Writing from the Deeper Self

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Writing from the Deeper Self

Learning and Playing by Heart

A simple guide to learning and playing by heart in book writing.

By Naomi Rose | Updated November 19, 2018

The following feature is mostly about music. But like all things creative, music stems from the same source as deep writing. If you stay with what follows, you will sense the relevance to your own creative life, in writing and other modes as well.

I'm sitting at the piano, my hands on the keys, feeling the music pour out from this relationship. No matter how disconnected or dulled I may feel before I sit down on the wooden piano bench, as soon as my hands touch the keys ~ even before I press down and hear sound coming back ~ something in me relaxes. I am home.

It is not always like this with writing, for me. But with piano, the very tactility of the touch ~ the smooth white keys under the pads of my fingertips ~ releases some kind of endorphin response. My body relaxes, my heart recognizes that, "Ah, now I will be able to express in my own true mode," and I feel befriended by the piano itself, and the realization of what will take place between us, even if I have no preconceived idea of what I will play. It is the touch that brings the music forth.

I feel myself to be an instrument at this instrument. Something will come forth from me ~ rhythmic, often melodic, chorded or otherwise accompanied, harmonious. Longer stretches of sustained-note time will get to be punctuated by more quickened, leaping pulses of sound. In speaking words, there are no equivalents of that lengthy, sustained rubato one gets to play or sing, where the reverberation of the sound stretches out long and haunting, remaining in the air for a time even once my hands have lifted off the keys, even once my voice is silent.

I love music.

When I was about ten years old, my mother gave me piano lessons. They lasted only about six months. My teacher's focus was more on how to "do it right" than on how to be with the music, letting it speak to you as you entered into its magical world. At that time, I found the process of reading the simple notes, the treble and bass clefs, difficult. What I could do easily, however, was sound a piece out by ear. Fumbling at first to match what I heard in my head to the actual notes of the piano keys, at some point I became able to cobble together not only the right-hand melody line but some rudimentary kind of left-hand accompaniment as well. Once Beethoven's "Für Elise" struck my fancy, and I ensconced myself over the keys until I was able to play what I recalled of that well-known piece with my right hand, and also come up with some accompaniment (if not necessarily what the composer had written down) that worked with my left. "DA-da DA-da DA-da-da-da-DA," I played, awkwardly perhaps but with utter dedication. I felt almost let into that world.

It was when my mother told my piano teacher, who came to the house once a week, that I had been smart enough/talented enough to figure out "Für Elise" all by myself that things started to go awry. "Play it for him," my mother urged me. And, torn between pride and embarrassment, I did. My teacher listened silently, throughout; and then, when I had finished, he said, "That's not the way it goes. It goes like this." And he literally shoved me over (we were sitting on the piano bench together) and proceeded to play the piece perfectly, in the correct key with all the correct right-hand notes and left-hand fingering ~ as an adult who had studied music well enough to teach it professionally could play it. But he never said a word about my having figured out the piece on my own, even if wrongly. And he never said a word about my caring enough to want to learn it, or being able to play it by heart.

I stopped taking lessons after that.

My secret affair with music did not stop there, only halted its aboveground life. Underground, it went on, like some memory of beauty and purity that had ceased to have a place in my life as I knew it. I made up songs when my heart hurt, or in joyous moments. I sang the Christmas song, "Angels We Have Heard on High" in grade-school pageants as if the singing itself were proof of angels (though my family was not religious, and angels had never been mentioned in any context). I fell under the spell of singers. I listened to classical radio. In my twenties, I married a musician, my first marriage. And all the while, music existed inside me as a secret, a river that was so part and parcel of my soul that I could not come out with it in public, feeling that to be seen in this irreducible soul-essence was to put myself forth with no protection whatsoever. So my music stayed a secret from others. Not from myself; but I did not get to hone it, to evoke it, to let it teach me how to be with it for quite some time.

When my marriage to the musician came to an end, one way I sought to find a new life was to join a choir. That I was not Catholic did not seem to matter; and I got to learn the most beautiful of hymns, songs that were meant to open up faith, buttress against despair, and even give a way to walk bravely and divinely supported into and beyond death. I sang through tears sometimes, rehearsing with my choir-mates. It was all right. The sheer mass of voices masked my individual contribution. And yet I sensed that I was making one.

