About Playing Multiple Instruments

In this episode Christopher and Andrew talk about the musicality of playing multiple instruments. How becoming more musical makes it easy to pick up a second (or third, or fourth!) instrument – and how playing more than one instrument can help you become more musical.

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Christopher: Today we’re going to be talking about the musicality of playing multiple instruments.

This episode is going to be of the informal chattier ones we’ve been doing lately where it’s not just me carefully reading from something I’ve prepared in advance. It’s just me hopping on a call with a team member and us chatting through a topic. We had some fantastic feedback of appreciation after the last one I did with Andrew from our team, so I have invited Andrew back to talk with me about this topic today.

You may remember Andrew from such previous episodes as The Musicality of Sitting on a Rock with Andrew Bishko and about the Lydian Chromatic Concept. I’ve asked Andrew to join me on the show today because he, like myself, plays a bunch of different instruments.

I wanted to tackle this topic after our interview with David Row, where he was talking about the Orff approach, having every kid play essentially every instrument. You’re not expected to just master the xylophone at age five. You get the chance to play each and every instrument that’s contributing to a song.
I know in my own experience talking to musicians, a lot of us think we have to stick to one instrument and master it, and if we don’t do that, we’re not focusing and we should feel bad about that. I also know that when I was growing up, for the first few years, I assumed it was really hard to learn a second instrument. I think I had in mind this grade exam thing, or I guess it was it was the GCSE system in the UK where you have your primary instrument and you need to get to such and such a grade on that instrument, and then you have your secondary instrument, and you need to get to such and such a grade, maybe at the same level.
Anyway, I had in mind this was a really serious thing to play a second instrument, but I bumbled my way into playing several instruments. They kind of stack up. I think I started out on cello, then I learned clarinet, then I learned saxophone and guitar and piano and I was doing a lot of singing, and got to university and played bass and harmonica and on and on.

Andrew, from what I remember talking to you, a similar story. You’ve accumulated instruments over the years, and I know some of them are definitely more of a focus for you than others, but was it the same for you that once you realized you could pick up another instrument, you couldn’t stop?

Andrew: Yes. It was slow for me, but I don’t think it has to be. For the longest time, flute was my main instrument. I took piano and knew a little bit of piano, but that was it. After playing for so long and realizing that I could pick up a saxophone and the fingerings were the same, it was just mind blowing, “Wow, this is so similar. I can play this thing right out of the box.” I had to work on my embouchure and things like that, but there was so much less of a learning curve because I already played flute.

Christopher: Yes. I think that’s the first thing that we were both keen to share in this episode was it’s not as hard as you might imagine to pick up a second instrument and learn a third and a fourth. This isn’t something reserved for the talented few, and I think it comes down to a few different things. You touched on one there, which is that sometimes instruments are quite similar to one another.

For me, I mentioned I went from clarinet to saxophone. I got tricked into playing clarinet. I only ever wanted to play sax, but I was told I had to play clarinet first. Like you said, the fingerings, there’s some commonality there and they’re both reed wind instruments or wind and brass, anyway. You can swap from one to the other a lot more easily than just starting completely afresh.

It’s not just that. It’s not just guitarists switching to bass and that kind of thing. I think what I was keen to convey in this episode is that a lot of what we talk about on the show is common across instruments, what we refer to as musicality or an instinct for music and the understanding of music when you hear it and play it.

That’s pretty much the same, whatever instrument you play. To get concrete, if we’re talking about a one four five chord progression, as we often do on the show, that’s going to be the same, whatever instrument you play. I can pick up a bass and play one, five, six, four, for example, that classic progression. That’s a one, five, six, four on the bass, but I can also pick up my guitar, and I’m not needing any extra knowledge in my head really apart from a few guitar chord shapes, and I can play that one, five, six, four on guitar.

I’m sure anyone listening to this podcast can hear the commonality between those two, and that’s another thing, that your ears, the way we’re developing our ears to hear that that’s a one, five, six, four, is the same whatever instrument happens to be playing it. That for me was a major insight.

I don’t know where that came up for you, Andrew, in your musical journey. For me, it came up far too late, this realization that the theory I had studied and my instinct for music, and rhythm is another example, too, where once you’re good at rhythm on one instrument, it’s not a huge leap to make it to another, and that it gives you such a head start, right?

Andrew: Absolutely. For me, the way I was taught piano, I wasn’t really taught theory together with piano, so it never made any sense to me and it was always difficult for me. The flute being a melody instrument, it was much more straightforward, but by having that time when I put all that focus on melody and phrasing, that came back around.

