The Primer for People Who Want to Listen Good (and Maybe Do Other Stuff Good, Too)


This primer is a rundown of basic concepts that help us break down and understand the music we listen to. It does not aim to be exhaustive. It does not aim to be technical. It merely aims to introduce.

Important note: you do not need to know these concepts to enjoy music. Enjoying music is so reflexive it is almost instinctive. That’s a whole book, right there, so I’m not going to get into it. Just to say, if you’re happy with your understanding of music, keep on being happy about it!

I would say this article, as brief as it may be, would serve better as a reference until you get the idea. It will be linked back to in blog posts, in the event you need a refresher.


It seems obvious, no? Music consists of sound. But what is sound? Physics classes will teach that sound is a wave moving through some substance. Sure, but not quite. It’s missing two crucial elements: our ears and brains.

For my purposes, sound is the intersection of a physical wave, the substance it moves through, how it arrives in our ears, and how it is interpreted by our brains into the experience we call sound.

Altering any of these elements will alter the sound we perceive.

Tone vs. Note

A distinction I wish I had learned much earlier as a musician. Tone is the quality of the sound we hear. Quality not in the sense of “good” or “bad,” but quality in the sense of differentiating the sound of one instrument from another.

Notes are the way we write down music so that it can be remembered, passed on, and reproduced by somebody else. There are many ways music is translated into notation, so many that it is worth its own blog post.

Historically, most music was, and is, passed on and learned by ear. Even if something is written down, notation does not necessarily communicate how the idea is translated into sound. Many, sometimes most!, of the details are lost in translation.

Pitch vs. Noise

A real can of worms, this. In broad strokes: pitches are sounds whose waves have a regular form and pattern to them; noise are sounds which don’t. Both are used in music.

Pitch and noise exist on a spectrum. Most instruments produce complex sounds containing some combination of each.

Instruments like the voice, the violin, the flute – these generally make music using pitch mostly containing pitch.

Instruments like the cymbals, the snare drum, the clave – these generally make music using sounds mostly containing noise.

Important note: “noise” is often used to denigrate music. This is not the sense I will use the term. If you want a historical sampling of negative musical critiques, check out the fantastic “Lexicon of Musical Invective,” by Nicolas Slonimsky.


You can have music without pitch, but you can’t have music without rhythm. Rhythm is the pattern of note lengths over time. If you want to get really philosophical about it, because pitch is a wave with a regular pattern repeating within it, pitch is also rhythm.

Is that strange? That pitch is rhythm? Well, check out Adam Neely's talk, Pitch is Rhythm:

Rhythm can be more or less regular, more or less complex. The pattern can repeat often or not. Patterns can be layered on top of other patterns.

Tempo vs. Beat

Tempo is the speed at which we perceive musical change. When music changes slowly, we tend to hear a slow tempo. When music changes quickly, we tend to hear a fast tempo.

The beat is a more or less regular pulse which underlies the music. The beat might be audible, as is the case in almost every dance ever, or it might be hidden. Even when the beat can’t be heard in the music itself, musicians very often have a sense of beat going on within them.

Re: the beat – I say “more or less” regular because, since the invention of the metronome, many musicians have the sense that the beat is a strictly defined pulse. For electronic music, the pulse is strictly defined and unchanging because a computer is doing it. For most of the rest of music of all time, it’s a bit squishier.

Never underestimate drumming, though, especially in groups. Even without metronomes, humans have an uncanny ability to hone in on a regular pulse when drumming is involved.

Melody vs. Harmony

I feel like these terms are thrown around so often, we have an instinctive understanding of what they are. But just in case (because you can never be too sure), melody is a sequence of tones made by a single voice, while harmony is produced by two or more voices creating different tones simultaneously.

While English speakers would be comfortable think of melody as a “horizontal” element and harmony as a “vertical” element, that’s probably a bit too simple for our needs. You can think of melody as the pattern which unfolds in time and harmony as the sound stacked in the moment. Another way to think of it is, harmony results at the intersection of multiple melodies.

