What did Willa Cather do when she wanted to become a great writer? She took Henry James’ books and she copied entire sections, entire sentences from them. She felt the music of each sentence, and its richness, and the fall of the words. Then, Willa Cather wrote many stories in Henry James’ literary style. And then she wrote her own stories and novels.

First, you copy.

Alex Ross describes Mozart’s early work in music in this issue of the New Yorker in an article called “The Storm of Style.” Between the ages of eight and ten, Ross writes, “Young Mozart shows an uncanny ability to mimic the styles and forms of the day: Baroque sacred music, opera buffa, and opera seria, Gluckian reform opera, Haydn’s classicism, the Mannhein symphonic school, Strum und Drang agitation, and so on.”

This is the 10,000 hours of practice, practice, practice (some of which is copy, copy, copy) that I mentioned here.

Ross continues, “Hearing so many premonitions of future masterpieces, I got the feeling that Mozart’s brain contained an array of musical archetypes that were connected to particular dramatic situations or emotional states—figures connoting vengeance, reconciliation, longing, and so on. One example appears in “La Finta Semplice,” the merry little opera buffa that Mozart wrote when he was twelve. In the finale, when all misunderstandings are resolved, there is a passage marked “un poco Adagio,” in which Giacinta and her maid Ninetta ask forgiveness for an elaborate ruse that they have pulled on Giacinta’s brothers. “Perdono,” they sing—“Forgive.” Not just the words but the music prefigures the tremendous final scene of “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which the wayward Count asks the Countess’s forgiveness—“Contessa, perdono!”—and she grants it, in a half-hopeful, half-heartbroken phrase. I looked at the New Mozart Edition scores side by side, and noticed that the two passages not only waver between the same happy-sad chords (G major and E minor) but pivot on the same rising bass line (B-C-D-E). It is unlikely that Mozart thought back to “La Finta Semplice” when he composed “Figaro,” but the idea of forgiveness apparently triggered certain sounds in his mind.”

Programmer and writer Paul Graham says, don’t copy things mindlessly: copy what you like. He points out that it’s very important to copy those things that you like and not those in fashion to copy or those that it may be useful or good for you to copy. Plus, he says, when you copy, copy the good things about the item, not the bad things (such as when artists used to draw with a brownish haze to copy Rembrant’s colorings that just made paintings look a little muddier).


  1. Posted Wednesday August 2, 2006 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Very cool! I have been reading through “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp, and she says something very similar about Mozart!

      Of course, this is hogwash. There are no “natural” geniuses. Mozart was his father’s son. Leopold Mozart had gone through an arduous education, not just in music, but also in philosophy and religion; he was a sophisticated, broad-thinking man, famous throughout Europe as a composer and pedagogue. This is not news to music lovers. Leopold had a massive influence on his young son. I question how much of a “natural” this young boy was. Genetically, of course, he was probably more inclined to write music than, say, play basketball, since he was only three feet tall when he captured the public’s attention. But his first good fortune was to have a father who was a composer and a virtuoso on the violin, who could approach keyboard instruments with skill, and who upon recognizing some ability in his son, said to himself, “This is interesting. He likes music. Let’s see how far we can take this.”

    It goes on for a bit more about Mozart’s upbringing and influences! The book itself is about how creativity is a habit and hard work, from someone who has figured out what has worked for her and her success. I really like it a lot.

  2. Posted Thursday August 3, 2006 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    I’ve read parts of that book – that is a wonderful book! Especially the parts about discipline, like her morning routine of hailing the cab.

One Trackback

  1. By senia.com » SENIA.COM Summary - August, 2006 on Friday September 1, 2006 at 5:36 am

    […] Expertise is Trainable! – nurture may be winning over nature in the debate of how expertise develops. First, You Copy – copying can be an excellent way to gain expertise. Consistency – what do you choose to develop your expertise in? (aiming for a one-shot win or steady-Eddie getting things done). […]