesting word.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Writer’s Best Question: What Next?

Music was a big part of my life growing up. Though I would come to love classical music as a teenager and young adult, my first love was popular music. I was particularly interested in those musicians who wrote and performed their own songs. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these were my first artistic mentors. Unlike the authors I read, whose words I heard in my own voice, I was more aware of the musicians as actual living people, since it was always their voices I heard. As a result, I loosely followed the musicians’ careers. For instance, my first memory of a newspaper is of a headline announcing that the Beatles had broken up.

I got curious about how different bands’ music evolved – or didn’t – from album to album. I noticed how flat an album felt if the songs were too much like those from the album that preceded it. Or, if an album seemed very different, I would return to the previous one to see if I could find those songs that seemed to presage where the band was headed creatively. Why, I would sometimes wonder, did the songwriter go this way instead of that way?

With all this observation I began to notice a pattern that, for a budding artist, seemed somewhat ominous. Often a bands’ first album would be exciting, and original, and full of fresh energy. Then the second and third albums would come along and things would sort of flat-line. It seemed like the first albums were fueled by the question: “Can we make it?” Then, once that question had been answered, the songwriters were unsure which new question to ask.

Every artist has to contend with this challenge. “Can I make it?” is a fantastically compelling question. To ask that single question is to simultaneously ask questions about equality, and originality, and value, and voice, and your place in the creative world. There is no way to empirically answer that question until you have tried to make it. Every artist must go forward from the same anonymity to find their readers, their listeners, their viewers.

But the only way to really answer the question, “Can I make it?” is if you’ve always known the answer was yes. You may need some evidence to back this up, but you will never find your readers until you acknowledge you don’t require their recognition to know the value of what you have to share. Which is why, to sustain our work, we will always need some question other than “Am I good enough? Can I make it?”

As a young music fan, I had already identified the better question when I sought the trail of my favorite bands’ evolution, which is, “What next?” If I’m good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough – whatever any of that means – what next? That remains the most compelling question I can ever ask myself, though it often feels so ordinary. Anyone can ask that question, after all. Everyone on earth is asking, “What next?” whether they know it or not.

Yet the moment I decide that this everyday question is actually more important, more valuable, and more sustaining than any other, I return to the source of my creative power. That source has never cared about how many readers I have, or what the critics think, or how big my advances are. Its only interest is the next story, the next scene, the next sentence. It can see nothing else. My job as a writer is to remember that that’s all I need to see as well.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Going Home

Here’s a quick lesson in music theory for writers. Every traditional scale has seven notes: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Ti. Do is called the root note, and in the key C, the root note is C; in the key of G, the root note is G, and so on. Most melodies are a journey back to that root note. When a song reaches a point of conclusion and rest, when the tension the melody builds is resolved, it is because the melody has found its way home to that root note.

Every note in a scale also has a corresponding chord, which are three or more notes played at the same time. The Do chord and Re chord and the Mi chord and so on. Some are major and some are minor, yet even the major and minor chords sound slightly different from one another. For this reason, not all chords sound harmonious when played in succession.

Which is why we have something called chord progression. Songs are sometimes written as a succession of chords, and music theorists, helpfully, have mapped out which chords progress most naturally from each other. And so while the Do, Mi, So, and Ti chords all follow the Fa chord, only the Do chord naturally follows the So chord. When I write songs, I think of these chord progressions as a map home, for every chord will lead me, either directly or indirectly, back to that root chord.

There is one chord that is different from all the others – the Do chord, the root chord. All chords follow naturally from this chord. That means that musically speaking, which is mathematically speaking (because all music can be understood in purely mathematical terms), which is also emotionally speaking, home is both the destination, the place of rest and resolve, and also the source of all creation, the starting point from which everything is naturally possible.

Whether I’m writing music or blogs or books, I’m always going home, so that I can start creating again.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A More Important Questions

When I was twenty-two, I began hearing a melody in my head. The more I heard it, the clearer it became, until finally I thought it might be a good idea to write it down somehow. I already knew how to read music from years of playing the flute, but I knew absolutely nothing about music theory—I knew nothing about half-steps or whole-steps or chords or why it would matter what key a song was written in.

