To double, or not to double…

Today I would like to discuss some of the benefits I have experienced in learning multiple instruments. This I feel has become taboo in conservatories where one may feel pressured to focus on their respective instrument, only. Of course, there are benefits in this. But there are also benefits in other options, as well.

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Learning Multiple Instruments

Cons

Equipment: If your primary instrument is a reed instrument, and your “double” instruments are also reed instruments, you will have to make or buy many more reeds than you already do. This is a serious con because it costs a lot of money and can eat up a lot of time. Add mouthpieces, ligatures, straps, stands, INSTRUMENTS… you get the idea.

*Tip: Find a mentor or a friend that would lend you or give you an equipment that they don’t use. Or buy the equipment of those you trust. You don’t want to buy a $500 saxophone for $400, and then have to put in $200 for overhaul so you can actually play the instrument. Or, maybe your grandfather used to play the trombone that he doesn’t play anymore? Personally I have found using borrowed instruments in the beginning very helpful in learning what I want for myself eventually.

Repairs: Speaking of repairs, if you think having to go into the shop every few months to get your instrument back up to speed is a drag, try dealing with three more. Now to make it even worse, what are you going to do when you leave your instruments with a repair technician and you have a gig on those respective instruments that night?

*Tip: Have intermediate-level (or pro-level if you can afford them) back up instruments. When you choose them, make sure they come with decent mechanism, produce the stylistically correct sound with good intonation. Or, have a list of people in your mind that you can contact right away (or even better, ahead of time) to borrow instruments. “Both of the above” is also a good option.

Transportation: If you have gigs playing multiple instruments, God bless you. If you double/ triple/ quadruple on low instruments, may the force be with you. Instruments are very heavy and daily commute without a car (and with a car) can be a serious time consumer in addition to the fact that it really starts taking a toll on your body, quickly.

*Tip: Own compact, sturdy, and light instrument cases. Carpool with people with cars. Tablets+flipping device can help reduce the weight of tons of sheet music. Tablets are also illuminated so you wouldn’t have to carry music stand lamps.

Space: If you have lived in a small New York City apartment room, you might just be choking up in empathy as I touch on this topic. My second room in New York was so small, with a bass clarinet case on the floor it was not so easy to get around my room. With all of my instruments on the floor of the room, I would have to walk on my bed to get to the door.

*Tip: Leave some things at school if you are comfortable doing that. Or your friends or family members. This one is tough.

Lessons: Maybe you are fine with being self-taught, maybe you are not. If you are not, those double/ triple/ quadruple lesson fees certainly add up.

*Tip: Today, YouTube and numerous other online resources are goldmines of information. Books can be good too, but often they are a bit outdated. Exchanging lessons with your friends is also a very good way to avoid crazy lesson fees. I have heard in New York, some teachers charge $300/ hr for a lesson. Here’s why that is crazy: when a teacher is so powerful and experienced that they can call these top prices, they probably don’t have to call these top prices. I would rather take my money to people who need it. In a place like New York, there are plenty of great teachers for just about any instrument.

Pros

Styles: Imagine the arranger of a musical theatre production you are doing asks that you improvise over some changes in the typical style of swing. If  you have never done this before and you only have ever played and listened to classical clarinet, your solo is going to stylistically suffer. If you also play jazz or listen to jazz, you have a much better chance in producing convincing and enjoyable music.

Perspectives/ Insights: When you play other instruments and come back to your home instrument, you will notice a few things that you haven’t noticed before. Or you will have questions. Can I use more air? Can I open up my throat more without squeaking? Would it make the sound resonate better, perhaps not as noticeably on the saxophone but still make some subtle positive enhancements? Can I take in more mouthpiece? Oh I am definitely flat there. Can I use a harder reed and get used to it? Are my fingers too weak? Is my instrument heavier than I thought; should I exercise a bit to more comfortably play it? Oh wow I can drop my jaw more and it makes a huge difference like on the saxophone. etc., etc.

Gigs: This depends on what you play and on the job market, but if you play the clarinet (not too much in demand) but also the bassoon, French horn, harp, or the piano, you will get more job opportunities. This can mean in the fields of performance/ teaching/ retail/ marketing, repair, and more.

Break: We all need clear breaks from our home instrument regularly. If you play multiple instruments, you can take clear breaks from each instrument by working on other instruments. You can still be engaged in musical learning but perhaps you can rest your thumb a bit more, or your embouchure, or your shoulders, etc.. When my lips are all ground up and my embouchure feels exhausted from playing the soprano clarinets a lot, I often go to the bass clarinet and play some scales. This helps me to not just stay in shape on the bass clarinet in the midst of a full-swing-non-bass clarinet season, but also gets my body to engage my air more (something I forget easier on the regular clarinet), AND also it massages my face pleasantly with deep, low vibrations. Maybe the last part is just me…

Practice: My teacher Charles Neidich has told me that “there is nothing better than playing the piano for gaining finger strengths (he plays the piano as a “hobby” these days, used to play much more seriously in youth).” Anyway, if you play the piano, you know this is true. You don’t even have to practice sonatas or concertos. Even just a few well-practiced scales per day will help your inner and physical rhythm in good shape and finger strength up. When you go back to your clarinet, you will notice that your fingers have better rhythm, strength, and direction. Before my first piano student of the day enters my studio, I make sure I practice some scales and arpeggios on the keyboard. As a result I sound better to the student, and I feel already more warmed up for after the lesson when I go to play the clarinet.

Final Thoughts

In the end, you don’t have to pursue three or more instruments to world-class level. But you don’t have to not do that, either. There are benefits in whatever you do consciously, methodically, and hopefully enthusiastically or even passionately . It all comes down to what you want or need musically and in other means, and what you already have.

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