Listen carefully and listen well

I recently had lunch with a chap who is a more-than-competent pianist.

At one point during our conversation, I asked him a vaguely technical music question.

‘I’m the wrong person to ask,’ he said.  ‘What I know about music theory could be written on the back of a very small postage stamp.’

This surprised me.  I had heard him play – and play very well.  I also knew that he did quite a bit of composing and arranging.

‘So what’s your approach?’ I asked.

He thought for a moment or two, and then he said: ‘I suppose I just listen – you know, carefully and well.  And then I just do what works.’

The pianist’s approach reminded me of something Joan Didion once said about grammar.  ‘[It’s] a piano I play by ear.  All I know about grammar is its power.’

If you want to write clear, attractive prose, there’s a lot to be said for listening carefully, listening well, and then just doing what works.

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