The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Hello, All!

I’ve been away for a while (perhaps to the benefit of every member’s sanity) Mostly because of college, picking up new instruments and styles. Also, my password wasn’t working and I couldn’t be asked to change it lol. I just wanted to share my experience, and perhaps start a discussion about learning multiple instruments at once.

I know it seems I’ve gotten swept along wherever the wind blows so to speak. It seemed like every month I was picking up a new instrument or musical style despite everyone’s advice. I feel like everyone saw it as too ambitious and crazy. I have to say there are times that even I see it that way, but I’ve found that there are benefits to this approach. At least for me. Putting down a new instrument can seem like it would damage my playing ability, and perhaps it has. However, I often find that the knowledge I bring back to my original instrument that I studied in my time away from it imperative to my progression as a musician. As I studied classical guitar I’m slowly learning to focus my hearing on base lines and the subtle harmonic shifts. As I studied banjo I learned to sync my singing voice with my playing and improve my rhythm in the process. Reading music, technique focus, slowing my internal rhythm and practicing slowing recordings in my head (though I have yet to master or even truly practice this one) are all skills (or ideas) I’ve picked up by putting down my whistle for a while.
I will admit that there are certain instruments that I like more than others, but I never find myself regretting the time I spent with them as I can always come back with new tools, techniques, and approaches for progression. If I feel like I hit a wall, I step away. Give my brain time to process what I learned. Really think long and hard about the practice methods that work for me.
Another thing everyone recommended to me was lessons. Now, for most people you can’t go wrong with a good lesson, but for me at this stage in my life, I can’t focus long enough to really practice the way teachers want me to. I can’t turn it on when I need to. I have to want to. Is this beneficial? I don’t know yet, but if I had to say, I think it is for me personally.
In theory I think it should be possible to master many instruments through shared knowledge and crossover techniques. More tools to add to your toolbox is never a bad thing when it comes to creating.
I know I’m 19 and have A LOT to learn about myself and how the world works. There’s so much knowledge to study, and there’s always something to improve about my playing. I don’t know if I would recommend this method to beginners. Perhaps saying all this is detrimental to people who are just starting, but I feel like it’s an important conversation to have. Different things work for different people, and it’s only through experimenting with different methods that I’ve come to that conclusion.

I’d love to know all your thoughts on this. Can using different methods be beneficial? Is it possible to use the knowledge of many instruments and styles to master many instruments?

Thanks for reading another one of my ramblings. :)

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Can using different methods be beneficial? Yes. Everyone learns differently.

Is it possible to use the knowledge of many instruments and styles to master many instruments? If you’re Seamus Egan, yes. The rest of us punters? Probably not.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

What makes Seamus Egan different from "The rest of us punters"?

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

He can play around half a dozen instruments at a level most people can’t play one at. Why is that? Why is anyone that good? Talent, worked hard, had great teachers….and focus… musicians of that calibre can focus on absolute minutiae, believe me… Probably played before he could walk, given he won the All Ireland at age 14 on four instruments.

I d**cked about on a number of different instruments when I started playing (at age 21), and soon realised I was not talented enough to pull that one off, and focused at becoming sort of proficient on one, rather than painfully mediocre on lots.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

And I class myself as a total punter, by the way. I use that word affectionately, not perjoratively. :)

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all and can definitely find it beneficial. I started as a classical pianist from the time I was 7. From premature arthritis (not even out of my 30’s yet) I don’t play much piano anymore, but it gave me my foundation. Throughout childhood and school I also played various percussion, whistles, clarinet, and other instruments that I haven’t touched since. In university I picked up the guitars; tenor and 6 string (now my primary instruments), banjo, and really buckled down on bodhran. Now within the few years I’ve really grown to appreciate the whistles … which I’ve always played but never paid much mind to. Spending time with one instrument helps, I think, to make another one click. Example, since spending more time with the whistles, I’ve actually become more confident and skilled at the bodhran because it brings an extra layer to the knowledge I already have of the tunes I’m backing (if that makes sense). I think the same also goes for exploring different styles and finding where different styles can fit together. Having the freedom and ability to explore different sounds, instruments, and styles helps you not just to grow, but to develop an understanding of your abilities and where your strength lies. These days I don’t venture far from playing ITM and the occasional bluegrass, but it took leaving those areas and experimenting to find myself enough to realize that ITM and bluegrass are the most natural to me. You’re young. Take advantage and enjoy finding yourself and don’t mind what anyone else might say. Play all the instruments to your hearts content and learn all you can about any genre you choose. That’s the fun of being young and finding yourself!

