Make me care: writing about music

Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

In the caress of notes, Cassie knew nothing of fire, death, loss, or fear, just love plucked from Bach’s hands, to Eric’s, to her own—spoken in a language too deep for words.

—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. And while I can’t speak to dancing or architecture, this cliché sums up the problem of using words to describe what is fundamentally an experience, not a concept. Whether listener or performer, we enter into the world of the notes and receive and respond to the music through the lens of personal experience and understanding. And, because everyone’s experience and taste is different, how does a writer capture in words the sensation of sinking one’s hands into the piano keys, or the eerie magic of “one mind” that occurs when musicians perform together?

Write what you know. It’s another accurate cliché. As a lifelong pianist, I know music. I know the experience of making music, and of listening deeply to others. As a writer, I know my character, Cassie, and how she falls in love to Bach and allows herself to grieve through the music of Rachmaninoff and Liszt. I write the common ground between what I know, what Cassie knows, and the human truths that connect all of this to music.

Show, don’t tell. A writer’s cliché. If I tell the reader that Cassie and her boyfriend Eric, had a good performance of a Bach double concerto, it’s dull boring. Showing makes it tactile. It makes it real. It makes it matter.

In the second movement, Cassie stopped being aware of any reality beyond the music. The competition, the judges, her hair, her dress—none of it existed. The notes defined her universe. And as she and Eric passed the sensuous lines back and forth, she dissolved into them. She was the piano, and the piano was her. She was Eric, Eric was her. And Bach was what held everything together. There were no mental pictures and no stories. Just the music, and Eric, and the piano, which seemed to grow out of her fingertips.

—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Make me care, I used to tell my piano students. Don’t just press the notes. No matter how beautifully you phrase a line, if you don’t have anything interesting to say, you’re just speaking phonetic music. Writing requires the same because readers deserve entry into all aspects of the moment, not just a description. In both art forms, if the notes or the words don’t communicate something beyond themselves, everything comes out flat and lifeless.

Another quote: the visible is the invisible written down. As musicians and writers, we use what’s concrete (notes, words) to point to intangibles: love, joy, loss, hope, and a myriad of other human emotions. It’s an internal landscape we all share, and because of this common ground, music—and writing about music—is about bringing the listener or reader into a new world through our shared emotional doorways. We don’t need to know why a piece of music moves us to tears, or how a paragraph conjures up an entire world. We experience it. We feel Cassie’s struggle with an unfamiliar piano and we know her belief that somehow she can communicate with her deceased parents through the notes of Liszt’s Sposalizio.

Taking a deep breath, she put her hands on the keys, closed her eyes a second, and then played the opening lines. The muted upper register hampered her attempt to get a bell-like tone in her first right-hand arpeggio section. She tried to play through it, thinking of each note as being wrapped in thick velvet. Perhaps the clarity was there, at the center of all that velvet? What the piano took away from the upper register it gave back in the middle; when Cassie started what she always thought of as the prayer-like section—the one where she sensed she needed to breathe the notes rather than just play them—the velvet tone gave the notes a warmth she had never before been able to achieve on any other piano. The sounds matched the one she had been hearing in her mind, and the magic of reality matching the ideal was so strong that she could feel the hair on her arms bristling. Normal life fell away, and for those breathless moments she sensed that the notes were getting through and that somehow, someone was on the other side, hearing all the love and loss she poured into each pitch.

—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Writing about music is, ultimately, writing about humanity because that’s where power of the best music and literature resides. The form—the architecture—only points to the bedrock truths we all share. We love, we grieve, we celebrate, we mourn, and we seek (and sometimes find) meaning in the most unexpected places.

rhonda2bheadshot2bpianoRhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is the author of The Waco Variations. She has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.  As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (, Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog,

Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on  

Rhonda Rizzo earned her undergraduate degree from Walla Walla University and her Master’s degree from Boston University.