Benjamin Coy


Work Harder, Not Smarter

July 29, 2015 at 3:26 pm

I’ve always prided myself on working smarter, not harder. Even back in grade school, I made a point of learning any concepts as quickly as possible and then declining to complete the homework that was intended to review and emphasize those concepts. In music, I’ve used my knowledge of history, theory, and physiology to eliminate as much trial-and-error as possible and optimize my practice time. Long tones are the bane of my existence because I cannot stand the mind-numbing tedium. There comes a point, however, when no amount of research or planning can help, and the only thing left is to put air through the horn.

During my master’s degree, I had a lesson with Charlie Vernon on the Ride of the Valkyries. He had me play it in all 12 keys, and when I was done, he asked me what I thought the benefit of the exercise was. I started talking about how playing the excerpt in different keys abstracted the music from the technical challenges and allowed me to work toward a purer ideal of the passage. I then started talking about consistency of intonation in all keys when he looked at me with a bemused smile and said: “You just played it twelve times. You need the repetition!” This was my first introduction to the concept that sometimes it’s all about the amount of time spent with the horn on your face.

I’ve since adopted the Adam Routine as my default routine in the mornings, and to do that properly takes about an hour and a half. At first, I thought there was no way it was reasonable to do the whole thing regularly, and I took shortcuts wherever I could. But I always found that I sounded better when I took fewer shortcuts. And, it turns out that the Adam Routine is not exceptional in length. For instance, this crossed my Facebook feed recently:


Practicing fundamentals is not a cerebral activity. Understanding what the embouchure should do or what the exercise should sound like does not produce the result. The point is to train your muscles to have strength and dexterity, and repetition is the only method. In modern society, we have computers and robots to automate many monotonous jobs, leaving us free to focus on cognitive tasks that machines cannot replicate. Our education system emphasizes problem solving and finding ways to avoid mindless repetition, but none of that develops motor neurons. If we expect our muscles to react with agility in realtime while onstage, we can’t just think about it. As we are continually reminded, performance is an athletic enterprise, and we must look at athletic training for guidance. No one prepares for a marathon simply by studying the map of the route; the only way to train for a race is to lace up your shoes and cover the requisite miles. We can plan phrase structure as much as we want, but the only way to get our chops to render that interpretation is to sit down in the practice room and put in the time working on fundamentals.

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