Mel

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Depends on what your goal(s) are. Del Trotter’s TITCO motto was "we specialise in everything" and it served him well. Nothing beats focus and a directed (thoughful) course of study over time. It may be some time before you are passionate enough about a single instrument and hungry to achieve the best you can before you are ready to let go the distractions. In the meantime, have fun.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Whatever it takes, Kellie :) no rules. just keep learning and smiling. Thats it really.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

An old bandmate and I have had this discussion more than once over the years.

He has said that he has an unfortunate ability to quickly become fairly proficient at any instrument he picks up.

Unfortunate because an instrument beguiles him into believing he can get really good at it… then he hits a wall, a point that to progress beyond requires immense practice time for small increments of improvement.

To put it into numbers, think of getting to 70% of where you want to be in a few weeks, and a year later maybe be at 75.

When this fellow got into middle age he put aside everything but one, and has got very good at it.

I’m very much the same. I started out on Highland pipes at 17 and by the time I was 20 I was playing uilleann pipes and Irish flute and whistles. Then in my 20s and 30s I got into too many genres, diffusing my time on too many instruments.

When I hit my 50s I jettisoned nearly all that stuff, building a fence around where I began: the Highland pipes and uilleann pipes and whistle.

I don’t regret the time in the various genres, on the various instruments. They give me greater perspective.

Anyhow Kellie it’s your path, and only you know what feels right for you.

I remember playing in my first Pipe Band and telling the Pipe Major that I had just got my first set of uilleann pipes. He pointed at my Highland pipes and said "maybe first you should learn to play those right."

He might have been correct! I might have become a better GHB player had I not wandered off into uilleann piping so early.

(The irony is that our Pipe Major’s first instrument wasn’t Highland pipes, it was accordion! He played in an Irish band where he played accordion, guitar, and whistle and sang as well. He was excellent at everything he did.)

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

As a youngin’ you likely find many sources of inspiration, other than ITM. I’m not young, but the world of music is so vast - and increasingly accessible - that I enjoy playing in many genres/trad forms around the world. Yes, it inhibits specialization. I’ve just not been able to slake my appetite for variety. There are advantages; however, I wouldn’t expect to become virtuosic on many - as put forth.

Posted by .

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

This is a perrenial discussion in music forums about opportunity cost. Unless you have the natural talent and focus of a Seamus Egan, or a David Lindley (in another genre of music), being a multi-instrumentalist necessarily means not being able to master a single instrument to its full potential. There is a sliding scale where someone in their 20’s has a better shot at mastering more than one instrument than someone picking up a new instrument later in life. But unless you’re a natural prodigy, the opportunity cost is a factor for most of us in how far we can get with each individual instrument.

I do think it’s true that you can bootstrap your skills to a certain extent by moving around different instruments within the same general family. When I started on mandolin, it certainly helped that I had been playing guitar for 30 years and had some decent picking and fretting skills. But if you jump sideways too far, there isn’t anything that carries over except the repertoire in your head, and the general knowledge of what Irish music should sound like.

That was certainly the case when I started to learn "Irish" flute — an instrument from a totally different family than the fretted string instruments I had played for so long. It felt like starting from scratch. The opportunity cost immediately kicked in, where every hour I spent practicing mandolin or guitar was an hour where my flute playing wasn’t improving.

Anyway, the way I deal with opportunity cost as a multi-instrumentalist is to find happiness in reaching the "journeyman" level of competence on an instrument, at the cost of never shooting for mastery.

A couple of online definitions of journeyman are: "Any worker who produces good but not excellent work," and "A worker who is reliable but not outstanding." Journeyman competence means I can attend sessions and play reasonably well. I can get paid for playing in occasional band gigs that will never reach the level of an Altan or Lunasa, but it’s fine for the occasional St. Patrick’s day or wedding gig. That’s enough for me. The Journeyman concept eases the stress of never feeling that I’ve actually mastered a specific musical instrument, and lets me enjoy having a few different instrument voices for expression instead of just one.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Playing several instruments always felt like a juggling act. You get interested in something on one instrument and concentrate on that, but then feel guilty as it feels as though you’re letting the others slide. These days I just concentrate on fiddle, it’s the only one I practice and try to improve on. I still play the others occasionally when needed for something, but just using the skills I have, not trying to get better at it.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

That’s what I’m doing too - just down to fiddle(s) and harp. I occasionally learn new repertoire on the others, play out in public and so forth, but I don’t practice them at home and consequently don’t aspire for much improvement. However, there are times in settings that a sort of mastery is achieved in deploying music for people, regardless of my limited technical facility. And this is really something I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate.

It’s definitely a juggling act and it produces some anxiety. But I used to work in rhythm sections and grew accustomed to having many activities going on simultaneously. To mitigate anxiety, I’ve just come to accept that - it’s the way things are and there’s not much to do about it - but just become a better juggler :) and enjoy the life of music.

