Tim McGraw and My Musical Mortality


Fifteen years ago today Tim McGraw's breakout hit "Live Like You Were Dying" was enjoying a meteoric and historic run atop the Billboard 100. The premise of the song was simple; how would you live if you knew you were dying?

Before you ask (and if you didn't, you should have), NO, I am not dying. I am entirely (well, relatively) healthy. 

However, I will die at some point.

I am not alone in my mortality. You will die as well. It's a universal fact of life: All living things eventually die. But the ability to contemplate, anticipate, and prepare for death is uniquely human. Moreover, it's often through contemplating death that we realize what is, and isn't, important in life. 

Back to the question at hand. if you found out you were dying, would you live differently?

For most of us, the answer would be a resounding YES. We would let go of the mundane burdens that have us plodding from one day to the next and pursue love, family, and happiness. 

Would your answer change if we were to add one word to the question?

Would you live your life differently if there were only a limited number of musical days to live? 

In other words, if you only had a small number of days to play and create music, would it change the way you approach music? For instance:

  • Would you hone your current instrument or learn a new one?

  • Would you play more and listen less? Or vice-versa?

  • Would spend time playing others' music or compose something of your own?

  • Would you learn a new idiom (jazz/baroque/etc.) or do a deep dive into your favorite artist?

  • Would you seek out an audience or play in the comfort of your own home?

I suspect that as is the case with life, if you knew your musical end was near, you would approach music-making very differently.

Thankfully, your musical end is nowhere in sight.

Sadly, the same is not true for many of our students.

We lose too many students too soon, to say nothing of those who never start. To be clear:

  • 40% of elementary students will end their instrumental journey after just nine months (or 40 classes.)

  • 30% of middle school music students will not continue on in music in high school.

  • 10% of high schoolers will return next year.

  • Seniors only has 135 musical days left.

Moreover, for those who make it through the musical gauntlet, 93% of them will not play again after high school.


If this were a real disease with these mortality rates, it would be a national tragedy. If 40% of our youth were afflicted with an illness, there would be outrage. There would be a call to action by national celebrities and politicians alike working to raise money and awareness. Oh yeah, there would definitely be a telethon or two.

What is simultaneously disheartening and encouraging to me is that many of these pre-mature musical deaths are preventable. 

Quitting, apathy, boredom are treatable diseases. Academic pressures can be addressed. Bad information and bad decisions are correctable. Inexperienced teachers and ill-informed administrators can be guided. Awareness can be raised. With a concerted and coordinated effort, we can save these musical lives — not all of them, but many of them instead of seeing them cut short needlessly.

The issue of student retention is bigger than one teacher, one school, or one district. It's bigger than one publisher or one manufacturer. This is IMPORTANT, and we are losing too many kids to a CURABLE condition and it is unacceptable.

Back to our original question: If you know your students' musical lives were coming to an end, would you teach them differently? 

I know I would. I would teach like my student's to play like they were (musically) dying.

This is not the last time you will hear me talk about this. And I am not just talking. Stay tuned. 

Have a great week.