So I bought a keyboard, hoping somehow the song would move from my head to my fingers to the keys. This did not happen. Trying to find my song on that keyboard was like trying to learn to write by randomly striking letters on a typewriter. I am a very stubborn student. I will waste hours of my time figuring out how to do something myself rather that allow someone else show me. But not being able to write my song was such a profoundly frustrating and unsatisfying experience that I did something I had never done before and have not done since: I bought a How To book.

It was a slim volume, a kind of Music Theory for Dummies before there was such a thing. But it was enough. After an hour or so I’d gotten the gist of it and was at the keyboard finding my song. That first day was rather magical. All at once I was literate, and the order of the black keys and the white keys transformed almost before my eyes from a mysterious code to an elegantly simple system to write anything I should wish.

Given this experience, you might think I’d be a bigger proponent of How To books. I am not. I quietly and stubbornly maintain that with a little more time I could have figured it out myself. No matter. How to write a song has never been nearly as interesting a question to me as which song I want to write. No such book exists that can answer that question. Only silence can answer that question—that empty space that asks everyone equally: What will your life be next?

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Generous Reminder

I was not an industrious teenager. I considered work a joyless requirement to provide this strange stuff called money of which I never seemed to have enough. Periodically I would get some of this money and I would wonder what I should do with it. When I discovered the wicked addiction of video games, I would sometimes go down to Charlie’s Hot Weiner’s and blow the entire $10 I had just earned mowing Mrs. Allen’s lawn in a thirty minute, quarter-by-quarter, alien-killing frenzy. On such days, I would walk home from Charlie’s having gained nothing in exchange for my $10 except a vague itch to play again.

But sometimes I would take this money to a bookstore or a record store. The exchange of money for music or stories was more than fair. In fact, if it was a book or song I truly desired, I couldn’t give the cashier my money fast enough. Take it, take it, I would think. It’s nothing, and yet what you’ve given me is something, for it feels like happiness.

I know the saying about what money can buy you, and it’s true happiness was not what I had actually bought. What I had bought was a reminder for which I will always pay gladly. I think of this exchange when I am the one selling. If what I am offering is any kind of a reminder, our exchange is always a fair one. After all, I have lost nothing. Within me still burns that feeling of which I was reminded when writing. Meanwhile, with luck my customer will be reminded of something more valuable than $9.95. With luck, they will be reminded of themselves.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Music Lessons

For years my wife, herself a writer, was my first and only beta reader. Every draft of every novel went under her nose, and she’d return with her likes and dislikes. It was not a peaceful arrangement. Often her dislikes outnumbered her likes. I came to hate this process. I didn’t really want her feedback; I just wanted her to love it so I could send it to agents or editors with some confidence. Eventually, I relieved her of her duty as beta reader, and there was peace in the kingdom.

About the same time I stopped showing my wife my books, I started writing music. I discovered that using Garage Band I could compose anything from a pop tune to a piano sonata to a symphony. I was thrilled. I’d wanted to compose music my entire life but I hadn’t the time nor discipline to learn to play the piano well enough to write what I heard in my mind. Now I could put little black dots into the program, press play, and hear what I’d written. Sometimes what I’d written sounded like what I heard in my mind, and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes I liked what I’d written more than what I’d imagined and sometimes I did not. I was my own beta listener.

I was so excited when I finished a song or a little symphony. Even though I had chosen every little black dot, the song still felt a bit like something I’d discovered on the radio. I was the beta listener, after all. And since I always liked the songs, and since whenever you find a song you like you share it with someone you love, I’d play it for my wife.

At first, she was as delighted as I was. “You wrote that?” she’d ask. “Yes!” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?” Once she’d gotten over the shock that her husband of fifteen years was now writing music, she began to listen with a more critical ear, commenting, “Oh, that beginning’s really dynamic.” Or, “The middle kind of bogs down, don’t you think?” And then one day, after listening to my latest piece: “That just doesn’t work for me. It has no center.”

And that was when a miracle occurred. I didn’t care. To my own amazement, I did not care one speck that she thought it had no center. What she or anyone thought of this or any piece could not change my relationship to it, could not change why I’d written it, or what I’d learned writing it, or what I thought of it. The two experiences were totally separate. And I thought to myself, “If I learned to write music for this lesson alone, it will have been worth it.”

