Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Let Them Have Music!

Yesterday's posting mentioned my upcoming TEDx talk this Saturday. Below is a draft of my thoughts. Any readers out there who want to give me advice or encouragement, write to 

Often when I begin a music workshop with university students or classroom teachers, I ask “Who here is a musician? Who here is musical? Who hear loves to listen to music?” Invariably, a few raise their hands for the first question, some more tentatively put their hands up for the second (usually around 25%) and everybody raises their hands high for the last. The first is understandable— not all are willing or have the opportunity to devote the necessary time to master the difficult language of music. The last is predictable and simple proof that music is as essential to our humanity as bread. But the part that concerns me is the 75% who think they’re not musical. Why is that?  Often because  nobody in their schooling (including some music teachers!) took them by their hand and led them through the door of their own musicality. At my school and at every age from 3 years old to 8th grade, all the children raise their hands for all three questions. 

So my life’s work is to raise the percentage of our musical population and convince schools and teachers and administrators and parents that this is important and necessary. And if they’ve never had music in their schooling or never had a music education that was truly musical, this is a challenge.

My first job is to expand the definition of music from learning to play a particular instruments and read notes to a way of experiencing the music in every aspect of our life, finding the music in language, in math, in our own bodies, with simple materials close at hand, no assembly required. I’m lucky to have stumbled into an approach to music education developed by Carl Orff, the Orff Schulwerk, that does precisely that.

The second is to make real Howard Gardner’s assertion that music is an intelligence we all equally possess as a potential, not an inborn talent reserved for the special few. At my school, every child has music almost every day for the full eleven years, from 3 years old to 8th grade and they’ve proven that Gardner was right— music is an intelligence that can be nurtured and cultivated like any other. Here’s a testimony from one of the students who came late to our school in 6th grade:

“I learned to play jazz which is really cool because I thought I couldn’t play anything. I’ve  always thought that you can’t learn music, but being in your class really changed my mind.”

So when I say that music is the birthright of all and that school is one place we can gift children with it, I mean all children at every age in every school and nothing less. In every class I teach, the children show me why music in schools is essential—not one of them needs to be convinced. But for all of you sitting on these imaginary school boards who haven’t experienced this for yourselves, it’s harder to understand why we should care so much about this. So let’s look at the big picture.

I’ve heard it said that no kid in jail has ever been in a band. That’s another way to say that a kid who joins a gang is telling us, “You have not given me what I need so I have to find it myself. I’ll belong to a gang, apprentice myself to violence, show my power with guns or knives, be known through the newspaper headline.” The things that drive kids to gangs and violence are the same basic human needs and drives that we all share put into the wrong container. The band—and here I mean any band— the jazz band, the string orchestra, the Orff ensemble, the dance group— is the right container for those energies.

And this is not conjecture. Someone like José Abreu en Venezuela armed youth-at-risk with violins in his work known as El Sistema and saved some 400,000 lives from going down the dark path, bringing beauty and belonging into their lives.  It works. Big time. Here’s a list of five deep needs a good music program can feed and nourish:

• DISCIPLINE: The old joke “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice” is true. We all have an urge for mastery and disciplined practice is the only road to success. Children who practice have a sense of being connected to something worthy where they can note their growth and progress, enjoy a sense of achievement, wake up each morning with a purpose and something that connects the dots of each day. The musician is always working on something, on their way somewhere and that keeps them fresh and vital.

• POWER: There is nothing worse than feeling powerless— think of your rage when you push a button on the computer and nothing happens. Children especially feel helpless and look for power in all sorts of places—superheroes, temper tantrums, video games. Music puts the right kind of power in their hands, the power to shape a phrase and express an emotion and communicate with others. To learn how to get vibrato from a string or the right touch for each hand in the Mozart sonata or how to growl or bend a blues note on the horn gives children a sense of powerful control and puts in literally in their hands.