With my definitions, I made the deliberate choice to use tones instead of pitches. It is true that the majority of music we interact with in English speaking countries consists largely of pitched music, but melodies and harmonies can be created even with “unpitched” percussion. Drum circles depend as much on the tonal difference between percussive instruments as on the interlocking rhythms created by the players. Which brings us to our next term...


There are loads of instruments. So many. Too many? Maybe. They all have unique sounds. Timbre is the qualities of the sounds which allow us to differentiate one instrument from another. The actual details involved get… involved. Probably too much so. But if you like physics, you can learn more by reading up on the harmonic series!


When all of the previously mentioned elements combine, they form Captain Planet! Ah, wait. Wrong. Wrong blog. They form texture, is what I meant.

There is still a bit missing – how many people* are playing, and how they relate to each other musically. Texture can be thin, like a single flautist playing a single melody, or it can be dense, with lots of people playing lots of different things. The spectrum in between is, I hope, implied.

Out of all the possible ways musical elements can be combined, four come up with such regularity they have been named. They are monophonic, homophonic, polyphonic, and heterophonic.

Vast diversity lies within these categories. They are bucket definitions, not surgical tools.

Monophonic – one instrument, one tone. A single singer singing a cappella. A shepherd playing a flute all by their lonesome.

Homophonic – A melody with some amount of harmony. A singer accompanied by a strumming guitarist. Almost all pop music.

Polyphonic – Multiple voices playing multiple melodies. Harmony results, but is not the main focus. An organist playing a fugue. Renaissance motets. Drum circles.

Heterophonic – Multiple voices playing slight variations of the same melody. An Irish session. Japanese gagaku. Indonesian gamelan.


Last, but not least, form is the structure of patterns over the course of an entire musical work. It asks the question, “What repeats and when?” Over time, certain forms occur often enough we give them their own names. There are far too many forms to cover here. Individual forms will receive their own posts at a later time.  

From Here to Later

That's plenty to get us started. This primer will grow new sections over time, so if there isn't anything you thought should be covered but isn't, that's probably because I haven't written it yet. Or I forgot. That happens a lot, too. Until next time!

Teaching Kids to Read Music Good and Do Other Stuff Good, Too

It is no secret that playing music is difficult. I mean, just go ask random strangers on the street to sing, and you'll get answers ranging from “I can't sing” to a black eye because there's some parts of town you don't just go and talk to random strangers. It gets worse if you give them a viola and ask them to try it out. I'd recommend against that.

Don't get me wrong. Some people can sing in this world. Some people can even play violas. But in America, at least, there is a noticeable dearth of musical knowledge. I would bet the pants on my head that the extent of the average American's musical repertoire consists of The Alphabet Song (aka Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (aka Ah, vous dirai-je, maman)), Row Row Row Your Boat, The Itsy Bitsy Spider, Frere Jacques, The Star-Spangled Banner, and random snippets of Stephen Foster tunes. Maybe some hymns. Oh, and a handful of Christmas songs.

I don't bring this point up to berate the American public, I bring it up because I've noticed it makes teaching musical literacy (by which I mean the ability to look at a sheet of music and sing or play it mostly accurately by sight, much in the same way a literate person such as yourself can look at these words I have typed and understand them mostly accurately the first time through)... Sorry, got lost in the parenthetical there. Teaching musical literacy is really hard in America. I don't know if it's just America. I suspect it's not, but that's the experience I've got to work with so I'm running with it.

To be sure, teaching literacy of any kind is rather difficult. Think of how long it takes or took your kids to learn how to read even their own language. It took a rather long time. Much, much quicker than your friend's kids, of course, but still. We're talking years of reading at a very basic level to get to the point where a bunch of otherwise random scribbles become imbued with the sounds and meaning of words they already know. Ask your kiddo to say “Cat,” and they say “Cat” pretty quick. Ask your illiterate but otherwise genius kid to read “Cat” and, all of a sudden, they're reduced to “C-A-T... Cat.” Reading is hard, is what I'm saying.

Reading music is also hard, but it is made more difficult by the aforementioned lack of musical... anything, really. Imagine you don't speak a word of Japanese. Imagine you don't even know what Japanese is. You are walking down the street when, suddenly!, you are the unwitting victim of a strange bearded man brandishing flash cards with Japanese writing on them. “What's they say? WHAT'S THEY SAY?!?!?!” he cries, shoving card after card in front of your face. Confronted with what is clearly gibberish, you find yourself unable to answer and flee out of embarrassment, tears of ignorance streaming down your face. That or you flee to call the police to report the dude. Please do. That guy's been causing a ruckus for weeks.

