Thursday, May 15, 2014

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones - As Applied to Music

During my recent vacation I read Natalie Goldberg's well known book of Zen practice/writing practice entitled Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.  I mostly interpreted it slightly out of context, inserting the words "playing music" instead of "writing" wherever possible.  For example, consider the following quotes with music-related words substituted for writing-oriented words:

"When I teach a beginning class, it is good. I have to come back to beginner's mind, the first way I thought and felt about (music).  In a sense, that beginner's mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and (play)."

"You should feel that you have permission to (play) the worst junk in the world and it would be OK."

"Take a (tune) book. Open to any page, grab a (musical phrase, play it) and continue from there.  A friend calls this writing off the page.  If you begin with a great (melody), it helps because you start right off from a lofty place.  Every time you get stuck just rewrite your first (phrase) and keep going."

"If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you."

"If you want to know (music), listen to it.  Little by little you will come closer to what you need to say and express it through your voice."

"If you are (playing) from first thoughts - the way your mind first flashes on something before second and third thoughts take over and comment, criticize and evaluate - you don't have to worry.  We can't always stay with first thoughts but it is good to know about them."

"When we know the name of takes the blur out of our mind".

"We always worry that we are copying someone else, that we don't have our own style. Don't worry. (Music making) is a communal act....we are carried on the backs of all the (musicians) who came before us.  We live in the present with all the history, ideas and soda pop of this time.  It all gets mixed up in our (playing)."

"Right from the beginning, know (playing an instrument) is good and pleasant. Don't battle with it.  Make it your friend."

"Don't even worry about (playing) well; just (playing) is heaven."

"Not the why but the's enough to know you want to (play). (Play)."

"If you want to (play) in a certain form, (listen to) a lot of (music) in that form.  When you (listen) a lot in that form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit down to (compose), you (compose) in that structure.  If you want to write short (tunes), you must digest that form and then exercise in that form."

"When you want to learn something, go to experts who have put in thirty years and learn from them.  Study their belief systems, their mental syntax - the order in which they think - and their physiology, how they stand, breathe, hold their mouth when they do the task they are expert in."

"In order to improve your (music), you have to practice just like any other sport. But don't be dutiful and make it into a blind routine.  Don't just put in your time. That is not enough.  You have to make effort.  Be willing to put your whole life on the line when you sit down for (music) practice. Otherwise you are just mechanically (strumming the pick across the strings) and intermittently looking up at the clock to see if your time is up."

"Learning to (play music) is not a linear process.  There is no logical A-to-B-to-C way to become a (musician).  One neat truth about (music) cannot answer it all.  There are many truths."
Natalie Goldberg
As you can see, some of these quotes didn't require any editing at all, and the ones that did still make perfect sense in a musical context even though they were intended for poets, novelists and other writers.  This process is a bit farther removed than say, reading Philip Toshio Sudo's Zen Guitar and changing the word "guitar" to "mandolin" every time it is used, but it can be done.  In doing so the subtitle of this book becomes Freeing the Musician Within instead of Freeing the Writer Within.  The same would have been true with any subject you chose to steer it toward.

A funny thing happened as I was reading this book.  The more I read it out of context, the more I started to read it in context.  An earlier creative endeavor of mine, before I took up playing tunes on the banjo and mandolin, was filling a page a day in a notebook with a form of stream of consciousness prose poetry.  An abstract journal, if you will.  I only kept this practice up for a couple years and had stopped before I got my first tenor banjo, but reading Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones may have inspired me to take up this medium again.

This time I want to be a better creative writer by figuring out and gathering together who my writing influences in this style are going to be, studying their technique and learning how to be influenced by them, whether they write in English or not.  Only recently have I started to grasp how to be influenced by other musicians, musical genres and styles, and I'm sure that with enough practice the same can be done with writing.

Chris Smith - author of Celtic Back-Up for all Instrumentalists - was the one who recommended Writing Down the Bones to me.  A few years back I had emailed him to vent some frustration over my inability to learn to play Irish traditional music.  When I inquired about his Zen view of music, he responded: "As an artist and teacher, I have found profoundly helpful Zen's emphasis upon concentration, attention to the present moment, suspension of ego, growth of self-awareness, and appreciation for doing things as well as possible. I also love that Zen people refer to meditation as 'practice' - that is, something you do every day out of a belief that steady effort and consistent attention will enhance performance. Likewise, Zen's insistence upon letting go of attachment to specific results is very, very helpful for a performer or other improviser."


  1. Replies
    1. I think it's the same Chris Smith. Coyote Banjo.