About Keeping it Simple

In this roundtable-discussion episode, the members of the Musical U team discuss the idea of “keeping it simple”, with anecdotes from their musical lives to illustrate the benefits of this mindset.

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Christopher S.: Hello and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. My name is Christopher Sutton, I am the founder and director of Musical U. And this is a special episode because we’re trying something a bit different.

As said at the end of Episode 101, which was the second of our two-part celebration for hitting Episode 100, we had an amazing round-up of guests contributing their answers to “What’s one thing that could help people tap into their inner musicality?”

And listening to all of those contributions, I wanted to do something to follow up on them. Because there were some really fascinating common themes across those experts. As well as being incredibly varied and different and interesting and unique, there were a few things that came up several times.

And so what I wanted to do was just get a few members of the Musical U team together to talk through some of these topics that came up again and again. And so today, I’m joined by Adam, Sara, and Stewart. That’s Adam Liette, Sara Campbell, and Stewart Hilton from the Musical U team. And before we dive in, I’ll just ask each of them to say a quick “hello” and maybe share what they do at Musical U and outside of Musical U.

Adam, why don’t you go first?

Adam Liette: Hello, my name’s Adam Liette. I’m the Communications Manager here at Musical U. I’m also a classically-trained trumpet player and a self-taught guitar player.

Christopher S.: Awesome. And Sara?

Sara Campbell: I am the Resident Pro for piano here at Musical U. So you can find me on the piano forum there. And outside of Musical U, I am a piano teacher and voice teacher and a music business coach. So it’s keeping me busy nowadays.

Christopher S.: Definitely someone that wears a lot of hats. And Stewart?

Stewart Hilton: I’m Stewart Hilton. And you’ve probably seen me popping up all over the Musical U member site in many different discussions, and in your email box, and all over. Outside of Musical U, I play guitar with a tribute artist who does five different tribute acts. I play with a band on the side from that and also play at church. And in my spare time, I have a wife and sleep.

Christopher S.: (Laughing)

Sara Campbell: (Laughing)

Christopher S.: I like that sleep was last on the list. I think we could probably all relate to that.

Cool. So there are several topics we’re gonna be going through in the next few episodes. And the first one that jumped out to me was the importance of keeping it simple.

So this is something, I think, we’re often prone to losing sight of in music. And I was very aware of this as we were putting together the Musicality Podcast Power Pack, and I was listing out the hundred episodes and all of the topics we’ve covered and all of the guests we’ve had.

And part of the challenge of that project was – how can we make this digestable and accessible to someone who isn’t just gonna be overwhelmed by getting all of this stuff all at once.

And so I loved that this was the theme that came up with several of our contributors for Episodes 100 and 101. We had, for example, Bill Hilton who said that “you don’t need to be a good musician to make good music.” That one really resonated with me.

He was talking about how we think we need to be a virtuoso, in terms of technique. But actually, you can make really effective music very simply.

Casey Von Neumann mentioned this, too. And David Reed talked about improvisation, where a lot of people think you need a high level of ability. But actually he was pointing out this is something that can be part of your music playing from day one.

And Forrest Kinney talked about how you just need to sit down and play and listen. And it can be an adventure. And I think that mindset really helps you remember that music can, and maybe should be simple, at the heart of it.
I have a few thoughts on this myself. But I’d love to kick off with someone else. So I’m going to put Stewart on the spot and ask you: where has this come up in your musical life?

Stewart Hilton: It’s really come up, I would say, with the tribute artist that I play for. It came up in a surprising way. Because when he called me the first time to do a few shows, he said, “Oh, by the way, on three songs I do wardrobe changes as Elton John. So you’ll be soloing for five minutes.”

Christopher S.: (Laughing) Wow.

Sara Campbell: Wow. That’s a long time.

Stewart Hilton: That’s a long time. Adam will understand this. Back in the 80s, there was a lot of shredding on the guitar – guys who play at a million miles and hour, arpeggiate for every mode, plus some from other planets.
That was not me. I was never, kind of, a show guitar guy. I was more kind of like, you know, blues-y feel. Not that shredding isn’t feel. But I was just never really that type.