There was a point in which I started playing piano more. It was actually because I was teaching and I started realizing how important the theory was and how important understanding chords were. I understood what they were abstractly, and I’d done a little bit of jazz stuff on flute, but I didn’t really fully apply them. Usually, I’d learn just enough to get my ears going and then I’d let go of it.

When I started playing more piano and teaching more about chords, I started having all kinds of realizations about playing the flute and about being able to do things and improvise with chord tones and things like that.

The other benefit, conversely, is when I went back, when I started playing keyboard instruments, like the piano and the accordion, I had that sensitivity to phrasing and dynamics that you get from playing a melody instrument, like saxophone or flute, and putting that into the equation where my playing was a lot less mechanical and more nuanced.

Christopher: Yes, and I think that’s the other thing that we really wanted to share on this episode. It’s easier than you think to play multiple instruments if you’ve been approaching your main instrument with this kind of musicality mindset. It’s also that each instrument gives you a really different perspective.

Andrew, you were pointing out to me that in our recent interview with Andy Wasserman, he was talking about this idea of linguistic relativity, where your mother tongue essentially influences how you learn other languages. I’ve experienced this so much where every instrument I pick up teaches me something new about what to listen for in music and it stretches the way you approach other instruments, too. It’s like being able to see things with fresh eyes again and again.

Andrew: That linguistic relativity is so true. I remember when I moved to Italy and I was a camp counselor, so I really didn’t have any choice but to just dive into speaking Italian all the time, and I started thinking a whole lot more about food than I ever did because that’s more of the Italian mindset.

It’s the same thing with instruments. When I started playing accordion, it really tickled my brain, because the left hand of the accordion is organized according to the circle of fifths. It’s different than the piano, different than the flute or a melody instrument. It has that organization that mirrors this fundamental musical theory, and it puts it right under your fingers.

For example, here on my left hand of the accordion, I have this row is playing the bass notes, and here’s major chords here. If I go, that’s a one, four, five, one. All these buttons are right next to each other, where at a piano, you have to move around to get that. Those buttons are right next to each other. Plus, I can use one button and play a whole chord, which is sweet.

Here’s my minor chords, my seventh chords. I could play a whole thing.

That helped me internalize the circle of fifths in a whole new way and then conversely, when I go to play a scale on there, you’re all over the place with your buttons. We don’t have a visual thing here, but you’re just everywhere. To do that, which somehow tickles me into a new understanding of how tones relate to each other in this non-linear way, and it’s because of that system of the Stradella bass on the accordion.

Christopher: Yes, that’s really interesting. For me, I think one of the eye-opening things was harmonica, and specifically, the blues harmonica, the diatonic harmonica, because I think up until that point, I’d played all instruments that have basically the full chromatic range available to you, your piano keyboard or your guitar fret board or your clarinet or saxophone fingering, and certainly the human voice, even wackier.

For the first time, I was presented with this thing where I could only play notes from the major scale. On a harmonica, your main hole’s in the middle. If I demo here, that’s your major scale right there. You actually have to work quite hard to get away from those notes.

What I found, and what kind of blew my mind a little bit because this is back before I discovered ear training was a thing, I discovered that I could figure things out by ear. I think this was maybe the first time I’d ever really been able to do it, and it was because I wasn’t overwhelmed by all notes being possible. I could pick up my harmonica and pretty quickly figure out a simple melody by ear.

That constraint unlocked a new ability in me, and it’s just the nature of the instrument. Certain instruments are going to push you in a certain direction or pull you in a certain direction. I think once you realize that and you once you experience it, you can see how much you might be missing out on if you just focus in on one instrument.

Andrew: What blew me away when learning harmonica was that I could make a note on my inhale as well as my exhale, which just gave me a whole new sense of breathing and what you could do with the breath. The most expressive notes are with the inhale. It really boggled my mind to play harmonica. It seems so simple, but after playing all these chromatic instruments, it was this totally new thing.

I had students pick up the harmonica and without any preconceived notions, it’s easier for them. It’s interesting. Really, I have an easier time with certain instruments being intuitive than being analytical. Harmonica is one of those.

Christopher: For sure. You mentioned that expressive thing. I think I had played guitar for a few years before picking up the harmonica, and on guitar, you can do what’s called a string bend. If I play this note, but then I want to bend up the pitch, I want to increase the pitch a bit, I can do this.

You hear that a lot in blues music. I don’t know if I can demo here with wires trailing all over the place, but I’ll give it a shot. You can play something. I had experienced the string bending, pitch bending thing was possible, but I never really got a feel for it, to be honest. The harmonica, like you say, there’s inhale notes. You can bend them, so on harmonica, you can do:

I threw in a trill there, which confused things a little.

Andrew: Sounds great.

