This principle is very important in music. Truth be told, this is a principle important in life, since it is easy to over-work, over-plan, over-stress, and over-think.
Have you ever wondered why the lives of many elderly get simpler, and less cluttered? Could it be that it has less to do with their out-of-touch-ness and more to do with wisdom?
I believe that many, in their years, have learned this principle in their life.
The principle “less is more” reveals how important it is to do a few things well. It means living among other human beings without hogging all the attention. It means listening well to others and contributing to society in a significant way rather than just a noisy, clanging kind of way (I think 1 Corinthians 13:1 might have something to say about that). It means being patient to add your two cents at the right time. After all, if you live by this principle, you are humble enough to recognize that you only have two cents.
In music, it’s the same.
(This, incidentally, is one reason I love teaching music. There are inherent life-lessons involved.)
So what does this “less is more” principle look like in music? Well, I’ll break down the above paragraph:
- Do a few things well
- Live as others are more important than you (don’t hog all the attention)
- Listen well
- Contribute in a significant way (don’t just be noisy)
- Remember you are only one part of a whole
While you can apply these things to life, I’ll note how I believe they apply to music specifically.
1. Do a few things well
As a student, it is so easy to move on before it is time. It is better to learn a few things well than learn a whole bunch of things without getting any of them down. The reason is because it’s hard to remember that it takes many more repetitions of a skill than you think. Students feel that after they’ve done the skill correctly once or twice, they have mastered it. To put it another way, they believe it is “easy” before it is truly done with ease.
Practice a few things. It will lead to even greater artistry in the future. Less now will mean more later.
2. Live as if others are more important than you (don’t hog all the attention)
This one is especially huge for those playing with others. I believe the goal in learning music is for the benefit of others, so even if you are a soloist, it should not be about you. People watch you and can read pretty quickly if you couldn’t care less if they were there, or if the only reason you want them there is to applaud how awesome you are.
As a band, considering others as more important than yourself is an important concept. Think of it – what would it sound like if everyone played a solo at the same time?
Answer: mass chaos.
Likewise, what would happen if a car had two steering wheels?
Answer: mass chaos (and death).
What happens when there are too many “cooks in the kitchen?”
Answer: mass chaos.
If you are playing with others, it is crucial that you don’t try to hog all the attention. Playing more and louder will only lead to mass chaos. Instead, how can you support those around you in what you play? What is your role? The more players, the less you should be compelled to play. I often think of a classic band like the Eagles with this. They were extremely good at this principle, and their music reflected it.
3. Listen well
Don’t try to be heard. Try and listen. This one is related to the above. If you are considering the other players as more important than yourself, you will be listening to what they are doing. Besides what they are playing, you will notice how they are playing, and will be able to adjust if they change. The beauty is that communication begins only when all are listening well to one another, and the team can then adjust simultaneously. Some bands are so good at this that very little body language or facial expression is needed to communicate effectively.
Play less for the sake of better communication, and a better sound as a band.
4. Contribute in a significant way (don’t just be noisy)
No one wants to listen to flat-out noise, and every band should remember that they are on a continuum between chaotic, cacophonous noise and beautiful ordered music.
One potential problem with #3 above is that a tentative, nervous player will play so little that he barely contributes at all. Now, this might not be all bad, for obvious reasons, but he should push himself to contribute meaningfully even if he is not a great player.
On other hand, some players don’t realize they need a lot of work on their technical skills and will play loud and proud without consideration of the whole sound (he’s already blown the first three above).
This item is included so that neither claiming “minimalist” as a musical philosophy nor claiming irresistible “Animal” tendencies are an option. If the goal is to contribute in a significant way, you will find balance in between. This item is also placed where it is because doing this well is somewhat dependent on the first three.
Less means more significant, not necessarily fewer notes.
5. Remember you are only one part of a whole
I hope this one is fairly self-explanatory. As a musician, you cannot and will not make the same kind of sound by yourself as with a group.
I think of the kind of sound all the saints will make in heaven as they worship the Savior (an enormous thought).
As you play with others, remember that part of the reason you play “less” is because you are not the whole.
You are not a band any more than a soldier is an army.
The “less is more” principle means practicing and mastering a few things at a time, listening well and considering others as more important than you, and then contributing meaningfully to the overall sound as you play with the team.
How have you seen this principle in action?