So when he told me that, yeah. I broke out into profuse sweat and other things. And then he must have caught on that I was a little nervous. He said, “Look, just keep it simple. It was a lot of what we talked about in our improv road map. Keep it simple, start low, build things up.” And I have done improv before with another band. But- five minutes.
So at that first show, we broke into it. And I felt like I was prepared. We were doing- I think it was “Benny and the Jets.” And I built it up and got it all the way through, and I felt like- when you’re doing solos, you feel like you’ve given your story and you’re done. And I looked over and he still wasn’t on stage. To which, I looked at the drummer, and thought, “Oh. I have more to go.”

But the big thing was, I guess, learning to keep it simple over time. I finally have slowly gotten to learn that. And it’s a great skill.

Christopher S.: That’s super interesting. You’ve mentioned the improv roadmap there. And that was something that was on my mind, was that, in that context, we talk about using constraints to help you feel freer. And how actually, restricting yourself to just maybe playing a single note can open your ears and your abilities, in terms of the dynamics or the phrasing or the articulation or the rhythm. And I love that there you were put on the spot with the constraint of “you must play for five minutes.”

And that suddenly changes a lot, doesn’t it? You know, you’re not going to be taking the same approach to form, or the same desire to cram all of the notes you know into the first bar.

Stewart Hilton: Right.

Christopher S.: You’re going to have to take a different approach.

Stewart Hilton: Yeah. And I learned, and – actually, a guy we interviewed Dave Bainbridge I had asked – I’m like, “Oh my goodness, dude. I’ve got all this stuff I’ve gotta learn. And I’ve gotta come up with things.” And he gave me some good tips. You know- start at the bottom of the neck. Slowly work your way up.

And I got better at it, to which- I did another show that he did. He also does a Rascal Flatts tribute. And at the end of the song, there is an improv moment. And I blew right through the ending. And the band kept going with me, thankfully. And then after, they were like, “oh, yeah. You totally missed the final four count in the ears.” And I’m like, ooh.

Christopher S.: That’s what happens when you train yourself to play a five-minute solo.

Stewart Hilton: Yeah, exactly

Christopher S.: And so what about you, Sara? I imagine this is something you are conscious of, from the teaching perspective as well as being a musician yourself.

Sara Campbell: Absolutely. The first thing that came to mind when you posed this question is that you have to start somewhere. And that somewhere can be really simple. I mean, it comes back to the question, right?

And for little kids- because I teach a lot of little kids how to improvise. I’ve started bringing this into lessons, basically from day one. And once we start doing that, improvisation starts getting a little less scary, if it’s something that- it just is a natural part of the music-learning process.

So with my- it’s interesting, though. Because I still have students in my studio who have been there long enough that when I started with them, we weren’t improvising as much. So I’ve noticed this really big difference between the students who were raised on it versus the ones who we started a little bit later, maybe in the teens years. So they’ve got the teen nervousness going on. ‘Cause that’s a thing.

And when I compare the two, the ones who are a little bit more nervous about it- they feel like they have to create something massively amazing. So if we’re in a group setting and we’re doing improvisation, you can tell that they’re really stressed out. And their improvisation tends to wander. And it doesn’t have much form or structure.

Whereas the ones who are more used to it- they started really simple. Like, hey, I would give them two notes and say, “Here are two black keys. You can play them in whatever order you want, in whatever rhythm you want.” And those are the ones who- they tend to start more simply as they jump into an improvisation.

And if you can start there, and, like, maybe just start with two keys. I’m always gonna be referring to piano. So sorry. (Laughing)

But start with two notes and see where that takes you. So that’s the first thing that popped to my mind.

Christopher S.: Awesome. And such an important underlying point that making it simple doesn’t mean it will be simple forever. You know, sometimes it is just the best way to get started on what will become a super versatile and complex skill for you. But you’ve got to be willing to take that first step.

And I think in a future episode, we’re gonna be talking about the importance of taking small steps forwards, rather than biting everything off at once. And I think this ties in very neatly with that.