At first, I learned the hymns by ear. They were not as ornate and challenging as other songs I would later sing in later choruses I would be part of. They were relatively simple, usually in a major key, and easy to memorize. The scores, which along with the others in the choir I held in front of me, gave me the words. I connected the words to the melody by repeating them; and then it didn't matter that I couldn't sight read or really read music very well.

But when I got into the more challenging choruses later, where we would sing Palestrina and Handel and Bach's B-Minor Mass (not to mention some atonal pieces where nothing could be learned without the handhold of reading the written score), I had a piano by then and I taught myself to read music. At first it seemed impossible, all those meaningless squiggles on the page with sounds attached. But slowly, at least the lower notes in the treble clef came into my eyes' and hands' understanding. And gradually, the upper notes of the bass clef did the same. I was lost when it came to the very high notes, the ones that rose above multiple dash-length horizontal lines (indicating notes that went beyond the five horizontal lines of the music staff), and the very low notes (the ones that descended below the fifth horizontal line, when the last note I could barely recognize, the low "F," fell away). I felt myself to be a clumsy player, a clumsy reader. But it was better to have some access than none.

When I came to the point where I believed that, with effort, I could play most simple-to-intermediate pieces, I realized that any piece of music was open to me. This was not only an epiphany, it was a holy invitation. Heartened, I went to the music room of the main library; and as I looked over the threshold at the shelves and shelves of packed-in sheet music, which anyone, including me, could take out with only a library card (no requirement that I already be good at playing them), I felt like going down on my knees right then and there, like prostrating myself at the threshold. Instead, I started taking out sheet music. Most of which turned out to be beyond me.

Time passed, other things took the ascendancy, and music became background again. But I still had my piano. And one day, I got an email ad from a sheet-music store online, having a sale. Suddenly it came to me to see if this store sold music that I might love to play. I scrolled through, and came upon their Bach section. Within that were offerings for different levels of playing ability: Beginners, Intermediate, and Advanced. I knew I wasn't advanced, and hoped I wasn't a total beginner, so I investigated the Intermediate offerings. Not being able to see the actual sheet music, I couldn't tell if these pieces were beyond my reach. But when I came to the Bach "Two-Part Inventions," which I had heard others play ~ Peter Serkin and Glenn Gould ~ I thought, "Oh! If only I could play that, too." And then and there, I decided I would buy the Two-Part Inventions and see if I could manage to play them.

When the sheet music arrived in the mail, I was as excited as a child at her birthday. I tore open the brown shipping envelope and turned the pages, looking chiefly for levels of simplicity and complexity. "I think I can do this," I thought. And I sat down with the music at the piano and tried to play the first few bars of the first piece ~ which was not totally impossible, after all, and I had heard the music so I knew it in my mind ~ and then the second piece. By the third piece, I realized that I was up against a challenge currently beyond me. That was when I said something to myself that I had never said before, characteristically eager to master things right away and avoid the boring steps along the way: "I will give myself a year to learn this. " There were fewer than 20 pages involved.

Because the motivation was entirely my own and I had no pressure to do anything with it ~ to prove myself, to perform, any of that ~ it seemed like taking a year if need be to learn these pieces was a kindness to myself. I had never overtly given myself that much time to learn something I cared about. It would mean I could go slowly, make mistakes, not understand, do it again, come back to it, and so on. It would mean allowing myself to learn in a way that no one had ever taught me, had ever taken the time to teach me. In choruses, though I usually did catch on eventually, it was often a matter of diving in and hoping for the best. I had never had a teacher just for me, patient enough to care not only that I learned, and even how I learned, but also to care about me; how it felt inside to be doing it.

I would be the teacher I had always wanted. Patience, dedication, and listening would help me though my ignorance.

