Why I always play music during writing workshops

Roy Peter Clark plays the accordion

The most fun I have as a teacher is when I can incorporate music into writing instruction. (Photo by Armondo Solares)

I was 46 years old, and my life and time were filled by three pursuits: teaching writing, coaching girls soccer and playing in a rock band. My imagination was born, or reborn, that year in 1994.

I saw them as discrete activities. For each I wore a separate uniform, spoke a distinctive dialect and derived a different reward. It felt like a rich and satisfying life, and it was.

I would soon learn there was something more.

I was at work on the book “Coaching Writers” with Don Fry. That word “coaching” made me wonder whether there was something I was learning from coaching my daughters’ soccer teams that I could apply to the coaching of writers. Of course there was.

There was encouragement and timing and craft and tactics — all aligned to a shared sense of mission and purpose. Soccer players had moves, and so did writers. Before long, I was bringing a soccer ball into writing workshops, using it to draw analogies between two modes of learning and expression.

It was also in 1994 that minority journalism organizations created the first UNITY conference in Atlanta. Because of the historic nature of this meeting, I was motivated to do something special and proposed a workshop titled: “What I Learned about Writing from Listening to Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.” Otis wrote “Respect,” but Aretha created the more famous version, turning his manly plea into her feminist anthem. Writers could listen and learn how to take someone else’s idea (maybe an assignment from a city editor) and make it their own.

My original plan was to play recorded music, but UNITY provided a piano. The session involved some spontaneous singing and a bit of dancing with the crowd, all of us stuffed into a small meeting room. I got credit for more than a bit of risk taking: a skinny, middle-aged white guy playing and singing soul music for a mostly African-American audience.

My professional life has never been the same.

The most fun I have as a teacher is when I can incorporate music into writing instruction. I have been asked why I always play the piano in my writing workshops. My answers are: 1) Because I can; 2) Because when you are teaching about adverbs and semicolons, you better have an escape hatch; and 3) Because I finally learned that music and writing have a lot in common.

Music and writing have these words in common: notes, rhythm, sound, cadence, movement, voice, crescendo, coda, composition, echo, dissonance, counterpoint, staccato, suspense, resolution, and many more. No one knows for sure why in journalism the ending of a story is called a “kicker,” but one theory asserts it comes from vaudeville, when musical acts ended their song and dance numbers by kicking their way off the stage.

Years after the UNITY conference, I would be on stage in a cavernous convention center in Nashville, playing and singing, with a little dancing, in front of 5,000 high school journalism students and their advisors. I was preaching to them the power of the parts; that to learn to create art — music, dance, writing — you needed someone to demystify the process, to slow it down, to show you the parts, to name the parts and make them memorable. I would receive a letter from a dad in California, not just for helping his daughter become a better writer, but for inspiring her to practice the piano with more fidelity.

In recent years, I’ve expanded my repertoire, especially at the Decatur Book Festival near Atlanta. In an hour-long session in front of 300 folks, I not only teach the parts of the writing process, but also perform live music with local musicians, do Sun Salutations with a yoga teacher (my daughter Alison), create an improvisational theater routine, and wind it up with a dance contest, in which the winners get free copies of my books.

Here why I think play works:

  1. It lubricates the tedium from the process.
  2. It forces you out of the box by getting you to work in different boxes.
  3. It takes failure out of the equation. It’s “only play,” after all.
  4. It takes the mystery out of creativity by revealing the power of the parts.
  5. It makes your presentation, workshop or seminar memorable. You will stand out from the 100 PowerPoint presentations going on that day.
  6. Where there once may have been separation in your life and work, you now have integration. Your experience and expertise — from knitting to cooking to beer guzzling to golf — can become sources of new learning and teaching.

Some of the earliest wisdom on learning comes from Romans who thought the dual purposes of literature were “docere et delectare,” to teach and delight. You can separate these, but over the long term, you do so at your peril. Without play, life becomes work, and work becomes life, and Roy becomes merely a dull boy rather than the rock star he was always meant to be.

Related: Poynter’s News University has a week full of creative and inexpensive ways to have fun at with Fun at Work Week, running August 3 through 7. Webinars include Cultivate Innovation: Make Room for Play at Work. Join the conversation with #happynewsroom.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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