The point I am trying to make is that learning to read a language without having a basic knowledge of what the symbols are attempting to convey is almost impossible. And yet, in classrooms across the American Public School System, many teachers are faced with just such a problem. They stand in front of a group of kids who have hardly a handful of familiar tunes in their head, and the teachers have to somehow guide the students towards musical literacy. Oh, and they have to help the kids learn to play immensely complex and often unintuitive musical instruments at the same time. Good luuuuuuuuck!

It's no wonder so many people come away from those classes feeling like they can't music. To be sure, Suzuki Shinichi, of Suzuki Method fame, recognized this problem and solved it by creating a system in which children are literally raised as if music were a second language in the home. The students learn by ear before they are asked to associate music they already know to musical symbols. I'm less familiar with Zoltan Kodaly's Method, but I have read that he came to the same basic conclusion: teach the concept before the notation. Teach the speech before the reading.

This approach is possible in music classes today, but we teach at a disadvantage. The issue we face comes down to the increasing atomization of musical experience. People today are more likely to engage with music by listening than by participating. Sometimes, a song becomes widely popular and fans will sing along at the band's concert, but we're a far cry from the days when whole communities knew a range of tunes which were familiar to more or less everybody, or when mother's sang to babies as a matter of course (they still do, I assume, but such an activity doesn't seem widely represented in popular media). Musical participation is so low that it has come to feel awkward, even strange, to express oneself musically with others... unless one is a musician already, of course.

So what do? Changing cultures is often a fool's errand because social inertia is such an overwhelming force. But we can change classes, when and how they are taught, and we can convince people to give music and other arts more of a priority in the classroom. There are, of course, other challenges. The Suzuki and Kodaly Methods are both great at what the do, but they require specialized training and participation is often costly, both in time and money. I don't know how to pull those barriers down, but it starts at the roots. Maybe if enough of us teachers can grow fast enough, the weeds will one day become the lawn.

Learn to Compose, Learn to Play

History is instructive. We have so many thousands of years of people doing things to learn from, how could it not be? (Don't answer that. I'm trying to maintain my faith in humanity today) Yes, we have much to learn from the ancients. Mostly, history seems to be an uninterrupted line of things that should have killed us, but didn't. Or it did, but it was ok because they had kids. Or it did, but it was ok because what they did was so stupid it made us stronger by removing idiots from the gene pool. This is why history is important: we learn to avoid the stupid things our ancestors did, like putting mercury in our hats, or think that green rooms made people ill because they were green and not because there was arsenic in the pigment.

Or we can learn from what the ancients did right, which was a surprisingly high number of things considering how frequently people were dying of diseases that could be prevented by taking a bath every now and then. One of those things they did right was (are you ready for this? I'm going to blow your mind), composing music and performing music used to not be separate things.

Say whaaaaaaat?

Yeah, that's right. If you were a performer, you were a composer, too. And vice versa, because there wasn't a distinction. To be sure, it wasn't a distinction because nobody thought to make a distinction. But to be fair in the other direction, nobody really could make a distinction because nobody really had a way to write down words for a really long time, much less write down musical notes and rhythms. It's hard to compose a tune for some spoony bard to play accurately if you can't put it on a stone tablet for them to read from.

What did people do? Well, they learned general rules of how things ought to work, and just sort of made things up as they went along. So every instance of performance was, in some way or another, an act of composition as well. Everything you played or sung followed rules, but those rules were really more... guidelines. It just wasn't anything you ever wrote down because that not only didn't exist, there existed people who thought that writing music down was literally impossible. Really? Yes. How quaint.

Now. Where am I going with this? As a teacher (if you are a teacher of musical instruments), we face two problems. First is teaching the instrument. You would expect that goes without saying, but you would be surprised. Second is the teaching of music. Again, you would be surprised. Part of teaching music nowadays is teaching music notation. Think, as a music teacher, how many times you have had a student mess up because of a basic reading error? How many times has a student flipped the letters of two adjacent lines or spaces? How many times have you had a student forget how to count a dotted-quarter note?

