How playing the violin as a child made me a better playwright

Like many creative people, I’ve dabbled in more than one discipline. Writing is now my focus but it wasn’t my first artistic love; I’ve also turned my hand to music and painting, and still love them as hobbies. I have to rein in my frustration at not being as good as I’d like, but it’s thrilling to be creative in different ways.

Few people are equally talented in multiple areas of the arts, but as I’ve developed as a writer I’ve come to understand how entwined the main creative elements are; word, movement, sound and image. And I can now appreciate how valuable it was to explore them from an early age.

Although I’m mostly a writer nowadays, my first creative experiences as a child were musical and I’m convinced that improved my playwriting abilities as an adult.

Coming from a musical family, it was inevitable that an instrument would be placed in my hands at some point. Around the age of nine I found myself holding a tiny child-sized violin, learning what the strange shapes on a sheet of music mean.

Anyone who teaches primary school children to play the violin either has nerves of steel or is just a bit bonkers. Played well the violin is a stunning instrument that produces a sound so beautiful it can speak with your soul. But what most people don’t realise is that to make that beautiful sound involves years and years of practice, clumsily dragging a bow across strings making a sound closer to cattle in labour than anything worthy of the Royal Albert Hall. 

Placing such a complex, challenging instrument in the hands of a nine-year-old is brave. But they like to start you young. Perhaps because the period of musical purgatory, when you can make nothing approaching a pleasing sound, lasts about five years. So my poor parents and a long-suffering primary school violin teacher endured hours of dreadful caterwauling as I attempted to tease beautiful music from my tiny violin. Bless my grandmother, musical progenitor, for her warm and patient smiling as I scratched out ‘Oh When the Saints Go Marching In’. Eventually, alas, I decided I’d rather play football in the street with the other kids.

But, I had learned to read music and discovered musicality. I just wasn’t very keen on the difficult scratchy instrument. 

At secondary school, I took up the saxophone instead. It looked cool, it sounded cool, and I thought I was pretty cool playing it. I was fortunate to be at a school with a decent wind band. That’s a bunch of teenagers playing shiny instruments that you blow into (insert your own joke here) and it was great fun. 

And for the first time, I appreciated the participatory joy of music. Playing with others is an entirely different experience of music. To play or sing in time and in tune with other musicians requires a sensitivity and awareness that exceeds anything else I’ve experienced. 

Music is about nuance and texture, and understanding the tiny building blocks of sound you’re creating. With practice, you can become finely attuned to detail and how the smallest change can alter the entire sound or feeling. 

I’m glad that I experienced these things at a young age, when you lack full verbal sophistication and rely on the abstract to express yourself deeply. I think music, in particular, can become ingrained in you before your perception of the world is more determined. The door to creativity is always open, but never more so than in your childhood, when the world is magical and you’re not in full command of your feelings.

But how did all this make me a better writer?

It was many years into my journey as a playwright that I realised the value of my early experimentation (we’ll call it that) with making music. And it was because of something we all do every day without realising; writing dialogue.

In my opinion, writing dialogue is a playwright’s bread and butter. 

You can take in every theory about structure and form, learn how to wring out a killer plot, but if you can’t write good dialogue the story will never truly catch fire. And your actors won’t look you in the eye. They will know what’s missing.

So what is good dialogue? It’s understanding how people really speak. Not what you want them to say, or the important message the playwright wants them to give the audience; but how people really do speak.

People actually speak in fragments and thought patterns that signify all kinds of details about our feelings, personality and background. When you’re writing dialogue, you aren’t writing sentences; you are writing a person.And people rarely say what they mean, either. The average human interaction is littered with indicators of subtext, the unspoken thoughts and feelings of a character or person. And it’s a dramatist’s job to understand how to create great drama out of that.

In my early attempts to master the art of writing a good scene, I made the most common playwriting mistake; neglecting subtext. All my characters said what they meant in perfect, well-expressed sentences. But who does that in real life? No, we’re cleverer, more sophisticated creatures than that. 

We’re sneaky and elusive. We hide what we really think behind words, sounds, space and rhythm. We don’t say ‘I’m angry’; we say it with our tone of voice and choice of words. Even where we choose to breathe. A conversation is a full deployment of all the techniques we have to avoid speaking fully and simply what we feel. And when you write dialogue, you should come at it from that angle; what the character is saying, and what the character is actually communicating.

Once upon a time language was for simple, direct communication. Now, it’s a game, a dance, a symphony.

All this suddenly clicked into place for me watching actors perform a very simple subtext exercise. The task was to perform exactly the same page of generic dialogue in five different contexts; angry lovers on a plane; in a bunker at the end of the world; an estate agent attempting to make a sale; a parent and child at the supermarket; and teenagers on a first date.

It blew my mind that two actors could take exactly the same words and turn them into a completely different situation using subtext. And like a thunderbolt, I understood it. It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. And that doesn’t mean the words on the page don’t matter; very far from it. They’re a signpost, a vehicle or a blueprint.

And being musical helped me to understand all this. Sentences are inherently musical; composed of sounds, syllables and rhythm. Words are very much like musical notes on a page. When those words are spoken aloud, we use pitch and tone to express in a semi-musical fashion. Good actors understand that, and can ‘play’ with the feeling of a musician.

As a playwright, if you fail to understand subtext you trap your actor with only one route; the obvious, the direct, the explicit. Master it, and you provide them with space to play your words like a violin.

So writing dialogue is about understanding how people really speak, but it’s also about understanding everything that happens around it; just like playing an instrument in an orchestra (or, in my case, wind band). A well-placed beat (pause) in a page of dialogue is as every bit as effective as a well-placed beat in a bar of music. Interactions between characters have a natural crescendo (the highest point of intensity in music) or shift in pace and tone, just like a change in tempo within a symphony. A playwright can compose a scene almost like a musical score if they appreciate how words can flow like music.

I’m endlessly frustrated with film-makers’ heavy reliance on a musical soundtrack to generate feeling. It’s a challenge to find a mainstream blockbuster without ever-present music directing the audience toward the desired emotion or perspective. It’s lazy. Rarely is a movie soundtrack at odds with the emotion or story playing out visually; but that’s where theatre, a subtler live form, is the more intriguing. Good theatre positively delights in the clash between what appears to be happening and what really is happening

But the benefits of music can also be there, without actually being there. 

As I write dialogue, I find it helpful to imagine a sense of music flowing through the scene. I don’t need to actually hear music, but if I can imagine the presence of music I can use it to understand how my characters are working together to create feeling, rhythm and energy; just like instruments in an orchestra. Sometimes I do actually play a song to get in the right mindset to write a scene; fast, aggressive music for a confrontation, or reflective music for a delicate, intense scene. That’s a classic writing technique, and it works, but music is so much more valuable to a writer than that.

Having a musical ear – being attuned to pitch and tone – has been of great benefit to my ear for dialogue. 

Only lazy writers want to create characters who are like them and, in particular, characters who speak like them. The challenge in writing plays that I most enjoy is in finding a character’s voice. As a woman from the South of England, I don’t innately know how an old man from Edinburgh speaks; I have to find out. I have to listen, to feel the tone, style and rhythm of his speech, and when I do that I draw on the same sensitivity to nuance and sound that I developed as a young musician. 

It’s all connected. I’m glad that a skill  I was given the chance to develop at the age of nine has stuck with me and I can still benefit from it now. 

So my hours scratching away at the violin were entirely worth it. I learned to experience all sound as music including, and most especially, dialogue. 

And I’ve still got my grade 1 violin certificate somewhere… 

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