Because there are contexts where you have to keep it simple, and simple is the whole mindset. And there are contexts where you just have to accept that you will start simple. And that is the best way to start, whatever you eventually might be.

Sara Campbell: Yeah, Exactly.

You know, you just reminded me. If you start with something very simple, and you just do one or two notes at a time, then say, “You now what, I’m gonna take a third note. And I’m gonna put it in there.”

The importance of repetition is something that I think can be lost really easily when we’re thinking, “Oh, I have to improvise. I must make new things at all times.” But it’s not about making new things at all times. It’s about exploring, “Well, what does this sound like when I change a chord underneath?”- and going at it from that perspective instead.

Christopher S.: That’s a great point. Yeah. And I was recently talking with the chap from bluesharmonica.com, David Barrett, for the podcast. And he gave this great description of how he explains improv and teaches improv. And that point about repetition was a crucial one.

You know, he kind of talked through how- if you don’t repeat anything in your improvisation, you’re kind of telling the listener it didn’t matter- it wasn’t worth remembering. And I think that goes so neatly with keeping it simple. Because we think if we’re doing the same thing again and again, we’re not challenging ourselves, we’re not showing everything we can do.

But the reality is music is based on repetition, you know. All rhythm is about repetition. And yeah. I think that’s a really important thing to pull out.

Stewart Hilton: I have to say that I have taught guitar, and what Sara is saying is – it brings back a lot of funny memories. Because a few guitarists who missed their first kind of pentatonic scale, and now say, “Next week, you’re gonna solo.” And that’s all I give them.

And without a doubt, the next week, what they will do is come back. I’ll play a rhythm. And then they’ll go up the pentatonic scale, come back down the pentatonic scale, up and down. And then you have to start and stop them, and go toward what Sara was saying.

Stewart Hilton: But it’s just funny that that’s the immediate vibe, is going up and down.

Christopher S.: Yeah. Well, I hesitate to say it, in case I get hate mail. But a lot of guitarists never make it that far beyond going up and down the pentatonic scale- if we’re honest. They just do it fast enough that you don’t notice.
Stewart Hilton: And I will say nothing.

Christopher S.: So Adam, as a former metal guitarist yourself, did you have any opinions on that?

Adam Liette: That’s absolutely true. Yeah.

Christopher S.: (Laughing)

Adam Liette: The faster you can play, the better.

But I just had a completely different thought on this subject. And I was kind of transported back to my first day at the conservatory. I’d walk into this hallway just full of trumpet players, which are like heavy metal guitar players- faster, louder, better.

And I had this stack of books. It was like five hundred pages of method books. And I was walking into my first lesson, thinking, “Okay, here it comes. You’re gonna learn to play like these guys you’re hearing in the hallway.” And my teacher said, “Play one note. Play one note.”

And we played a concert F. And he said, “Just hold it. And hold that one pitch. And make it as fundamentally sound as you possibly can.” And I couldn’t do it. I had started adding vibrato. My breath support was all over the place. I wasn’t in the center of the pitch. And he said, “That’s why you can’t play like you want to. Because you can’t play that one note with the very fundamentals of musicianship.”

And so then he turned off the light. So we’re in the basement, no windows, lights off. And I just have a tuner in front of me. So I could see his slides in the tuner. And I just concentrated on centering my pitch and holding it as long as I possible could.

And over the next four years, I mean- that was the fundamentals of what became my trumpet style, and my trumpet tone- was that simple pitch. So I still practice it to this day. And I think it’s so telling- we get all these etudes and exercises and everything, But if we start at that very basic fundamentals of our instrument and our musicality, that will lead us to the next step.

Christopher S.: That’s a really cool- I hadn’t expected to talk about this, but you’ve reminded me that … so much of what you just said is in common with how we approach singing at Musical U. And I think that often surprises people.

Because, you know, if you go to a website to learn to sing, you expect to be taught all the latest pop songs and be taught about vibrato and your vocal range and support and breathing and posture. And we approach it from the very basics.

Christopher S.: So we’re like, “Can you sing one note? Is it in tune?”