If you can answer those two questions with an actual number, you are either guessing, lying, or only just started teaching. The truly honest answer is, “Pretty much all the time is how much.” We then, as teachers, complain about the state of youth these days, and wax poetic about how good the good ol' days were when people walked to school uphill both ways, in the snow, then didn't bathe because that's how one caught typhus, and look at all the cases of typhus nowadays! It's a wonder anyone survives childhood anymore. Honestly!

But lets think about this problem for a moment. Imagine you have a literature class. Now imagine you ask the class to read a story. Now imagine all of your students only know the alphabet and they're trying to read this story. Now you have a good sense of a beginning music student's mind. Is it any wonder these note misreadings happen if the student doesn't even know how to form basic musical words? Playing Beethoven's 5th one note at a time is comparable to reading a Dickens novel one letter at a time. That is to say, in neither case are you reading, nor are you playing. It is entirely possible the information gets stuffed into your head one way or another, but since the information is without context, without pattern, without semantic meaning, there is no understanding. And without understanding, you find yourself easily falling into the trap of miscounting dotted-quarter notes, or misreading an F as an A, or any falling for any number of simple errors that are easily prevented once one learns to actually read.

That brings us to composition. Learning to compose a melody is not unlike learning to write a sentence. But in order to write a sentence, you have to know words and how to spell them. Here's the trick. We have an alphabet for music much as we have an alphabet for phonemes. A great many errors in musical practice have nothing to do with the instrument and everything to do with misreading the music on the page. But let me ask you this. Once you have learned to spell with any competence, do you ever feel in danger of forgetting the alphabet? No. Of course not. It's inconceivable! The otherwise random information of the alphabet has been organized into the far less random structures of language, and then used to the point that the alphabet is learned by rote. One hardly needs to think of the alphabet while writing, except for figuring out less known or particularly tricky words.

So it is with music. Once one has learned the “words” of music, once one has learned chords, scales, motives, and such and such and such, reading individual notes on the page becomes a trivial task. Reading errors will occur, of course, but much in the same way as a very literate person will correct a misspelling as soon as it is written, a musically literate performer will catch a note or rhythm misreading as soon as the error is played. And because such errors are found and corrected immediately, and because such errors are prevented from happening in the first place, less time is spent on what must be played and more time is spent on how one should play it. That is, one spends more time playing music.

“But Adam!” I hear the audience perhaps protest. “When does one begin teaching music composition? Teaching just the instrument is hard enough as is!” The answer is, “Immediately.” The trick is, don't tell them they're composing. Most students balk at the suggestion of being in any way creative because creativity is a thoughtcrime in schools throughout America, and the students are reminded of that every time they have to answer a multiple choice test question. What I have done with my students is, I put a sheet of staff paper in front of them, then draw four empty measures, give them a starting note, an ending note, and rest here or there. I then ask the student to pick some notes from the ones they know. As they name them, I ask them to write the note down.

Thus far, the student has no idea they are actually composing. They think they are doing a writing exercise. Little do they know, their devious teacher has a scheme! At some point as they write, I simply ask them to write the next measure the same as a measure they have already written. This is important, because recognizing patterns is crucial to reading music, words, or just, like, you know... existing in general. Once they have written four measures, I ask them to play it. They will make a couple of reading errors here and there. Then we draw four new bars, and I have the student pick some more notes, ask them to repeat a measure somewhere in there, and have them play that. After three or four of those exercises, reading errors are almost completely eradicated. All this in the space of a single lesson.

A whole lesson? Yes. And then another once the student learns some new notes. And then another. And then another... But think of the lessons you will rescue from the dregs of that dreaded question, “So what note is that again?”

Beware the Dreadnought!

Can Do Attitude

While looking up tai chi videos on Youtube, I came across what must be the most sensible piece of advice I have ever heard. It was one sentence: “Focus on what you can do.” In this case, he was discussing a hamstring stretch. If all you could manage was to get your hands down to your shins, then that was enough. If all you could do was get your hands to your knee, then that was enough. Do what you can do long enough and eventually you can do what you couldn't. That is the phrase. “Focus on what you can do.”