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

A More Important Question

When I was twenty-two, I began hearing a melody in my head. The more I heard it, the clearer it became, until finally I thought it might be a good idea to write it down somehow. I already knew how to read music from years of playing the flute, but I knew absolutely nothing about music theory—I knew nothing about half-steps or whole-steps or chords or why it would matter what key a song was written in.

So I bought a keyboard, hoping somehow the song would move from my head to my fingers to keys. This did not happen. Trying to find my song on that keyboard was like trying to learn to write by randomly striking letters on a typewriter. I am a very stubborn student. I will waste hours of my time figuring out how to do something myself rather that allow someone else show me. But not being able to write my song was such a profoundly frustrating and unsatisfying experience that I did something I had never done before and have not done since: I bought a How To book.

It was a slim volume, a kind of Music Theory for Dummies before there was such a thing. But it was enough. After an hour or so I’d gotten the gist of it and was at the keyboard finding my song. That first day was rather magical. All at once I was literate, and the order of the black keys and the white keys transformed almost before my eyes from something opaque and meaningless to an elegantly simple system to write anything I should wish.

Given this experience, you might think I’d be a bigger proponent of How To books. I am not. I quietly and stubbornly maintain that with a little more time I could have figured it out myself. No matter. How to write a song has never been nearly as interesting a question to me as which song I want to write. No such book exists that can answer that question. Only silence can answer that question—that empty space that asks everyone equally: What will your life be next?

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Little Napolean

My mother was a devoted practitioner of a Zen style of minimalist parenting, a style that suited me and my general desire not to be meddled with perfectly. Never was this style more expertly employed than when I was nine and first learning to play the flute.

The problem was the slurs. To slur, a flutist does not tongue each individual note but exhales one continuous breath so that the notes appear to run together as if they were poured out of a jug, rather than dropped one by one from your instrument. I couldn’t get it. Somehow by not pausing to articulate each note the whole business came out rushed and muddied. How disappointing: only three months into my musical expedition, and I’d reached my Waterloo.

After a particularly fruitless practice session, I marched to my mom’s bedroom where she may have been seeking refuge from the life of a single mother, and broke the news. “I can’t get the slurs,” I told her. “I’m going to quit.”

To which she replied: “Okay.”

I was caught completely off guard. I had prepared a passionate defense of my fluting ineptitude and the pain it was causing me. Did she want me to suffer through failure after failure? But the fight for which I had readied myself never came, and I turned around knowing I was not going to quit.

There is nothing failure loves more than opposition. It feeds off it. After all, if something is being opposed, then that something must exist. When your punches come back empty, you can only ask yourself what you were swinging at. I certainly did that day. This little Napoleon marched back to his music stand, victorious in his surrender.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Song Of The World

In the neighborhood near where I grew up there were always boys who would drive slowly through the city in the summer with their windows open and their music playing loud enough that you could feel the bass line reverberating in your chest from where you stood on the street corner. You might have wondered what it felt like to be in that car instead of on the corner, but you would have been wise not to look their way in your wondering, for these boys would from time to time glare out of their open windows and you didn’t want to accidentally make eye contact and be mistaken for someone disapproving of their taste in music, no matter the truth of it.

It was tempting to judge these boys and this game of chicken they seemed to be playing with their music, if I hadn’t been asked often by my family to turn my own music down. The music I loved couldn’t possibly be loud enough. When I found a song I loved I wished I was an animated character whose body could dissolve into musical notes, that I wouldn’t have to merely hear a song but could actually live it, could toss my own life aside for the one I perceived within the chords and chorus of the song.

This is what happens when you cannot yet hear your own song. You find someone else’s and wish it was yours, and no matter how close it sounds to your own, no matter how loudly you play it, it cannot replace what you crave to hear. Moreover, what if no one else likes your song? Maybe you test the world with a song as you imagined you might sing. Maybe you play it loud enough for the whole neighborhood and glare out your window at all those people you believe wish to silence you.

I have never been so quiet as the moment I first heard myself clearly. Best not to speak then so as not to miss a word. Best to get still, for your wandering is over anyhow, the search ending in the same silence you once feared.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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