Christopher: The point is I was instinctively starting to bend those.

You can almost not help but do that on a harmonica, and you do it instinctively and you phrase and shape your melodies in a different way because that’s accessible to you. That was something I could then take back to guitar, and likewise, the trills I’d never really done on guitar or piano, I’d done them when the music told me to in the sheet music, but on harmonica, again, that little easy rocking back and forth between notes is just so core to it.

I went back to piano, and I had that instinct to want to do a little trill here. I went back to guitar and I had the instinct to want to do a little pitch bend there. And so it is really fascinating how it develops your ear and your instinct for what’s possible, and then you can apply that to the next instrument or the next musical situation you’re in.

Andrew: That’s so true. Another thing I was thinking is different instruments take on different roles. I know a lot of times when we play piano, most of the time we’re playing solo. You have the opportunity to play the bass and the chords and the harmony and the melody, playing it all in one shot, but when you play a melody instrument, you’re really focusing on that role.

When you play a bass instrument, it’s a whole different thing. I’ve just been learning how to play the Mexican guitarron, which is the big acoustic bass, and it’s given me such a different perspective on the music where I can really feel the bass, so even when I’m not playing it in the group because I don’t know if I’ll ever be to a point where I can play it in a band, but when I listen to the music, I hear the bass now and when I’m playing my melodies, I’m interacting with that bass.

So many times in an ensemble, when we play with other people, we get focused on our part. We’re just going to play our part, and it’s almost like we have to tune everybody else out to focus on our part, but when you play all the instruments and when you play instruments in different roles, whether you play a chordal instrument, a bass instrument, or a melody instrument or a solo instrument or accompaniment instrument, when you’ve been in both worlds and then you come back to playing in a group, your ability to interact is so much stronger and it’s so much more fun.

Christopher: 100%, yes. I think it’s both subconscious and conscious. Consciously, you can do something like I was just talking about, where you’ve come across how a trill can work, and you think, “Oh yeah, on piano, I can do this now,” but it’s also subconscious.

For me, it’s really visceral when I’ve learned a new instrument, then when I listen to music, I feel like I’m playing that instrument. I don’t know if that happens with you, but when I’ve been playing a lot of saxophone lately, I will hear the sax in a piece in a different way and almost parts of my body respond to it as if I’m playing.

Andrew: Yes, yes.

Christopher: That’s a really fun experience and it also I think just highlights how much of that inner instinct for music is being developed and carried across from instrument to instrument.

Andrew: One thing you mentioned earlier, you touched upon this several times about voice. A lot of people, when people think about learning another instrument, they’re not thinking about voices, but the voice is so key to playing an instrument. I know that for years, because of health issues when I was a child, I was physically unable to sing and never developed that.

When I started to get back into ear training, there was no choice. I had to sing, and I just realized how off I was in so many ways because I hadn’t developed that. The singing and the ear are so intimately connected, so that’s another thing, another instrument that is really valuable to add, no matter what you’re playing.

Christopher: Absolutely, yes, and I think I’ll point back to our previous podcast episodes, one on active listening, where we talk a lot about that thing of tuning into a certain instrument in music, and another one, I think it’s called Singing as a Tool. It’s about that value of using your voice to train your ears, whether or not you consider yourself a singer and whether or not you have any intention to perform as a singer. Learning to express yourself musically with your voice, it does wonders for your musical ear.

I said to you, Andrew, before we hit record that this is a topic in which we’re in danger of going on all day, so I’ve got to round things off now, but I hope that everyone tuning in, if you haven’t played several instruments before, this will encourage you to give it a try.

You don’t need to take this super seriously and decide that this second instrument will be my second instrument and I will be very serious about it. It can be literally as fun as just borrowing an instrument from someone, going to a music shop and dabbling for a while. I hope we’ve painted a picture of how this transforms your brain, your ears, your musicality in really fun and interesting ways. Andrew, any parting pieces of wisdom?

Andrew: You hit it right there. I want to say it’s approaching with an idea of fun and realize it’s not going to take away from your primary instrument. That can be your major thing, but you learn so much and have so much more fun playing around with other instruments and taking really a child’s attitude. My children look at me and they say, “Oh, I’m going to play all the things that daddy does and more,” and they feel completely and totally comfortable and capable that they can do that. Why shouldn’t we feel that way as adults?

Christopher: Fantastic. That’s really great advice. Thanks so much, Andrew, for joining me for this one. Everyone stay tuned for our next episode and I have no idea what it will be, so I probably should not tease it. We’ll try that again. Fantastic. That’s really great advice. Thank you so much, Andrew, for joining me for this one.

Andrew: Very good. Thanks so much. We’ll see you.

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