The Rebuttal

But what about all the things I can't do?!?!?! What if I'm trying to learn an instrument I've never played before? If I've never played the instrument, then I can't play it yet, so I can't even focus on what I can do because what I can do doesn't even exist yet!

The Rebutted Rebuttal

Yeah, sure, but that's totally not an accurate representation of how learning works. Think Mr. Miyagi. The Karate Kid needed to learn him some karate, and learn it fast. What did Mr. Miyagi do? Did he have the Karate Kid doing Flying Crane Style Judo Chops? No, of course not. He had the Karate Kid wax his car. Why? Because wax on wax off turns out to be an essential basic movement in karate, or most any martial art. The Karate Kid could do the movement, but not yet the art. Once the movement was perfected, he could then learn to use it in a different context.

Take playing the cello. Can you make your left hand into a “C?” Yes? Then you've got the about the right shape for the fingering hand. Can you do the Longhorn or the heavy metal \m/ symbol with your right hand? Then you're about half-way to a decent cello bow hold. Not all the way, mind you, but you're a good chunk of the way there. Congratulations! You didn't even expend any effort!

The point is, whatever you are attempting to learn must sprout from the seeds of knowledge that are already at hand even when you are a small child. If this were not so, it would be impossible to learn anything at all. How does a baby learn to speak? For a whole year, the child is doing little more than listening to the environment and to their family. Then what? The child does what the child can do: babble. The child babbles and babbles their way through a huge number of phonetic variations and, with a bit of encouragement from a kind parent or teacher, is nudged in the direction of the “correct” babbles.

At no point does the child think, “Oh no! I don't know what antidisestablishmentarianism means! Whatever shall I do?!?!” NO! The child babbles until something clicks, then practices what clicked until more sounds make sense, and then practices those until finally the child manages a coherent sentence.

So it is with writing: the child begins scratching scratches with a crayon; over time, and with direction, certain scratches are rewarded as the “correct” scratches; soon, the child has learned an alphabet, or the start of an enormous pictogram vocabulary; not long after, the child is writing “i luv mommy!” with an adorable backwards 'y.'

So it is with math. And science. And music. The germination of every subject comes from the observation of the external world, followed by the steady application of the instinctive advice, “Focus on what you can do.” It hardly ever occurs to a toddler what the toddler can't do, except insofar as the toddler is constantly seeing people do things that look kind of neat and, hey, maybe I should try that, too because that would be even neater.

The Dreadnought

At some point in ones life, however, one encounters a nasty monster: the Dreadnought. It is a combination of “cannot” and “ought” and “dread,” and it stands as the nemesis of all things beautiful and true. It begins innocently enough: One ought not run into the parking lot without looking around first because you'll get hit by a car and killed. I suppose, now that I look at that sentence, that is not a particularly innocent though, but that's where it starts. It starts with self preservation.

As long as the Dreadnought is confined to the world of self preservation, then everything is fine. The problem is, the Dreadnought is a terrible, vicious, greedy, gluttonous monster that will stop at nothing until it consumes all things in its path. When a young student is ridiculed for incorrectly answering the teacher's question, there is the Dreadnought. Wherever is a standardized test also lurks the Dreadnought. Wherever there is shame or guilt or embarrassment over the acquisition of skill or knowledge, you can bet the Dreadnought is there, waiting to feed upon a poor soul resigning itself to the infernal circle known as Iquit.

The Dreadnought says that a mistake is a failure. The Dreadnought says that one ought to know something even if one's foundation is unprepared for such knowledge. The Dreadnought says that knowledge Ought to be learned out of obligation, for status, rather than for the pleasure of learning and knowing. The Dreadnought says that if one ought, but one also cannot, then there not only no “do or do not,” there is not even try. The Dreadnought does everything in its power to trick, deceive, harass, and browbeat its victims into the Infernal Circle, Iquit, for exiting Iquit is infinitely more difficult than entering it. Indeed, once the victim has stepped into Iquit, it is likely the victim will remain to be forever feast upon by the Dreadnought.

