Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joseph T. Hallinan

The fluency trap

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Boris Goldovsky

Over the weekend, I picked up a copy of Boris Goldovsky’s Bringing Opera to Life at my local Goodwill, and although it cost less than two dollars, it already looks like it’s going to become a permanent part of my library. For most of my life, I’ve been only tangentially interested in opera: I’ve attended maybe two or three performances in New York and Chicago, and my knowledge of the subject begins and ends with the essential The Movies Go to the Opera compilation released decades ago by Angel Records. Yet opera is an obvious source of insights into problems of storytelling and craft. For centuries, it’s served as the meeting point for our greatest composers, directors, and designers, and Goldovsky’s book takes an admirably practical approach to staging this most artificial of narrative art forms. It covers everything from analyzing character motivations to enunciating the text to managing stage traffic—there’s a beautifully illustrated section on dealing with obstructions and crossings—and every page is grounded on firsthand experience of the challenges of putting on complicated shows in accessible ways. Anyone interested in theater, music, or creativity in general should absolutely seek out a copy.

The work also serves as an introduction to Goldovsky himself, an operatic director and conductor best known for his radio commentaries on the Metropolitan Opera’s weekly broadcasts in the middle of the last century. He also figures in a famous anecdote that I owe to Joseph T. Hallinan, author of Why We Make Mistakes:

One day, a student of his was practicing a piece by Brahms when Goldovsky heard something wrong. He stopped her and told her to fix her mistake. The student looked confused; she said she had played the notes as they were written. Goldovsky looked at the music and, to his surprise, the girl had indeed played the printed notes correctly—but there was an apparent misprint in the music.

At first, the student and the teacher thought this misprint was confined to their edition of the sheet music alone. But further checking revealed that all other editions contained the same incorrect note. Why, wondered Goldovsky, had no one—the composer, the publisher, the proofreader, scores of accomplished pianists—noticed the error?

"Four score and and seven years ago..."

What Goldovsky discovered, after showing the sheet music over a period of years to a series of accomplished sight readers, none of whom ever noticed the mistake, was that professional musicians don’t read note by note: they grasp the music as a series of familiar patterns, the way chess players do when they study the board as a whole, or how fluent readers read a text in their own language. We don’t take in each word at a time, but group them into larger syntactic chunks, a crucial part of the process of learning how to read. This allows us to complete difficult tasks more easily, but it also means that we’re likely to miss certain kinds of mistakes—or anomalous details—when they occur in places where we aren’t expecting them. Paradoxically, it’s only when we read less fluently, as Goldovsky’s student did, that we slow down enough to notice the problem. Fluency itself can turn into a form of blindness, which explains why glaring typos can go unnoticed in a blog post like this, or can survive in a manuscript for draft after draft. (It’s also why many readers miss the repeated word in the image above.)

This kind of fluency can create enormous problems for writers, who end up repeatedly reading the same text until they’re skimming it on the level of the sentence, or even the paragraph. The real danger isn’t missing typos or other small mistakes: it’s overlooking problems of style, character, or logic that will be obvious to a reader encountering the story for the first time, but which render themselves invisible to the author because of overmuch familiarity. It’s why artists learn to check the proportions of a drawing by turning it upside-down, and why proofreaders sometimes go through a text in reverse order, reading the last sentence first and working their way backwards: an artificial slowness or awkwardness helps to circumvent the misleading fluency that the mind creates. (An outside read, especially from someone unfamiliar with the subject matter, can be even more valuable.) Brahms himself didn’t notice the typo in Opus 76, No. 2, and it took close to century before Goldovsky’s student saw the mistake. Writers don’t have the luxury of decades for their errors come to light; more often, we’ll see them as soon as the first copy of the book appears and it’s too late to make a change. But we can avoid it, at least some of the time, by forcing ourselves to be just a bit less fluent.

Written by nevalalee

October 6, 2014 at 9:53 am

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