02 April 2020

#52writing cards: Prompts from Shaun Levin's Writing Maps - no. 3

A version of this prompt appears on the Writing Things Writing Map illustrated by Me & Oli

I. Clarinet
The ebony wood, called granadilla, makes this a distinctive instrument, while the number of holes and keys that sharp or flat the notes comes across as intimidating. The clarinet seems bizarre in its construction, a Frankenstein’s monster overrun with a multitude of silver bolts. I have never looked at this instrument and found its aesthetic beautiful. Its sound is precarious – one botch of the embouchure, or out-of-balance breath, and it becomes a squawking goose, or a high-pitched nightmare of notes wobbling in and out of tune. 

Playing the clarinet is like walking a tight rope – everything has to fall into place to make a beautiful sound, and it’s easy to lose your footing and topple off into the realm of dissonance. 

I started playing the clarinet in 5th grade, one year after giving up on the violin. It wasn’t my first choice of instrument. I had fallen in love with the saxophone thanks to growing up with Lisa Simpson and Bleeding Gums Murphy – I wanted to play big band and jazz. 

The band director at my elementary school said otherwise. He said I shouldn’t play saxophone, but clarinet – and “a clarinet was like a saxophone, anyway.” True, it’s a reed instrument with tons of keys and fingerings, but the sound is completely different. I don’t know why he was so adamant I play clarinet, but I wanted to join the band, so clarinet it was. I was also behind on joining – band rehearsals had already started for the year and I was weeks behind everyone else. 

At the time clarinets were expensive at the local music shop, and somehow my grandma connected with someone willing to sell me their clarinet secondhand, so we saved money. I had no idea how to assemble it, so it remained untouched until I got to school. It didn’t even register that I needed a reed to play! 

My first day of band rehearsal after school was a nightmare. There were five or six of us all learning at the same time, and the director just started practice and everybody started playing full songs – which consisted of classical music. The band director gave me a reed right before rehearsal started, and when warmup time came, I sat there trying to blow through my clarinet and I couldn’t produce a sound. I blew with all of my might, and I watched and mimicked how the director put his fingers on the keys to make sound, but all that came out was mostly wind blowing and one barely audible burp of a note. Practice continued and I almost started crying because I hated the feeling of being left behind. 

I was grateful that after practice ended, the band director stayed over and gave me extra help teaching me the basics. Part of the problem was I didn’t assemble the clarinet correctly – I put the pieces together, but you have to line them up just right or your keys will lock. He also taught me about embouchure – the placement of your mouth, and how you have to tuck in your lips a little to make the sound, and when you have to tongue notes to create staccato, or let the air flow through without articulation to make legato. 

Somehow I caught on playing very quickly after that. I ended up playing clarinet and performing regularly for eleven years. I really shone in high school: I was a member of symphonic band and a full orchestra through school. I never took private lessons – I only learned and played through public education. And I’m full-on bragging now, but I was good. I was 1st clarinet, and I got all the solos and awards. I regularly scored 1s (the top level) at contests. And sometimes I was asked to volunteer to come to practices during school to help the clarinetists in the second (lower-level competition) band who were struggling. 

But I’m pretty sure all of this was only because of the way I played, and the sound that I could produce. I’m very sensitive to how the clarinet goes out of tune, and I worked very, very hard to make precise, clear notes and put emotion into my playing. 

I also tried very hard to hide the fact that I could never sight-read music. I still can’t.

…It was probably not as much of a secret as I thought, because my band directors were smart and listened to their musicians, but in terms of my fellow band members, I think this wasn’t as obvious to them.

Notes, as in which sounds to play, were never the problem – I couldn’t figure out rhythms. I always had trouble counting beats and nailing the length of notes, particularly when they got more complicated. The mathematics of music is a struggle, because math in general has always been difficult for me. 

I played, and still play, music by ear. As long as I could hear how the song was supposed to sound, I could get it. 

There was a clarinetist in our band who I believed was better than me. She was so brilliant at reading music – one look at the sheet, and she got it. But she was often overlooked for solos and awards at the end of the year, and I’m sure it frustrated her. It wasn’t until closer to our senior year that she got recognition, or whenever I stepped down from playing 1st clarinet to play contralto when they needed someone to help boost the bass line in a piece.

I wanted to continue playing and performing in college, but I was intimidated. Capital University has a prestigious Conservatory of Music; the orchestra has performed around the world, particularly in Europe, as well as Carnegie Hall; and one of the professors was a famed composer whose music we played at state contests in high school. 

Because I wasn’t enrolled in any courses at the Conservatory, if I wanted to play, I had to audition. And I heard the word “audition” and panicked, because I knew that I would have to sight-read as part of it. Since I knew I would probably fail sight-reading and botch my audition, I never tried. I freaked myself out before giving myself a chance. 

