What do pianists and scribes have in common, and why do pianists make good scribes?
By 'pianist', I mean anyone who has learned to play classical piano (whether or not they still play). By 'scribe', I mean a person who scribes as you speak then edits that transcript into a report, or minutes, submission, notes or other document. In the 20th century, scribes used Pitman's Shorthand then typed up their notes on a typewriter. Nowadays, most scribes type what's being said directly into a laptop or computer.
Both pianists and scribes need: 1) good posture, 2) a comfy chair, 3) the confidence/courage to just keep going, no matter what, and 4) people to remember they are only human.
Whether playing the piano or typing at a computer or laptop, correct posture is absolutely essential.
I started learning classical piano at the age of seven after which I played piano every day and went to piano lessons every week for the next ten years. I was coached by my teacher to sit with my back relaxed but straight as a poker; use cushions under my bum so that my elbows were level with my wrists; ensure my hands were level with my wrists; curve the fingers and use the sensitive finger tips to strike the keys.
Scribes and editors reading this article will by now be smiling at the similarities between good posture for a pianist and good posture for a typist; how to hold the hands when playing the piano and typing into a computer keyboard.
If you work in a profession that requires you to type into a computer keyboard and you don't have good posture, you'll end up with aching muscles and worse in your back, neck, wrists, fingers, ankles. You can avoid most of those problems by keeping your back straight, wrists level with elbows, hands hovering above the keyboard (not resting on the desk), and fingertips only - not the flats of your fingers - striking the keys. The only tools on my 'posture essentials' list for typists that I never used when playing the piano are an adjustable footrest and ergonomic mouse.
If you're a scribe - i.e. scribe what people are saying as they speak - you can't always take regular breaks and the pressure that you're under when scribing can make your body tense. If you're scribing via telephone (as I often do), and are in your own office chair with your own desk and computer and footrest, good posture isn't hard to maintain. However, if you're at someone's meeting scribing minutes into your laptop using someone else's chair, table or desk, you can't always ensure good posture.
Note: I haven't mentioned the other types of positions some typists use such as sitting or kneeling on kneeling chairs, or standing up, because I haven't ever used those methods or posture myself.
All pianists know the value of a comfy chair.
A comfortable chair for a pianist doesn't mean a soft chair. A comfy chair means a chair that encourages good posture so you'll be comfortable sitting in that chair for long periods while you are at work. If your chair is the wrong height or the seat the wrong shape for your body, it's not a good chair for playing the piano.
Or for typing into a computer or laptop, which requires not only a comfy but an adjustable chair.
Sometimes when you're scribing a meeting, you can't take a moment's rest until there's a gap in the proceedings. Even if your posture is very good, typing for a long time without a break does make your muscles stiff if you don't change position. That's why it's essential to have a fully adjustable chair that allows you to adjust the height and/or angle of your seat slightly, every now and then, which changes the muscles you're using and shares the load, to to speak, around the different muscles in your neck, back, arms, wrists and hands.
Note: obviously this doesn't apply to typists who use kneeling or standing positions when typing into a computer or laptop.
The reason why pianists tend to make not only good typists but very good scribes is because they've learned that whenever you make a mistake you have to just keep going.
If you're playing the piano and make a mistake in an examination or other performance, you have to continue playing as if nothing happened and stay focused on the task at hand. If you get upset about your mistakes it just causes you to make more of them. So pianists learn to stay calm and confident despite any mistakes so they can continue to do their job.
Whether you're scribing meetings, reports or other documents, if you're scribing verbatim your job is to scribe what people are saying as quickly as they say it, directly into the computer. You don't have to type every single word or type each word fully but you have to be able to type almost all of it so that later on, when editing the transcript, you're able to fill in all the gaps. But it can be difficult to keep up, especially when people start talking quickly or all at the same time, and there's a lot of pressure to capture everything very quickly and every now and then you will miss have a moment where you miss something important and feel like throwing your hands up in the air. That's where it's important to remain calm and just keep on typing.
That's why pianists make particularly good scribes. If you're a pianist, you already know how to stay calm under pressure and your fingers will be nimble and fast, and if people start talking very quickly your fingers will simply fly more quickly. You'll naturally leave out the less important words and you'll make lots of mistakes but it's the same as when playing the piano: when you make a mistake you need to simply note it mentally and then move on, remaining focused on the task at hand. You'll be able to fill in those gaps and correct the mistakes afterwards, during the editing stage.
Check out my other articles about scribing, and how to scribe well: The path from typist to scribe
Have you seen the wonderful Australian movie, Shine, based on the life of the amazing pianist David Helfgott? All the public saw was a brilliant pianist: a genius. But pianists are not machines; they're human beings with emotions and needs and personal lives, and this is the conflict and tragedy explored in Shine.
Scribes are also human. We need regular breaks or our fingers and hands will ache afterwards. Scribes have feelings and emotions. Occasionally, I've scribed a meeting that's dealt with a painful topic that's roused my emotions, but I've had to quickly dampen them down so I could continue to do my job: document that discussion, or meeting or report. So however emotive a subject may be, I put my feelings aside and just keep scribing, then deal with how I feel afterwards when the pressure's off.
To read more about dealing with confidential sensitive or disturbing subject matter go to: Debriefing confidentially
Sally-Anne Watson Kane has over 20 years' experience scribing interviews, meetings, discussions, seminars, testimonies and oral histories. She produces selection reports and referees' reports, submissions and applications, and minutes.
Keep posted for future articles about the issues and challenges of scribing and editing.