August 07, 2005

#110: Multi-Instrumentalism vs. Mastery

Robb writes:

I play and enjoy banjo and bluegrass but have also worked at the other bluegrass instruments and different music as time has passed. I continue to play (in order of time played of late: mando/guitar/fiddle/banjo/piano/trumpet)  I am a talented ad lib player of all these instruments - but believe I could be so much better at just one were I to stick to it alone.
 
My question: Is it that multi-instrumentalists are neurotic insecure admiration hounds or are single-instrument players boring unimaginative zealots?  AKA: Does it feel better being really good at everything or being the very best at one thing?  
 
 ...seriously considering trading it all in for one really good...something.

This is not an easy question to answer simply. I'd be able to answer better if I heard what you sounded like on each. One thing I’ll say at the outset – how would I know what it is to be the “very best at one thing”? A bit of overstatement there, but the reality of course is that you’re referring to the syndrome of “jack of all trades, master of none”.

Multi-instrumentalism has a lot of good facets, including empathy for other players, and an understanding of the music mesh that is possible in groups. Some knowledge gained on one instrument has a good influence on musicianship on another.

Tim O Brien in the current (March 06) issue of Acoustic Guitar, has some good points to make about playing three instruments, and recommends playing each at least a little, every day, if you want to stay up on it.

There's no doubt that to be "taken seriously" on an instrument, some very specific study of the existing masters is called for. Not knowing some of Scruggs' key repertoire, for instance, or knowing it only in a half-baked way, is a tipoff to some that you haven't done your homework, and are not to be taken as seriously as if you had. Then again, that factor might mean little to some others, especially if you are in a band that does a lot of your own material, and doesn't try to play Ground Speed or other classic repertoire.

So you can see, the relevant factors spread out in different directions, especially when it comes to "impressing others".

When it comes to just pleasing yourself, as a person with a certain amount of time on Earth, I'd say, do what your heart tells you. If you aspire to something that will take work, think of it a bit like a purchase, only this purchase is made with Time, not Money. Some people will just look at some possible skill and say I've GOT to do it, and I will spend the Time, therefore. Others will realize they can’t make such a commitment.

Some people will say the above, and then find themselves not really applying themselves. Maybe they have a case of JDDD (J.D. Deficit Disorder), and can't focus. Some multi-instrumentalists are like that. Then there are the Tim O Briens, Skaggses, Bushes, etc.

I hope that's enough to help you figure it out! It's really for you to figure out.

Pete