I chose the first piece to start with, because my ears were familiar with it, so the phrasing made more sense. I tried the right- and left-hand parts simultaneously at first, and some degree of coordination happened; but it felt too disparate; the right-hand learning and the left-hand learning did not happen at the same pace. The right hand came easier, though the notes were more intricate. So I decided to do each hand separately, which, I realized, is probably how most piano teachers urge their pupils to begin. One piece at a time, getting good at it before adding on what you haven't yet mastered. So the right-hand part, again and again, until it began to fall into place, its nested rhythms having a place to sink into, so that the intricacy of the notes were heard as having both a gravity and an ascending leap.

"Good," I praised myself. Then I went on to the second of the Two Part Inventions, and did the same thing.

By the third piece, I recognized that a year would not be too long to consider for this project. Bach may have used similar structures and original conventions in all the pieces, but some were assuredly easier than others. I skipped the ones that were still squiggles to me and went on to those I could do some of. But I did not despair. My "Oh well" meant simply that it would take longer, not that it was beyond me forever; even though it seemed to be, right now.

Time passed. The sheet music receded from my awareness. But then some days would draw me to the piano, needing the cohesion and patterning of the Two-Part Inventions; needing the profound healing that came with the playing of those notes that went up and down in certain patterns, climbing and side-stepping down the scale, then varying themselves just a bit, but in such a way that a whole other mode was called in: a C-major start of the sequence now was in B minor, that harkening back to the familiar but adding shade and question marks and timbre to it.

Sitting there working out the right-hand and left-hand parts, I lost track of my self. The music was compelling enough that it absorbed all my attention. I could feel my hands on the keys, my eyes reading the notes, my body breathing, my weight supported by the piano bench; but there was no separate sense of "I" there. The music, and my passion for it, had swept me up and nestled me inside some angelic bosom I had longed for always.

When I was able to play three of the Two-Part Inventions well enough that it sounded like genuine music and had some emotional depth to it as well, instead of moving on to mastering a new piece I found myself (not a premeditated plan) beginning to memorize the right-hand of one of the pieces I already was familiar with. I watched myself do this: start at the beginning and look at the notes on the sheet music, then look down at my hands to see which notes I was playing, so I could remember where to go by looking at the keys instead of at the sheet music (after having put years of effort into learning to read music). And I also registered how it felt to have my hands on the keys, and could even begin to feel the span of the exact intervals between the keys as my fingers spread out. "It feels like that far to the next note," I sensed; and often, I was right ~ the music came out with the correct notes. When it didn't, that told me my finger-span was off, and I adjusted it until the notes came out right. With infinite patience and interest, I went through this process for the first few bars, reading the notes and playing them, looking at my fingers on the keys and memorizing their placement as best I could ~ a phrase, the next phrase; going back, until my hands had learned the small part. Until my heart had.

The saying "learning by heart" came back to me. That was what I was doing. Without any conscious realization, at first, I was seeking to play this music that I loved so much by heart, by memory, so that looking up at the notes on the score should not interfere with my direct experience of playing, my hands on the keys, just me and the music. I wanted to get closer to the music, closer than reading the notes would allow. I wanted to get to know the music so directly that there was nothing intervening; that I could play it anywhere, anytime, on any piano, even without the sheet music ~ because the music was in me. I wanted to "know" it in an almost Biblical sense. For it had always struck me that this was what was meant by the use of "know" to connote sexual intimacy ("And they knew each other"): that when you are that close to something, or someone, you know it/them ~ not as idea, not as other, but as Beloved: every note, every pore on their face known and loved by you. I wanted this music so close to me that no idea of it was even needed. I could have the thing itself.

It is such a rare experience, in our time of constant change, novelty, innovation, activity, and speed to give oneself the gift of going deeply and slowly into something that you come to out of pure unadulterated love. This was what gave me the piano-teaching thoughts to go back, go over, get this phrase down before going to the next one. Often hurried as a child (as we all are hurried along, these days), finally I got to not only have the piano teacher I would have wanted when young, but also the loving, caring, inner teaching that I had longed for. Who was it who suggested what to do when, how to break the piece down into manageable pieces, how to master it slowly, be patient when having to go backwards in order to better go forwards? It was myself ~ some wise and loving "teacher" inside me who wished to help me engage, most fully and beautifully, with what I loved.

