Music, Love, and Making a Difference

How do you teach a thing, knowing that you will not truly succeed unless something much deeper comes with it?  How do you illuminate joy?  How do you communicate the meaning of necessary love?  And how do you show that, like it or not, we each make a difference?


I kept glancing anxiously at the clock in my classroom.  This was our last day of class before exams.  My lone three IB Music juniors had five hundred years of music to review and I wasn’t sure we would even finish analyzing the Beethoven string quartet that I had chosen.  But then … did it really matter?  What was more important right now?  With seven minutes left in class, I thumped my book closed.  “Okay, quickly put away your things.  There’s something else I want to talk about right now.”
The three of them looked at me funny – curious and relieved.  It was, after all, the last block of the day and they were rather ragged.  “Okay, I’ve been thinking lately … and this is going to sound a little weird at first, but please just go with me.  There is a point at the end of it …”  They gave each other looks of “Uhhh … what’s she going to say now …?” and finished putting their things away.

I paused.  “Suppose a man looks at his wife one night and says ‘Honey, do I have to kiss you goodnight?’ She says, ‘You have to, but not that kind of have to.'”

I paused again and Lewis laughed.  “What!?”

“Hold on, just think about it.  What might she mean by, ‘you have to, but not that kind of have to’?”  They looked around – silence – an amused befuddlement in their sideways glances; so, I repeated myself.  After a third moment of silence, I went on.  “There are some things in life that we do because we have to, but if we do them because we have to, we’ve missed the meaning of the thing itself.  Does that make sense?”  I looked at each of them.  “He has to kiss her to love her, but if he kisses her because he has to he’s not actually loving her.”  Again I paused trying to choose my words carefully.  “Love comes with obligations, but obligation alone is not love.”

Lewis, leaning back in his chair and chewing his gum thoughtfully in his front teeth, spoke again.  “Yeah, actually, I get that.  Makes total sense.  I just don’t see where you’re going with this, Ms. Lillis.”

“Every year I try to communicate this in different ways to my music classes.  There are some things you do and it doesn’t matter how you feel about them.  Like brushing your teeth.  It doesn’t matter if you love to brush your teeth or you hate it.  As long as the job gets done, great.  But music?  Music is more like love than like brushing your teeth.  Making and experiencing music is expression, communication, and participation.  It is a deep joy even when it is tragic.  For you guys to be in this class means that there is something deep that draws you to it.  And that deeper joy is what you need search out and hold on to.  If you find that you’re only doing this because you have to – only practicing or studying because you have to – you’ve lost sight of the most important thing itself.  Yes, I have to teach you the brain stuff, the history and theory and everything else.  I do it because I love it, but it’s not the brain part that’s important.  It’s the love part that’s important.  That is what I want you to take away and think about this summer.  How are you going to be involved next year?  How will you be involved in the musical life of this community?  What will you choose to participate in?  I’m telling you that you have to, but I don’t want you to do it because you have to.  Find the thing that brings you joy and nurture that.  It will be the most valuable gift you have to give all of us, including yourself.”


I looked over the chatty middle school choir students that had just come through the door.  Lunch had just ended and we were now officially three minutes into class.  The last two students hurried in and I ignored them.  With enthusiastic energy in my voice, I raised a pencil and asked “Who here believes that one person can make a difference?”  They looked at me blankly for half a second.  This was not a typical start to choir.  Some giggled.  A few tentatively put up their hands as if to say, “Is this a trick question?  This should be obvious right?”  “Great!” I said with a smile.  “Give me some ways that one person makes a difference.  Just a few.”  They took the bait.  A couple students started to talk at the same time but I quickly pointed my pencil at one with a raised hand.  They gave the typical answers – make someone’s day better, speak up for others, lead a country – but I wasn’t bothered with the depth of thought at the moment.

Without a pause, I moved on.  “So, I didn’t specifically ask for a positive difference, but you guys started with all positive things.  That’s great of course.  Now who here can think of ways that one person can make a negative difference?”  They didn’t need much time to think – thieves, gossipers, and suicide bombers were top of their lists.  Again, I didn’t press for profundity.  I was merely setting the stage.  “You’re right!  One person can make a big difference – sometimes positive and sometimes negative.  And guess what?  It breaks my heart to say that one person in THIS class has made a negative difference.  Last class, when we were all erasing the pencil marks in our music, ONE PERSON decided to stick the eraser end of a pencil into the very awesome pencil sharpener that has been hanging here all year.  And I know it wasn’t an accident because I found the pencil,” at which point I held up the deformed eraser end of the pencil in my hand, “and the end is filed part way down the metal.  There is now a big chunk of metal and rubber jammed in the sharpener and it’s broken.  No one can use it.”  They looked at me slightly deflated.  “Now I know that a pencil sharpener is not  a big deal compared to some of the other things that we just talked about.  But it does make a difference.  It means time and money for someone to unscrew and replace.  It means that I can’t sharpen any of the pencils you turn in until it gets replaced.”  I paused a moment.  “I’m not asking who did it, and I know it was only one out of the thirty of you.  Still, every one of you can make a difference.  Will that difference be positive or negative?  Think about it.”

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