5 Reasons to Learn a Second Instrument

A year and a half ago, I took up the keyboard.

My piano background was pretty meager: three years of lessons in grade school and enough scattered practice in college to get a music degree. No chops to speak of, and I’m not being modest. I did spend some time working on jazz piano voicings in grad school, but I’ve never been anywhere close to being able to perform on the instrument.

About a year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to start playing keys with Deadwood, a blues/rock band I’d played trumpet with in undergrad. I wasn’t playing much trumpet at the time, and this seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.

The only problem was that I wasn’t a keyboard player.

I figured this would work itself out somehow, and I started going to rehearsal and faking my way through the charts. God bless the rest of the band for putting up with me.

A few weeks later, I sold my Couesnon flugelhorn and bought a used Yamaha Motif 6 synth on eBay. The wheels were in motion.

It was one of the best musical decisions I’ve ever made. Turns out that learning a second instrument isn’t just fun, it makes you a better musician. Here’s how!

Playing the keyboard has fixed this for me. In the past, I could plunk out a chord progression if you gave me several tries, but picking out the specific voicings? Forget it. To my amazement, though, I’m developing the ability to hear voicings instead of just chords. At a basic level, I’m learning how to think like a keyboard player.

I’m hearing at a whole new level these days. A couple of years ago, a catchy song would have made me think “huh, cool song.” Now, the guitar, piano, Rhodes and Hammond B3 layers jump out at me and I can hear why it sounds so great: the rhythm instruments all make different musical statements while staying out of each others' way. There’s so much more to listen for now!

I rush.

Ahh. Feels good to get that off my chest.

Seriously, though: you’ve probably got a nagging weakness too. We all do. Let me tell you, there’s something about hearing a problem show up on two different instruments that drives the point home: This is not a coincidence. You need to work on this, Vieker. Knowing that it’s a “musicianship issue” instead of a “trumpet issue” makes a big difference.

There’s a joy that comes from playing music for fun that can disappear when you’re playing for a living or going to music school. Music becomes part of the daily routine and even a source of stress when we hold ourselves to an extremely high standard. The magic can fade a bit.

Amateurs don’t see music this way. A weekend warrior plays music to “wash away the dust of everyday life,” and so should we. Taking up a second instrument lets us get back to our roots: playing music for its own sake, not because we have to.

  • Steve Martin, Grammy-winning bluegrass musician. And, you know, comedian. You can develop basic chops on a second instrument in a fraction of the time it took on your main instrument. And if you stick with it long enough, you can get really good.

Basic practice techniques are universal. “Break it down into chunks, practice slowly, increase speed, sew the chunks together” works on every instrument. We’ve spent years practicing how to practice. By picking up a second instrument, we can enjoy the benefits of being great practicers without the pressure we associate with our main instrument.

Look, no one who hears me play is going to mistake me for Ray Charles, and I can’t tear through “Giant Steps” at blistering speed. But if I’ve shedded a tune, I can hang in a good rhythm section and have a great time. Learning a second instrument has forced me to become a much more complete musician, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.