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Recently I've been learning a lot of different instruments; it now is more than I can count on one hand. They range all different types (strings, keys, brass, percussion etc.)

It is becoming difficult to practice all of them consistently; not out of laziness, but simply trying to do it while working all the time.

Does practicing many different instruments provide an overall benefit to musical skill? In other words, will my skills synergize from instrument to instrument?

Eventually I would like to become an advanced player of at least a few of them...

But I fear I may not be able to by spreading my practice time between so many.

Are there any multi-instrumentalists who can speak their experience?

  • I learned to play harmonica so I could play Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs on guitar and harmonica at the same time. "Heart of Gold" is just not the same song without the harmonica solo's between verses and at the intro. But most instruments are played one at a time. – Rockin Cowboy Jun 9 '17 at 4:53
  • If you want to become an "advanced player" on one instrument, you have to put in the practice time. If you have "average" talent, 5 to 10 hours a week would be a reasonable minimum. (If you hope "advanced" means "professional level", you might need to increase that to 4 or 5 hours per day, not per week.) If you want play three different instruments with little in common, like strings, keys, and brass, multiply the time by three. If you don't have that much time to spend, either rethink your ambitions, or prepare to be disappointed. – user19146 Jun 9 '17 at 5:03
  • @alephzero That doesn't take into account the skills that transfer from instrument to instrument. For example: say that an experienced pianist would like to pick up the trumpet. The pianist would pick up trumpet much faster than someone who has never played or read music. Do you agree? – Kolob Canyon Jun 9 '17 at 5:18
  • @KolobCanyon While I agree that there are musical skills that would transfer, the technical skills not so much. I play piano and sing quite well, but my skills on clarinet and cornet run to being pretty good at creating a sound similar to that of a goose in mortal agony. I could leverage my understanding of how to practice to get past the beginner stage considerably faster, but to get to an advanced level would probably take about as much work. And that assumes that I have the same level of talent for winds and brass that I have for piano, which I'm sure I don't. – BobRodes Jun 9 '17 at 6:27
  • @BobRodes I would agree with that – Kolob Canyon Jun 9 '17 at 6:29
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I would just add to the above answers that there are some purely physical skills that do transfer- to some extent. For instance, dexterity of fingers and precise timing of their motions to the music is necessary for just about all instruments, and getting your fingers in shape will help for all. Learning fingerings for wind instruments, although they differ between them, is helped by the general knowledge of patterns they fall into.

That said, there are of course some conflicts too. If you go, say, from sax to recorder, you will have to use much less force closing the holes/keys. Timing of motion with sound must be learned separately for some different instruments- you have to start a drumstick moving further ahead of the beat than your finger for a wind instrument. And some embouchures are very difficult to change back and forth, especially at short notice- from oboe to flute, for instance. So you need to take time to work on these differences too.

But as the others have said, the main limitation is probably practice time.

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Yes, to a small extent. I play piano and sax. To steal a quote, I'm not just untalented, I'm multi-untalented!

From my experience, the different instruments have taught me different aspects of music, which then transition back to the other instrument. For example, learning sax has given me a greater appreciation of tone, articulation, and melodic phrasing. It's taught me about transposition, and arranging for single-note instruments. Piano gives me a much better understanding of how music fits together, among many other things. You get the picture.

There are other skills that will transfer to a smaller group of other instruments; an awareness of intonation is useful for all brass, woodwinds and string instruments, but less useful for piano. However, knowledge of how to fix the intonation (i.e. technique) is going to be more specific. Even then, some technique does transfer, but the target list is much smaller. Some clarinet technique will transfer to sax, but not to trumpet. The more specific the skill, the less it will transfer.

If you want to master an instrument, you're not going to do it by being average at lots of instruments. Keep playing around, find the one you really want to master, and then make it the focus of your practice. That doesn't mean you have to stop playing the others; you'll just have to prioritise your time to reach your goal.

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Certainly! When I was learning piano and guitar (a long, long time ago) if there was something that didn't make sense musically on one, the other was consulted, often making sense of the problem. Admittedly, usually solved by piano, with its graphical layout of notes. Harmonies, intervals, chords, voicings et al all made more sense having two instruments there. Harmonica was also played, but I can't remember consulting that.

