You Shouldn't Learn an Instrument: You Should Learn Two.

guitar

I did not particularly enjoy high school and college. It took eight years to complete college, and I went to six different schools. Instruments and music were the key to my success: they established a habit of goal setting. If I didn't have that habit, I may not have finished college.

There are multiple reasons to learn a musical instrument. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of studying music on the brain or on how academic disciplines are aided by the study of music. However, is there value in learning more than one instrument at a time?

1) Help with managing pain or discomfort that comes with studying an instrument.

Each instrument type comes with a cost: learning a stringed instrument will hurt one's finger tips; learning a wind instrument may take the breath out of you; studying a percussion instrument may cause blisters on the fingers and hard of hearing for those in the household where the studying is taking place. If I play too long on my mandolin (which requires pushing down two strings with one finger), I can switch to practicing a wind instrument.

2) Deepen an understanding of history and cultures.

Whenever I learn a new instrument, or even a new style on a familiar instrument, I always learn about the history and culture of where that particular instrument comes from. This broadens not only my musical scope, by my cultural understanding of the world.

3) Deepen an understanding of music theory.

Puzzle builders know that when you get stuck, the best thing to do is to step away from the puzzle and return to it with fresh eyes. Music theory is like a puzzle. It contains formulas like those in math; it contains structures of phrases like those found in English. If a student gets stuck on a formula on one instrument, stepping away from that instrument and going to another instrument provides a chance to see an old thing with fresh eyes.

4) Become a resource to bands or organizations.

I recall being in college and joining a new youth group. I told the leadership that I played the guitar if they need for help with worship. There was no need as there was an abundance of guitarists. When I mentioned I played the banjo, there definitely was interest.

5) Fight boredom (enjoy the spice of life).

Some folks are easily bored and need constant challenges. Moving from one instrument to another keeps studying interesting. In one practice session, I can play Spanish music on a flamenco guitar and then play Celtic fiddle tunes on an Irish tenor banjo. One can also reinforce skills learned on one instrument and try it on the other.

6) Set goals.

I started my musical journey in 7th grade while playing trumpet in the school band and learning piano through private lessons. I determined to learn a new (or two) instrument every year, which I continued until college. I stopped the "one per year" idea in college, but have kept the idea of learning something new every year. If not a new instrument, then a new style. I went from folk to bluegrass to classical to jazz to flamenco to ragtime.

Students are capable of learning a couple instruments at a time. I encourage all of my Guitar 2 students to learn two instruments. I require the Guitar 3 students to learn a second. Students who choose to learn more than one instrument are investing in habits and goal-setting that will be paying off for a lifetime.

By Bill Palmer, Music, Economics, and Government Teacher 

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