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KISS Principle

Most of us are familiar with the acronym KISS – “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” This advice is appropriate for all types of situations and environments, including design, engineering, teaching, and learning. I was curious about where this acronym originated and I found multiple sources online that say this design principle was developed by the US Navy in 1960, but there is little specific information given. 

The article “KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) – A Design Principle” [] attributes the acronym “to the late Kelly Johnson, who was the lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works, a place responsible for the S-71 Blackbird spy plane. Kelly explained the idea to others with a simple story. He told the designers at Lockheed that whatever they made had to be something that could be repaired by a man in a field with some basic mechanic’s training and simple tools. The theater of war (for which Lockheed’s products were designed) would not allow for more than that. If their products weren’t simple and easy to understand – they would quickly become obsolete in combat conditions and thus worthless.”

As educators, we aspire to be masters of our craft, always seeking to add to our body of knowledge. We want to be able to teach more and more to our students. Much of what we do as musicians is complex and involves so many layers of nuance. We also want our students to be able to implement what we’re asking, so it benefits everyone if we can give clear, simple instructions to help students move toward their goals.

As a body mapping teacher, I love to teach students about how their arms work. I have been totally geeking out on all things related to scapular movement and control. “Scapula” is the Latin name for “shoulder blade.” I am fascinated by how our scapulae move, what motions happen at what times and at what specific joints, how the different muscles work together (or not) and how the scapular position affects what the hands are doing. As a manual therapist, I am well aware of the fact that much of the discomfort people are feeling in their hand and wrist can be addressed by getting their scapula in a better position. There are 17 different muscular attachments on each scapula and multiple directions of pull. There are relationships between the scapula and the collarbone, humerus, thoracic spine, ribs, lumbar spine, pelvis, and cervical spine. Scapular position impacts arm use and breathing mechanics. I love learning more about the various rotations possible in our arm structure. How the wrist is structured and how it moves is super cool. This is complicated stuff. Understanding the movement possibilities of our own structure allows us to move through our world as humans and flutists and make the best possible movement choices relevant to our task.

In my college course, we’ve spent a good chunk of our class time (about 30%) on things related to arms. At the end of this portion of the class, I ask the students to write about what they’ve changed in their arm maps. The overwhelming majority of this semester’s students said that they didn’t know that their collarbones and shoulder blades were part of their arm structure. This response has been fairly consistent semester to semester. This is a great example of the power and relevance of KISS. It doesn’t matter how much I teach about everything I’ve listed in the previous paragraph if they don’t know the most simple thing, which is what pieces make up your arm! Now would be a good time to pause here and go read my article “Missing Pieces of the Whole Arm” from September, 2018 [], as it explains about the importance of the collarbone and shoulder blade.

Sometimes, we think things need to be complicated and that’s not always true. Knowing that there should be movement of your collarbone and shoulder blades when bringing your flute to your face is a huge piece of information! It, by itself, is enough information to facilitate huge changes for students. Then, we can add more layers of information and nuance on top of the simple thing. Making frequent use of the KISS principle can make things so much easier for both teacher and student. Music making is a complex activity, but we can make progress with simple steps.

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