I am certain that we all have this inner teacher within us. It may not be piano that we most want to learn, and therefore call on to help us play piano. It may be writing, or loving, or parenting, or something else to which we have come to from our own true, unconditioned desire. When I stood at the threshold of the music room in the main library, feeling ready to prostrate myself on the floor (thankfully, I did not, literally), it was because a realm I had always wanted and felt locked out of now stood before me, open to me, to the degree that I was able. I feel it significant that this journey of greater musical mastery was essentially driven from within (even though it certainly was helped by what I learned in the choruses and from my first husband along the way).

First, there was longing and crippling self-doubt (put in place, as I hope you can see, not by anything intrinsic in me but by how my untutored passions were received ~ i.e., the piano teacher who shoved me over so he could play the piece correctly). Then, there was hiding the music from others and myself. Then, there was singing in the choir, i.e., surrounding myself with others who were doing what I wished to do, and learning from and being buoyed up by them. Then there was the recognition that I did not know how to read music, and the gradual learning how ~ a quickening that took time, preceded by laboriousness and a seeming ceiling on how much I could learn. Then, there was the upwelling as a fountain of longing from the forgotten underground river that surfaced as the desire to play something I truly loved, even if it was beyond me. Then came the decision to go slow, to take my time, to do it entirely for myself. And that is what I did.

And out of that came the inner teaching, perhaps as good or better than if I had had an external teacher. And how did the inner teacher appear? Listening for what I loved.

Listening to my own desires, following my own pace, being honest about my current level or lack of mastery, without shame or judgment, I was able to move closer and closer into the experience of learning what I loved to learn. Success was not only in the right notes, the musicality of my playing, but also in the willingness to learn. To take pleasure in the process of learning, no great performance having to function as the reward. Just making this music part of me.

Learning by heart may be an old-fashioned notion. But dear friends, it is our own hearts that receive this nourishment. And so I invite you to reflect on what you have read here and see how it may apply to you in any way ~ and to listen for your own inner teacher to help you move on the path of what you love.

A Simple Guide to Learning and Playing by Heart in Book-Writing

  1. Write what you love.

  2. Feel the connection to what you write.

  3. If you can't feel the connection, probably some internalized equivalent of my piano teacher is telling you that your own way of getting into it is wrong. Shove that inner critic over, and be with your genuine desire. Let it lead you.

  4. Let go of ideas of how writing is supposed to come about, though do indeed read writers you love — both to experience their gifts to you, and to see what it is you respond to. It's quite likely that what you admire is a mirror to potential qualities in you. Then let go of what you've read, and make room for your deeper Self to bring you your own ways and treasures.

  5. Listen to the music inside you: the urges, the calls, the moments, the impressions. Put down what comes. If you find yourself thinking, “No one will want to read this,” chances are that you have come to a vulnerable and essential place within. That's the place we all try to protect. But it's where the truth and beauty lies, and on some level it's the place that readers hope to reconnect with in themselves when they pick up a book. You can only do this for them if you are there, yourself.

  6. Practice out of love. You are not expected to write a masterpiece the first time out. Maybe your first draft will be awkward, chaotic, not as well articulated as you would wish. Consider these words and phrases as your notes and musical phrases. Come back to them. Sit with them. Ask yourself what you relate to as a reader, and what you don't. Where you don't, just ask yourself “What's needed?” Returning to your practice will gradually make things more evident, more alive, and more beautifully said.

  7. Play by heart. In this case, this doesn't mean memorizing your writing, but putting your heart into it. That's where the underground river is, the flow that you don't have to make happen. Let go of seeing your book-writing as a product, and let it be the process it is. Love the process. Anything you don't relate to yourself, you can let go of or redo. You don't “owe” your readers a specific set of rules done well. You owe yourself the dedication of a relationship where the deeper part of you has room to surface and be known.

  8. Allow yourself to love your writing. This sounds paradoxical, but we may have learned not to love what comes out of us. I remember once doing an oil painting that took me quite a while, and when I was done I would gaze on it every day for weeks. I could not have done otherwise. I had given all of myself to the process, and there was that beauty in material form, now. It held my love, and it mirrored that love back to me. I've read that God feels the same way about us.

©2012 Naomi Rose. All rights reserved.

Next: Returning to What Persists