MUSIC IN WORDS
When I wrote HOW I GREW UP, I included quite a bit about the preparation for a high school musical production of CAROUSEL. Most of that was from the perspective of the leading character, Melanie Stewart.
Some chapters in the book included descriptions of how the actors prepared for their roles and how the cast rehearsed. There was mention of certain musical scenes and numbers in the show, and the challenges faced by the young performers. Since the music I was writing about was show music, nearly all of it contained lyrics, though I didn’t directly quote much from the show. I described one important musical scene and two of the solos from the show in some detail. CAROUSEL has some beautiful instrumental music. “The Carousel Waltz” is undoubtedly one of the finest pieces Richard Rodgers ever wrote, and I mentioned it very briefly in HOW I GREW UP.
Writing about music so the reader has some sense of its impact is definitely challenging. I’ve challenged myself quite a bit with my second novel, ELI’S HEART. The two principal characters are both musicians. She is a singer; he is a pianist. Describing vocal music seems to me to be easier for obvious reasons; the lyrics tell a good deal about the music, especially if they’ve been handled well by the composer. All the music in ELI’S HEART is classical music; since Eli is an accompanist, there are some pieces I describe that include a second instrument or a singer as well.
One thing I appreciated about Anne Lamott’s wonderful book BIRD BY BIRD was her comment that people like to talk about what they do, especially if they love doing it, and are usually generous about talking to us writers. I certainly found that true with ELI’S HEART. I’m very fortunate to have good friends who are exceptional musicians and are also exceptionally kind, and they’ve shared thoughts on some of these pieces with me that have been immensely helpful. My musical friends were also nice enough to read passages I’d written and make suggestions that strengthened the descriptions.
And I am very glad we have that wonderful musical go-to place, Youtube, because it was so easy to hear new pieces that were suggested to me, and to listen to several versions of some of the music I especially love and had chosen to include in the book. It’s absolutely amazing how much “stuff” there is on that site!
Music is a vital part of the lives of my two characters. It’s an important part of who they are, and therefore it has to be an important part of their love story. I don’t want to write a musical treatise on the pieces I’ve chosen to write about in the book. I want the reader to get some sense of how the performer feels when playing or singing them, or how the listener reacts when hearing them. In one instance, Eli reacts very differently when performing a violin sonata he’s played numerous times, because he is in an unfamiliar and therefore stressful situation.
How much to include in one of these descriptions? How much is enough, but not too much? I hope what I’ve included is just right!