When I was in high school, I began working as a church organist and choral accompanist. This meant that I needed to prep a full set of hymns and preludes and offertories and choral anthems and all the rest of it, every week — and some of the music would be selected for me, but some of it I’d need to find (or, in some cases, compose) myself.
I’ve been thinking lately about how well that work prepared me for my current career.
Because freelance writing is, at its core, exactly the same: I need to work quickly, to a specific audience, and to spec; I need to either follow prompts and outlines given to me or pitch and create my own; I need to know how to get something to good as fast as possible and then get on to the next assignment, because there is always another deadline to meet.
I spent five years as a church organist; four in high school and one in college. And then, in college, my piano teacher told me that I would never be a concert pianist. This wasn’t something that I necessarily wanted to become, which was why I was okay with her telling me this. Honestly, it was kind of a relief; my teacher said I should stop taking piano lessons, because there wasn’t anything left she could teach me, but the music department would be happy to have me continue to accompany the choirs and voice students.
Which is what I did.
And, again, it was excellent practice for what I’m doing now.
And I’ve been doing more accompanying lately, with this choir that I’ve been singing in, and because of that I’ve started brushing up on all of the piano technique I neglected — because when your piano teacher says you’ll never be a concert pianist and you should stop taking lessons, you also decide that you’re going to stop playing all of those scales and arpeggios, and a couple decades later your choral director gives you a four-hand piece that requires you to play a chromatic scale while the other accompanist plays a glissando, and you’re all well, I guess I’d better remind myself how scales go.
And all of that’s coming back to me very quickly, because I did all of that technique stuff essentially every day for sixteen years.
But the other thing I’ve been thinking about is whether all of this quickness, for lack of a better term, is getting in the way of what you might call artistry.
Except Biographies was art. I’m sure of it. Of course, I worked on it for ten years before I actually wrote it. And then when I finally found the key to writing it*, it came out good and fast in a near-perfect first draft because I had the training to do it that way.
Because, in the end, we do the type of work we practice — and that work sets us up for whatever work we do next.
So… not to put too tidy of a button on it… make sure that whatever you’re practicing is preparing you for what you really want to do. ❤️
*The key to writing The Biographies of Ordinary People — the reason I was finally able to write a version of the story that took, instead of all the drafts I started and abandoned — was adding the character of Jackie. Once there was a third sister involved, it was no longer a direct analogue for my family and my childhood and it could become something new.