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Limitations are Necessary

Jan 20, 2024
"Less is more..."
My composition teacher used to say this phrase frequently, and admittedly, I had no idea what he really meant by it.
Of course I wanted to do MORE!
I wanted more notes, more virtuosic passages, and more chances to show off my music skills.
The result? My music was all over the map.
Unfocused. Inaccessible. Easily forgettable. Too much flash and not enough substance.
I knew I had a problem, but had no idea how to fix it.
Why was my music a rambling series of run-on sentences? Or maybe more accurately, a series of sentence fragments that had very little connecting them?
Yet, when I listened to the work of Ravel or Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev, they could write even the most virtuosic pieces and maintain a sense of cohesion - as if nothing was out of place or out of character.
And when they chose to write something simple, there was still a high level of craftmanship involved. They would employ restraint, avoiding any "false steps" that might feel out of place.
It was because they understood the power of limitation, and I did not.
What they chose NOT to do was just as important as what they chose to do.
"Less is more."
 
Intentionality
 
I knew Rachmaninoff from his more virtuosic piano works. Once I got to college and started singing in choirs, I was introduced to another side of the composer.
His Vespers, Op. 37 remain some of my favorite music ever written (Nos. II, IV, V, VI, and VII especially). I was struck by how much restraint there was in these sacred choral pieces in comparison to many of his piano works.
This was clearly not an accident.
He chose his harmonic language carefully and never seemed to make a false step. Yet, there were many surprising moment of harmonic "freshness."
Surprising, but never jarring. Honest, never pretentious.
Unashamedly simple, but incredibly sophisticated.
Inevitable, never predictable.
If I could sum in all into one word that I also began to strive for in my own work:
INTENTIONAL.
 
Limitations are Inevitable
 
Rachmaninoff understood something I did not: the power and necessity of self-imposed limitations.
I talk about this frequently. If you look through my YouTube comments, you'll find that many people struggle to understand it.
I can't blame them. I didn't either for a very long time.
In this context, limitations aren't creative dampeners - they are more like the crystals of a laser. They focus the beam into something more useful and powerful.
Overwhelm is something most creatives struggle with at some point.
Any creative process is really just a series of decisions made by the creator. Our work WILL have limitations.
This is the case even if we aren't intentional about putting them into place. Limitations will exist in our work either by deliberate choice or by way of our own ignorance.
Maybe you've watched a film or show in which the plot seems all over the place, difficult to follow. Perhaps the filmmaker decided to place the plot twist at the beginning. Maybe they have so many plot twists and climactic moments, it's hard to keep track of what's happening - the actual plot is lost.
Maybe they thought they were being daring and experimental. In reality, they were only confusing the viewer.
The greatest film makers know how to push boundaries. But they also understand that certain concepts and conventions are timeless. They just work. There is no need to reinvent every wheel. It can be far more effective to use a pre-existing structure, then make just one intentional pivot that the viewer isn't expecting.
This way, the viewer is grounded. When the viewer feels grounded, that one unpredictable pivot carries even more weight.
The choices (limitations) we decide to use most often will define our taste. Over time, our taste will define our artistic voice.
Today so many are obsessed with "originality" that they mistake it for chaos.
If finding our own unique voice is the goal, embrace limitations as a tool, not a creative encumbrance.
If you'd like to learn exactly how I use creative limitations to focus my own music, I built this resource for that very purpose.
Whenever you're ready, here's how I can help you:

1. Composition Concepts for Artists - an in-depth look at the process of composition with step-by-step examples SHOWING how and WHY I make decisions. You'll learn to take an initial idea and DEVELOP it into a finished project.

2. Understanding Synthesis - learn to design your own sounds starting with the basics of subtractive synthesis and progressing to more advanced sound design  with semi-modular and various forms of digital synthesis.

3. YouTube Membership - monthly livestreams featuring music making and sound design in real time. Q&As and exclusive videos only available to channel members.

4. One to One Coaching (coming soon) - work with me on YOUR own music. I'll help you take your track from idea to finished product, so you'll come out with a polished track or EP and any knowledge gained from walking through the process with me.