Our society’s obsession with fun is, I fear, one of our most harmful collective traits at the present moment. We see this in the workplace, where positions in challenging yet necessary and well-compensated trades go unfilled. We see this in family life, where most parents—and I am at times as guilty as anyone—make it a mission to see that their children are never without stimulation of some kind. We even see it in the church, where people have seemingly little desire to engage with the sacred and the holy unless it is presented in an entertaining fashion (perhaps that could be a topic for a future post). The reader could no doubt cite other examples of how as a people we have little taste for that which is not immediately rewarding, and too often forego that which in the long term is more pleasing, more enriching, even more fun in favor of that which gives an immediate reward yet is really unenduring, trite, and banal.
This creates a particular challenge for those of us engaged in the fine arts, as our best works demand of both performer/creator and audience a level of commitment, of preparation, of “pre-engagement” that is off-putting to most. Speaking specifically of music, popular songs are often entertaining and even clever, but most are one-dimensional; there are no deeper levels of meaning to be found through repeated listening. The same is true of Muzak and other forms of music intended to serve only as background noise. They are not without redeeming qualities, but there is little depth. Art music, on the other hand, is usually more complex, with multiple layers of both compositional craft and expressive meaning that are revealed progressively through repeated listening and even musical analysis. The great composers are recognized as such not because their works yield an immediate emotive effect (though they often do) but because repeated engagement is rewarded with additional discovery. The same can be said of great works in other artistic media.
Of course, the ability to comprehend music (or literature, or visual art, etc.) at this level often requires years of study. Even the dedicated amateur reaches the height of his understanding through repeated engagement, if only as an audience member. The music theorist who is best able to understand great works reaches that point after a great deal of analytical training and examination of scores, often specializing in the works of a particular composer or school of composers. This training is not always immediately “fun”—in fact, I can testify from my somewhat limited training in music theory that it is often manifestly not so—but the perceptive tools that it engenders lead to music reading and listening experiences that yield a deeper, better “fun,” one which makes both listening and performing better for all involved.
Many readers will recognize what I’m speaking of as the concept of delayed gratification, the idea that the payoff after hard work—whether monetary, emotional, experiential, or some combination of these and other types—is greater than when one takes the first superficial reward that presents itself. In brass playing this is most evident in the practice room, and not in the repeated playing of exciting musical works. I am often amused when I hear “overnight success stories” in our little corner of the music business. Almost without exception, these “overnight” successes were born out of years of a different type of overnight, the kind that involved staying in a practice room into the wee hours honing one’s craft. And what do these successful players work on? Concertos? Sometimes. Entertaining chamber works? Occasionally. Jazz and popular standards? Sure. Orchestral excerpts? Yeah. How about long tones, lip slurs, scales, and arpeggios? All the time. I am reminded of a story one of my teachers told of a visit by a popular touring jazz ensemble to the university where he then taught. The students asked the visiting trombone section what kinds of materials they practiced, hoping to spur a curriculum change to more entertaining and popular fare. To their disappointment, the guests listed the same “boring” fundamental studies and method books that the students were already studying as the materials for their training and continued practice.
As a teacher, I strive to assign enjoyable and rewarding solo and chamber works for my students’ performances, but rarely do I assign something that they will be able to achieve on a first reading, much less something that they will have the strength and flexibility to play without regular fundamentals work. My students are assigned a rigorous daily fundamentals routine and accompanying scale and arpeggio studies in order to help them to hone these skills, yet many of them will skip some or all of those “boring” calisthenics in favor of going immediately to the “real” music…and then wonder why they fail to reach their potential. They don’t understand (or refuse to accept) that the boring part comes before the fun part. A precious few really “get it.” They succeed.
I am aware that the concept of repeating a consistent daily routine has fallen on hard times among many in the brass teaching world. Some say that the routine should be varied, and while I freely modify my routine to address peculiar issues that a student or I might be facing, I still find undeniable value in the daily and systematic review and extension of fundamental playing skills. Others advocate accommodating the desire for “fun” by inventing “cool” MIDI accompaniment tracks for otherwise “boring” exercises. I am not opposed to this, but it seems to me that this would work for only a limited time before that which was once cool became boring through repetition, and I am not inclined to constantly compose and create new tracks to satisfy a perceived need for what is in the end an only superficially more enjoyable approach. At some point if you want to be a successful brass player you will have to buckle down and do the hard work, even the boring parts!
I am not opposed to music being fun—far from it! But the best fun comes after diligent practice and study of materials which do not yield immediate enjoyment, for it is mastery of these “boring” things that makes the musician a better player, a better listener, a better “understander” of music.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to go and practice some long tones.