Benjamin Coy



July 24, 2014 at 11:55 am

When I was in high school, a composer visited our band for a clinic. During the question/answer session, I asked where he got the inspiration for the piece we were playing. His answer was a little disappointing to my 17 year old self: “I had a commission and a deadline. I had to get something out to the publisher!”

At this past year’s Texas State University Trombone Symposium, one of the students asked the keynote artist where he got the inspiration for all the competitions and auditions he has won. His answer? “Rent is due every month, and I needed a paycheck.”

Variations on this story happen at every clinic across the country. Students are looking for stories of some profound Eureka! moment, in which the artist finally understood what was necessary to be successful. Students want this kind of story because they are working toward that kind of success, but aren’t sure how to get there. Any narrative of somebody else’s demonstrated success might contain hints about how to best proceed. It is sad that these students are consistently disappointed.

We all want to believe that with the right inspiration, we will suddenly make a great leap forward and become successful. We want to believe that successful professionals had such a moment of inspiration, and we ask to hear about it as a map to find our own. The fundamental problem, though is that inspiration is not the path to success.

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.
-Thomas Edison

Inspiration is a shortcut around the work required to accomplish something. When students look for inspiration, what they’re seeking is a way to decrease the amount of time needed in the practice room. And, I can’t even blame them: endless long tones and lip slurs are difficult work and not fun. Any ideas to decrease practice time and increase output are well worth exploring. Inspiration, though, is something else entirely. It is not a strategy to maximize practice efficiency, but rather a vain hope to achieve something without any work at all.

Instead of asking our guest artists about their inspiration, let’s ask them about their practice techniques. What do they focus on in their fundamental routines? How do they approach a new piece of music to learn it quickly? How do they structure their daily schedule to allow for sufficient practice time? What tools do they use for external or objective feedback?

Questions about inspiration will invariably produce answers citing industry pressures. Instead, let’s ask questions about how to negotiate those industry pressures. For instance, when the composer visiting my high school told me that his inspiration for the piece was his commission’s deadline, an appropriate follow up could have been “When you begin a project with a deadline like that, how do you structure your work so that you make appropriate progress toward that deadline throughout the process?” or “When you’re planning a large-scale work like this, how do you organize your ideas and your process to optimize your efficiency later?”

Asking professionals about their inspiration is actually a subtle insult. Such questions disregard whatever elegant techniques they might have developed to expedite their work, and instead suggests that they were able to achieve success by cheating the system. Students looking for guideposts toward success will find better answers by simply asking these artists how they got where they are, without any suggestions or assumptions about that process.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>