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Jack-of-all-trades percussionist or specialized percussionist?

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During a dark and stormy night of a March 17th many years ago, I came to the realization that I most definitely have a genetic tendency to a serious illness that strikes so many percussionists: the Jack-of-all-Trades Syndrome.

Let’s analyze this mysterious illness, which is extremely important if you want to understand today’s post.

Definition: the term “jack-of-all-trades percussionist” refers to the musician who loves every single type of percussion instruments, none excluded. He refuses to be labeled as drummer, marimbist, timpanist, vibraphonist, orchestra player, and so on, and instead prefers to be described with the vague and undefined term “PERCUSSIONIST”.

Symptoms: Jack-of-all-trades percussionists try their whole life, since childhood actually, to learn all the techniques and performance practices of all percussion instruments out there. Unable to succeed, at least in the short term, they have a hard time accepting there are only 24 hours in a day and, at least according to them, too many instruments to practice on. They basically waste their energy studying too many things. Once they complete their course of studies, they can’t decide what they want to specialize in and begin to envy those percussionists choosing to master one specific instrument. They keep reading everywhere that the latest trend for percussionists of the new millenium is FOCUS, but they really aren’t genetically suited to focus on anything.

Cure: the cure is essentially one. They have to realize that trying to do everything simply means doing everything poorly. All that is needed are good organizational skills and the willingness to focus always and regardless on one thing at a time. At the same time, it’s important to understand that having multiple interests in the field of percussion instruments is a positive thing and that the jack-of-all-trades tendencies of some percussionists can actually be used to their advantage.

If you think you might be a jack-of-all-trades percussionist and you think this might damage your physical and emotional health, keep reading. Hopefully, I’ll be able to help.

 

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

If you are reading this post, you should know that there are a lot of percussionists, like you and me, who are in the same boat. So, do not despair if all you see around are raising stars in this or that instrument, and don’t envy them. You were simply born with multiple musical interests and having chosen a path of such variety, such as the one of percussionist, is living proof.

Not everyone who has graduated from college with a music degree in percussion instruments, has chosen to specialize in one specific instrument and not everyone who chooses a profession in a certain field, also chooses to limit his or her interests to that field.

So, don’t think you are one of the few “non-specialized” percussionists around; in all reality you are probably part of the large majority.

 

SPECIALIZATION IS SOMETIMES A SYNONYM FOR LIMITATION

In order to specialize in one specific instrument or in one specific performance practice, you must focus most of your study time on it. This obviously means that you’ll have to give up many other things.

For example, if you want to become the best drummer in the world, you have to eventually realize that you can’t study orchestra percussion instruments, marimba, latin-american percussion instruments, and so on. You have to devote all your available time to the drums. And the same can be said for any other instrument.

In order to specialize, you have to use your energy exclusively for the study of what interests you most, therefore giving up, at least in the immediate future, the opportunity to “play something else”. It’s a sacrifice that not everyone (me for example) is willing to make in the LONG term.

What you have to learn is to focus on your studies for the SHORT term while trying to maintain a wide variety of interests.

Stay focused

 

THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SOMEONE WITH BETTER TECHNIQUE THAN YOU

Do you want to know another sad truth? If you are aiming at becoming “the best” at one specific instrument or style, you will soon discover that there will always be someone with better technique than you, if not today, definitely tomorrow. Aaaahhhh! Living like this can been so stressful! And why?

Besides, if this is your reasoning, it means you already stopped thinking about music as an art and you now see it more as a sport. Luckily, not everyone who chooses specialization makes this same judgement mistake, but be very careful: danger is always around the corner.

Now let’s elaborate. If specializing in one thing and aiming at becoming the best, is quite detrimental (and useless as well), trying to specialize in absolutely everything in the field of percussion instruments, is even worse.

 

HAVING PREFERENCES IS GOOD AND USEFUL

I can’t deny that among all the devices grouped under the definition of percussion instruments, there are a few specific ones that I enjoy playing more than others. Among all, timpani will always be my favorite, especially because of everything I can do with them when playing in an orchestra.

That being said, for all the reasons I am explaining here, I would never dream of limiting my interests to the 24/7 study of this giant, harmonious pan or to the exclusive study of orchestral repertoire.

However, there was a time during the course of my studies, in which I heavily focused on the study of timpani and to this day, I still benefit from that experience.

 

A VERSATILE PERCUSSIONIST IS A MORE SOUGHT AFTER MUSICIAN AND A BETTER MUSICIAN ALL AROUND

As I already wrote a long time ago in “9 essential tips for percussionists”, tip number 1 always is: study as many percussion instruments as possible.

First of all, studying multiple instruments and styles allows you to become a more rounded musician and person.

Second, the more techniques on different instruments you master and the more experience in the various styles you have, the more you will be asked to perform because, by using your many talents, you will be able to work in many different artistic environments.

So, study as many percussion instruments as possible, as thoroughly as possible. Regardless, it will always pay off.

Be careful though. As I already told you, do not try to study everything at the highest technical-musical level possible. It is simply impossible.

Build a solid foundation in most percussion instruments and styles,and when the time is right, begin specializing in what interest you the most.

 

CONCLUSION: THE ESSENCE OF PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS IN MY OPINION

Chimp playing cymbalsLet me tell you what I think: I don’t find becoming an expert in only ONE percussion instrument is fun at all. Actually, if “being an expert” means, as I just explained, devoting oneself to one particular thing for a long time, then I’m not interested in specializing in anything at all. I don’t want that.

I decided to start playing percussion instruments because, as a child, I saw them as an interesting variety of toys. And as an adult, nothing changed. The only difference is that today those toys are my livelihood. Telling someone like me to dedicate most of his life to one percussion instrument or style rather than another, is like telling a child to play with one toy for his whole childhood. I would be very disappointed.

That being said, the danger of wasting your time trying to learn too many percussion instruments exists as well. Focusing is not only a word, nor a theoretical concept for the 2015 percussionist. It is the only possible way.

I have my own personal theory on the art of focusing, a sort of study method, that I describe in “9 essential tips for percussionists”, but everyone can have his own. The only mistake would be not to have one.

Finally, one more clarification: it is said that in life you never stop learning. This is definitely a relief for all those percussionists who, plagued like me by a tendency to the jack-of-all-trades syndrome, can now pursue their multiple interests during the course of their (hopefully) long life.

 

Question: are you a jack of all trades percussionist or a specialized one? Leave a comment. 

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