However, for advice here I would offer, if you’re staying with ITM just stick with one or two.

Posted by .

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

I like Conical bore’s definition of a ‘Journeyman’ musician, that’s me I guess, I certainly like it better than the pejorative ‘Jack of All Trades Master of None’. Problem is I like so many genres of trad music, each of them calling for a different instrument or playing technique and I find it hard to settle for any one…………

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

I’m proficient on several instruments, but have focused primarily on Uilleann pipes, whistle, and Anglo Concertina the past 5 years.

In sessions I’ll switch between them every hour or so, mostly for RSI risk reduction, find that changing things up is easier on my body than playing one instrument all night.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Hi, Kellie. Are you singing much?

Posted by .

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Just have a primary or favourite instrument you play the most. Then have a secondary you play sometimes. Everything after that is a casual instrument to play for kicks. It’s good to switch between two to keep it novel, but to mostly focus on one will get you further, faster.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Not that it matters but I just realized I was wrong - i practice other things. Dont know what i was thinking.

Posted by .

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

I think it partly depends, too, on whether the time you take practising other instruments comes out of your time practising your primary instrument, or increases your practise time at the expense of life outside music.
I can see how someone who plays, say, fiddle 4 hours a day will reach a higher level than someone who plays fiddle and whistle for 2 hours each a day. But if someone manages to play whistle for a few hours on top of 4 hours of fiddle, it’s only going to add if anything to their fiddle playing.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

I tried this once as I started a new instrument but quickly dropped the first as I did not want to water myself down. I was weighing it up in my mind for a long time and decided to only focus on one in keeping with the jack of all trades master of non maxim.

In terms of the comments about seamus being able to do it I think those kinds of chaps have an unfair advantage of having been baked in the culture and music from birth; Cathal Haydn being another example of a multi-instrumentalist steeped in the music. Also if your job (I am guessing it is with seamus) is to play music then you have the luxury of spending 8+ hours a day honing your craft so in that time there would be plenty of time to add in a couple more instruments to rack up your golden 10000 hours to mastery; but most people who have a full time job as well you have to spend your time wisely. If you really enjoy just being lackluster at 10 instruments then sure who’s to stop you doing that.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

I think it’s important to ask yourself what you want from the experience of playing music. I play about 20 different instruments at an acceptable level, and two or three fairly well. All of them make me extraordinarily happy to play. Every now and then I break a bone and am forced to concentrate on whatever instrument is workable (usually whistle) for a while. I busked with the fiddle as my main income source for years and got much better because I was playing 5-8 hours per day. Learning the concertina didn’t make me a worse fiddle player. Learning the basics of the trumpet while I could only use one hand kept me sane, and didn’t strip me of my ability to play the guitar.

If you are personally satisfied with what you are getting out of any given instrument, style, or learning method, why would you abandon it? If any of those things don’t fit into your life at a given point, try not to feel bad about setting it aside, or narrowing your focus. If it suddenly becomes vital that you master classical guitar playing, you will make the changes that you need to make. But don’t drop everything else just because you think you "should."

There is a danger of this turning into a long rant, as I clearly feel very strongly about all this, so I’m cutting myself off before it gets painful. Keep learning things, it’s good for your brain.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Very few master a musical instrument, regardless of how long we practice. Furthermore, we might get good and never stray from our own home and so nobody knows.

Also, there are some players who never improve. They play the same tunes in the same inept ways throughout their musical lives.
Some folk can play a variety of instruments very badly. I knew one fiddler who never learned a tune properly, who missed out the "hard" notes and practised his version of tunes every day. He was quite content.

What works for me may not work for you. Why is it important? I listen to Martin Hayes and think his playing is wonderful but I don’t copy him: I learn the tunes and play them the best I can, until I am happy and satisfied but still not Martin Hayes.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

I think there’s a difference between becoming proficient-ish on an instrument and "mastery," and given Kellie asked about "mastering" instruments in the OP, that’s why I brought up Seamus Egan. Unless you’re coming from a background where you’ve been steeped in the music from a young age, it’s not very likely you’ll master a number of instruments if you’re learning how to play them all at once (unless they’re somewhat related, like mandolin and banjo). Maybe someone who’s a musical savant can, but that’s not most people.

