Should You Learn Multiple Instruments? (Brainjo Bite)


Welcome to another Brainjo Bite. So one question that I’ve been asked quite a bit is whether or not it is a good idea to learn multiple styles of banjo or multiple instruments, especially learning more than one style or instrument at the same time.

Within the realm of banjo, this is commonly the question of whether to learn clawhammer and finger style at the same time, or even learn three-finger banjo and two-finger banjo at the same time and so forth. And you will definitely hear some folks advising against that. And the main argument against doing that sort of thing is the potential opportunity cost.

This makes a kind of sense for sure. Any time that you spend learning one style is time you can’t spend learning the other. So that’s one concern. Another is that learning one might interfere with learning the other. So for example, if you already play finger style and you want to learn clawhammer, the argument here says that you’ll limit your potential in either one if you try to do both, that you can really only ever get good at one of them. And this is what I’d refer to as zero sum kind of thinking, meaning there’s this fixed amount of ability you can have apply to these things.

You can either put all of that ability in one bucket or one thing, or you can spread it out amongst two things, but you can never elevate or increase the total amount. And this idea of a fixed amount is, I think summed up in the expression a jack of all trades, but a master of none, meaning that you can be pretty good at multiple things or really good at one thing. So what does the evidence here say?

Should you learn multiple styles or multiple instruments? Or will doing that undermine your progress and your potential? Is this issue really zero sum or could it be actually synergistic? Could it be that learning one style could even make you better at the other? Or that learning one instrument could make you better at a different one? Now, before I get to all that, I should say that the most important question always is what approach would bring you the most joy and satisfaction?

And if that answer is to learn both or to learn one whatever, go for it. That is always the most important consideration. Here I’m really focusing on the question of how that decision impacts your learning progress. So one of my favorite books, which I’ve mentioned here on the podcast before that attempts to tackle some of these questions is Range by David Epstein.

And in that book, he tells the particular story of the Ospedale della Pieta. I’m probably mutilating that pronunciation. It’s Italian. So the Pieta was an orphanage and hospice in Venice, Italy and orphans at this orphanage were dropped off in a drawer built in the outer wall of the Pieta. And if the baby was small enough to fit, then the sisters inside would raise the child, would raise the baby. And what’s extraordinary about this place is that during the 17th and 18th century, it became famous around the world because of its orchestra. And the orchestra was comprised entirely of the orphans raised in this orphanage.

As Epstein says in the book, “It was the world’s most renowned orchestra at a time when this was the most popular form of entertainment.” So the musicians in this orchestra were considered to be of unparalleled skill who could play any instrument and any piece of music, and they would often change instruments in the middle of performances.

They held this position as the best of the best orchestra for a century. Again, at a time when this kind of music, classical music was at its peak, Vivaldi was the most prominent Italian composer of his time. And over a six-year period, he wrote 140 concertos, specifically for this orchestra. Now, one of the best things about this particular story is that it busts so many myths about music and learning and expertise and talent in one fell swoop.
So the first is the idea that musical ability is innate or a genetic. All of the musicians in this best of the best orchestra were orphans and they were entirely unrelated genetically. So their success could only be a function of their training and their environment rather than any sort of innate ability or aptitude, even though still today are prevailing narrative about them would be that they must be natural musicians.

They didn’t all become virtuosos because their parents were musical. They were musical because of the training their brains received, which again is the only thing that ever matters. Our capabilities are entirely a product of training. Give each brain the same training and each brain will end up with the same capabilities. And this story illustrates that phenomenally well. And of course, all the girls were described as prodigies as they probably still would be today.

Another myth buster by this is that you must practice for many hours a day in order to master an instrument. The girls in this orphanage had an hour of formal practice three times a week. Anything else they did was informal and only by choice. And the most that they could even do even by choice was about an hour because they had many other chores and responsibilities. And yet again, through that regimen of three formal hours of practice a week, they were able to become the best musicians at the height of classical music.

The third myth busted is that you must stick to one instrument or style in order to master anything. All of the girls in the orchestra learned all of the instruments and they also all learned to sing. They all learned all of these things at the same time, not one by one in succession.
So the fact that they learned multiple instruments at the same time, not only didn’t get in the way of their success, it was likely a key to it because that was one of the more anomalous things about this group of musicians. More recently, a study was done comparing young musicians admitted to a competitive conservatory to similarly committed but less skilled music students. And nearly all of the more accomplished students had played at least three instruments, which was much more proportionately than the lower level students. And more than half of them had played four or five instruments.

Once again, rather than undermining or limiting their potential playing multiple instruments appear to be the main thing that was increasing beyond their peers. So again, the evidence would in indicate learning multiple styles, learning multiple instruments is not a detriment, but is a huge asset. Interestingly, we don’t ever have this concern when it comes to learning multiple languages, right? When someone says they’re going to learn Spanish, do you ever hear people say, “Oh, that might mess up your English.”

