Wednesday, 29 July 2015

How Many Instruments Can You Play?

     As a woodwind doubler keen to involve myself in musical theatre pit orchestras and other such ensembles, over the past few years I have made a concerted effort to expand my range of musical instruments. From starting out on clarinet many years ago, I have since learned to play bassoon, saxophone, flute and even some ukulele. So it's a common occurrence for me to be asked by inquisitive friends and relatives, "How many instruments can you play?" It seems like a simple question on the face of it, and more often than not people intend it as a conversation starter rather than a prompt for deep philosophical debate. Nevertheless, it's a question that is in fact a lot more difficult to answer than it may at first seem.
     The first issue it raises is one of perception. Non-musicians appear to have a different understanding of the process of learning an instrument to musicians, and I would argue that non-doublers also have a different understanding to doublers. People who play one instrument or don't play at all imagine that every time you pick up a new instrument you are starting from scratch. Therefore it should take just as long for you to learn saxophone as it did to learn clarinet, and it should take just as much effort to learn flute as it did bassoon. Of course, those of us who have actually faced these challenges and tackled multiple instruments know that this is generally not the case, especially when they are closely related. When I learned to play alto saxophone, I already knew how to read music - there was no need for me to re-learn that skill. The embouchure, too, came very naturally after having played with a similar embouchure on clarinet for so long. I didn't have to re-learn how to tongue, or how to breathe with sensitivity to the music. For that matter, I soon discovered that I actually knew half of the fingerings as well, seeing as they bear such a close resemblance to those of the clarinet! The end result, then, was that after years of learning to play the clarinet, I was able to pick up the saxophone in a matter of weeks before being able to perform on it in a pit band for a local musical theatre company.
     Now, I'm not saying that on account of these similarities I don't consider clarinet and saxophone to be different instruments. But what about instruments that are more closely related? Is the tenor saxophone truly a different instrument to the alto? Or do the similarities between them mean that I should class them as essentially the same thing? Should I tell people that I play two instruments: alto saxophone and tenor saxophone? Or that I just play one: saxophone?
     Problems arise if you start to classify such similar instruments as completely distinct. For example, I have no doubt that I could play a soprano saxophone to a reasonable standard after a small amount of practice to allow me to familiarise myself with the instrument. But would that mean that I had learnt to play an entirely new instrument, something that a non-musician would expect to take years? Or would I merely be exercising my skills as a saxophonist and therefore not breaking any new ground? For that matter, should I claim the soprano as one of the instruments I can play already, seeing as I no doubt could pick it up with very little work? Or should I hold back from making such claims on account of the fact that I have never actually played the instrument before? You see, this is why I feel it is often simpler just to say I play 'saxophone' rather than listing the range of related instruments that I have played or potentially could play given the opportunity.
     There's another problem with classifying closely-related instruments as separate. Because if we adopt that viewpoint, surely the Bb clarinet is a different instrument to the A clarinet? And by that token, all orchestral clarinettists are doublers, playing as they do two distinct instruments. Even though the only real difference is that one is slightly longer than the other. To be honest, I would feel like a bit of an idiot if I told people that I played two instruments: Bb clarinet and A clarinet. I don't think I have ever met a clarinettist who would make such a bizarre claim. They would only profess to play one instrument: the clarinet. But then what about bass and sopranino clarinets, which make quite different demands on the player to soprano clarinets? For the sake of (relative) brevity I shall leave these out of the discussion for now, but hopefully my overall point is clear: it is very difficult, if not impossible, to define where one instrument ends and another begins, and this makes it quite hard for me to say how many instruments I actually play.
     Another factor that makes this question so difficult to answer is that is makes no reference to ability. I think most people would agree that just being able to get a sound out of an instrument does not mean you can 'play' it. I once got a few notes out of a friend's oboe, but I certainly don't claim to be an oboist. I once plucked the strings of a double bass, but I'm no bassist. So it's fair to say that you must reach a certain level of competence on an instrument before you can be thought of as able to 'play' it.
     Which leaves us with the question of how to define such a level. Is it when you have passed a certain grade with the ABRSM? Surely not - there are many excellent musicians out there who have never taken an exam in their life. Perhaps when someone is good enough to perform then they can be regarded as able to play the instrument? On the face of it this seems fairly reasonable, but ultimately it too is difficult to quantify, seeing as there is no set standard for performers. You get some excellent performers and some dreadful ones. Just because I can get three notes out of an accordion and I choose to go out busking with it, that doesn't mean I can play it.
     It also depends who I am talking to as to whether I say I can play an instrument. If I'm talking to a schoolchild, I'll happily tell them that I can play something even if I'm not hugely confident at it. But if I'm talking to a professional musician with years of experience, I'm likely to be a bit more reserved about such a thing, perhaps saying that I can play it 'a bit', or that I can play it but not very well. After all, these people will have higher musical standards (no offence, kids) and so I am more wary of claiming to be something that I'm not. So you see, even my own ideas of whether I can play an instrument vary greatly depending on the situation.
     And what about ownership? Can I claim to be able to play an instrument if I don't actually own (or at least have access to) one? Superficially this seems a little silly. Of course you can play something without owning one. Well, that may be true in the wider scheme of things, but when we're talking about professional woodwind doubling it is not necessarily the case. It's no use me being able to play baritone saxophone if I don't actually own one. I'm still just as useless to someone looking for a baritone saxophonist for a gig. If I don't have access to a contrabassoon, that's as good as not being able to play it at all as far as an orchestral fixer is concerned. Therefore I am wary of claiming to play an instrument that I don't own and would consequently not be able to perform on if requested.
     Does it matter how long ago I last played it? Say, for example, that the last time I played a bass clarinet was three years ago. Would I be a bass clarinettist (assuming for the sake of argument here that we count the bass as being distinct from the soprano clarinet)? Probably not. So what is the cut-off time, after which you cease to be able to 'play' something? And does it vary depending on how much experience you had playing that instrument beforehand? All questions that need to be answered before I can count the number of instruments I play.
     Maybe the most fundamental issue, though, is that of spoons. No, I've not gone mad - this is a genuine point I'm making. Spoons. You see, I play the spoons. The last time I played them was two days ago. I performed on them, in fact, in a paid gig as part of a trad. jazz group. So if anybody plays the spoons, I do. And yet I am always reluctant to list them among the instruments that I play.
     Why? Well, they're not a proper instrument, are they? They're more of a joke instrument, a novelty. Nobody actually plays the spoons - it's just a bit of fun. And to be honest, I doubt many of the people who ask me how many instruments I play would really count the spoons among them. It's just not right.
     And therein lies the problem. Why do I class the clarinet as a musical instrument but not the spoons? Why is the flute something I claim to be able to play, but I would never say that I play, for instance, the 'picture frame and doughnut', even though I have no doubt I could get a sound out of such a thing? In short, how do you define 'musical instrument'?
     Let's try looking in the dictionary - they tend to be reasonably good at defining things. The Penguin English Dictionary lists, as its second definition of 'instrument',

     'a device used to produce music'.

This definition is, of course, completely useless seeing as it is no more possible to define the word 'music' than it is to define 'art'. By this definition anything can be considered a musical instrument. And we only have to look at some of the contemporary music being produced today to realise how close this is to the truth.
     So at the end of the day, how many instruments can I play? In all honesty, I don't know. And I won't know, until someone gives me reliable and specific definitions for the words 'instrument' and 'play'. Until then I'll just have to be content with handing out copies of this essay to anyone who dares to ask me such a thing. That'll surely teach 'em!

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