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I went to college for music. Maybe you did too. While I had a great experience and am a much better musician because of it, I think there’s one big thing that they don’t talk about: restraint.
Here’s the problem that a lot of music college graduates experience: it turns us into really great musicians, but completely ignores the modern music market. (I know, I know, art vs. business. But hear me out.) I hear a lot of young players playing absolutely everything they know how to do: every lick, every substitution, every crazy fill, and doing it all the time, especially in places where you shouldn’t Look, not every gig is Snarky Puppy. In fact, almost every gig isn’t Snarky Puppy.
It’s great to have a wealth of musical knowledge and know how to do lots of crazy things. But it’s even more important to know when that stuff is appropriate to play. Here’s a harsh fact: most of the time, you’re not going to need to know everything that you know. You don’t need to know how to solo over alternating bars of 7/8 and 11/8 in E Locrian if you’re playing for most pop artists. Forget pop, name almost any style and you don’t need to know how to do that. You probably just don’t need to know that period.
The best musicians exercise musical restraint and play what the music calls for. Sure they could make it much more complicated, but it’s just going to distract from what the music is. Using 40% of their musical knowledge is going to be better than using 100%.
The realization that simpler is sometimes better doesn’t bum me out, it excites me (I’m a bass player so…). Imagine it like you’re painting a picture. You don’t have to use every single color paint that you own, and you probably shouldn’t. By toning it down a bit you can make something that’s beautiful in it’s simplicity.
I wish more musicians were comfortable and satisfied playing simple, 4 on the floor, 4 chord pop music.
I wish more bass players were fine with playing repeated 8th notes.
I wish more drummers saw the value of just playing time.
I wish more keyboard players would play simple parts without reharmonizing.
I wish more guitar players would be okay with taking a short, effective 8 bar solo.
I wish more singers were okay with only doing 2 runs per song.
If the gig calls for Snarky Puppy-esque crazy jamming, by all means, Pup it out, bruh. But chances are, the audience you’re playing for wants to hear something simpler. Rest in the fact that even though you may not be playing the most musically interesting thing, it’s exactly what the audience needs to hear.