A Guide to Writing Musicians

So you’ve decided to write a romance novel starring musicians. Congratulations! But if you’re not a musician, there may be some information about writing musicians that you’re missing out on – information that would enrich your story, or maybe transform it entirely. Here are some ways to make sure your depiction of musicians doesn’t cause people In The Know to roll their eyes and choose to go listen to Spotify instead.

1. Your musicians must practice. In fact, they must feel compelled to practice.

If you are a professional instrumental musician, practice is your day job. That means hours of practice a day. Some of this time may be with the group (for instance, orchestra rehearsal). Sometimes it’s on their own. Sometimes it’s listening to other performers practicing the piece in the repertoire or reading and annotating sheet music.

But other times, music just emerges from musicians. Elite drummers, for instance, will noodle on any surface they can find. They’ll riff on sounds around them – you’ll find them bopping their heads in counterpoint to crosswalk lights or beatboxing to the sloshing sound of rotating laundry. Professor and blues-rock drummer Brad Henderson said, ““Establishing the beat is a drug for drummers. And just like any other addict there is a restless, irritable discontent until they find their drug. If I could just sit around and play drums all the time I would, because the rest of life just doesn’t feel as good to me.”

2. Lots of musician hours are not spent on music.

In addition to practice, there’s the non-musical grind that comes along with the career. Singers should be jogging on treadmills to maintain cardio. Performers at all levels do social media pieces and interviews and work on their digital presence. Accounting, including tax write-offs for work-related expenses, takes ages. There’s hours of driving to gigs. HOURS AND HOURS.

3. Your musicians must concentrate.

Sometimes, authors use performance sequences as an opportunity for the characters to muse about other things. If you’re in musical “flow,” the music is the focus. You can only zone out on something you’ve done hundreds of times, and it’s going to affect your performance quality. This is really not the time for your hero to think about how much he loves the heroine, or for the heroine to watch the hero watching her perform.

4. Being a musician shapes all aspects of your life.

Your choice of home or apartment may be based on soundproofing or proximity to practice studios, if you can’t get the sound situation taken care of to practice at home. Performers need to be prepared to switch home or city or even country at the drop of a hat based on job opportunities – there’s a potential relationship obstacle I never see explored!

Vehicles? Cellists buy cars based on whether or not they can fit Daisy in the front or back seat (yes, cellists also generally name their cellos; no, most cellists won’t put Daisy in the trunk). Hobbies? Recreational activities or part-time jobs that put your arms, wrists, or fingers in danger are to be avoided. Food and drink? Singers all have their superstition beverages (science on it is mixed) but you probably won’t find your vocalist drinking dairy or coffee.

5. Be real about the warts of the industry, whichever corner of it you’re in.

Every corner of music is cutthroat, whether your character is a community theater soprano, a violinist in a symphony, or a jazz performer. Classical music discriminates against women and Black people. Hip-hop is colorist and misogynist. Ali Stroker won the Tony for playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma!and had to wait backstage before the announcement because the venue wasn’t accessible. (She missed coming on stage for the cast win altogether). The pay for all but the elite is woeful. Performers who don’t come from family money are at a huge disadvantage as they try to make a go of it. Tell us how your character got to their financial stability, or how they’re still fighting for it!

6. You don’t have to use stereotypes and archetypes, but be aware of them.

If your soprano is low-maintenance, people should be surprised; if your alto is a diva, people should snark that she ought to have been a soprano. Viola jokes may not apply to your violist, but they’ve definitely heard them all by now. Yes, the drummer has seen Spinal Tap.

And your conductor should be an asshole. That’s not a stereotype; that’s just a fact.

7. Know the things “everyone in the know” would know to build a credible setting and avoid unforced errors.
Pianists have back strain from bad posture. Transposing instruments don’t play the actual note that you see on the sheet music. So many pop songs go 1-4-5-4. If you sit in front of the trombones, you’re going to get rained on. Never, ever piss off the sound engineer. The best money, before you hit it big, is weddings and corporate events; commercials are one of the best major gigs. There are no saxophones in an orchestra (well, there are sometimes, but usually they’re brought in for a specific piece – Ed.) (and even though they’re made of brass, they’re actually woodwinds). Wagner would definitely have been a Nazi.

8. Know a few niche things, to show you’ve done your homework and make the experts smile.

Mahler basically wrote the same symphony over and over. (I said what I said.) (I will fight you on this one! – Caz) Artist Cynthia Plaster Caster made models of rock and roll penises, including Jimi Hendrix’s. German musical notation uses the letter H instead of B♮. Bassists play the same two notes for 80% of Fiddler on the Roof; cellists are bored out of their skulls by Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Your menstrual cycle affects your voice. Don’t poop on the tour bus.

Editor’s note: There are SOME romances featuring musicians we’ve enjoyed.

Here are just a few:

Nodame Cantabile by Tomoko Ninomiya

Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

Famous and Infamous by Jenny Holiday

Let It Be Me by Kate Noble

Idol by Kristen Callihan

A Note Yet Unsung by Tamera Alexander

Grip by Kennedy Ryan

His Every Kiss by Laura Lee Guhrke

A Song Begins by Mary Burchell

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