Thursday, 15 November 2012


Voice is mysterious. How can you develop your writing voice? What does Voice actually mean? How do you know if your writing has a distinctive voice?

I have my own thoughts on Voice and I'll try to show by way of an analogy.

I'm a reed player. I play saxophone and I play clarinet. I started learning on clarinet and my first attempts sounded terrible, as if I was being strangled while blowing through a drinking straw. The tone had no substance, the tuning was all over the place, most of the notes were drowned out by squeaks and that horrible buzzing sound that comes from a reed that  is way too soft.

I knew how a 'good' clarinet tone was meant to sound but I was nowhere near achieving it. But I practiced. I started to learn saxophone, too; same result. They are both reed instruments and the essential problems are similar. But I put in the hours. Instead of going out and playing football with friends I sat in my room and blew down a tube. There were learning milestones along the way, like when I learned about opening my throat, about diaphragm breathing, about sustaining a column of air. And slowly I developed a good, clean, pure tone. But in my mind my playing still sucked. It didn't have Voice. I had a fine, sweet tone, but it was boring. Something important was missing.

But not always. Now and again there was an extra edge. I started to realise that a clean tone wasn't everything. I was playing on a hard reed, but over time reeds start to go off, and there are moments in the life of every reed when the tone isn't perfect but it is honest. At those times I began to feel the vibration - in my lip, in my head and in my bones.

It wasn't just a matter of tone, either. There were times when my rhythm was kind of lazy and relaxed but not wayward. There were differences in the way I was attacking the notes, and sustaining them. And when all of these things came together, not quite pure, not quite tight, but with an underlying security that came from years of neglecting my footballing skills, well then my playing had Voice. I'm not a good enough sax or clarinet player to be able to turn it on like a tap. It comes now and again and when it does I am always grateful. I can recognise the moments and so can the audience, and one of the joys of music is the instant feedback that tells you that you are doing something right.

And I wonder if the writing voice is the same. It is harder to relate the feedback to the execution because there is such a long time delay between the two. But if you use your ear. If you listen to what you have written, then sometimes you know.

There is one big difference, though: Writing can be edited. This is why writing should be edited. The sterile parts can be removed and the rich parts, the parts that have voice can be allowed to sing.

There is also another, important similarity between writing and music: Both need practice.

1 comment:

Deborah Walker said...

That's a great way of thinking about it, Mike.