The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 1: Louis Armstrong

Ben Ratliff, a journalist with the New York Times, recently blogged about this video clip of a young Louis Amsrong, performing in Denmark in 1933. Ratliff invites his readers to watch how Armstrong moved to the music, "making his body part of the performance." What's remarkable about the performance, however, is Amstrong's dual personality. As a communicator and an entertainer, he moves, dances, makes faces, and clowns around in a very amusing manner. But when he starts playing the trumpet, he completely stops all extraneous movements! He stands upright and still, and other than those movements that are necessary to play the trumpet (lips, fingers, lungs, and so on), he moves minimally and almost invisibly. He doesn't move to the music; rather, the music itself moves, from him (or maybe even through him) to the audience. Ratliff also remarks on how the other musicians in the band tap their feet to the beat of the music. While it's true that some of them tap almost frenetically, their upper bodies are, like Amstrong's, at rest: vertical, still, and ready for movement but by no means moving.

I believe this is a vital oppositional principle: Make yourself firm and grounded as music passes through you, and the opposition between your firmness and the music's mobility will create a great deal of dynamic energy, much to your listeners' benefit. Move to the music as you play or sing, however, and you risk dispersing the power of music to the winds. And you know what? It's not only your listeners who'll suffer!

Many master musicians remain still when they play and sing. Watch this space for further examples and a thorough discussion of this most important of principles.

My kingdom for a couple more hours!

Time is a flexible entity. If you’re bored, time drags. If you’re excited, time flies. Sixty seconds can seem like an eternity—for instance, if you inadvertently lock yourself out of your house. Naked. In winter.

There’s never a moment in your life when your moods and your needs and wants stop affecting your sense of time. Time is always, always, always flexible! In other words, you can always stretch time, steal time, and otherwise make and take the time to accomplish anything you really want to accomplish.

I’m saying this as a sort of confession. For the past few weeks I’ve been busy with deadlines, projects, travel plans, paperwork, and every last professional excuse ever invented. I’m in New York as I write, battling a big book deadline on a project I started roughly ten years ago. “I’ve been too busy to blog,” I telepathically told my subscribers. And you know what? I was lying! To myself first and foremost! How many things have I chosen to do recently that were less important and less fun then blogging? Dozens, hundreds, thousands of time-consuming things, many of which I wouldn’t even describe to you for fear of ridicule.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a complete slacker. I’ve done a lot of good things lately. I even found the time to read a couple of books, including a Sherlock Holmes novel I had never read before. It contains a quote attributed to William Gladstone, who was England’s prime minister for many years: “A change of work is the best rest.”

Moral of the story?

Writing this blog post has allowed me to procrastinate facing my big deadline. I feel so rested, I think I’ll pull an all-nighter on that ten-year project.



If you can't do something... teach it!

A nifty website for guitarists features a regular blog called “Guitar Hero,” profiling up-and-coming guitarists with interesting life stories. Guess who’s their most recent Guitar Hero?

Modesty prevents me from uttering his name.

I took a grand total of two guitar lessons 38 years ago. Occasionally I pluck a guitar string when someone leaves an instrument unattended, but I play the guitar roughly as well as I speak Greek: “Hey, George, where's my spanakopita?”


However different any two human endeavors may be, they’ll always share certain characteristics. You need to be pretty attentive to perform brain surgery, but as it happens you also need to be attentive to perform pedicure. Amputated toes, anyone? Exactly. The best brain surgeons are focused, clear-headed, methodical, knowledgeable, and intuitive. And the best pedicurists? They’re pretty much the same, even if the actual techniques used are a bit different.

Within the music world, a guitarist, a singer, a conductor, and a pianist have many more traits in common than they have in separate. Coordination, rhythm, and sound are the three pillars of music-making, and all musicians need to steep themselves in the basic principles of all three.