I know people who get a lot of enjoyment out of playing lots of things, but none of them at a particularly high level, like Allan said above. We all know those folks. If mooching about on a few instruments makes you happy, then no reason not to do it, but if becoming really good (or as good as you can) is your goal, especially as an adult learner, then spreading yourself between a number of disparate instruments probably isn’t an efficient nor terribly effective way to achieve that.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Go ahead and become a multi-instrumentalist. Doesn’t matter if you don’t master all of them to a really high performing standard, because you learn so much abuot how that instrument works and it’s role in group playing. This makes you much more sensitive in your playing, and more creative in your responses to the other instruments in the group. You understand what they can do, can’t do and the possibilities for yourself and others., giving them chances for little solos and how to accompany them and enhance it. Nobody likes a selfish, player who thinks of themselves as the "star player" and won’t listen sensitively, or share the limelight with others.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Depends what your goal is - if you have one. If you want to have a career in music, that’s one thing - and then, if want a career in some kind of performance, that’s even more of a thing. If you have no such goal, then do whatever you enjoy doing.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

I am a multi instrumentalist. I play uilleann pipes, whistles, low whistles, guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, bass guitar, clarinet, banjo, bodhran.
I NEVER had lessons, just tried and listen very hard to every single note to catch the differences and the way to play them, playing alongside with albums, cds.
I travelled a lot, very often in Ireland, playing with and meeting an awful lot of people from all over the world, every time trying to grab their secrets and their approach to music.
And I did learn those instrument in the end; most of all I had THE BEST OF TIME, music has become my job, I travelled the world because of it and shared the stage with many great names of this music, both in Italy and abroad.
So YES, just do it
the way you like.
All the best
Massimo Giuntini

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Why play different instruments? For me, it’s because they offer different sounds and different opportunities. I find that whenever I’m getting into a rut on one instrument I can switch to another, and so avoid those frustrating plateaus when nothing seems to be working.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Massimo said"I travelled a lot, very often in Ireland, playing with and meeting an awful lot of people from all over the world, every time trying to grab their secrets and their approach to music."

That might be lessons.

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

"Why play different instruments? For me, it’s because they offer different sounds and different opportunities. I find that whenever I’m getting into a rut on one instrument I can switch to another, and so avoid those frustrating plateaus when nothing seems to be working."

Right on the money, Howard! :)

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

Everyone I know who has become awesome on an instrument shares the following in common. Sometime during their schooling (Middle School and/or High School) they dedicated nearly every waking hour to learning their instrument, usually at the expense of school and social relationships. Seamus Egan was my banjo teacher when he was around 20 and he was that focused when he was in HS. I have friends who are also incredibly talented musicians that were also that dedicated when they were young. I only became very good on guitar not awesome - I only spent 4 hours a day practicing and actually took my school work seriously so I was sloughing off.

OP unless you develop a focus on a single instrument and single style of music (or closely related instruments like Mandolin and Irish Tenor Banjo) and pursue that with passion for a few years, you will never become good. You might be an advanced beginner in a bunch of instruments or styles, but you will never progress beyond that.

…a time in which time disappears…

Austin, I think it will help your musical development to consider how you learn. Know thyself!
When you first began posting on this site, IIRC, you were mainly interested in tinwhistle, trad tunes &
composing. I encouraged you to *focus* on trad tunes. Even then you were wanting to explore other options
and remain unfocused. Maybe this is something which works for your way of learning. I don’t know.

From what I can tell you seemed most focused when you posted about singing. You may have decided remaining unfocused is essential to your music, and it may be inherent in your way of learning. I hope you also consider it may be worthwhile to consider a bit of grounding (while you are yet young & flexible of mind) in certain things which hold your attention for *a time in which time disappears*.

Personally I think your singing was captivating. Again, I don’t know. For you it might be singing, or it might be banjo, or it might be mandolin, or it might be the next thing which comes along. Somehow I doubt it’s the *next* instrument you find in your exploration.

Having said that I’m happy you sought out more things musically beyond playing tinwhistle. I love tinwhistle. Sometimes you have to put a good thing down for ‘a minute’ & come back to it later.

Best to you.

Posted by .

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

I picked up the fiddle after many years of playing the banjo, had to leave the banjo behind, not enough talent for both :)

Re: The potential advantages of exploring several instruments at once and remaining unfocused

The old saying "Jack of all trades, master of none" has been hinted at in several posts here although not specifically stated.

Of course, if you want to be a career musician and excel in a particular instrument, then it’s best to focus on the one instrument. Then once you’ve "mastered" same (Is anyone ever truly satisfied, in this respect though?), you can then start to do the same with one or more other instruments.

However, if you are more interested in playing the music itself and just for your own pleasure then I don’t see an issue in doing a bit of "dabbling". This will obviously slow down your progress a little but as long as you can play well enough to enjoy yourself and others consider that you are making an acceptable contribution, why not?
Of course, it does help if the "new" instruments are related or have some similarity to those you play already… e.g. fiddle to mandolin to tenor guitar/banjo etc or vice versa. Guitar to mandolin, Guitar to Uke, whistle to flute to chanter to pipes, keyboards to accordion or even harp but there are so many possibilities.

Even when the instruments may appear quite different, if you already have an idea of the "music" itself this can go a long way.