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When I was a teenager my goal in life was to become a singer. To meet that goal, I decided I wanted to attend the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio. There was one problem, however: I had no formal music training beyond learning the piano keys on a cardboard keyboard. Do you have any idea how hard it is to imagine what you are playing when you can’t hear the notes?

Not to be stopped from achieving my goal, I arranged for an audition at the school, in spite of my high school counselor’s repeated admonishment that I was not college material. Because of my raw vocal talent, I was accepted into Opera at CCM. Quite an accomplishment, I thought, for a girl who didn’t even know what The Marriage of Figaro was.  While I had heard some classical music, and appreciated its melodic and sometimes crashing rhythms, I was raised on Porter Wagner and Dolly Parton Midwestern Hayride music, hymns, and rock and roll.

For my first music theory exam the professor stated he would be playing a recording of some classical piece of music. Our entire exam would consist of our ability to pick the 2nd violin line out of the musical piece, beginning at the 3rd movement, the 2nd section, and writing the notes on the musical staffs of our exam books.

Panic seized me. I couldn’t hear the 2nd violin line, much less decipher where the 3rd movement or the 2nd section started, in spite of taking an entire semester of music theory. Well, at least the classes I hadn’t skipped. As the music started, I wrote my name in the front of the exam book, desperately tried to hear what he’d asked for, then closed the book when I couldn’t, and gave it to the teacher. As you might suspect, I failed music theory.

A few weeks ago, while listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, at a Mozart concert presented by the Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra, I heard the 2nd violin line, and the 1st violin line, the oboes, the bassoons, the French horns, and every other instrument in the orchestra as clearly as if they were playing solos—with my eyes closed.

What’s the difference, you ask?

Exposure. I’ve had about 30 plus more years of singing, reading, and listening to music. I’ve gone to classical concerts, sung more classical music, and opened my ears to all kinds of music. I still have my favorites, but I’m not the country-western-rock-and-roll music virgin I was when I was 16.

As I was listening to the concert, it occurred to me that my experience in the writing world has paralleled that of my music. As writers we all need exposure to the craft and the writing world. Without it we will die on the page and fail.

When I go back and read some of the first stuff I wrote in the 70s, when I decided to become a real writer, I’m appalled at how bad it seems to me now. The raw talent was there, just like it was with my voice, but it needed honing. Ten years as a non-fiction freelancer taught me how to write sparely within the tight format of a newspaper and a word count. Years of going to writing workshops have taught me how to write fiction that tells a story and grips an editor. Now Ive become a published author, but the learning doesn’t stop there. I’ve got marketing, networking, and continuing to make each book better as new goals.  It’s as exciting, and as scary, as that audition at CCM was so many years ago. But it’s a goal I know I can reach, just like I learned to hear the 2nd violin line in a classical piece of music.

What’s your writing goal and how are you reaching for it?