This morning I helped for the first period of 6th grade band and it got me thinking about all the things I like to say to kids when I visit a classroom or teach at summer camp. They all came tumbling out, in no particular order. Well, except for the first one, because I think it’s great that the school district provides instruments to students. I’ve studied on termite-infested pianos in Cuba and homemade instruments in Brazil, and these did nothing to deter the amazing local musicianship I experienced.

  1. A broken string or loose tuning peg? These are not signs of a decrepit instrument, they are basic maintenance! Make a plan to fix it, then count your blessings — because in many countries they make instruments out of garbage!
  2. The music is in your mind, your body and your ears. The instrument is just one way to play it.
  3. Pitch and rhythm are not optional.
  4. Notice the clash of vibrations (the speed of beating in the air) when notes are out of tune. Learn to feel the ringing, tingling sensation and the ascending ladder of overtones when an orchestra is in tune.
  5. It’s easier to play together if we start the game by following (subjective) rules such as an equal tempered scale.
  6. Don’t let the modern culture of expertise — or its opposite obsession with instantaneous results — dissuade you from making music.
  7. Music is collaborative. There is an I in collaboration but it comes after the two Ls (for listening extra hard) and the T (for teamwork).
  8. Reading music, recognizing intervals, counting rhythms, syncopating and developing independence are marvelous skills. If you know any of these things, give yourself credit!
  9. Perhaps the most valuable lesson of music is that it is a completely present-focused activity, akin to meditation.
  10. Reading music and playing by ear should be developed equally. Neither is better than the other, but music notation is simply the most sensible way to represent pitch, rhythm and harmony, so it makes sense to learn it while you’re young and it’s still easy.
  11. There’s no such thing as going too slow.
  12. Talent is a distraction. Find the the role model, song, rhythm or timbre that ignites your passion, and talent will be irrelevant.
  13. Dancing is the instinctive response your body makes to music. Notice what makes your toe tap, your spine stretch, your waist wiggle, your head nod.
  14. You must be able to sing it to play it.
  15. Learn one note at a time. Work up to a measure at a time. When all the pieces click and it sounds musical, the feeling will be addictive.
  16. The world would be pretty boring if there was only one kind of music.
  17. Find the sweet spot where you test your abilities and explore limits, not the safe spot where everything sounds perfect.
  18. Practicing is an art in itself, as is teaching.
  19. Overcoming a bad teacher or lack of resources will make you a stronger, more resilient player. Life is not easy. Having the finest coaches and expensive instruments can be nice, if you’ve never had that, but far from necessary for musical success.
  20. Music is not about music.