A good teacher is one that helps you become like the best brain surgeons and pedicures: focused, clear-headed, methodical, and all that. If you’re learning the piano, you certainly need to acquire specific piano-playing techniques. But you could learn many important skills from someone other than a pianist: a fellow musician, or another artist, or just someone who’s really observant and skilful.

I know flutists who have traveled long distances to Staten Island just to take lessons with a certain trumpeter there. Singers get coached by pianists and conductors. Conductors sometimes profess admiration for certain dancers, from whom they learned valuable lessons. Dancers learn from sculptors; witness Martha Graham’s collaboration with Isami Noguchi.

As it happens, the most important forces in my life as a cellist have been a pianist and a singer. I did have some excellent cello teachers, but my real musical identity was shaped by my encounters with Robert D. Levin and the late Cornelius L. Reid.

I’ve taken the idea of applying universal principles to individual endeavors and, over the years, I've developed a pedagogical method that is pertinent to all musicians without exceptions: cellists, pianists, and singers, but also percussionists, trombonists, drum majorettes—you name it.

For these reasons and many more, it makes sense that a guy who can’t play the guitar to save his life would become a Guitar Hero. Go check it out and then let me know what you think.

You can reach me at the pedicurist's, where I’ll be receiving some much-needed brain surgery.

Write a story every day, part 12: Words of Wisdom

I’ve been writing a short story every day for two years, one month, and three days now. I thought now it'd be a good time to wrap up this blog series with a few shouts into the wind.

You feel totally sure that you couldn’t ever do something such as writing a story every single day, but… have you even tried to do it? Have you tried once for three minutes and failed and given up forever? Have you tried it a second time after you first failed? Right. Call me again AFTER YOU’VE TRIED IT TO BEGIN WITH!

You can develop the most unlikely habits. People are adaptable—different people in different ways. It’s amazing that people “learn” how to smoke cigarettes. You might as well learn how to swallow burning sandpaper. Learning how to write a story every day is easier than a lot of things you’ve learned willingly in your life.

First create, then edit. Before your wicked, amoral, shameless, free, wide-ranging creativity creates something—any one little thing—your inner editor has absolutely no role to play. It’s a universal principle: First the shapeless blob of mud, then the sculpture. First the dead chicken, then the fricassée de poulet à l’estragon. If you’re going to write a short story every day, you need to let those dead chickens come out of the freezer.

You don’t necessarily get better at something by simply repeating it again and again. I know musicians who’ve played in the same orchestra for 30 years and who have completely lost their ability to make music in any meaningful way. (Orchestras have a way of killing people slowly.) But if you practice something attentively and skillfully for any length of time, you definitely improve your craft. Writing a story every day for two years can kinda make you a good writer, know what I mean?

Time to take a break from writing about writing. My next blog series will be purely visual. See it for yourselves!

Write a story every day, part 11: The Set-Up

To help you write a short story every day, decide on a physical set-up and use it to your advantage. I keep a dedicated notebook for my short stories, and I write all of them by hand, in sequence. From the onset I gave myself a rule: to finish my short stories at the bottom of a page. I might write one, two, three, or four pages—the number of pages isn’t important—but the story can’t finish in the middle of a page. Any one page I start writing on, I must finish. I’m on my sixth notebook right now. Each notebook has had different dimensions, so my short stories have varied in length from about 300 to about 900 words.

To some degree, to restrain your creativity can actually make you more creative. It was T.S. Eliot who said that writing free verse (that is, without a metric structure and without rhyme) is like playing tennis with the net down. It’s not much of a game; in fact, it’s pointless and boring. Put up the net, follow the rules of the game—then you have a challenge, obstacles to overcome, the potential for success and failure, the flow of adrenaline… My modest finish-the-page rule makes for a slightly harder game, more challenging. And my creativity responds! “I’m up to it. Restrain me, and I’ll expand against your restrictions.”

