Thursday, October 11, 2012


There's the old joke about the tourist in New York who asks a street musician for directions. "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

"Practice, man," answers the musician, "practice."

Musicians, actors and poets, will sometimes talk about the "chops" of their colleagues. The term can be traced back to the fifteenth century, when it simply referred to the jaw or sides of your face. Musicians then began to use it to refer to their embouchure (from "bouche", mouth, i.e, the apparatus of the mouth), and Merriam-Webster has a nice phrase to capture this: "the technical facility of a musical performer". It is important to keep in mind that the embouchure is not just the muscles of the face, it is "the position and use of the lips, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument". It is not just the equipment, but your facility with it. It is your readiness to use it, an apparatus.

Needless to say, you acquire this apparatus, this readiness, this facility, by practice. When musicians talk admiringly of a peer's "chops", it is a gesture towards the countless hours that were spent training their face to make the sounds that come out of their instrument. This language has also been adopted by other arts, where it means simply "expertise in a particular field or activity". Chops do not account for everything, but they count for a lot. Certain scenes require acting chops, certain poems demonstrate poetic chops. Etc. Sure, innate talent and the intercession of the muse is also at times required. But you need those chops to benefit from the less "earned" part of the craft. As Hamlet said, "the readiness is all".

My work is all about helping scholars develop their writing chops. These constitute an important component of the technical facility of a scholar.

No comments: