How Playing Scales is Like Learning Grammar

I am a writer, but if you were to ask me before last week if I knew the difference between subject and object pronouns I would have said, “Wait, there’s more than one kind of pronoun? Wait, remind me which ones are pronouns.”

I started a tutoring job and on my second day I shadowed a fellow teacher. Afterward, I came home and my boyfriend took my hand and said, “What’s all this?” He was referring to the splotch of ink left on my hand from where I had been furiously taking notes.

I had learned more about grammar in those two hours of shadowing than I had since the seventh grade.

Immediately, I felt like a fraud. I had battled comma splices and dangling modifers during my MFA (they were my most frequent offenses) but no grammar battle I’d fought was as comprehensive as the tutoring this student had received. I asked myself, how am I supposed to tutor students in writing if I don’t even know the rules of grammar?

The reason I am unfamiliar with grammar is the same reason that I wasn’t a good musician. As a musician, I never practiced scales. I knew that scales were good for me, they would make my fingers move faster across the piano, and move nimbly up and down the buttons of my clarinet, but every time I started to play a scale the repetition bored me and I gave up. To me scales all sounded the same. The pattern of notes rarely changed, but the notes I was playing changed, and trying to remember if an F is sharp in a D major scale just seemed like a lot to remember. What I didn’t understand at the time was that scales are the building blocks of making more interesting harmonies in music. If I had been paying attention I would have noticed that in the patterns of those etudes and arpeggios I loved to play, there were scales lurking beneath.

“Playing Piano” by loudtiger via Flickr

The notion of “playing scales” is a part of any art form or practice. For my boyfriend, it’s learning computer code. He told me, “Learning code is like learning a new language except the syntax has to be perfect.”  Ballet dancers spend hours in front of a mirror practicing pliés. Tennis players throw hundreds of balls in the air hoping that their next serve will be an ace. But writers usually don’t have an instructor or coach standing over their shoulder to make sure they haven’t added punctuation to that gerund.

I divulged my fear of grammar to a few writers I know who are also teachers. They’re combined advice was this: When have you ever taken a course in just grammar? Nobody really knows the rules of grammar inside and out until they’ve had to teach grammar to someone else.

My next visit to the tutoring center I shadowed another teacher who was working with a student on her essay. This time the issue had to do with structure, and I was glad when I was able to provide some useful feedback. It gave me confidence that even if my grammar is shaky I have something to offer.

But the moment I really knew I could learn grammar well enough to instruct others was when I discovered, while poring over pronouns and verb agreements, that I wasn’t bored. In studying these patterns I could see the myriad harmonies, the scales underneath the etudes–the possibilities to make great sentences.

The best part? It made me want to write.

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