Could you write your daily short story at the computer? Sure. Could you vary the length at will? Sure. Could you skip a day? Sure. The only thing is, there are risks and dangers in every situation without exception. Your creativity might interpret “the right to skip a day” to mean “the right to skip, period!” One day becomes three becomes ten becomes eternity. But, hey! You’re boss! To live is to make choices and to own the consequences of the choices you make. Choose to write every day, or choose to write only when you feel like it; and live with the consequences. There are very successful writers who don’t write every day, and writers who write nonstop without achieving a thing. The task really isn’t to write every day, but to find your creative flow and fulfill your potential in whatever way best suits you… and this may or may not be writing every day.

Lesson #4: Do as you will. There are no recipes.

In my next post, I’ll bring this series to a close with a list of some of the secondary benefits of writing a short story every day.

Write a story every day, part 10: Exercises in Style

I’ve been writing a short story every day for two years. For a while I ran out of creative juice and began resenting the daily short-story obligation. My wife suggested that I do exercises in style, much like those made famous in Raymond Queneau’s marvelous little book, Exercises in Style.

Queneau describes a banal incident in Paris: A guy witnesses a petty conflict between two people aboard a bus; the day after, he happens to see one of those people in front of a train station. Then Queneau tells the same story in 99 different ways: in film-noir style, in pig Latin, monosyllabic, and so on. In an overt homage to Queneau, Matt Madden did the same thing in the graphic-novel/comic-book format, in 99 Ways to Tell a Story.

I wrote up an incident that had happened to me in New York City last summer. While I was walking along Broadway on the Upper West Side, I bumped into a woman of my acquaintance. The day after, while leaving the Metropolitan Museum on 5th Avenue, I bumped into someone else I knew, this time a man. In my short story I described these two acquaintances, what we said to each other, how I felt about these meetings. I added visual details and invented some psychological quirks (“lies”) for myself and for my acquaintances, just to spice up the exercises in style. Then I re-wrote the story 45 times (“a short story every day, for forty-five days running”). I wrote it in the voices of Rene Descartes, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Anne Rice, Quentin Tarantino, and many others. I wrote it from the point of view of a paranoid psychotic, a military man, a law-and-order fanatic. I wrote it as a study in smells, then as a study in numbers. I wrote it as science fiction, like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I wrote it in the style of the King James Bible. I wrote it in baby talk. I wrote a version in phony German, a language in which my actual vocabulary is about five hundred words; in phony Spanglish; in not-so-phony Portuguese (which is my mother tongue).

Truth be told, the possibilities of the exercises in style are limitless. You could do thousands of them. The plus is that you have a lot fun and develop your craft. The minus is that the exercise might turn out to be emotionally sterile—there’s little depth to it, little universality; in the end, it amounts to a narcissistic head trip for the writer. But suppose you just don’t know how else to start, sustain, or renew your story-a-day habit: resort to the endlessly amusing exercises in style.

Lesson #3: When art fails you, work on your craft. There are plenty of low-cost, low-risk, low-brain writing exercises to keep you going over dry patches.

In my next post I’ll tell you about the nuts and bolts of writing a story every day.

Write a story every day, part 9: The Benefits

When it comes to the task of writing a short story every day, you can simply become the benevolent tyrant of your own life and make up your own definition of a short story. “A short story is whatever I say it is!” Then you can write pretty much anything you want. Short stories with a beginning, a middle, and end; vignettes, anecdotes, sketches; jokes, good and bad; rants; scenes from an imaginary movie; self-contained scenes from a novel you are working on.


This is partly how I’ve succeeded in writing a short story every day for two years—by giving myself some leeway. Do the math: two years, one of 365 days, the other 366: 731 days, 731 short stories. Suppose only ten percent of my stories have a beginning, middle, and end, a textbook protagonist, and a textbook epiphany. That’s 73 bona-fide short stories. Suppose only ten percent of my bona-fide short stories are any good. That’s seven good stories. It’s the start of a publishable book.