• BELONGING: We are social creatures and go to great lengths to belong to groups, to feel part of a group. At its best, we also want to feel that we are of value to the group, are known and celebrated in the group and can contribute something worthwhile. Well, that’s music. Whether you’re playing first violin or last triangle, your note is necessary to the overall effect and you must do the work to get the note in the right place at the right pitch with the right feeling. Then you connect with something larger than yourself, that beautiful feeling of blending into the big choral sound or losing yourself in the thundering of drums. There are so many levels to this belonging. To the ensemble, to the instrument group inside of the ensemble, to the musical style, to the music itself, to the community refreshed by the performance.

• MEANING: There are other things that offer discipline, power and belonging. Sports, for example. But there are two more things that music gives us that nothing else quite does in the same way. The first is another basic human need as old as our evolved brain. The brain’s number one job is to perceive pattern and make sense out of apparently random information, all the way from “how do I get food in this cafeteria?” to “What is the meaning of life?” One reason why we crave music is that it’s one of humanity’s finest expressions of meaning. We sit in the concert hall, a note sounds that announces it’s time to leave clock time and the world of randomness and release ourselves to a journey in which each note is connected to every other in a coherent pattern. It proceeds in its own inexorable logic  reaches a conclusion and sets us back down to clock time. We’re not only refreshed by the way music’s vibrations affects our nervous system, our muscles, our brain waves, our breathing rhythms, but by the soothing effect of being in a world, however briefly, where everything makes sense. Here’s how a character in Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain talks about it:

"Music held more for him that just pleasure. There was meat to it. The grouping of sounds, their forms in the air as they rang out and faded, said something comforting to him about the rule of creation. What the music said was there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just tangle and drift but have a shape, an aim.”

BEAUTY: And finally, beauty. Beauty doesn’t scan well in the school curriculum and testing talk, but we all—children and adults alike— hunger for it . Here’s a quote from Les Mis— the book!

“You are always eager to make everything useful, yet here is a useless plot. It would be much better to have salads here than bouquets.”

…the bishop replied, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a moment’s pause. “Perhaps more so.” 

Come with me when I play piano for my Mom at her Old Age home and you’ll see the wheelchairs racing to the piano like wildlife flocking to the waterhole in a drought to drink from the fount of music. Come sing with me to my one-year old grandchild to see how the beautiful tones soothe her and rock her to sleep. Come watch the children in my music class so joyfully playing, singing and dancing. Imagine your own children given this gift of belonging, discipline, self-power, meaning and the lifelong habit of pursuing beauty. Listen to the testimony of these two wise 7th graders:

"Music is very important to me. Why? Because it can fill in your blanks. It's flexible the way you are. You can always find music that fits your mood. You know that saying "misery loves company?" Well, music is a perfect proof of that. It makes you feel that there is someone else out there who feels the same way you do. It shares your pain and builds your spirits. It fills those bare silences. Music is like colorful emotion that spreads over the room whenever it is played. Everyone should be allowed or able to feel that color, that emotion as it flows through them. "      - Morgan Cundiff

“Music isn’t just notes written on paper or different frequencies. Music isn’t a “thing” at all. Music is a way of life. You can live through music, you can feed on it, you can find relief in it. I use music as a passage and the passage can go wherever I want it to. Jazz, classical, rock ‘n’ roll, they're all different passageways of music. Music brings you to a new dimension. Perhaps it’s an Ab major dimension or a Techno dimension. Whatever that dimension is, it’s the one you want.”  - Jackson Vanfleet-Brown

“It’s the one you want.” Every day of my teaching life tells me it is indeed what the children want. It’s what they deeply need. My advice to you, to your children’s schools, to schools everywhere, is very simple, “Let’s give it to them.”


  1. Doug, my friend, you are an inspiration to me. Thank you.

  2. Replies

    1. Find someone who has a lot of experience teaching and
      performing. Make sure it is someone who will teach you
      to read music and understand some music theory. You DON'T
      want a teacher who just bangs away and tells you to follow

      somerset drum lessons
      wells drum lessons
      street drum lessons

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


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