Another instrument! Are you kidding? For those who have found learning just one instrument challenging, it may seem counter-intuitive to pick up a second, let alone a third. But there are benefits to doing just that. Today’s blog looks at some of these benefits, illustrated by a bit of my personal journey in music.
Making the instrument one’s own
When I went from playing the violin to learning the double bass, it was a significant moment in my musical journey. The violin was always my sister Helen’s instrument, and she was winning prizes and playing in the National Youth Orchestra at 16, while I was barely beginning to play my first pieces at the piano 10 years behind her. With that age difference I was in awe of her and it seemed I could never be that good, and I certainly didn’t sound good when I started playing. I really wanted to play in an orchestra and knew my violin playing was more scratch than being up to it. So, in my early teens I looked around the house (there were instruments everywhere – my parents hired them out) to see what I might learn with a view to playing in an orchestra soon. Two instruments caught my attention: the trombone and the double bass. Figuring that a bass player was going to get more playing time in an orchestra, I chose that.
Now my goal of playing in an orchestra seemed a little more reachable as I discovered that double bass players are in relatively short supply. I found new motivation to practice much more diligently than I had on the violin. My practice had a purpose and a goal to aim for. New challenges were not seen as huge mountains, but as a means to an end and I simply took them on.
Transferable skills – from the first instrument to the new one
Almost immediately I felt that I had come home. Having already learned how to play the violin, there were some useful skills that I could transfer to my new toy. Holding the bow was similar and the idea of pressing strings to change notes was all familiar. I could read the bass line from having learned to play the piano, so with both piano and violin skills I jumped ahead much more quickly than starting with the bass as my first instrument.
There are so many different sorts of transferable skills when you learn another instrument. Here are a couple of examples that come to mind. I’m sure you can think of others.
- Learning chords on a guitar can help you learn more about the use of chords at the piano (and vice versa).
- Learning about phrasing on a wind instrument helps you realise music needs to have natural breathing places that those who don’t play a wind instrument are less aware of.
Transferable skills – from the newer instrument back to the first
New skills learned on the new instrument can breathe new life into your experience of other previously learned instruments. An example of this for me was when I took up the ‘cello. I now found that, even when playing the bass, I was more aware of how to play the melodic lines better.
Another example was learning to play string vibrato. I just couldn’t do it effectively on the violin. The angle of it seemed so difficult, but I knew this would improve the sound. So, when I was getting confident on the bass, I learned how to do vibrato much earlier in my learning. The result was that I enjoyed the variation in sound and tone colour so much more. Then, when I went back to the violin, it was not nearly as difficult and I am much happier on the violin than I used to be. (Even so, you won’t catch me playing it when my big sister is around!)
What is difficult in one instrument may be easier on another
The last example (string vibrato) also exemplifies this point.
As another example: if you have already learned to read music as a pianist, taking up a melody instrument (and therefore reading a single stave) is a delight. You can take the time to focus on the technical aspects and really get good at the sound you are making, rather than having to learn the process of reading music as well.
Experiencing music in social groups
Being able to play another instrument opened up for me a range of other musical experiences that just playing the piano didn’t provide. Pianists can experience this in a measure by playing for choirs, chamber groups or playing in church music groups, but there is something special about coming together with 60 other musicians playing a whole range of instruments, all having a particular part to play that combined makes up one big sound.
Playing the bass has the advantage of often playing the relatively easy, but very important parts while enjoying and admiring the music coming from the hard work of others! I was at an orchestra rehearsal this week doing just that, thinking what a privilege. But mind you, the hard working flute players were also enjoying it and likely glad they don’t have to lug a double bass around!
This by no means exhausts the subject of why it is good to take up another instrument, but I hope some of my personal experiences show that doing it enhances your whole experience of music and so much is gained from it. If you ever feel there is lacklustre in your or your child’s one instrument experience, maybe think about whether it is the right time to take on another one.