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I blog therefore I am?

The Music into Words event, which I chaired earlier this month, attempted to explore some of the ways in which we write about classical music today and provoked a lively discussion, both at the actual event and online. Several issues emerged relating specifically to blogs which have exercised my thoughts in the weeks since the event:

  1. Without an editor, how do you ensure that what you write is intelligent, well-written, factually accurate, and interesting to read?
  2. Who are you writing for?
  3. Why a blog?

In my experience, readers will return to those blogs which are consistently well-written, interesting, accurate and assiduously self-edited. (This is borne out by the number of regular commentators and subscribers to this blog: WordPress provides very useful stats and analytics allowing one to track such data.) I have come across some truly dire writing on the internet (and also in newspapers, journals and books), and also much that is extremely high-quality (by academics, journalists, bloggers, musicians….), and one can of course learn a great deal by looking at what others are doing, or not doing. In the era of the spelling and grammar checker, there really is no excuse for sloppy spelling; clichés or hackneyed expressions should also be avoided (my particular pet hate is “smorgasbord”….). I’m very fortunate that one of my blog subscribers, who also happens to be a good friend of mine, will pounce on any inaccuracies of spelling or grammar with the eagle eyes of a skilled editor. In terms of fact-checking, I make sure I do my homework: this applies to my concert reviews too. I try to write in an accessible, readable and intelligent style, and one of the nicest compliments I’ve been paid when I met one of my readers in real life was “you sound just the same in person as you do in your writing”.

Which leads me onto “Who are you writing for?”. Initially, I didn’t really think I was writing for anyone but myself when I started this blog in 2010. I was playing the piano seriously again, having returned to the instrument after an absence of c15 years, and I wanted some way to record my thoughts and feelings about the music I was playing and hearing in concerts. Rather than keep an old-fashioned journal, I decided to write a blog (having had a modest degree of success with a food blog called Demon Cook), but I didn’t really expect anyone to take much notice of it. I suppose the unusual title helped (and by the way, I initially thought of calling this blog The Naked Pianist (à la Jamie’s Oliver’s Naked Chef) until my husband pointed out that this might attract “the wrong kind of reader”!), plus my interest in social media and a growing network of like-minded people (including a number of other bloggers and online reviewers), and gradually the number of daily visitors and subscribers crept up. When I was invited to review for Bachtrack.com (the owner of the site had read and liked my blog), I felt my writing finally had some currency beyond the confines of this site, and I have subsequently gone on to write guest blogs for a number of other classical music sites, including HelloStage, InterludeHK, Music Haven and The Sampler, the blog of Soundandmusic.org.

Subconsciously, I am probably writing for someone like me, someone who enjoys classical music, likes going to concerts and reading about them, maybe plays the piano too, who ponders the day-to-day practicalities of being a musician, amateur or professional (practising, repertoire, continuing study, teaching etc), as well as the more esoteric aspects of the musician’s life (motivation, performance anxiety, impostor syndrome, avoiding injury). Judging by the comments and messages I receive in response to my articles, it is clear my readership is now pretty wide, and international.

One thing I’ve never done via this blog, or indeed anywhere else, is set myself up as some kind of “expert”. People do come to me for advice about piano playing, careers in music, piano teaching and more, and I try to respond to such enquiries with honesty and courtesy. It is gratifying to be respected for what one does, but I believe a degree of a humility is crucial too (there are quite enough egos at large in the musical profession!). I enjoy the conversations that emerge from comments on articles here, I have made friends via this blog and I find the community of like-minded people which blogging creates very stimulating. To explore this further, I canvassed the opinion of a number of other bloggers who write on music and culture, and with whom I interact on a regular basis:

It started as a kind of “cultural diary” – a channel for me to enthuse about music I loved (plus some art and photography) and hopefully ‘share the love’.

First, I enjoy writing, and get special satisfaction in expressing my thoughts and ideas as eloquently as I can. Secondly, the idea that there are complete strangers out there reading what I’ve written flatters my vanity. Finally, there are so many ignoramuses on the net, spouting rubbish on matters they don’t understand, I saw no reason not to join them.

It’s cheaper than therapy

I think my single overriding reason is a desire to entertain.

The world of blogging is a curious one, and one which has grown hugely in the last ten years or so, to the extent that blogging now makes a significant contribution to writing and journalism. Many organisations, including mainstream newspapers, have blogs on their sites, often written by well-regarded journalists and commentators. (At the Music into Words event, one of the panelists, Imogen Tilden, classical music editor of The Guardian, acknowledged the important role of bloggers who “fill the gaps” in covering concerts and events her team of reviewers do not have the time or resources to cover, and who offer alternative opinions.)  The difference for the majority of bloggers is that we are independent – and the freedom to write what we like is very potent. Some people may regard bloggers as “privileged”, and are perhaps envious of the freedom we enjoy – freedom to write what we like without the pressure of conforming to editorial house style or deadlines, freedom to go to as many concerts, operas, plays or exhibitions as we like. I do regard myself as fortunate to be able to do this, but I also have a day job (two in fact), as do most of my blogging colleagues, and I don’t think blogging should necessarily be regarded as some kind of self-indulgent literary onanism or dilettantism.

From a more pragmatic point of view, a blog can be a useful tool to:

  1. Offer an overview of who you are – an extended CV, if you will
  2. Provide samples of your writing
  3. Connect with new people
  4. Organise your messy thoughts into coherent ones
  5. Create your own PR machine
  6. Stand out – according to the “1 per cent rule”, only 1 percent of Internet users actively create new content, while the other 99 percent just view it. Blogging separates from the 99 percent of people who don’t blog. Standing out is essential in an increasingly competitive world, whatever your profession or role
  7. Improve your writing skills – like piano playing, writing improves with practise
  8. Give yourself some headspace. The person who described blogging as “cheaper than therapy” makes a useful point – that writing can be therapeutic, regardless of the subject under discussion

So, if you’ve got something to say, maybe now is the time for you to consider writing a blog?

For more on the practicalities of writing a blog see Presentation for BASCA on Classical Music Blogging