There were opportunities during college when I could perform, when during winter break I would come back to my hometown and play in a volunteer group that performed Christmas music at nursing homes and welfare centers. And after college, my final performance on the clarinet was at age 22 for the musical I wrote, Melancholia. That’s a story for a little bit later. 

II. Harp

29 strings. A rich, reddish brown rosewood, with winding leaves carved into the soundbox, and Celtic knotwork etched along the neck make this the most beautiful instrument I’ve ever owned. 

My first year in college I was itching to play music, but I was tired of clarinet, and you also know the story of how my college intimidated me out of playing. And you can also see now that I have a compulsion to switch my instruments up!

I wanted to play something elegant, something unlike anything I had before, something that always produced a gorgeous sound. I started researching harps. I saw that pedal harps were thousands of dollars, and they looked completely complicated and far too difficult to own and maintain. 

I discovered the lever harp after searching on the internet, which looked far more manageable to own and play. I am also a fan of Celtic music from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, so the Celtic Rosewood Harp called out to me. 

As far as harps go, this was quite an affordable model – years later I found out from other people these were mass produced, cheaply assembled, more like a decorative piece than a practical instrument, with a multitude of professional harpists telling people to avoid these like the plague. 

But it was a great harp for learning, and I thought the sound was bright, beautiful, and echoing. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it the first couple years I had it. 

In my 18th year my mother got me this for Christmas and it continues to be one of the best presents I’ve ever received in my life. 

Immediately I started learning how to play this. I had a “Teach Yourself Harp” workbook with instructions and sheet music, and that was pretty much how I learned. My sister was the only one who gave me an actual lesson, and it was a one-time deal. She didn’t play the harp but dabbled in guitar and mandolin, so she transferred some of that over to help me figure out what to do when I put my hands on the strings for the very first time.

It’s not like I didn’t want to take lessons, but everywhere I looked and researched, nobody played it and nobody taught it. So I was completely on my own figuring out how to do this. I taught myself how to string the harp, tune it, and use the levers to make accidentals. Soon I found out that this harp wears down over time, with its number-one problem being the levers. They became too tight or too loose in places, and no amount of tinkering got them to make the correct sound. From then on I ended up only playing songs in the key of C with no accidentals at all. This limited what I could play, but then again, it made learning to play easier. 

The downside with teaching yourself is that if you learn something wrong the first time, it becomes a habit. It turns out when I was teaching myself hand placement and plucking strings, I didn’t learn how to use all of my fingers. I only play with my thumb, index, and middle fingers, and it wasn’t until years into playing and finally watching harpists on Youtube one day that I was like, “Whoa! They use their ring fingers!” I have not been able to get into the habit of using my fourth fingers, especially because they’re so much weaker and awkward on my harp, so I continue to willingly play things wrong. 

I only played with sheet music the first year, and because so much music required keys outside of C and plenty of chromatic scales and accidentals, I gave up. I switched to learning by ear again and playing from memory, and this is pretty much how I play. 

This is the musical instrument for which I feel great passion. When I feel sad or on edge, I play the harp, and it makes me feel so much better. Even if I make mistakes, the notes from the strings still sound beautiful and mystical. If I could only choose one instrument to play for the rest of my life, I’d sacrifice it all for the harp. 



III. Computer

In 1996, when I was 13 years old, I got into notation software. As a present my great aunt and uncle gave the family their old computer, and they sent us a bunch of programs to install, some already on there, including a program where you could write your own music. It was a single PC that everybody shared, but I was on it the most because I used it for writing. 

First I would just goof around on it, listening to the files already installed on the computer and watching the notes scroll onscreen. When I realized I could make my own music, I started the deep-dive. 

That year Disney released The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which easily became one of my favorite movies. The music was incredible and I fell in love with the gypsies in that movie. 

“Gypsy” is a perjorative term, by the way. The people are called Roma or Romani, with different subgroups (such as the Kale or Sinti or Manouche) with their own unique names scattered across the globe. But as a kid, I didn’t know this. I was in love with the stereotype that Disney created – a magical, bohemian, colorful cartoon of a people.

When I was 10 years old I started writing full-length plays, but it wasn’t until 7th and 8th grade that I submitted them to teachers and my schools actually put them on. At the same time, the local community theater started a Young Playwright’s Competition that promised the chosen work would be produced, and the winner of the first contest wrote a musical. This indicated to me that if I wanted a shot at winning, I too, should write a musical, and I started composing the score on my computer. My first musical was written in the same year Hunchback came out. I called it A Gypsy’s Tale. It never saw, nor will it will ever see, the light of day because a) a freaking child wrote it and b) it is unintentionally the most racist, appropriative thing ever because I built it off of stereotypes and Disney caricatures. 

I also couldn’t figure out how to get the music off the computer for other people to hear it. In the 90s, burning music CDs wasn’t so big a thing for us – it was all 3 1/2-inch floppy disks back in the day, so that was the end of that. 

