Writing Words That Resonate

A few weeks ago, I attended a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor in Portland, OR, performed by The Trinity Consort, an ensemble comprising 30 instruments, 60 choristers, and 5 soloists.

The Mass in B Minor is not a showcase for any one instrument. It isn’t a showcase for the orchestra. It’s first and foremost a choral piece — arguably the greatest choral piece Bach ever wrote.

Yet it wasn’t the magnificent choir that moved me most deeply that night. It wasn’t the internationally acclaimed soloists, not even soprano Suzie LeBlanc, whose voice would stir the hardest heart. Strangely, it was the timpanist, Mark Goodenberger. With the possible exception of the third trumpeter, Mark had the smallest part in the piece.

Why the timpanist? To be sure, his performance was inspired, deeply expressive — superb. But some of the finest musicians from all over the world performed that night, all of them inspired, deeply expressive, superb.

Then it hit me. It was his intense involvement in the music, his symbiotic connection with it, that had so struck me. The music seemed to begin with him. Mark was playing even when he wasn’t playing. In the long stretches between his parts, he would adjust the drum tension; put his ears to the drum, then his lips; then readjust the tension. At other times, hyperalert, his body would sway to the music, his head and feet beat time, his lips mouth the words.

Mark was playing the way Web writers should write.

I was so moved by his performance that I wrote to thank him for it. And I asked him what he was doing up there all the while he wasn’t playing.

Here’s what he wrote back:

“I remember that performance was particularly enjoyable for me because of the quality of the musicians and the magnificence of the composition. If I looked like I was enjoying the experience, I was, but I was also working very hard to stay focused and make sure my part would contribute to the overall beauty. The conductor, Eric Milnes, gives me a lot of freedom of expression, while asking for a huge sound and wanting me to lead rhythmically.”

I was right. The music began with Mark.

“One of the challenges of playing percussion instruments in the classical music genre,” Mark continued, “is that you spend a great deal of time counting rests, play a few big notes, and then wait for the next entrance. It may seem easier than playing all the time, but I find it much more difficult to stay involved. I have a lot of mental games I play, and what I do most is sing along in my mind (or sometimes under my breath in the loud sections) with the parts I don’t play.

“The drums I was performing on are replicas of an 1803 kettledrum. Because we were playing a period performance, we tried to use the same kinds of instruments the original players in Bach’s time would have used. For me, that means playing on calfskin heads.

“Calfskin is very sensitive to weather and humidity fluctuations. If it begins to rain outside, the heads loosen and the pitch drops. If the rain stops, or the temperature in the room rises from body heat, the heads tighten and the pitch rises. Someone could even open a door at the back of the hall, and the draft would affect the heads. This goes for the other instruments as well, though it affects them differently. Because of this, I have to constantly adjust the heads to stay in tune. That is why I’m always working the tension posts. I put my ear next to the head so I can hear my pitch when I softly tap the skin. I also sing softly into the head, listening for the sympathetic vibration.”

All that may not seem to have a whole lot to do with Web writing. But what Mark was doing is what Web writers need to do: be involved in the site-building process from beginning to end. Otherwise the words, wherever they appear, will be just add-ons, afterthoughts.

Every site is different; every user is different. As Web writers, we need to constantly adjust our writing to stay in tune. We need to listen for the sympathetic vibration of our words.

Next time: A writing professor and his students learn a hard lesson writing for a dot-com.

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