When we redesign instruments, everyone becomes a musician: Richard Cooke at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

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. 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.

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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 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 wouldn’t want to stop because it sounds and feels so good to hear these tones. 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, 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.

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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.

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