Monday, February 8, 2010

Guest Post: Rebecca Carlson on Getting Past Level One

This is blog vacation week! And to celebrate, I've got a series of guest posts for this week...and a chance to win tons of free books! Today we're welcoming Rebecca Carlson, a long-time friend and critique partner. Thank you for posting, Rebecca!

Getting Past Level One

I teach my music students that there are four levels of performance:

1. Technical Accuracy - hit every note on the page, don't make any mistakes.

2. Interpretation - understand what the music means. Think about the emotions or images the music should create.

3. Expression - communicate your interpretation to the listener. The listener sees what you see, feels what you feel.

4. Power - something deep and true comes out of the music. Hearts are touched. Lives are changed. Spiritual communion through sound.

This is adapted from Clayne W. Robison's book, Beautiful Singing. It helps me get my students past banging out notes on the piano and on to making music. It brings wonderful moments, like my son finishing a Strauss waltz and calling out, "Could you see the roses, mom?"

Level one is a good foundation. No one wants to listen to a performance full of mistakes. But that's only the beginning. The performer should know what the music means, what it is trying to say. That’s level two. And then the performer needs to communicate that meaning to the audience, which is a different skill from both understanding the music and playing the notes correctly. Level three is being a good actor.

Level four? No one can make that happen. If it comes, it comes. It is like a gift. Get the first three levels going, and sometimes the fourth comes pouring in, leaving everyone in tears.

Thinking about these levels of performance can help me as a writer too. How often do I write at level one and never get beyond that? Oh, these sentences are all clear and easy to read, but am I feeling anything? Am I really seeing it in my own head?

And do those emotions and images come across to the reader?

And is there any power in it?

Technical accuracy is absolutely essential for a writer. Mistakes in the prose can kick a reader right out of the story. But even if the prose is perfect, if the writer has nothing to say then the reader won’t want to keep reading.

Interpretation is a matter of imagination. Get in deep. Touch it, taste it, feel it. Become your characters, see through their eyes. Know what it was like to be there.

Then turn it into words—communicate! This is the hard part, and you won’t know if you’ve done it until you talk to someone else who read what you wrote. It takes lots of hard work, plus some trial and error, to learn to take what’s in your head and put it down on the page so that someone else can understand it.

But keep trying, because if you can do it, then somewhere, someday, someone will be sitting there with your book in their lap, dripping tears onto the page, because they feel how you felt when you wrote those words, and the power is coming through.

Bio: Rebecca writes science fiction and fantasy, reviews books for young readers every Monday at, and posts on Tuesdays at


Anna Staniszewski said...

I love this comparison between music and writing! I think you're absolutely right: there are levels to writing, just as there are levels to music, and sometimes all that practice comes together to make something amazing.

Tere Kirkland said...

What an excellent analogy! Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

Great post.

My violin teacher used to tell me something similar. "Find the story in the music, and remember what it is," she would say. "If you don't know what the piece is about, how will the listener?"

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I love this post - for what it said, and how it made me feel! :)

I needed to hear this right now, so thank you!

Elana Johnson said...

This is so true! I really like how it can become something beyond mechanics. Nicely explained. :)

Rebecca J. Carlson said...

Thanks everyone! And thanks, Beth, for letting me share some words with your readers! Have a great vacation!
I don't even want to start thinking about how much I would get done if I stayed off the internet for a week...

Eva Porter said...

I never thought of writing in this way--great analogy and easy to relate to.

Unknown said...

That was an awesome post. Being a student of music made it easy for me to relate to it. I love that we can apply these things to writing. It is truly a beautiful, beautiful thing. Thanks for writing this, Rebecca, and thank you, Beth, for inviting her to guest blog! You both rock!