My guitar instructor recently had me start practicing with a jam track (basically, a recorded song minus the lead guitar and vocals). I’m still learning my way around a minor pentatonic scale, so my improvisation “jam sessions” are halting and awkward, but it’s amazing how much fun it is. As long as I stay on the scale, I can’t go wrong. Any note works. It’s freeing, and powerful, and I’m able to express myself musically in a way I’d never known I could.
If my instructor had said to me, “improvise a melody on top of this track”, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I would have had no idea where to start or what to do. There are too many possibilities: which strings to hold at which frets, and whether to strum or pluck. It’s overwhelming! But instead he taught me a minor pentatonic scale and said “play any note on that scale while this track is playing”. Suddenly the possibilities were narrowed and instead of feeling straitjacketed, I felt free. I was given power, because my options were constrained.
A similar story: my wife is setting up a new business and one of the things she offers is piano lessons. In preparing to teach these lessons she came across a technique to use with very young children just beginning the piano (though it is awesome for adults, too). You sit them at the piano, hold down the sustain pedal for them (if they can’t reach it themselves), and tell them to play any of the black keys, in any order. The result is remarkably musical, and gives the students a real sense of ability and accomplishment. With no piano training at all you can make something that sounds beautiful! All because you’ve constrained what keys may be pressed.
Sometimes, our options are constrained because of circumstances we have no control over. Obviously, very few of us have unlimited funds or time, and we have to work within those constraints. But whether we choose the constraints or are chosen by them, we can decide to embrace them and find the power there. By embracing them, we grow.
Eventually, we may outgrow those constraints. I won’t always be limited to playing just the minor pentatonic scale. Beginning pianists will learn how to use the white and black keys together to make music. Your business won’t always be on a shoestring budget. But it is a mistake to cast off your constraints too early, or to chafe against them. Make them work for you. Get as much utility from them as you can, for as long as you can.