But I still had a dream of writing and producing a musical. I wanted to try it again, and I set my sights on an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 8th grade I had read Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, and as a kid most of that book went over my head, and I was disappointed when I finished it. I was equally disappointed in the movie. I decided that my version of the show would also center around the point of view of a maid in Jekyll’s household, and then I would diverge from there. 

After months of working on it, and after a computer and notation software upgrade, one of my friends told me there was already a musical version of the story, Jekyll & Hyde, which premiered on Broadway in 1997,  a year after I'd started working on my show. I was devastated and thought I’d never get a chance to submit this for competition because someone beat me to it. But by that time I had written songs I’d actually liked, so I went ahead and scripted and scored the entire work anyway. 

I submitted it my senior year of high school to see if it could be put on. Unfortunately, it had the same problem as before: there was no way to get the music off the PC and in a sound system. In order for me to play the music for my teachers, I held up a handheld tape recorder to the speakers of my PC and recorded it for them. 

I also found out that my score could not be played by humans unless they possessed at least 3 arms and 37 fingers. This was the first program that could actually print out the sheet music. When the music teachers looked it over it, they saw I wrote music for multiple instruments I just didn’t know how to play – I didn’t know what key they were in, what their range of notes were – so if there was an actual orchestra, it would be a mess. By then this musical seemed impossible. 

I cut all of the songs and rewrote it as a straight play. We performed In the Hands of Mr. Hyde in 2001 at my high school, and it was well-received. Then in 2007 I rewrote it all over again, updating it for adult audiences, and it was performed at the local college. 

I still, STILL, dreamed of writing a musical. I got my wish at age 22. During this time in my life I was suffering with my early diagnosis of bipolar disorder and my treatment at the time was not…good. During a period of mania, I came up with a completely unique story, Melancholia, setting it in an 18th century insane asylum and centering it on the premise of a guard who secretly sold the female patients to noblemen for sex. I wrote and scored it in about a month, burned the music on an audio CD, and we were able to have full sound (piano) during the show. To enrich the sound, I played live accompaniment on my harp, clarinet, and tin whistle during some of the songs. The community college where I lived put it on, and it remains a source of pride for me.

On opening night the cast gave me Finale (the ultimate notation software with realistic orchestra sounds!) as a  present because the notation music I used at the time had so many issues with the printing of music, and it delayed rehearsals many times because it would print incorrectly – spacing was not a thing, symbols were garbled, and notes misshapen due to some kind of glitch. We did so many things at the last minute with that show, but somehow it came together well.

After the premiere I decided to rescore the music entirely with Finale, hearing for the first time what it would sound like if a full orchestra played it. I also decided to rewrite the show’s ending, add a bunch of new songs…and in 2009, submit it to NYU as part of my portfolio for their MFA in Writing Musical Theater. It nabbed me a spot in their Applicant’s Weekend, which was a preliminary acceptance that determined whether we would be admitted immediately or waitlisted. I was waitlisted and ultimately asked to be removed because I found out very quickly from that weekend that I didn’t have what it takes – I couldn’t write music fast enough or correctly enough. 

In 2009 I stopped focusing on Melancholia, and due to a computer mishap I lost the original sheet music, so I had to rescore everything from memory. I got tired of that fast. At the same time I decided to give up theater altogether. I chose instead to pursue my other life goal – to write books. But I enjoy composing music so much that it’s my goal to get back to writing more someday.

IV. My Instruments, My Self

Over the years, I have stopped and started many instruments. My first was the violin, and I quit after a year. Then it was the clarinet for 11 years, the contralto clarinet for one year, the bass drum in marching band for a year…then the harp for 12 years (which I still want to play, but I’m currently on break because of Japan), and composing with notation software for 13 years (on a long-term break). 

If my instruments were to communicate something about me, I would say they reflect my desire to learn new things all the time, and to have as many experiences as possible. On the downside, it also shows how when I’m bored or listless, I get a bit scattered or careless, and unless something truly brings me joy, I tend to abandon it. But once I commit, I follow it for a very long time. 


V. Lirien

My current WIP is a novel called Son of the Siren, and Lirien is the titular character. His father is human and his mother is a siren, and as sirens are associated with beautiful, otherworldly singing, he inherits this ability. But I also wanted him to have an almost supernatural talent for all music – and I suppose there’s a bit of projection or wish fulfillment on my part, because he can do the things I can’t. Any instrument he touches, he instinctively knows how to play, and always with a haunting, mesmerizing style. He is not formally trained, so he learns by ear, hearing a song once and nailing it without mistakes, completely from memory. He cannot read sheet music, but if he puts his hands on the paper, he can hear the song in its entirety in his head – musical osmosis, essentially. 

Lirien’s favorite instrument to play is the lyre, which his father gave to him as a young boy. It is a smaller model, designed for a child, so it has more sentimental value, but Lirien plays it exquisitely. 

It’s been a bit difficult to take what I know about music and describe it in terms of sound and emotion; particularly with making it come across as more magical and esoteric. It’s a challenge I hope I’ve risen to well enough.

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