By Caeli Smith

I love to write. In fact, I write all over my sheet music. Each line is crammed with as much information as I can fit. Here’s what a page from my Bach Sonatas and Partitas looks like:

Caeli Smith Bach

As a conservatory student, I religiously taped every lesson with my Zoom digital recorder. Immediately afterward, I listened to the tape, and wrote detailed notes in my music—making sure to include every precious word that came out of my teachers’ mouths. If my Zoom was low on batteries, I would scramble to dictate each instruction in real time. Teachers would often remark, “Wow, you’re writing a novel in there.” Some sat patiently while I tried to cram their sentences verbatim in what little white space remained on the page.

One teacher, as I reached for my pencil, said, “Don’t write it in—you’ll remember it better.” This caused a surge of panic that didn’t dissipate until I had left the lesson, and, dropping to the floor in the hallway outside the room, was able to transcribe exactly what he had instructed (including: “Don’t write that in—you’ll remember it better.”)

I prided myself on taking such thorough notes. When I read this article from the Bulletproof Musician, I felt justified in my habit. My fellow students, glancing at a page of a sonata I was studying, would marvel, “Wow, you write so much. How can you even see the notes?” When I looked over at their pages, often they were almost empty of markings, aside from a few fingerings or bowings. Where were all of the pearls of wisdom that couldn’t be forgotten? Where was the reminder to play with “heavy fingers,” or to “feel their bones vibrating?” How could they even remember how to play it?

Once, at Juilliard, I noticed the co-concertmaster’s copy of Don Juan sitting on her stand. I was shocked to see that the page was completely blank. How on earth could she play such a difficult piece—and so well—with zero markings on the page?

It wasn’t until this past year that I realized I might be too good at following instructions. When I looked at my sheet music, I would read and re-read the words smudged onto the page, weeks after I wrote them, trying to force myself to absorb the ideas passed on from my teachers. But I may have been relying too much on my eyes, and not enough on my ears.

I saw markings in my music as a set of instructions to follow, and my mind would begin to race. “Kinetic energy, kinetic energy . . . ” I would repeat to myself. Whatever catchphrase I grabbed on to became louder in my mind than the sound coming from my instrument. I wasn’t even listening to myself; I was just chanting a mantra that, with repetition, became meaningless—like a painting you love and hang on the wall, but that, after a week or two, you don’t even register as you walk by.

Instead of seeing the music on the page—or more importantly, hearing the music in my head—I was reading a set of instructions that were hindering my possibilities. And whenever I re-visited a particular concerto, months or even a year after my first study, I would be barraged by comments that were incompatible with my present-day self, which would end up limiting my exploration of the work.

These days, I want to evaluate my music-making from a global perspective. I try not to restrict myself while following verbal instructions, but instead, I aim to assess the music in a holistic way, considering every sound I make from outside myself. Instead of reminding myself to “take time”—I ask, in an ideal world, how do I want this phrase to sound?

I’m still afraid of forgetting something important. I don’t think I’ll ever become someone whose music always looks brand-new. But now, revelations from lessons or practice sessions are recorded in a notebook that perches on my music stand, where I can revisit them when I want. My sheet music exists as it is, allowing my musical imagination to wander freely.

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