Thursday, March 18, 2010

Students Get "Doubling" Vision

By Mark T. Burke

School musical season is here and it's the time of year when I think most about instrumental doubling.  Why?  If you've ever played in a musical pit orchestra, you know the concept:  Cram a few musicians into a small space, usually under a stage or cat walk and have them play the equivalent on an entire orchestra's worth of instrumental parts. Every musical I have played in required "us" woodwind and percussion players to pull instruments right and left out of our bag of tricks.  Is there value in teaching students multiple instruments and what's the right time to start teaching a second, or even third instrument?

Raise your hand if you agree:  Being a musician has nothing to do with the instrument or instruments we play.  First and foremost, we are musicians who happen to play specific instruments.  If you don't agree with this statement, stop reading now and go back to practicing :-)  If you do agree, read on...

Here's my list of considerations for students, families and teachers regarding students learning a second instrument.
  1. Learning to play a second instrument is not an alternative to learning music.  I've seen kids struggling to learn half and whole notes decide they want to learn another instrument and for sure, that can be a mistake.  I like to call this fun little game instrumental "pin the tail on the donkey."  If there seems to be a physical trait keeping a student from succeeding at an instrument, then by all means, a new instrument may be the ticket in motivating them to learn.  As professionals, teachers must assess this situation carefully.
  2. Learning to play a second instrument doubles the fun and doubles the time. I've had students learn a second instrument think, "great, now I practice the first instrument only 1/2 as much."  Adding an instrument is an additive process meaning our love for the first instrument must be strong, or by nature, it will fade from our desires and become a dust collector (or maybe a nice lamp).  As educators we must instill in students the joy of learning new instruments by highlighting their ability to play more parts, participate in more ensembles and reach more ears through their broader abilities.
  3. A yard sale approach.  Yepper, I've seen this a ton.  When a student decides to play a second instrument, too often the family goes running for the nearest yard sale looking for "Uncle Joe's" old clarinet for $20.00.  That $20.00 will soon be the worst investment possible.  Uncle Joe's clarinet has most likely been collecting dust and mold for 20 years meaning it will need an overhaul.  Most older instruments have nasty cases that often smell like a wet basement.  Kids love that!  Add in a new case that actually can protect the instrument, has storage for books and accessories and doesn't harbor any unknown viruses.  You get the point.  When buying a second instrument, be smart, visit a reputable music store and look at all options from used, to demos, to new, rentals and purchase plans.  
  4. A reason is a reason.  We are wired as humans to learn more efficiently when we have a need to learn.  The most successful second instrument experiences I've witnessed come when a student is given a performance opportunity, a REASON to learn another instrument.  My wife is currently working with a student learning to play the Soprano Sax.  The learning process involves her band director having her learn a sax solo to be played at their upcoming concert.  This is a win-win for the student.  She is very interested in learning the instrument because she knows she will be heard and her contribution to the musical event important.
  5. Musical alignment is important.  Lastly, I do think learning to play a second instrument has to make musical and performance sense.  For example, the trumpet player who learns to play french horn, that seems to make sense.  This enhances the brass player's ability to play in a variety of ensembles while relying on similar physical aspects of playing the two instruments.  The trumpet player learning to play saxophone (now there's a stretch :-).  But seriously, there's no right and wrong combination.  I just think a flute player wanting to learn the clarinet is right on target.  The sax player learning to play flute, again, right on.  The violinist learning to play cello, a home run as well.  There's no wrong combo, but thinking about the potential to use skills and knowledge between the instruments can help students avoid making the wrong choice.
Looking for more ways to help kids learn a second instrument, send me an email at mark.burke@viaacademies.com.

What have I missed?  Which combos work and which do not?  What is the oddest combo you have ever taught to a student?   

 

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