Adam Liette: (Laughing)

Christopher S.: And until you can do that, we don’t worry about all the rest. And you know, it’s critical on any instrument. And whether you’re improvising or learning to play, I think there’s such elegance in allowing yourself to focus on just playing one note.

Yeah. I think we get so caught up in the fast flurry of note-reading and note-playing and note-improvising that we forget that- I forget who it was, and I feel a little guilty for that. But someone in one of our interviews recently said- it might have even been in one of our contributions for the roundup episodes.

They said, “A single note can be really beautiful.” Like- you need to remember that if you just stop and you listen to one note, that can be a beautiful thing.

Adam Liette: You just reminded me of- Lesson 2 in the conservatory was sing the note, and then play it. I was like, wait, I came here to learn trumpet. And I’m learning how to sing. But he’s like- until you can sing it, how can you play it? So- yeah.

Christopher S.: This guy sounds amazing. We should get him on the podcast.

Adam Liette: I will try, definitely.

Christopher S.: So the other thought I had on this topic- I think we’ve talked for a bit about keeping the music simple. But where does this come up a lot for us in Musical U, aside from that, is in planning- which is something else that often surprises people as a big part of what we do at Musical U.

Because people come in, and their head is full of ideas and methods and theory and background and goals. And you know, the first thing we do with new members is we walk them through- what are you actually trying to achieve? What is that big picture vision? What is that goal you have in mind?

And then we can break it down from there and figure out what are the steps to get you there. But I think, when it comes to learning music- particularly in this day and age with YouTube within finger’s reach at all times and endless websites telling you different ways to learn endless things on your instrument or in your chosen genre- it’s so easy to be overwhelmed.

And so I just wanted to touch on that point, too. Keeping it simple is essential for making progress in your overall musical journey, quite aside from the importance for keeping the music simple and keeping your practicing simple, and so on. Just the planning, and what you’re aiming for, and the resources you draw on are- like, don’t try and do everything at once. Don’t try and pursue all the goals today. Don’t try and use every resource under the sun and study everything before you do anything.

I think that importance of keeping it simple is really powerful to remember in that kind of planning mindset, as well.

Stewart Hilton: I would agree. And I think that’s what’s great about how we have roadmaps set up. Because versus just saying, here’s all the things. Jump in. We give people a nice way of starting at kind of square root one. You know? And then building onto that, having that foundation, and then building on.

And even though, for some, they make think, “Oh, that’s kind of simple,” there’s some stuff when you read through it that – “oh, wait, I didn’t remember that little part.” And you need that to move on.

And I love watching all of the members go through. And you can see them go back, even though someone will be like, “Oh, you know, some of it was review, but there was a couple things that I didn’t think about before.”
So it’s great that it’s [inaudible 00:27:19] because now I can build on to that. And I think that’s a great thing. And I see it, even where I’ve taught. And I’ve talked to people about guitar.

I have one guy – I was playing golf and this guy came up to me. And he plays acoustic, and he told me he heard my playing. So he was asking me about songs.

So of course, I told him- for a good finger-picking song, play – a little “Dust in the Wind” is great, not knowing his level. And then he came back the next week, and he’s like, “I cannot do that.”

So then we had to go way back. And I gave him some other stuff. But yeah. Long term, and also, the short term, long term goals.

Christopher S.: Yeah. So we’ve had a few episodes of the podcast about goal-setting and planning and road maps. And we’ll put links to those in the show notes. I’ll also just mention that those road maps Stewart’s talking about- we do have previews of them available for free on the website.

So if you are, for example, wanting to play chords by ear, if you’re not ready to try Musical U, you can still go check out that roadmap. And you’ll see how we approach it step by step. And I think that can be very useful, just to give you an example of what it means to keep it simple and do it step by step like that.

Cool. Well, that was a really interesting variety of ideas and stories that that threw up. I think- yeah. It whet my appetite for more of these conversations.

Well, thank you Adam, Sara, and Stewart for joining me for this episode. Thank you for listening. Hope you’ve enjoyed it, and we will see you on the next one.

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