you pick the wrong one? How easy is it to change from one musical
instrument to another? We tell you everything you need to know
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Your questions answered
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from one instrument to another
Many people think that it should be
easy, once you can play one instrument, to change to another one.
Sometimes they are right, but in other cases the skills required are
so different that there is little "transference" from one
instrument to another.
It is obvious that the ability to read music on, say, the piano will
make it a little easier to pick up another instrument such as the
flute or the violin. However, actually reading the music is not the
most difficult part of playing any instrument, and provided you have a
good teacher who can guide you into concentrating on the important
bits of music-reading and not allow you to get bogged down in
trivialities such as "Is a double-dotted quaver worth
three-quarters of a beat, or seven-eighths?" you should not have
too much trouble with it. After all, who can actually count
three-quarters of a beat?
It is a common misconception that some initial experience on the
recorder will give you a flying start when taking up an orchestral or
band instrument. This is not necessarily true. Admittedly it will help
you become used to reading musical notation, but we don't regard that
as being a major consideration anyway. It certainly will help you get
used to playing in time and keeping pace with other musicians - a very
valuable skill indeed. It may also give you confidence when playing in
front of others.
However, you should not assume that because the recorder is a
woodwind instrument (you blow down it, and move your fingers to cover
and uncover the holes) it will be a big help in taking up other
woodwind instruments such as the flute or the clarinet. It won't.
Fingering is probably the easiest skill to learn on a woodwind
instrument, and besides no two woodwind instrument use exactly the
same fingering. Also, of course, they are completely different sizes
and have the holes or keys in quite different places.
To experienced players the most important things about playing a
woodwind instrument are the control of the breathing, and the tricky "embouchure"
- the position of the jaw, lips, teeth and tongue and the way they act
to create and control the sound. And of course the recorder is little
or no help here - it has no embouchure to speak of (you just stick it
in your mouth and blow!) and the amount of air required is tiny
compared to the other instruments. So our advice about the recorder is
..... forget it! Use it for what it is - a very cheap and easily
obtainable instrument that is easy to play and completely
maintenance-free, and therefore extremely useful in primary schools.
In the hands of skilled and enthusiastic players it can also be very
beautiful, but as a stepping-stone to orchestral instruments it has
So, what instruments can you swap between?
In the WOODWIND, all instruments come in different versions
(for instance, the clarinet comes as B flat clarinet, A clarinet, bass
clarinet and so on, while the oboe has its larger brother the cor
anglais) and swapping from one to another is very easy and completely
normal - for those advanced musicians who need to do so. The clarinet
and the saxophone are really very similar. Although the fingering is a
little different, the mouthpiece, the reed and the embouchure are much
the same and many clarinetists move on to the saxophone, or "double"
- that is, they play both.
The oboe and bassoon are "double-reed" instruments so there
is a theoretical similarity at least, and you will find a few
musicians who can do both.
There is no similarity between the embouchure of the flute and any
other woodwind instrument. It is not uncommon for flautists to double
on the saxophone, but frankly it must be like learning a completely
In the BRASS, there is quite a lot of similarity between all
instruments. In brass bands, for instance, players move from one to
another with considerable fluency and they even insist in reading all
their music in the treble clef to make this easier. So moving between
trumpet and cornet, or between tuba and euphonium or baritone, for
instance, is no problem at all. From trumpet to tuba would be a bit of
a leap, though - the embouchure is much the same, but the vastly
different sizes make the change less straightforward.
The two exceptions are the trombone and the french horn. In the case
of the trombone, the fact that it has a slide instead of valves makes
the change a little tricky (some players buy "valve trombones"
to get over this), and on the french horn the different distribution
of open notes causes a problem so you rarely find french horn players
who also play another brass instrument.
In the STRING section it is common to swap from violin to
viola and vice versa. The fact that they use different clefs takes a
bit of getting used to, but many players can do both as the bowing and
fingering are virtually identical. It would not be difficult to move
from the violin or the viola to the 'cello. The fingering is very
similar, and the bowing pretty much the same. To move from the 'cello
to the violin or viola would be a different matter, though, as the
smaller instruments are played with the left hand in a position that
an experienced 'cellist would find awkward.
You do find musicians who play both the 'cello and the double-bass,
but the correlation between them is not very obvious. The strings are
tuned differently, the fingering system is quite different, and the
double-bass bow is so short and heavy in comparison that one would
have to adopt quite a new technique. It's not an impossible move,
There is little similarity between the guitar and any other string
instrument. However, there is a strong similarity between the
fingering of the double-bass and that of the electric bass guitar, and
some players do both.
The PIANO has obvious links with the organ and we can't
imagine that there are any good organists who don't also play the
piano well. There are no similarities between the technique of these
instruments and those of any woodwind, brass or string instruments. In
an orchestra there is sometimes a need for a pianist to play odd
keyboard instruments like the celeste, but nobody calls themselves a
celeste player - the need for such things is too infrequent.
A final word ....
All that apart, if you have learnt one instrument successfully you're
likely to make a success of another one. If you really want to play a
second instrument, go for it. We know lots of young musicians who play
two, three or even four totally different instruments perfectly well.
On the other hand, the main requirements for playing an instrument are
will-power, intelligence and hard work, so if you've already failed on
the trumpet what makes you think you'll be any better on the flute?
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Copyright © David Bramhall 2001