Does Your Player Have Time to Play Two Instruments?
Updated: Mar 15
By Christy | The Practicing Pro
What to do when your player asks to study a second instrument?
Can I play the guitar?
What do you do when your child expresses interest in learning a second instrument?
Let’s talk about the younger player first.
When a young child expresses interest in a second instrument there are a few things to consider:
Are they currently having success practicing daily with ONE instrument?
If not then definitely stick to ONE instrument but work hard on getting that daily habit working for them! Once they have it for at least 100 days then revisit the discussion.
If they are struggling to practice one instrument then giving them a second instrument is setting them up to fail.
A beginner might practice 10-20 minutes each day and an advanced player might practice 45 minutes to an hour each day. If you introduce a second instrument then usually the player will progress slower in both instruments with their practice time staying the same length but now cut in half. They can become frustrated with the slower pace they are moving and not want to play either instrument.
An example would be, a student struggles to play their violin every day for 30 minutes. They introduce piano as their second instrument and split the 30 minutes into 15 minutes violin then 15 minutes piano. After a year they start not wanting to play either instrument as they have been losing interest with the slower pace they are moving.
If a child practices easily every day and you think they can practice for an additional length of time, then they can be successful with another instrument. When they play 2 instruments, many things will be similar and will make a cross-over. So, when they master it in one instrument, it will transfer in less time to the other instrument.
For example, if a student plays violin for 45 minutes a day. When they introduce piano as their second instrument they can maybe practice for an extra 20-30-minutes a day on the piano to keep up a pace that feels satisfying to them. Their violin skills will transfer to their piano skills so that they learn piano faster.
Now let’s talk about older players.
An older player that is at an advanced level in their instrument will often ask to play a second instrument either for fun, social reasons or for pursuing music as a career.
Let’s look at a few examples.
An advanced singer might want to play the guitar or the piano to accompany themselves or work towards becoming a teacher, or to help them learn music for a show.
A high-level cello player might want to take up electric bass to play with his friends in a band.
A classical violinist might want to learn to play a second traditional instrument or learn a fiddle style.
Like we talked about earlier with the younger student, the musician needs to first know that they are being successful with their main instrument and practicing every day so they can keep improving.
They likely won’t need to practice a lot to get quickly to an intermediate and even advanced level.
My suggestion in this situation is to clearly pre-decide the amount of time you will be dedicating to your main instrument and the “extra time” you will be adding to your practice time in the new instrument.
What about school programs?
When a high-level player starts a new second instrument in their school programs it can have some wonderful benefits as well as frustrations.
The first thing is that they practice their original instrument every day, in a specific and regimented way, this new school instrument can be something that they play on the side and they really don’t need to practice very much. Since they are with other beginners they might not even need to practice at all, except in class, to be able to stay with their peers in ability.
This is because they transfer their prior musical knowledge directly to the new instrument. I find for many students this is a really nice balance. They have their private lessons and daily practice with one instrument. With their second instrument they practice at a lower level, for fun with their peers at school, and only need to practice a minimum amount. It's not demanding on their time and energy.
A dangerous thing though is that sometimes the new band or orchestra teacher of their school instrument will compliment and praise the players so much about “how quickly” they learned to play the instrument. They will sometimes convince them that they need to pursue this new instrument for a career etc.. because they have rarely seen a student before learn as quickly or play as well.
It’s important for the students and the parents to understand that this “quick learning curve” on the second instrument is from all of the work and time they have already put into their first instrument. The learning transfers from one instrument to the next by connection.
Beware: Sometimes the player will want to quit their first instrument that they’ve invested so much time and energy into and want to play the saxophone or the trumpet etc. that they have learned in the band program at school.
Things that you learn quickly and easily will naturally be “your favorite” and will seem more fun at first!
The trap is that sometimes players will get to a certain level in their Suzuki instrument, let's say Book 4 level, and then change to a school instrument and drop their Suzuki instrument because they love the new one so much better. They play it until it gets to the level of the original Suzuki instrument (around book 4 level for this new instrument) and now all of a sudden it starts being REALLY hard. It will seem even harder than the first one because they have gotten used to improving quickly with less effort. This student will often at this point “change again” and switch to another instrument. They will play this one as long as it’s easy and fun, also to about book 4 level.
See the pattern?
Make sure daily practicing on the first instrument is happening before considering a second one.
Always stick with your original instrument to increase your skills to a higher level and your musical knowledge. Then, if you do a second instrument on the side - always remain very clear that the first instrument is where you are doing your learning and progressing. YES it’s harder, the second instrument is “catching up to the level of the first instrument”, and YES it seems easier, but that is an illusion.
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