Become a multi-instrumentalist. It’s easier than you think.
Push past perceived limitations and discover abilities that will surprise you…
What is a multi-instrumentalist?
Wikipedia defines a multi-instrumentalist as:
Notice the word ‘proficiency’. In Wikipedia’s view multi-instrumentalists have to be experts, not just on one instrument but on all of them — no easy feat. There’s no denying it’s incredible to watch and listen to musicians who have mastered their craft, however I prefer to think of multi-instrumentalists as ‘musically fluent’ rather than proficient. Fluency is a very different proposition, a more attainable one. Where proficiency is reserved for the few, fluency is open to all…
What is musical fluency?
Musical fluency is the ability to communicate what you hear in your head freely on your instruments, with little or no hesitation. It’s being able to competently improvise and compose, and the real beauty of it is that you can be fluent even at an intermediate level.
“the ability to communicate what you hear in your head freely on your instruments, with little or no hesitation”
We can compare musical fluency to linguistic fluency. Is a 50 year old language professor fluent in his native tongue? Of course. But so is a 12 year old, just at a lower level. The baseline for fluency is being able to conceive of and communicate a spoken utterance in real-time, which both individuals in this example can do. The extent to which different people are fluent varies, but as soon as someone has grasped the basics they can meaningfully interact with others. Similarly when learning a second language, most people find that fluency is adequate to achieve what they want to in the world. With fluency you can read, write, hold a conversation…flirt. You don’t need to be an expert to do these things. All of this applies to multi-instrumentalism. Humble and obtainable musical fluency opens a range of possibilities, to create original tunes, to form a band. Don’t wait until you’re proficient to start enjoying and immersing yourself in the musical landscape.
Each new instrument is easier to learn than the last
Continuing with the linguistics analogy for a moment, it is commonly understood that learning a third language is easier than learning the second language was, and a fourth language easier than a third language and so on. Each consecutive language builds upon those that came before. You find similarities to latch onto and find that the neural pathways you need to grasp new words and structures are already there. It’s the same with music. Each new instrument is easier to learn than the last. The first one is always the hardest because you’re learning the foundations of music and how to express it through your particular instrument, how to coordinate multiple different parts of your body — all at the same time. After you’ve built that base though, after you’ve acquired that preliminary musical understanding, becoming a multi-instrumentalist is a much narrower and less daunting task. It’s the act of taking everything you know and applying it to a new object, coordinating different parts of your body to produce sound, but not at the same time as learning the building blocks of music itself.
One of the best things about learning multiple instruments is that you’ll notice how different instruments have certain properties and attributes, that mean they lend themselves to playing a particular ‘role’ within a piece. Don’t think of their character as fixed as that will limit your creativity, but do pay attention to those aspects of music that your instrument seems most suited to bringing to the table. It’s talents so to speak. Different instruments tap into music in different ways. The language remains the same but each instrument speaks in its own, unique voice, just as people do. Ever wondered how someone can compose for an entire orchestra? Don’t be fooled into thinking they play every single instrument in the ensemble. Most likely they play a few, but through close listening to the voices of different instruments have come to know where each instrument fits most naturally within the whole, how each can be used to the greatest effect.
The benefits of becoming a multi-instrumentalist
- Reinforce your understanding of music: Applying what you know on one instrument to others, deepens your understanding of the language of music itself — of rhythm, melody, harmony.
- Your ear will also improve dramatically as you repeatedly hear notes played by instruments with different tones and timbres. You’ll get better at distinguishing what is in and out of tune.
- Up your creative game: Having a working understanding of how different instruments function and what their unique strengths are, opens up a whole host of creative options when composing new music. You’ll gain experience choosing the right instrument, with the right timbre, for each section of your piece. A choice which makes all the difference.
- You can experiment with numerous instrumental parts yourself, experimenting with how they best fit together — without having to rely on other musicians. Particularly helpful in the early stages of creating a new piece.
- Better prospects: If you rely on music for your income then becoming a multi-instrumentalist empowers you to teach more students, play more gigs, collect more royalties. The more skills you have, the more in demand you’ll be.
- Improved health: Boost hand-eye coordination with rhythmic instruments, condition your respiratory system with singing, brass and wind instruments, improve your memory, your concentration, reduce stress and more.
- More fun…
The Jim Hines phenomenon
In 1968 athlete Jim Hines did something nobody had done before, he ran the 100m sprint in under ten seconds, a true first for humankind. No sooner had the ten second barrier been broken, other runners began following suit, reaching a point where even high school children were making times under ten seconds. What changed? Did humans suddenly evolve, and at lightning speed? Of course not, and yet how did something seemingly impossible become almost commonplace overnight? The answer lies in the collective consciousness. ‘It can’t be done’ became ‘he can do it’, followed by ‘so can I’. Today the question is will anyone ever make a time under nine seconds? The consensus is that it will one day be done, and once that milestone has been achieved many more will also achieve this incredible victory.
What’s this got to do with multi-instrumentalism? Well, speaking as someone who initially found learning one instrument a challenge, the idea of playing more instruments only really took root as I discovered and became captivated by multi-instrumentalist artists. Before I came to know these artists, picking up a third or fourth instrument simply wasn’t on my radar. However, watching my favourite musicians at work on drums, then keys, then bass, then saxophone… I began to feel like it could be possible for me too.
A note for the naysayers
If you’re thinking ‘I can’t afford to buy three instruments’ let me stop you there. Your voice is completely free and there’s so much to learn using your voice alone. Can you hold a melody, infusing it with emotion and expression? Can you sing in harmony, blending in seamlessly with other backing vocalists? Can you make a beat? I’m not talking about beat-boxing, I mean creating a backbeat with pitchless syllables and vocal effects, the kind you could lay a tune on top of (although if beat-boxing tickles your fancy be my guest). Harnessing the power of your own voice to make music is one of the most rewarding journeys you can go on, but if it’s not for you there are also a number of instruments you can pick up that won’t break the bank. Second-hand keyboards and guitars are usually affordable. Or the xaphoon which can be bought new for $65. If you’re worried about the cost of music lessons for multiple instruments, then let me assure you it is entirely possible to reach a level of musical fluency through teaching yourself. And there are so many online resources available these days to help you on your way.
I hope this read has inspired you to pick up something new. I’d love to hear how you get on so feel free to give me a shout in the comments.