For many years, I studied music. In college, I had a saxophone teacher named Jeff Lange. In addition to being a skilled player himself (many music teachers are not), he was a truly gifted teacher, and like many great teachers, he spoke in metaphors.
Once, we were practicing jazz improvisation when he stopped me, mid-solo, and asked if I liked to cook. (Jeff liked to eat, a lot.) I nodded, and he continued to tell me that, when cooking, it’s crucial to choose only the best ingredients for each dish.
“You wouldn’t just throw your whole pantry into the pot, would you?” he asked. “It’s the same with music. You’ve got to choose the right notes for a solo—the right notes at the right time.”
This sounds like a simple lesson, but when faced with 16 bars of 4/4 time and dozens of notes to choose from, it is a lesson easily forgotten. Jeff’s tutelage paid off. I got better at choosing the right notes at the right time—never great, but pretty good.
This lesson is applicable in all sorts of situations, including Jeff’s original example, cooking. Whenever I’m staring at a rack full of exotic spices, all begging to be thrown into the pot, I hear Jeff’s voice schooling me in the ways of circumspection. He’s right every time. Less is more.
I was reminded of this recently, when a friend sent a link to John Mayer’s blog. Yes, that John Mayer, the bluesy pop-crush. According to his site, John loves to bake. He walks us through a Bundt cake recipe before decorating it with every imaginable cake topping. It’s so busy that it loses all appeal. (Sorry, Mr. Mayer, but read on.)
I think it’s really cool that John Mayer is spreading baking cheer. But the fact that his cake reminded me of my music teacher’s valuable lesson is ironic, because John Mayer knows this lesson, too. He applies it (to much greater effect than I ever did) to his music—his solos are almost sparse, but they have great musical power. He chooses the right notes at the right time.
Of course, it’s not always easy to exercise restraint when it comes to dessert. With a deluge of ingredients available for the home baker, it can be overwhelming to have to narrow them down. Sweetened coconut, M&M’s, sprinkles of all sizes, icings, gels and various sugars all have their places, but not always on the same cake.
For the reminder: Thank you, John Mayer.