Can we kick the bucket list?

Guess which student never lasts beyond two lessons in a private music studio?

That’s right.

Teacher: “So why do you want to take lessons?”

Student: “Oh, it’s just one of those things on my bucket list.”

I feel weird about bucket lists in general, but I feel particularly weirded-out when the bucket list is invoked in a conversation about music lessons.

“Bucket list” sounds exactly like what it is: a receptacle. Like a trash can. It’s a repository for things one wishes to do before dying. And if you’ve finally done those things on your list, even just once, you can cross it off and call yourself a fulfilled and accomplished human being. The trash, and you, can finally go to the landfill.


This isn’t like taking a trip to Ireland, or participating in a pie-eating contest, or taking pictures of humpback whales.

There’s nothing one-and-done about music lessons, and that’s how many people with bucket lists treat them. It comes as a shock to them that music lessons are a journey, not a destination; it can scare them out of the studio after just a couple of weeks.

And the most common reason they give for quitting is money. Well, if it’s just because of money, how much of a “bucket list” item was it?

If you want to satisfy your desire to try something just to say you’ve done it, just to say “Ok, here is the point at which my life is fulfilled,” do not, for the love of Pete, elect to take music lessons unless you have something bigger at stake than just getting a few in before you die.

I heard a remarkable story of an independently wealthy man who loved Mahler’s second symphony so much that, in spite of having no musical experience whatsoever, he was determined to conduct it.

So he had a conversation with a prominent orchestra conductor and made arrangements for regular music lessons stretching over many months (years?), starting with “this is a quarter note” and eventually getting to “here’s how you best support the French horns with this cue in the second movement.” He experienced all the ups and downs and highs and lows that usually come with decades of training all compacted into a grueling customized program to get him on the podium, competent, as soon as he was able. He had all the money to do it, yes, but more importantly, he had the will.

And when he was finally ready, he stepped out in front of orchestra, choir and audience and conducted Mahler’s second. And the audience and critics were actually pretty impressed with the result – just this rich nobody, beginning from nowhere, with absolutely nothing but a singular will to be a conductor, and being that.

If you have a musical item on your bucket list, let it be something like this guy’s – where you get to become something rather than just try something. Then you and your teacher can really have something to talk about.

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