If you learn one instrument, is it easier to learn another? Economies in learning.

Road trip! Yes, five friends and I are squeezing into Rufus and we’re heading to Brighton to see a Norwegian band called Katzenjammer. This is quite intrepid and earplugs may be required, not for the band, who are instrumental norwegian folk, but because a three hour trip with Rufus is not for the faint hearted.

The band has four members who, between them, play around fifteen instruments, sometimes several at once. In fact, my friend Cath who is coming plays about that many herself. How is this possible? It’s taken me years to get mildly competent on one? It surely can’t be fifteen times as hard to learn fifteen?

The answer is an obvious ‘no’, it’s not fifteen times as hard, although it’s still tricky. Clearly some instruments fall into ‘types’, so whilst Cath plays a lot of instruments, a good number of them are whistles of various types, which must be similar. Then the flute, which must be different from whistles, but still has some commonality in terms of breath control and, whilst the fingering is different, the underlying concepts of scales are the same. When it comes to guitar, i guess the scales carry across, although the breathing is irrelevant, but guitar must help with ukelele, because they are both stringed, even though with different numbers of strings. And so it goes on. There are economies in the progression of learning.

I am tempted to say hierarchies. And this is true in many areas. Things are similar, but with differences. I notice this with painting. I learnt to paint with watercolours. They are totally different from oil paints: with watercolour, you float colours across the water, it’s subtle, nuanced, only partly in your control, whilst with oils you plaster them on the canvas like cement. There is no subtlety (at least, not in my oil painting), but there are common paradigms to work in: perspective, shading, depth and so on (unless you go abstract…).

So learning one thing can be hard, but learning a related thing isn’t necessarily twice as hard. Take photography. When i started using a camera in anger, i had already painted a lot, and i know that i take my painting perspective, the desire to frame and capture a scene from a particular angle, and i use that in photography.

But maybe i take it further? What other links and commonality can we see in learning? Maybe i take some of the freedom of expression i learn from watercolours and it informs my poetry? Maybe the freedom of my poetry informs my writing? Perhaps my writing informs my presenting?

Of course, it all does: our ‘selves’ are made up of the sum of our experiences and skills. Learning fifteen instruments is just the first step. If i can read a nursery rhyme then i can learn to read Thomas the Tank Engine, and if i can read that, i can learn to read The Hobbit, then Shakespeare and so on. That’s not to take away from the effort required to master fifteen instruments, indeed, to be truly expressive and creative across that spectrum is an amazing achievement, but maybe the common skill is the expression and creativity, that just happens to be expressed through instruments today, through writing tomorrow or through another channel the day after.

The ability to learn, to adapt, to change, to create and to share is an amazing thing, which i intend to fully enjoy with some great friends tonight.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
This entry was posted in Art, Creative, Drawing, Language, Learning, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to If you learn one instrument, is it easier to learn another? Economies in learning.

  1. julianstodd says:

    This link from Marie to Seth Godin’s blog, talking about the changing nature of ‘expertise’

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2012/05/worldliness.html

  2. Larry Nardolillo says:

    I agree there are common skills in “content areas”. You mentioned musical ability. How about sports? I know people who can play 15 sports, quite well. They’ve got great hand-eye or foot-eye coordination, a good sense of balance, and tremendous peripheral vision. Their joints and muscles work in the way they were designed. For musicians, I believe there are just as many inherent traits that allow them to play music. Just like good musicians can “hear” the song, good athletes can “see” the field. These common skills may be part of a person’s nature, but when you start adding some additional study and familiarity with the rules, then you get expert performance. We are all naturally gifted at something. We just need to find it.

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