Doubling up on Shak and Sax: Musical Bilingualism?
Learning languages is not a zero sum game. The notion that there’s only so much space in your brain to accommodate your linguistic competence and/or diversity, and that therefore, for example, you’re doing your kids a favour if you abandon your own home language in favour of whatever standard is used in their school, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. On the contrary, a good exposure to two or more different linguistic codes may well stand to boost your capacity in both of them. Dick Johnstone reported finding higher order English skills in children attending Gaelic medium education.
So what about music? Is there, by analogy, a chance or indeed likelihood that playing more than one instrument, say, will you make a better musician? Broadly speaking, I can see sense in that, but I wouldn’t want to push it very far without caveats. My keyboard skills are pretty rudimentary, but it’s probably true that my harmonic awareness, such as it is, which I’ve developed in part through playing around on the keyboard, has contributed in some degree to any melodic innovation I might try on the flute. If I know the chords that are coming I’ve got a better idea of where I can go with a tune.
But if you pick that apart a bit all I’m actually saying there is that harmonic awareness enhances melodic invention. The fact that I happen to play mostly chords on the piano and tunes on the flute is coincidental.
So what about two melodic instruments, say flute and saxophone? We’re in murkier water here. There’s plenty of debate (examples here) on the web about the merits or otherwise of doubling up on flutes and reeds. A lot of professionals do it, but the debate is almost always framed in terms of damage limitation rather than mutual enhancement. The consensus seems to be that, yes, it’s possible to be a very good player of both instruments, provided you put in countless hours of practice so that your lip muscles in particular can easily adjust to the very different requirements of either instrument. And the nagging doubt remains that if you chose to focus on just one of the two and put in the same hours you could be better still on that one instrument.
So, if you’re looking at this question from the perspective of musical technique, I think it’s difficult to argue very strongly for the bilingualism analogy. However, to the extent that different musical instruments are associated with, and adapted to “encode”, different musical traditions, there may well be grounds for arguing that learning two instruments, and therefore two different traditions, stands to enhance overall musical competence/capacity/creativity.
A couple of examples to finish, offered with some trepidation. They’re both from Bi Beò tracks. On Dannsa a’ Phortain I play alto saxophone, and on Hougharry Reel my own haund-knitted “Gaelic shakuhachi”.
Dannsa a’ Phortain:
In my case, doubling up on the two is clearly no guarantee of superior technique on either… But on the other hand experimentation with both Western and other traditions has been, for me at least, a refreshing musical experience, and offered the opportunity to create something new and different. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I finally found a place for it in a Gaelic band?