Sunday, May 9, 2010

All those piano lessons finally pay off

About now, I wish I had a really good roadmap for working on my next novel. No matter what I tell my students, my fellow writers, every novel is different. There is no map. For me, much of the writing process has to be reinvented along with the plot and everything else. If there is one comfort to me, it is that I pretty much know where to begin—and that is with a character, one that lives and breathes, in my mind and (on a good day) on the page.

I know that many writers say that they don’t use people they know as characters in their fiction. Well, I will admit that I almost always draw from life—my aunt’s way of sipping tea, my volleyball coach’s frown, my husband’s snore—bits and pieces, mostly. As I hunt for my characters, I am most attracted to people I have known in passing, rather than my intimates. I need to know just enough about a person—too much and the facts get in the way, too little and there is not enough there to hang my hat on. The main character of my first novel, Wilma Mabry, is a good example. She was inspired by a piano teacher that I had as a child. We called her Miss Wilma, and yes, I borrowed her first name for my book, may she rest in peace. Miss Wilma was a fixture in our town--one of those strict, steely-eyed teachers who can strike terror in the heart of any child (or grown-up, for that matter). I was a terrible piano student, and I was scared to death of the woman. Miss Wilma's best student, James (I've forgotten his real name), had the lesson time just before mine on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. James was a wonderful pianist, and on some days, I could put aside my terror and simply enjoy his playing. I noticed over the course of the year that James was preparing to go to college as a music major and perhaps for that reason, Miss Wilma was as mean (if not meaner) to him than she was to me.

Years later when I decided to write a little character sketch of Miss Wilma, I remembered a particular lesson time in the spring—just before James was to go for his music scholarship audition. On this day, the day when Miss Wilma was having the young man do his final run-through, I arrived at my lesson to find that Miss Wilma was entirely transformed. There was not one ounce of meanness in her. She was completely in a dither—her eyes fluttering—she seemed to alternate between girlish excitement and nervous mothering. James had his family's old, old, station wagon parked out front and Miss Wilma kept asking him, "Do you have enough gas? Do you have money? Oh, do you have your sheet music?" Understand—I was ten, maybe eleven at the time, but there was something about that moment that seemed important to me. I was seeing something rare and unknown in this person whom I thought I knew through and through.

For whatever reason, it was this powerful memory that came to me when I began to write the first scene about Miss Wilma. In about an hour, I wrote three short pages that were the beginning of my novel. Of course, by the time I got to the bottom of the first page, the Miss Wilma I was writing about was not the real Miss Wilma, but someone else altogether, a character with a life, a history, a personality all her own. However, Miss Wilma Mabry -- the life of the character -- was born in the memory of that particular moment and somehow propelled forward by it. The scene itself—those first three pages—survive in the novel (much revised, of course) as the beginning of Chapter 2, which begins exactly as I began that first sketch: "Of all Miss Wilma's students, James Moody was the prize…"

Everything in The Piano Teacher grew from that first scene: the other characters, their relationships with Miss Wilma, the town of Swan's Knob, and even the plot. All of these things were really a function of Miss Wilma's character, an outgrowth of it. It’s hard to remember exactly how I came to transform Miss Wilma from the buttoned-up piano teacher worried even about the marks she's made on her students' sheet music into the woman, who in the end of my novel, subdues a murderer with a kick of her Aigner pump.

During the time I was writing the book and to this day, I think of her mostly as a real person—in much the way you might think of a beloved aunt who has long ago passed away. You can no longer actually touch her, have a conversation together, but you can fully imagine a conversation with her about any topic, you can remember exactly her touch, and she is bound visit you in your dreams, as Miss Wilma did. Shortly after I finished the book, she appeared in a dream and lectured me about the state of my wardrobe. Then she marched me down to the local department store and bought me a dress.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her website is


Anonymous said...

Miss Wilma seems so real.I'll have to be sureand read your book.

Unknown said...

Piano Rhythm Techniques

Rhythm is an essential ingredient of music. A musician must know how to create alluring tunes and must possess the

sense of rhythm.

A pianist can play the right keys but if the timing is not right, then music can be meaningless and unpleasant to the


Here are a few ways to keep steady rhythms:

1. Loud counts!
Another way in learning rhythm and keeping track of it is counting out loud. Counting loudly makes our minds

comprehend the rhythm pattern and it is imprinted in our minds. If a pianist begins to count the rhythm in a musical

composition from one to four and then repeats it again and again, then the rhythm begins to flow into the keys of the

piano, as well. A pianist can relate the notes to the beats, in the music scores, easily, when he/she keeps count of the


2. Clap, Tap, catch rhythm!

A person can grasp the intricate musical rhythms by clapping one's hands, clapping on one's laps and by tapping one's

feet. This is an effective way in learning rhythm. Sometimes the rhythm in a song, changes in the middle of the song.

This can be challenging but a pianist or a musician can get back in rhythm by clapping or
tapping. When one plays on complicated music composition, one can take some time to clap and get back one's

rhythm and timing.

3. Imaginary piano!

To get accustomed to the rhythms, playing on an imaginary piano is of immense help. A piano player can select a

song and then play an imaginary piano. The rhythms can be played on an imaginary piano. This exercise allows a

pianist to understand musical rhythm patterns better. A pianist who has learnt the art of playing on an imaginary

piano can grasp the beats, even if the music slows down or speeds up and he can play on time.

4. Rhythm Accompaniment/Metronome
Do you have a keyboard that comes with rhythm accompaniment?
This is no doubt one of the best way to keep a piano player rhythmically straight!
You are probably aware that most piano player are solo player.
We don't get to play in a band or an orchestra. The best way to imitate an ensemble setting is by using a rhythm

accompaniment tool.

Yoke Wong
Take Your Piano Playing To The Next Level

polinarom said...

The most important thing to look for when you are choosing piano classes is the atmosphere of the classes themselves. Does it seem exciting and alive? Are people participating, and do the students and a teacher look inspired? Make your observations and take a good look at the instructor. If there is passion about music it will show up in the atmosphere of the room, and the teacher, and you will feel drawn towards these lessons.

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