Do you know what the Dreadnought hates most? “I can.” It hates the person who says, “Well, I can't do that yet, but I can do this.” It hates the person who says, “I can't do calculus yet, but I can do advanced algebra, and that gets me a long ways there.” It hates the person who says, “I can't play Flight of the Bumblebee at tempo yet, but I can play it at 30 beats per minute.” It hates the person who says, “I can't speak Chinese fluently, but I can say 'Hello,' 'Goodbye,' and 'How are you today?'”

The Dreadnought hates all of these statements for one reason, and one reason only. It hates them because they represent another step in a the Stairs of Knowledge, the stairs that lead the Dreadnought's dinner up and out of Iquit. It hates all of these statements because it knows that the person who says them will not stay on that step; the person who says them will soon see the next step they can take, and then another, and then another, and then, one day, the Dreadnought's dinner will have left Iquit completely.

“I can do advanced algebra” becomes “I can derive this function, and now that one.” “I can play Flight of the Bumblebee at 30bpm” soon becomes “I can play Flight of the Bumblebee at 60bpm.” “I can say 'Hello,' 'Goodbye,' and 'How are you today” soon becomes “I can say 'Hello, nice weather we are having! Want to join me for lunch?”

Yes, my friends, the Stairs of Knowledge are long and arduous, but at the end of them lies a sweet, sweet reward. You avoid getting eaten by the Dreadnought.

If that's not reason enough, then also consider when you learn to do something cool, everybody will be all like, “Oh, wow, you can speak Chinese? I'm sooooo jealous! I can barely speak my own language with any amount of competence, much less two languages! Teehee!” So, you know, there's that, too.

Words Not to Say

One day, I will settle on a writing schedule that will allow me to write, teach, practice, compose, and sleep more or less consistently. Today is not that day. Instead, I'm going to write a few words about a few words that I don't say while teaching any more.

Back up. I try not to say anymore. I have expunged a couple of these words from my teaching, and the effect has had a subtle impact on how my students receive my teaching. Namely, they listen more closlier, which means I repeat myself less often, which means I teach more in a lesson, which means my students get more better faster.

Before I go on, let me explain. This isn't about censorship. A good teacher will know not to say much outside of what they are teaching anyways. We've little time to spare for anything else. Nor is this about words of encouragement or discouragement that may or may not have the intended effect of encouraging or discouraging, depending on your personal attitude towards the student and/or any misguided attempts at reverse psychology.

No. These are little words. The littlest words are always the most importantest words. In this case, I mean to discuss the little words that are important because of their singular unimportance. They convey nothing, clutter up your teach-speak, take time away from actual teaching, and melt your student's attention span into a confectionery glaze which, while metaphorically delicious, is unhelpful to both long-term health and learning.

I of course do not mean to imply you use these words. No, you are far too erudite for that. I simply mean to imply that I have used these words, and that I have heard others use these words, and the results have always been less than ideal. Thus, my good reader, I wish only that you read these Words Not to Be Said, nod sagely, and say to yourself, "Yes, yes, this is quite right. One should never say such tripe in a lesson!" Now, onwards! To Excelsior!

Words not to say #1: "So."

I caught myself saying this today. Such a little word. Such a useless one. So easy to say so often. Look! I just wrote it twice without even trying! DAMN YOU LITTLE WORDS! "So" is perhaps the least offensive of these Words Not to Say. The problem is encapsulated by the Star Trek episode, The Trouble with Tribbles. A tribble is a little fluffy piece of cuteness that, unbeknownst to the Starship Enterprise, are cute, fluffy psychic parasites that multiply faster than rabbits at an Easter orgy. By the end of the episode, the Enterprise is filthy with the damned things, and much of the crew has been reduced to a drooling mass of whatever arcane fluid is produced when tens of millions of people watch a cat video on YouTube.

Such is the word "so." Individually harmless, when "so" catches a teacher unawares, it breeds until the speaker can hardly speak a word without prefacing it with the dreaded "So." Be wary, dear reader!

Words Not to Say #2: "Pretty."