Besides writing a number of bona-fide short stories I wrote sequences of interlinked stories, scenes, or fragments. My wife and I like asking idle questions. “How many times do you think we’ve kissed since we started dating?” “I don’t know. There must be some sort of Divine Computer that keeps track of everything. Don’t you wish you could access it?” I started writing a few improvisations on the Divine Computer, and wrote a sequence of fifteen self-contained pages (“a short story every day, for fifteen days running”). In time these improvisations coalesced into a book project, a novel about a 17-year-old boy who knows how to access the Divine Computer. My fiction editor liked the idea and gave me a contract for the novel.

I wrote a thirty-scene sequence (“a short story every day, for thirty days running”) about a kid who explores a haunted house before being swallowed by it. I don’t want to give away too many details, but the boy’s mother is illiterate; the town’s sheriff may or may not be the—no, I can’t tell you more. I have the makings of a good ghost story here, and I one day I might develop it into a novel or movie.

I wrote a fourteen-scene sequence (“a short story every day, for fourteen days running”) of set pieces for a Hong-Kong-style action movie. Except that the movie has no dialogue—everything is in the visuals and sound effects. Every night I recounted the day’s scene to my wife, complete with sound effects (which for the most part were revolting, since some bad stuff happens to some good people in Hong-Kong action movies). At the end of the scene she’d ask, “And then, what happened?” And I’d answer, “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” Two weeks! Day after day, a short story every day!

Lesson #2: Discipline pays off. You start off with a fixed, narrow goal (“a story every day”), and before long you start reaping a broad array of unexpected benefits (“a fancy book contract for a novel”).

In my next post I’ll tell you how I navigated a stretch of a few weeks in which I felt like I couldn’t write new stories every day anymore.

Write a story every day, part 8: What IS a story?

On January 1st, 2007, I decided to write a short story every day. So far I’ve managed a perfect record over two years and six days! Quite apart from writing more than 700 short stories, I learned a whole bunch of things in the process. I thought this would be a good time to go over the ground I covered.

What is a short story? There’s no consensus among writers. Some say a story of any length MUST have a beginning, middle, and end. No beginning, middle, and end: no story. I’ve always been bothered by these three terms. They don’t tell you much about what stories really are like, how they “behave” in practice. I think good stories of any sort—short stories, novels, plays, movies—have a premise, the build-up of tension and conflict, and a denouement or resolution of some sort. You might call the premise the “beginning,” the build-up the “middle,” and the resolution the “end.” But without these meaty characteristics, a beginning, a middle, and end are incomplete and misleading concepts.

Some writers claim that a short story MUST have a protagonist, main character, or “hero,” and the protagonist MUST undergo some inner change as the story unfolds. The character starts the story in some state of mind and comes out of it having had an insight about himself or the world around him or the meaning of life in general. James Joyce called this insight an “epiphany.” The term originally referred to how the baby Jesus’ divine nature was made manifest to the Gentiles, via the Magi. In this sense, an epiphany is the manifestation of a divine being; an epiphany is a revelation.

The term as used by James Joyce has now entered the common discourse.

“Honey, I had an epiphany while at the supermarket today.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I don’t like cleaning your cat’s damn litter box. Never did. From now on it’s your job.”

“Epiphany, shemiphany. I gave you the damn cat for your damn birthday, remember?”

When I decided to write a short story everyday, I also decided to free myself from any preconceived ideas about what a story is or should be. Anything I write, I call a short story if I feel like it! Yes, it’s a form of cheating. But it allowed me to write very freely every single day—so freely and so prolifically that I even ended up writing dozens of stories with a beginning, middle, and end, with a protagonist that undergoes some sort of epiphany or revelation.

Lesson #1: You’re the boss of your own life. Make your choices and live with the consequences of the choices you make. I stand by my supremely permissive definition of “short story,” and I accept that, as a consequence of my own permissiveness, the authorities might refuse to call my daily efforts “short stories.”

In my next post I’ll tell you what kinds of stories I wrote over these past two years.