Musicians: Should You Specialize or Do More than One Thing?

Shawn Woodyard - Pyragraph

I have struggled to answer this question for myself at various points in my life, and I am currently dealing with it again. It’s not likely to be the last time.

I play multiple woodwinds and a wide range of drums and percussion instruments. I am a composer and songwriter, and I sing many types of music. Each instrument and vocal genre requires its own technique and approach.

Musicians who specialize almost invariably reach a higher level of technical expertise in that specialty than they would in any area if they played multiple instruments and/or sang various types of music. (A few very great musicians, such as Hermeto Pascoal, seem to be exceptions.) Frank Morgan, the great bebop alto saxophonist, told me on many occasions that I should focus on the alto and give up everything else. He liked to say, “Can’t nobody play like a specialist.” Frank was right.

I’ve seen many students crash and burn by trying to learn too many things at once too soon.

Frank, however, spoke exclusively from the point of view of a player. As a composer-performer, I find that each instrument or vocal style I engage with is a tributary that feeds into the river of my composition. Up to this point, I have made the decision to continue doing more than one thing. Of course, at any given time, I’m not doing some things as well as I want to because there aren’t enough hours in the day to practice everything. I have found ways to combine things, but even so, there is only so much I can do. I try to have levels I don’t fall below. It’s tough, and I don’t always succeed, but I learn a tremendous amount from the effort.

Some of my greatest friends and teachers started out playing multiple instruments and then made the decision to specialize. The flutist James Newton and the clarinetist John Carter are good examples of musicians who achieved incredible heights of virtuosity by doing so. When I was first agonizing about whether to specialize, John took a huge weight off my shoulders. He told me that when he made the decision to give up the other woodwinds and focus on the clarinet, he had no doubt that the move was right for him. He said that the fact that I was struggling hard with the issue meant that it wasn’t right for me then. Thank you, John!

If you don’t know whether to specialize or not, ask yourself some basic questions. Will you be happy doing one thing, or will you be frustrated? What might you gain or lose by taking on, or continuing to do, multiple things? Why do you want to play multiple instruments? Is it a deep desire, or is it simply because somebody’s performance made you want to do that, too? (That isn’t necessarily bad or good.) Do you have the discipline to do more than one thing? Will it help you musically, as a player-performer or as a composer? Will it make you more commercially viable or lower the quality of your performing?

Keep in mind that if you haven’t built a solid technique on any instrument, it might be a bad idea to try to learn more than one simultaneously. It’s easier and more realistic to add an instrument or style after you’ve developed some skill by focusing on one. I’ve seen many students crash and burn by trying to learn too many things at once, too soon.

If you are honest with yourself, and if you ask for advice when you need it, you will likely be happy with your choices. Good luck, and enjoy your musical journey!

Photo by Sean Weaver.

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About Shawn Woodyard

Shawn Woodyard, who lives in Santa Fe, always has dirty hands because he can’t resist sticking his fingers in every flavor of pie he can find. He is an instrumental and vocal performer; a composer and songwriter; an editor; a professor of music and English; and a writer with numerous publishing credits.

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