I do not mean "Tabatha, you are very pretty today," although you should avoid saying such things lest you come off as a total creeper. Instead, I refer to the adverbial form of the word. "Pretty good." "Pretty bad." "Pretty alright." "Pretty pretty." "Pretty" is a word one uses to blunt the impact of the following word. Its entire purpose is to pull a word's meaning from extremity to the mean. The end result is language which is pretty boring.

Music is not supposed to be boring! Music is supposed to be the opposite of boring! You almost have to actively try to make music boring, and here you are doing just that by blunting your diction with a piece of tribble. Imagine saying, "That attempt at Beethoven's 5th was pretty good, but it should really be pretty awesome." NO. "THAT ATTEMPT AT BEETHOVEN'S 5th WAS PRETTY GOOD, BUT IT SHOULD BE AWESOME. WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?"

Using the word "pretty" communicates low expectations. Not only that, it is quite difficult to use the adverbial "pretty" without also using words that suck ass, like "good" or "bad" or "sauerkraut." I take that back. I've used the phrase "That melody was pretty sauerkraut," and I got the point across. Regardless. Remove the adverbial "pretty" from your language, and your language will become much more pretty.

Words Not to Say #3: "Make sure."

Words consistently fail to express how much I hate this fucking phrase. Every time I hear a teacher say it, I want to rip my ears off and stuff them up my nostrils. Teeth gnashing just doesn't get it done. Believe me, I've got the flat molars to prove it.

"Make sure" prefaces some instruction which a teacher wishes not to be taken seriously. "Make sure you keep your bow straight." "Make sure you play in tune." "Make sure you don't take a huge dump on the carpet." God dammit, just say what you mean already! Look, here. I'll show you. "Keep your bow straight." "Play in tune." "Don't crap on the carpet." See what a difference that makes? And again, "make sure" is, like the other listed words, a tribble. While you're typing grades into your grade book, the "Make sures" are off humping in the dark corners of your brain. The next day, you say "Make sure you..." a few more times. Six months later and your tongue is a veritable shag carpet of tribble, and the "Make sures" have sucked the brains of you and your students into vacuous oblivion.

Worse, "Make sure" fails at every turn to communicate why we do something. Why do we keep the bow straight? So our tone doesn't sound like ass. Why do we play in tune? So our ensemble doesn't sound like ass. Why do we do anything I tell you to do? So that... Ok, look, if you can't get the picture at the third pass, work on your pattern recognition skills. Point is, nothing glazes a student's brains faster than "Make sure you..." Gah. Just typing it makes my tongue feel fuzzy.

Words Not to Say #4: Try

How many times do you have to see The Empire Strikes Back before you get it into your tribble-addled head? THERE IS NO TRY. There is only "Do," or "Do not." When you say "Try playing that phrase again," you not only take the impact out of your sentence with a totally unnecessary word, but you also imply your student could fail, which is counterproductive for the very reason that they will fail. Nothing wrong with that except that fear of failure has an uncanny ability to convince a human to stop doing something. Also, a student can walk away from trying with a clear conscience. As in, "Oh well, at least I tried." Don't try, do it. If it didn't come out right, do it again. It's not hard. "Play that phrase again!"

Trying takes you out of the task. Trying is the enemy of flow, effortlessness, and good taste. Trying is safe, which is why people try. It keeps failure at arm's length. Screw that. Get in, get your hands dirty, and screw up already. Then keep screwing up until you don't screw up so much anymore. Then keep doing that until screwing up happens less and less. Then keep doing that until you're so far up, you've forgotten what screwing up even smells like. Welcome to the Layer Cake.

(Aside: Layer Cake is a pimpin' movie. You should watch it.)

Sorry, I lost myself a minute thinking about Daniel Craig. Where was I? Right. Try not to say try. I mean, hell. If the sentence "Try not to say try" doesn't convince you not to say try, nothing will. Not even Daniel Craig.

Words to Say

This depends upon context, but ultimately, say what you mean and say only what you need to say. A student's bow isn't straight, just say "Your bow isn't straight, fix it." A student is out of tune, say, "Was that in tune?" If they answer "Yes," then you have your work cut out for you. A student isn't watching you conduct, then don't say anything, just put on that creepy clown mask you have in the closet and conduct right in front of their stand. Because sometimes words just aren't good enough for the job.