Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Violists and Editors

Yesterday evening, I gave a talk to a class of older adults. I've pasted below the text I prepared, although of course it didn't come out exactly as it is reproduced. (I neither talk like I write nor write like I talk; I couldn't stand myself either way if I did. But I did have to put my lecture into written language so that when it came time to speak, I didn't just blab on.)

How is an Editor Like a Violist?

Last year, Morning Edition, the NPR program, ran a series of essays called “Musicians in Their Own Words.” One gray morning, I happened to catch Cynthia Phelps, the principal violist of the New York Philharmonic.

Now, the viola section rarely gets the melody in orchestral music—and when they do, it’s usually just for short passages. But Phelps talked about how violas shape the sound of the entire orchestra. They play the “notes behind the notes” that provide the backdrop, the context for the melody. They influence how listeners perceive the mood and even the tempo of the music.

Cynthia Phelps didn’t hesitate to say that one of the reasons she likes being a non-melody-getting viola player is that she has control at the very foundation of the music. I don’t think she means that this control is like a dictatorship, though. The power of music is a collective power—musicians working together; it also involves the listener.

Are you starting to see where I’m taking this?

So, of course Phelps didn’t call herself a dictator, or even a leader. She called herself a mediator. The radio feature ended with her saying, "I try and create a balanced middle ground. It really resonates with the way I am as an individual."

An editor, too, is a mediator, a liaison for the readers and the writers and the publisher. If I only printed what writers wanted to write, [one of the publications I edit] would be very different. (They all seem to love to write about cancer survivors, octogenarian athletes and small business owners.) And although I’m lucky to have a publisher who truly values good writing and reporting, in general, a publisher’s concerns are not precisely the same as the readers' or the writers'.

If I only printed what readers wanted to read… well, I don’t know what Readers want, exactly, but I do know (because I’m a reader myself) that they want to be informed, entertained, and above all, respected.

So the editor is the pivot point, the mediator. The editor gets the writers to think of the readers. I hope by choosing topics and assigning articles that cover a wide range of experiences, I get readers to think about our community and our world.

There was more, but I drifted away from the violist/editor analogy. It was hard--and probably not necessary-- for me to express how epiphanic the moment was for me, when I heard Phelps declare that the role of a viola in the orchestra fits her understanding of herself as a mediator. It was deeply pleasing to hear someone else say this, the same thing I feel about my role as an editor. I had never bothered to imagine that a musician might see herself this way.

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