I was planning to write a new post this weekend, but in light of conversations with several students this past week, this post is worth sharing again. While it can be tempting to neglect fundamentals in favor of working on other assigned materials, ultimately this is not a path to success…in music or in football.
Vince Lombardi (1913-1970) was one of the most successful football coaches in the history of the National Football League, leading the Green Bay Packers to an extended period of dominance in the 1960s. Today the trophy awarded to the winner of the Super Bowl is named in his honor. A firm believer in the importance of playing fundamentals in building successful football teams, Lombardi famously began each year’s training camp by holding up a ball and saying “Gentlemen, this is a football,” followed by a review of the very basic elements of the game. His teams were composed of some of the most accomplished and successful athletes in the world and some no doubt though this approach to be unnecessarily pedantic, but they couldn’t argue with his results. Lombardi demanded excellence and pursued it methodically, beginning with building the foundations needed for successful competition.
Over the years I’ve come to realize more and more that the elements necessary for success in sports are very similar to those required for progress and success in music. In trying to teach my seven-year-old son (edit: now almost eleven) just a bit about how to throw a football, shoot a basketball, or catch a baseball (and, trust me, I know only a bit about these things) I can see that his successes are tied directly to correct fundamental execution and his most marked failures come when he becomes so enamored with trick plays and lucky shots that he has seen on television or online clips that he ignores the basics and tries to do something spectacular. This is no different than most young boys, of course, and I was certainly no better at his age (in fact, I was considerably worse), but thirty added years of life experience and at least some success in the music business have provided me with some additional perspective on what is happening when he succeeds or fails in his sporting endeavors. He is slowly learning to focus his efforts on correct basic execution, and his skills are improving as a result.
In music I see very similar tendencies with my students. Even since high school I have been both a proponent and a practitioner of the daily routine as a means of reviewing and extending fundamental playing skills each day. Over the years I have noticed that diligence in this area has been tied to my greatest successes as a brass player, and negligence has led to failure. I constantly seek to impress the importance of this upon my students, but they usually require some convincing before they learn to develop their fundamental playing skills before tackling the most challenging repertoire. Despite my efforts, most have to learn this lesson “the hard way,” as I sometimes have.
Why is the daily routine so important? Part of it is because of the need to warm-up, to gently exercise the muscles and tissues used in playing, though this can be accomplished without the use of a repetitive and systematic routine. I think even more important is the mental aspect. The daily routine provides an opportunity to systematically review how to play the instrument, beginning with the most basic elements and moving to more advanced concepts. In essence, during the daily routine I teach myself all over again how to play the trombone correctly and fend off the development of unproductive habits.
In that sense, the daily routine is our version of the “this is a football” speech, given to ourselves each day. It worked for Lombardi and the Packers, and it works for us brass players, as well.