After four years of lots of fun and no money, I finally left the reggae band I’d been playing with. As I was relishing a Saturday night at home watching Star Trek, my friend asked me what I wanted to do next in my life. I replied, “Play good music badly on the accordion in a wedding band.” A week later, she showed up with the squeezebox.
Why learn a new instrument?
Although it might seem too soon if you haven’t yet mastered your first instrument, in fact there are a range of benefits which come from learning a second (or third!) instrument. Here are seven good reasons to learn a new instrument.
1. Theory at your Fingertips
Let’s say your primary instrument plays mostly one note at a time. Learning a chording instrument, such as piano or guitar, will open your mind to new worlds of harmony. If your primary instrument is a chording instrument, learning a melody instrument can be equally eye opening. Of course, you can easily learn to play melodies (often called leads) on your guitar or piano, but the unique organization of tones on a woodwind or a brass instrument will offer different insights.
I had suffered through the obligatory piano lessons as a child, but I was mostly a flute and sax player. So I was a melody guy. The right side of the accordion, laid out like a piano keyboard, made sense to me. The circle of fifths organizes the left side, with all the buttons: the bass notes and their corresponding chords are laid out in intervals of a fifth.
While I had learned this concept in theory classes, playing it on an instrument tickled my brain. I began to see, hear, and feel the relationships between the notes in a whole new way. When I returned to my flute or saxophone, I could hear more deeply the melody’s relationship to the harmony.
2. I’ve Got Your Back
Instruments play different parts: like characters in a movie, there are lead and supporting roles. When we learn new instruments, we gain a better understanding of the whole.
I once was told that when you compliment a Roma cimbalist (a cimbalom is an East European hammered dulcimer), he humbly replies, “Oh no, I am just a soloist.” The accompanists are more highly esteemed!
Whenever I played wind instruments, I was dependent on others for accompaniment. Playing accordion, I could play both melody and accompaniment. Even better, I could accompany others! I didn’t have to be the star of the show anymore. When I did go back to playing melody, I had a much greater connection with my accompanists and with the harmonic underpinning of my melodies.
Here I am accompanying one of my favorite clarinetists. Notice that the clarinet leads with the melody, and the accordion provides harmonic and rhythmic support.
Accordion Accompaniment to Clarinet
3. Around the World in 120 Buttons
Soon after receiving the accordion, I began a 15-year obsession with Klezmer (Jewish East European traditional music) and the accordion fit right in. I subsequently discovered many more world traditions using the accordion: Brazilian choro, Zydeco, Balkan, Norteno… These traditions continue to expand my musical enjoyment and expression. While my accordion skills are not always up to playing all the wonderful music I hear, I have transferred my interest in these traditions on to my other instruments.
Similarly, tin whistle is my gateway to Irish music, and Native American flute puts me in touch with my relationship with the Earth. Try a new instrument and you never know where in the world you may wind up!
Native American Flute
4. It Might Be Easier Than You Think!
When people ask me how many instruments I play, I like to answer “Two: things that I blow on and things that have keys.”
After 15 years of flute, it was such a thrill to realize I could pick up a saxophone and play it out of the box—and such expansion of my musical expression! Ditto for my collection of whistles, recorders, ocarinas, and wooden flutes. Piano gave me a good headstart on the accordion and keyboards.
We don’t always realize just how similar instruments can be. A mandolin is basically a fretted, plucked violin. The piano keyboard spreads across organs, accordions, melodicas, electronic keyboards and more. All the brass instruments share similar principles.
Similarity of Mandolin to Violin and Guitar
5. Why wait?
My journey to expressing myself musically on multiple instruments was a slow one. I took piano lessons for 5 years before beginning the flute. It was another 15 years before I picked up the saxophone, 6 more years before adding the accordion. 13 years later I was gifted the Native American flute, and another 8 years before harmonica. Along the way I gathered a collection of whistles and flutes from different parts of the world.
Now as a teacher and a father, I observe that children are often attracted to many instruments. The common parental wisdom (and budget!) guides the children to “master” one instrument before taking on another. But is this really the best choice? Children are endowed with flexible minds and a can-do attitude.
I taught two young sisters who had been learning piano chords to accompany themselves singing church songs. They were doing quite well, but at a certain point their abilities exploded beyond all my expectations. It turns out that they had been learning guitar chords from their cousin at church. Since then I have taught them to transpose to different keys, and find complementary rhythm patterns between guitar and piano as they sing. Today, they perform every week as a duo, and accompanying their girls’ church choir. Both have taken up the violin, and one plays flute in school band. Their ages: 10 and 12.
6. Manage Your Money
Learning multiple instruments doesn’t have to cost a bundle. In the example above, the girls’ parents have purchased good instruments but they pay nothing for guitar or flute lessons. Even my piano lessons represent a fraction of what they learn musically during the course of a week. The girls are confident in their abilities to self-teach and to help each other.
We don’t all have the support of parents, church, and school in our musical journey—but there are so many other resources available now, such as Musical U, which permit self-directed musical growth and get support from others.
The investment in becoming a multi-instrumentalist can provide greater professional opportunities as well. I have a much wider range as a teacher and performer because of it—and my work day is full of variety and fun!
7. Rhythm of Life
Years ago I travelled to an old warehouse/storage unit in the north of Boston for djembe classes with a West African drummer. I vividly remember attending a drum and dance meeting in a school gymnasium. The layered rhythms and tones of the drums echoed off the walls and floors, and I was able to hear rhythms and even melodies of any African diaspora tradition I chose, from mambo to Motown, reggae, funk and more. This one experience stays with me in my rhythmic concept to this day.
I have since noticed that drummers often make great singers, keyboardists, and guitar players. Many of my strongest songwriting students have been primarily drummers.
My djembe experience taught me that even dabbling in another instrument can have a huge impact on my overall musical expression.
Jack of All Trades, Master of One
With all the instruments I have studied, I have never achieved the mastery that I have with the flute. Yet the music theory, new cultures, understanding of musical roles, rhythmic exploration and income opportunities gained along my multi-instrumental journey all enrich my flute playing immeasurably.
Even if we never master more than one instrument, learning additional instruments can teach us so much about music. Those lessons expand our playing on our primary instrument, teach us more about ourselves and about each other.