The technical side of playing - producing notes - won't particularly transfer instrument to instrument - unless you're considering, say, the brass family: playing a trumpet will give a head start to trombone, or woodwind: playing clarinet helps to get going on sax.

The main boost comes from knowledge gained through each instrument. Understanding harmonics comes through brass instruments. Understanding chords comes from playing guitar or keyboards (it's not easy playing triads on flute...) tone production is different, but just as important on all, but how it's produced shows difference also. Differences between just intonation and 12edo are revealed on violin, etc.

Musical skills will benefit from playing multi instruments - trying to play the same thing on several different ones will help develop execution, or sometimes underline that, actually, this instrument is better that that.That may spawn another question - who knows?

I expect the largest criterion will be time for the OP, and most of us. The old adage of 'Jack of all trades' springs to mind, but it's certainly worth persevering along the multi route for the purposes cited above, and many more I've omitted.

And another thing! When I play with others, it's so much nicer to be able to empathise, or explain something relating to another instrument/player when I can use the correct words for techniques on whatever instrument, and sometimes be able to offer help specifically. (It's not always accepted, but that's another story!)

  • The other day I heard the term "Jack of all trades, master of none" which brought me to this question... kind of worried me to be honest. – Kolob Canyon Jun 10 '17 at 6:09
  • And also, I've found playing drums helps with piano rhythm... a lot. I heard someone mention playing drum rudiments on the piano recently – Kolob Canyon Jun 10 '17 at 6:11
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To add to other answers: Yes. Here's why:

Learning multiple instruments multiplies synaptic connections.

The more resources your brain has for learning stuff, the more comprehensively it will understand that thing. After learning 3-4 woodwind instruments, you realize that the process by which they produce and execute sound is basically all the same. The same is true for brass, string, and percussion instruments (hence the "families"). So, your capacity for being able to learn new instruments dramatically increases, as it becomes easier to learn successive instruments. It is similarly true for learning languages. Even though I don't speak Italian or Spanish, I can use my knowledge of French and English to guess at many Italian or Spanish texts or shows.

You're fine-motor coordination increases for reasons similar to those listed above.

You're musical-literacy increases for reasons similar to those listed above.

In short, learning many instruments won't necessarily make you a better musician, but it will make you better at learning musical things.

The more instruments you learn, the more terrible you will be at each of them. If you want to be truly proficient (in a professional sense), then the less instruments you focus on, the better you will become.

  • I'm curious to see if there are examples of professional musicians that have played more than one instrument. Coltrane played two saxes right? – Kolob Canyon Jun 10 '17 at 6:15
  • @KolobCanyon - I'd guess that most sax players are more than capable of playing any of the sax family - it's just that some have a preference for one in particular. – Tim Jun 10 '17 at 6:17
  • @KolobCanyon Prince was fairly notorious for playing all the instruments on many of his tracks, as well as doing his own recording. Many videos of Prince playing guitar, piano, and bass on youtube. There's a wonderful multi-instrument concerto performed by a woman (whose name unfortunately escapes me) in which she plays trumpet, clarinet, and bagpipes among many others. A young kid, Jacob Collier, is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, now tours and has worked with Chick Corea and is managed by Quincy Jones: youtube.com/watch?v=K28H04Y2IdE – jjmusicnotes Jun 10 '17 at 12:56
  • @Tim Almost all sax players can play all instruments of the sax family; it really doesn't count. All saxophones read the same range / clef and have the same fingerings. The only difference is embouchure and transposition (the latter not affecting playing, but just the instrument's sound). A better comparison is to say that most sax players also play flute because of fingering and ensemble needs (very commonly in jazz and in Broadway pits). – jjmusicnotes Jun 10 '17 at 12:58
  • @KolobCanyon Many musicians who play in musicals (Broadway or otherwise) are very accomplished multi-instrumentalists. I have friends who do this type of work for a living, and in a given show, they are often called to play flute, clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon, for example. – jjmusicnotes Jun 10 '17 at 13:00

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