When we redesign instruments, everyone becomes a musician | Richard Cooke | TEDxMileHigh


Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Denise RQ In this modern world, our ears are filled
with intricate, professional music; and it’s easy to forget
that at its essence, music is very simple. As a young child, it was impossible for me to hear that wonderful music
without wanting to play it too. And so it was with high hopes, I set off to my first piano lesson
at six years old, and I came home with a magical book
tucked under my little arm, a book that contained music. But the reality of reading
the notes on the page and playing the song about the little bear
soon brought tears to my eyes. And all through school,
it was much the same: always wanting to play,
and always being a beat behind the music. The struggle never let up, and after high school, I put the whole thing aside,
glad to be done with it. I expect many, if not most of you,
have had a similar experience, no matter how long and hard you tried. I had heard about playing by ear, but no one in school ever spoke
about how it was done. It sounded wonderful, this not having to read
in order to play music, but how to do it? One day, a friend put a flute in my hands, and I swore an oath: I would take no lesson,
I would read no music, and I would find my way somehow
into the music of that flute simply by playing around
and waiting for the music to emerge. With that flute, I walked everywhere,
constantly playing, trying to ambush the music
with every trick I could think of. People hated me I was so bad. (Laughter) I would walk up to doors
and keep playing, and wait for someone to come along
and open the door for me. I played so constantly my lips bled. But I kept trying, and one day,
I was able for the first time to track the music
to its lair and let it out. And little by little, I learned
to keep up with it as it bounded along. That flute, eventually,
by twists and turns, led me to a professional career
and even a Grammy award, but it was not the concert scene
that enticed me nor the tours abroad. Instead, it was trying to teach others how they might experience this freedom
of playing music instinctively. So many barriers stand in the way of that, and I resolved to try
to knock them down one by one. This was as difficult
as it had been learning to play by ear because I knew nothing
about how to build instruments. But I knew it was the difficult
instruments, as well as the written page, that were the stumbling blocks for people wanting access
to their own inner musician. So I tried a few things. I knew I would have to deal first
with the immense hurdle of wrong notes. Everyone who has tried to play knows the anguish of having the music stop because a note goes wrong. I decided to take them all out (Laughter) and use only the white notes of the piano,
and leave the black keys, the sharps and flats,
for Chopin and Beethoven. Then, all those intricate finger movements
that take years to master: I knew those had to be gotten around also. And so I started to build xylophones that are played
not by the tiny finger muscles but by the long, strong,
coordinated muscles of the arms and hands, the same ones a baby uses
to shake a rattle. And then I found a way
to make the tones sound like this. (Music) So anyone who started to play (Music) wouldn’t want to stop because it sounds and feels
so good to hear these tones. (Music) I then chose materials for the notes
that never go out of tune, and designed intriguing shapes
for the instruments to invite exploration. These unusual shapes also convey that there’s no particular
correct way to play them because they look so different
from normal xylophones. I designed these instruments
so no difficult thinking is needed. (Music) Playing them is like
finger painting with tone, and these tones (Music) these movements (Music) this freedom to play makes people happy. In fact, the most common sound
when people play these instruments is laughter. This happiness is healthful;
it’s something we all need. But there was another problem: not everyone can afford
to buy an instrument, let alone several,
so they can play with their friends, which is when the music
really comes alive. I wondered to myself,
what would happen in our country if everyone who wanted
to play music could do so? How could I make that happen? Few people have a tennis court
or golf course in their backyard, and I thought, why don’t
we put instruments in the public parks? The same as monkey bars and swing sets,
so everyone can play whenever they wish. And that’s how I started
to make music parks 20 years ago, so we could all have a share in the joy that animates the faces
of the professionals when they are playing their hardest. (Laughter) And now there are over
1,000 music parks around the world. And these are simple:
just a collection of outdoor instruments that are easy to play and accessible
to everyone in the community. Playing music really isn’t difficult once the hard bits
have been stripped away. When children get their feet wet in the musical wading pools
of these park instruments, they can then dive deeper, confidently,
into music studies in school if they choose. But even if they go no further
than jamming in the sunshine, they know deep down they can play music. For children, this instant mastery
of musical expression improves self-esteem and confidence, and helps with school work in challenging
subjects such as science and math. Of course, the correlation between playing music
and increased creative intelligence is well documented. But more than that, playing music is emotionally balancing. It connects us with our truest
and deepest selves. There is a reason it’s called soul music. And it’s not just for kids;
adults love to play, and these instruments let anyone play
regardless of skills or disabilities. Families get to play together, and people of different ethnic
and economic backgrounds meet up and play, who might otherwise never interact. They exchange smiles and laughter because at its essence,
playing music is just plain fun. Music parks are breaking down the barriers
that have separated us for so long into the 1% who can play music, and the 99% who wish they could, and that’s good for everyone. This natural music is the first rung
on the music ladder, and I like to compare it
with how we learn language as infants. We start just by making sounds, and then gradually, we imitate
the speech patterns around us. We are not handed a dictionary first! (Laughter) Music parks put play
into discovering music, and give immediate entry into jamming,
which is when the music plays us. Music parks make sense. They contribute significantly,
creating healthy communities, and they promote the learning
of music among children and adults. Playing music makes us kinder and happier, and that’s reason enough
to put these in every community. We can all use more kindness and joy, and when we make playing music easy,
in a joyful environment, we have a new model for engaging
children and adults in music, and that’s good news,
for our brains, our souls, and most importantly, our communities. I hope that each one of you
has the opportunity to experience this new form
of community and music, and to discover where your own music is waiting for you. Thank you. (Applause)