Music Ed Mondays – The Gorilla Story

Isn’t that just a wonderful picture? He’s smiling away, having a great time 🙂

As humans, we are so good at routine, I would even go so far as to say that we excel at routine.  We wake with the sun, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat some more, read our book or follow our shows, then sleep with the moon in the sky, all ready to do it again the next day.

Some of us are even more routine-based, only eating certain things for every meal, having particular combinations of outfits for work or going out, showering or getting ready for the day in a particular order or sequence… the list goes on.

As teachers, we do this too because the day is structured in a particular way for everyone in the building.  Furthermore, we have routines and structures in our respective subject areas.  When a new person comes into the area (or a particularly astute student), they may ask something like: “Why do we do ‘x‘ this way?” to which another replies “that’s just the way that it’s done.”

And we’ve all been in situations like this, right? Where you come to a new place and find something terribly inefficient that’s out of your control to fix?

Now, can you think about a time when you were the person saying “that’s just the way it’s done?”


If so, I’d like to share this story with you.  I’ve definitely been on both sides and when I heard this story last year, it’s message really resonated with me and I’ve always tried be cognitive of both positive and negative routines since then:

This story starts with a cage containing five gorillas and a large bunch of bananas hanging above some stairs in the center of the cage. Before long, a gorilla goes to the stairs and starts to climb toward the bananas. As soon as he touches the stairs, all the gorillas are sprayed with cold water. After a while, another gorilla makes an attempt and gets the same result—all the gorillas are sprayed with cold water.  Every time a gorilla attempts to retrieve the bananas, the others are sprayed.

Eventually, they quit trying and leave the bananas alone.  One of the original gorillas is removed from the cage and replaced with a new one.  The new gorilla sees the bananas and starts to climb the stairs. To his horror, all the other gorillas attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted. Next, the second of the original five gorillas is replaced with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Next, the third original gorilla is replaced with a new one. The new one goes for the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four gorillas that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest gorilla.

After the fourth and fifth original gorillas have been replaced, all the gorillas that were sprayed with cold water are gone. Nevertheless, no gorilla will ever again approach the stairs. Why not?

“Because that’s the way it has always been done.”

(If you would like it in handout form, it can be downloaded here)

Can you think of a scenario where you have been one of the gorillas never sprayed with water? If so, it may be time to rethink some personal or professional routines.

One routine that I challenged was scale testing in Grade 12.  It’s just what you do, right? But in mid-June at the end of a student’s grade 12 year, why the hell do I care if they can play 12 or 15 or 24 or 30 scales? Is that what I want them to leave with? The last thing I did in that Band Room was play Gb harmonic minor?

What does that say about my program? Or about what I value? Or about what they’re leaving with?

What we do instead are projects focussing on reflection, music as a part of their lives and their future as music makers.  Some examples as such include:

“The Soundtrack of My Life:”


“Musical Autobiography”

No pressure to use those two (I don’t think I do anymore, I’ve tweaked them enough so that it better reflects the value of my program), but if you want to, the resources are there.

While I’m certainly not the poster child for this, it’s something that I’m working on and I just want to share my experience with you.  For example, we’ve revamped our rules on the lending of instruments – we have a contract, but now also a sign-out sheet, making it more accessible for kids to learn new instruments by playing them at home.

Anyway, it’s always good to challenge and tweak our ways of doing things.  If you keep the wheel of a car straight, the curvature of the Earth will send you into the ditch, but if you course correct as you drive, you’ll stay cruising on the road 🙂

Have a great week!

2 thoughts on “Music Ed Mondays – The Gorilla Story

  1. “What we do instead are projects focussing on reflection, music as a part of their lives and their future as music makers”

    This is an awesome idea! Just another example of how good you are at thinking outside of the box. Way to be a great teacher Mr. K. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Vanessa! It’s a team effort, so Michael and I do it together, but imagine how great a music program could be if we really focused hard on the kid in that chair and how THEY interact with music inside (and even outside) of their school lives?

    Hopefully, it’s a recipe for life-long learning 🙂

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