RhythmArt Blog

A day in the life of a percussionist

RhythmArt Blog

Learning A Second Instrument

August 30th, 2011 · No Comments · life of a percussionist, practicing

As musicians, we all tend to dabble a bit. Who hasn’t had a “round robin” at rehearsal just to break things up a bit? And I’d bet there’s probably a pennywhistle in the back of a drawer somewhere in your house, too! Lately, I’ve been diving in to learning bass guitar, and I’ve noticed a few points, both positive and negative, that I’d like to pass along.

Benefits Of Learning A Second Instrument

  1. Improved Time Sense – As musicians, we learn to track time through our physical actions, and through the response of our instruments. Learning a different instrument gives us a totally different sensation of how time passes. It is imperative that we practice with a metronome, so we can observe how the instrument impacts our sense of time. As we become more and more comfortable with this new time-tracking mechanism, our timekeeping becomes less instrument-specific, and more generalized, making our timekeeping that much stronger. Also, when playing with others, by understanding how that player feels time on his/her instrument, we are better able to lock in with them and deepen the overall pocket of the band. This was one of the primary reasons I decided to pick up the bass – what better way to practice locking in with a bass player, than by becoming one?
  2. Improved Sense Of Pitch – Pitch recognition tends to happen for musicians over time by default. We get a sense of, “When I do this, it sounds like this.” Our pitch recognition tends to be strongest though, on pitches that fall within the range of, and haveĀ  a similar timbre to, our own instrument. By picking up a second, we get used to hearing and creating pitches in a new register and timbre, making our sense of pitch more generalized. Of course, the better we are at hearing and recognizing pitch, the better musicians we have the potential to become!
  3. A Breath Of Fresh Air – Let’s be honest here. Being a musician is the greatest job in the world, but after playing percussion for 25 years, sometimes it can feel a bit stale! Picking up a new instrument tends to feel more like playing! Nothing’s riding on it, it’s not paying my bills, and nobody is going to hear how bad I am, so I can just sit back and have fun with it! And 9 times out of 10, once I’m done “playing around” with the bass, I can’t wait to get over to the percussion side of the room and get some “real work” done. If nothing else, to clear my ears of all the mistakes I just made! It really can give a new life to your playing to get totally out of your comfort zone for a while!

Cautions When Learning A Second Instrument

  1. Don’t Forget Your Real Job – While there are benefits to learning a second instrument, there are some drawbacks as well. One of the first is the same as everything else we have to deal with in life – every minute not spent practicing your (primary) instrument is a minute you aren’t getting better. It’s important to find a balance when practicing, and don’t let the siren of the shiny new interest lure you away from your primary mission – getting better at your bread and butter workhorse (is that a mixed-enough metaphor, or shall I throw in a few more?)!
  2. Look Out For Similarities – One not-so-obvious thing to look out for is that if instruments are too similar, it can actually throw you off quite a bit! I first noticed this when I was studying djembe, and started picking at the congas on the side. The hand motions are similar, but yet different enough to be considered different systems. They were similar enough that my brain tried to file them away in the same folder, and I ended up confusing myself. Thankfully, my teacher played both, and knew how to recognize the problem, steering me to safety! I’d imagine it would be like trying to learn Latin and Italian at the same time, and trying to keep the vocabulary separate. Sometimes it’s better to go way different, and let your brain sort them into separate files!
  3. Remember Your Place – How many times have you heard someone say they play 12 different instruments? How many times has it been true? Don’t be that guy. Remember that the fact that you’ve played one instrument at a high level for a long time, does not mean that you are an expert on another just because you happen to be holding it! A second instrument takes just as much time, dedication, and work as a primary instrument in order to be played at a professional level. Some people are able to double very well, and play each as if it were the only. Not everyone can. Be honest with yourself about your abilities, or lack thereof. Ask yourself, “Am I playing this instrument well enough to justify taking a gig away from a fellow musician?”. What would you do if someone took a gig from you in a similar manner? This goes for teachers as well (maybe even more so). A semester of methods classes in college does not make you qualified to teach private lessons on an instrument, or to take food off the table of another teacher who specializes in that instrument. You may be Prince, but you’re probably not.

I hope these ideas will help you in your musical quest, and who knows how far it may lead! Remember, the more versatile you are, the more opportunities your will find to use your skills!

If you have any tips for learning a second instrument, or ideas about instrument pairings that do or don’t work, make to sure share them in the comments!

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