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Instrument-Switching: A Good Idea?

Amy Nathan is an award-winning author of books for young people including The Young Musician’s Survival Guide: Tips From Teens and Pros, out now in a new expanded second edition. A Harvard graduate with master’s degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Columbia’s Teacher’s College, she is an ever-struggling piano student and the mother of two musical sons: one a composer and trumpeter, and the other a saxophone-playing government major.

Which six of the following professional musicians were instrument-switchers as kids (answers at the end of the post)? Instrument-switchers start learning to play one kind of instrument that either they (or their parents) thought would be great for them — only to discover later that there is another instrument that they love a whole lot more. And so they switch.

( ) Joshua Bell, violinist
( ) André Watts, pianist
( ) Paula Robison, flutist
( ) James Galway, flutist
( ) Ann Hobson Pilot, harpist
( ) Cynthia Phelps, violist
( ) Carter Brey, cellist
( ) Sherry Sylar, oboist

At this back-to-school time of year when kids are returning to music lessons, many parents have a nagging worry that their kids will turn out to be instrument-switchers. What if they don’t stick with the instrument the parents just shelled out a lot of money for? What about all the money spent on lessons? Will that be wasted? If they switch, how will they ever catch up with kids who didn’t switch?

Judging by the high level of musicianship of the pros in this quiz — switchers and non-switchers alike — switching isn’t the disaster that some parents fear it will be. However, the prevalence of instrument-switching does mean that it’s unwise to rush out and buy an expensive instrument for kids until they’ve spent a year or so learning to play it and are sure they really like it. If a family doesn’t already own an instrument a child can learn on, start by renting — or borrowing.

Making up lost time on the new instrument didn’t pose a serious problem for the switchers in the list above. Many had been reluctant practicers with their first instrument. But when they switched, practice time became less of a chore, turning instead into something they actually wanted to do — well, at least much of the time. After all, the new instrument was one that they chose for themselves, one whose sound spoke to them, one they really wanted to play. They were willing to put in regular practice time in order to master it. As for all those lessons with the first instrument — they weren’t a waste, but provided an introduction to music that carried over to the new choice.

“Switching is okay, but don’t switch too soon,” warns Daniel Katzen, who plays French horn with the Boston Symphony. He started on piano at age six, tried cello for a while at age nine, and then two years later finally found the instrument that was right for him, French horn. As he explains in The Young Musician’s Survival Guide, “You can’t tell about an instrument in just a few months. Other instruments always look cool. But after you start playing, you find that no instrument is really easy if you want to play it well.”

Instrument-switching may actually be something a parent could encourage a youngster to think about if the child loves music but never wants to practice. Of course, a lack of interest in practicing could come from other causes, such as the type of music the youngster is learning, the approach the teacher is taking or an overly busy after-school schedule. But it could also be that the instrument just isn’t the right one for that kid. A better match may present itself if the youngster does a little exploring by listening to a variety of kinds of music, going to concerts at school or in concert halls, watching performances on TV, having the school music teacher demonstrate different instruments. Maybe that reluctant practicer will discover an instrument he or she really wants to play, as happened with Ann Hobson Pilot, principal cellist of the Boston Symphony. She struggled with piano lessons for years, not liking them much and not wanting to practice. But when she had a chance to try harp in high school, “I felt more expressive,” she says. “I loved it from the start. So I practiced more.”

Answers to Quiz: In addition to the Boston Symphony’s Ann Hobson Pilot, three other instrument-switchers in the list above are also orchestral musicians, members of the New York Philharmonic: Cynthia Phelps, who switched from violin to viola; Carter Brey, from violin to cello; Sherry Sylar, from piano and flute to oboe. The other two are soloists: André Watts, switched as a youngster from violin to piano; Paula Robison, from piano to flute. The two who didn’t switch: Joshua Bell and James Galway.

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Recent Comments

  1. Eugene Cantera

    Nice post!

    I always tell my students (and parents) that a musicians’ natural voice will come out. I have had many students begin on one instrument and find a year or two into it that they would like to try another or that the original just wasn’t what they had thought it would be. A good teacher teaches musical concepts that carry over regardless of the instrument.

    I played everything I could get my hands on but saxophone stuck. And here’s a twist…after years of playing and teaching professionally I decided to learn guitar. It would be interesting to learn how many musicians in the list above actually enjoy playing secondary instruments.

  2. Amy Nathan

    Eugene Cantera asks an interesting question and so I asked Sherry Sylar, the New York Philharmonic oboist who is one of the musicians in the little quiz in the original blog enter, Here’s what she said :

    From Sherry Sylar: “Yes, I played both the piano and flute before starting the oboe. I continue playing the piano now and enjoy this ‘other’ musical experience very much. It’s odd that the music I choose to play on the piano now leans more toward jazz and show music rather than classical music! (I suppose playing in the New York Philharmonic gives me plenty of exposure to the classical genre!) But practically speaking, I am not as accomplished on the piano and find that I am very critical of my attempts to play the classics. When I play jazz and show music it seems to help me turn that critical ear off and just enjoy the experience of playing the piano. I doubt I would ever play piano in public!
    BTW: starting on the piano as a very young person was the best thing I could have done for my musical career!”

  3. Amy Nathan

    I also asked Paula Robison if she has taken up any “secondary instruments.” Here’s what she had to say:

    From Paula Robison: ” I guess I’ve always been an ‘instrument switcher’ because I love the piccolo so much and it has a distinctly different personality from the flute, so I’ve been faced with the challenges of learning how to play it well and letting it sing in its own voice.
    I also play percussion as I cook. I really do. Pots and pans, scrapers, pepper grinders…my dream is to play backup percussion in Cyro Baptista’s band.
    But the most exciting thing for me right now is that I’m learning how to sing……I’m not sure if that’s a secondary instrument…it’s probably our basic human primary instrument!! Working at the voice production and having a lot of fun with it has helped my flute playing a lot! And it’s good for me to have to play chords on the piano and keep track of things with just my hands as I sing scales. “

  4. Saul Davis Zlatkovski

    Many of the finest harpists have switched from other instruments to harp, especially piano. For this reason, it is very important that harp be available as a secondary instrument in music schools as well as a primary instrument, and that students should be required to have a primary instrument. Pianists should have either harp or wind instruments/voice available or required, and other instrumentalists should have piano and/or harp as well as voice.
    But then, musicians should also study dance, to have basic ballet, folk dance, and all the dance forms found in music from Pavane to Rumba.

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  6. Donna Schwartz

    Great article, and Eugene’s comment was spot on. In many cases, students start out on the instrument that looks the shiniest, or even the instrument that others told them they had to play. Many people do find enjoyment in a different instrument later on. I’ve had many students start on a band instrument, then in middle school switch to, or also take guitar. Many young people like to play popular music, which nowadays features guitars, electric bass, drums, and keyboards. Playing these as secondary instruments can provide another avenue to explore music that may not be viable on the primary instrument. For me, I find that I prefer classical and jazz trumpet over playing Rock music on trumpet. Meanwhile, I play Rock, Blues, Motown on saxes. It allows me to expand my voice into other genres.

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