Bill Bryson’s memoir, A Walk in the Woods, is about hiking the Appalachian Trail with his childhood friend Katz. Whether or not Bryson is up to the Appalachian Trail is questionable, but there is no doubt that Katz is in no shape to take on the trek. On the first day of the adventure, the two of them set off north from their starting point in Georgia, each carrying a weighty backpack of food and camping gear. Katz soon lags far behind Bryson and it is late in the day when the two of them finally meet up again. It is clear to Bryson that Katz’s load is noticeably lighter than it had been that morning.

“‘What did you get rid of?’ [Bryson] asked, trying not to betray too much alarm.

‘Heavy *!@#^?*!, that’s what. The pepperoni, the rice, the brown, sugar, the Spam, I don’t know what all. Lots…’

‘What about some of that cheese?’

He shook his head. ‘Flung.’




‘Really flung.’

Last Christmas, back when the world moved freely and traveled innocently from place to place, Matt and I packed our bags and boarded a plane to begin a month-long holiday in Europe. We hadn’t been gone more than a few hours when I began sympathizing with good old Katz. I began thinking about Katz specifically when we were walking through the Austin airport with our backpacks to meet our hotel shuttle. Suddenly what had seemed like a reasonable load to carry only a few hours before felt like madness. The three paperback novels and four magazines in my shoulder bag? The needlepoint project? The two turtlenecks and four pairs of leggings? The “extra” little black dress in case I met the queen? I was ready to fling it all. Katz, I thought, is one of the great misunderstood characters in all of literature.

This is all to say that lately I have been reconsidering once again the 15 outfits.

15 outfits, you might recall, was inspired by my best friend Lora. Some time ago in one of our frequent phone conversations, Lora announced a new wardrobe philosophy in which no one needed more than 15 outfits. Being a sort of minimalist, I was immediately taken with that idea and found myself trying to apply the stringent 15 outfit limitation not just to my closet, but to all areas of my life and work.

The truth is we all suffer from consumerism, in every aspect of our lives, and the pedagogical world is no exception. For years, I have felt like I was drowning from all the new materials, music, toys and tools I was told would make my studio and my teaching that much more effective. Many of these resources were fine, good even, but there was just so much. It was overwhelming. Just because a black skirt is a cornerstone of my wardrobe doesn’t mean I need 23 of them.

Of course, the last few months have asked all of us to think about what is essential: what errands, what purchases, what trips out into the scary world are necessary, what risks make sense in this ever-changing landscape? And there is nothing like teaching through a screen to force one to consider what is essential for good solid musical pedagogy.

Teaching piano via the limitations of FaceTime has caused me to wonder if the former, pre-Covid unlimited quantity of resources tended to distract us from honest evaluation of good teaching and high-quality content. Without all my favorite in-person studio tools and toys I am forced to mine more out of everything I do across the fuzzy pixels of the computer screen. I can’t use this book for sight-reading (Flung!), and those flashcards for note-reading drills (Flung!), and that magnetic board for interval training (Really flung!). Instead, I have to use exactly what we have in front of us: the repertoire the student is already studying to teach general musical history context and performance styles; the next piece in the method book to drill key signatures, note identification and sight-reading; the scales and chord progressions the kids already know and practice to work on articulations and dynamics. In other words, I have to work deeper with less. I have to thoroughly dig each piece, each skill, each musical variation for its value and potential.

As much as I hate on-line teaching (And I do! I. Hate. It.), this is a worthwhile lesson to learn. Writing teachers sometimes teach writing skills by asking students, after they have written their first draft, to cut it in half. And then cut it in half again, requiring students to practice extreme frugally in their use of words and their communication of ideas. Often after such severe editing, the essence of the writing begins to really take shape. Turns out, we can all do so much more with less than we might have assumed back when we would board planes with ten books and a needlepoint project and a little black dress in case you meet the queen AND a nasty head cold to boot and think nothing about it.

Those were the days. After months of forced flinging—our social lives, our assumptions around school and work and leisure activities, all our LEGO privileges—I am starting to think Katz was onto something. We should have lightened our loads years ago. If we slow down and look hard enough, there is a wealth of riches to be extracted from every piece of music, every hour, every relationship. If we free ourselves from all the surplus noise and busyness that typically make up our worlds, we might discover that the 15 outfits we are left with can be rearranged and reconfigured into dozens of variations.

They are, in fact, more than enough.