Nor do we ever discourage people from learning multiple languages. Yet, as I’ve talked about before, learning music and learning languages are virtually identical skills from a high level cognitive standpoint. And in fact, just as it is with music learning multiple languages appears to actually enhance your abilities with all of the languages. So just like with music, it appears to be a win-win, right? Synergistic relationship. And just as it is with instruments, the more you learn, the easier and easier it is to acquire a new language.

So the takeaway from this and other similar situations is that learning multiple instruments and styles is not only a detriment, but a benefit and apparently a pretty significant one. Why might this be from a cognitive neuroscience standpoint? Well, one is that there is so much more than just the technical components that go into playing music and that go into musicianship.

I’ve talked before about the three broad categories being technical, meaning the movement patterns we need to learn, conceptual meaning our understanding of how music works, and then perceptual what we might refer to as ear training or our ability to extract more information from music.
And the great musicians really excel in those two categories of conceptual and perceptual. Great ears, great understanding of music, whether it’s implicit or explicit, which informs the choices or decisions they make when they play. We know that one of the best ways to solidify and strengthen knowledge and these kinds of areas is to apply it in multiple domains.

So learning another style, learning another instrument allows you to apply musical concepts to a different domain. It allows you to uncover and understand the underlying principles of music that aren’t instrument specific. And it also allows you to train your ear in a different context. Another reason from a neuroscience standpoint is that it distributes the representation of musical concepts.

So learning multiple styles and instruments also creates a more robust and detailed representation of all things music in the brain and the concepts that are related to it. As I’ve talked about before, we tend to focus a lot on the technical components of music making. And that’s probably where when people talk about the opportunity cost of training in one thing versus another and want training and one taking away from the time to train another.

The concern there is usually around the cost from a technical standpoint, but it’s not seeing the benefits from these other domains in the conceptual and perceptual spaces from training in multiple styles or multiple instruments.

Related to that technical issue, actually one of the benefits of learning another style, learning another instrument is that it gets around or circumvents the issues that can arise with motor interference, which I’ve talked about in a prior episode. So motor interference is where when you learn one motor task shortly after trying to learn a different one.

It will disrupt your learning of both of those things. So you’ll actually be worse at either one than you would have had you just tried to learn one on that given day. And in that episode I talked about synaptic overlap being the key to whether or not interference would be likely to occur. So if you have two activities that you’re learning that are competing, that are similar enough that they’re competing for the same neural resources in order to execute them, then you’re more likely to have a situation of interference.

However, when you’re learning different instruments, different styles, for example, like clawhammer and finger-style banjo where the kind of movements and the movement patterns are significantly different, there’s likely minimal synaptic overlap. So minimal interference. This means that you could theoretically learn two instruments and specifically the technical components of learning those instruments in the same amount of time, or perhaps even shorter than it would to learn one because of eliminating this potential problem with motor interference that can happen when you’re only learning one instrument.

And as I’ve discussed end up after doing so better at both of them. I could say that personally as well, this is exactly what I have experienced. So learning finger-style banjo, for example, may be better than a clawhammer banjo player and vice versa for a whole lot of reasons. Learning the fiddle may be better at the banjo and vice versa. Each new instrument leads to new insights and growth on the other or each new style that you learn, and it is absolutely not a zero sum game.

So clearly this idea that if you are a jack of all trades, then you’re a master of none is not right, right? It’s not supported by the evidence. But here’s a really interesting bit or another piece of this story, which is that the full original quote was actually a jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one. It was actually intended as a compliment. Whereas today it’s usually used negatively.

And the quote, that statement was actually referring to William Shakespeare who didn’t have university training and who dabbled in all aspects of stage production like set design and costumes and directing and so forth and basically saying that all of that experience of being a jack of all trades was crucial to Shakespeare being such a genius when it came to his writing.

So basically saying all that we’ve been talking about today, which is all those various experiences didn’t detract from his ability as a writer, but actually enhanced it and was likely a key part of it. I think the fact that this quote has been since transformed into a negative statement with the ending lopped off for it to mean the opposite of its original intended meaning reveals a lot about our biases on this particular topic, which are still going strong today, but hopefully this video will help dispel any notions you may have had that learning other styles, learning other instruments would be detrimental in any way.

In part two, I will talk about what I consider to be the most important reason of all for learning multiple styles or learning multiple instruments. So that’s all for this episode. If you enjoy these Brainjo Bites, then you will likely enjoy the book, The Laws of Brainjo. You can find it on Amazon or where, wherever books are sold online. All right. Thanks for watching and I will see you next time.

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