But first, let’s break down the four main types of instruments:
There are a few things to keep in mind when transitioning from one instrument to another:
1) The basic notes will almost always be the same, no matter what instrument you switch to. (I say almost, because some world instruments do have extra notes, but for our discussion we will stick to well-known Western instruments.) A Major scale will always be A Major scale. A Minor scale will always be A Minor scale.
2) There will be some muscle memory issues that need to be worked out with almost every transition you make. Sometimes you will be switching from predominately using your left hand to predominately using your right, or vice versa. Sometimes, you’ll need to build finger strength when you move over to an instrument that requires more than your first instrument. Posture muscles, lip and mouth muscles, finger calluses, arm muscles, and even leg muscles may need to be developed and conditioned.
3) You may find that the way you comfortably sit with one instrument is not the way you sit comfortably with another instrument. As an example: when I play the banjo, I sit with my knees tucked in to allow the banjo a place to rest while I play, whereas with the drums, my knees are wider apart to reach the hi-hat and kick pedals.
4) You may find that your fingers are already trained. For instance, a guitar uses the left-hand fingers for playing chords and lead lines. The Irish tin whistle uses the left hand to finger some of the holes, and the dexterity gained from playing the guitar can easily cross over to the tin whistle.
5) Depending on the instrument you begin with, some new musical techniques may need to be learned. If you started with an instrument that uses a particular clef, you might need to learn to read another clef. If you never read tablature before, you might need to learn.
So now that we’ve covered some basic things that you need to look out for, let’s take a look at switching to and from certain instrument categories.
Switching from keyboards to stringed instruments can be tricky. If you are switching to a stringed instrument that primarily uses tablature (guitar, banjo, mandolin, lute)
Another thing to look out for is this: when you play a keyboard instrument, it takes little to no muscle strength to push down on the keys to produce a note. But with most stringed instruments, you will need to build up finger strength, finger sensitivity (yes, you might start developing calluses on your fingers),
When you switch from piano or keyboard to an air-blown instrument, you may find that you are much more conscious about your breath control. You may find that your ribs hurt, and you might feel lightheaded at first as you learn how to support your breath. Also, depending on the type of instrument (padded, valve, or open-holed) you may find that you develop thicker pads on your fingers if you are switching to an open-holed type of wind-blown instrument.
As far as reading music is concerned, though, most wind instruments use the same clefs that you have already memorized– so that will be easy for you!
One of the nice things about switching from piano (where you are using pedals with one foot) or organ (where you are using pedals with two feet) to the drum kit is that you are already trained to use your feet as you play. This dexterity of your hands and feet will make this transition much easier.
Also, many piano parts in popular music and classical styles tend to be rhythmic and multi-rhythmic, respectively, so mastering the multi-rhythms of the drums should feel like something you already know.
The tricky part of this switch is it might take you some time to develop finesse on the drums. It is all well and good to beat out a rhythm on a percussion instrument, but to do it smoothly and with subtlety will take some practice.
It’s always easy for me to spot a performer who started out on a stringed instrument and then moved to the keyboard, because they tend to have what I call the “guitarist’s hiccup.” When you play guitar, you play left then right — the left-hand forms the chord first and then the right-hand strums. Even if this is done almost instantaneously, it is still something that you will hear when a guitarist-turned-pianist plays. There is always a ba-dum rhythm to their playing as the left-hand lands on the keyboard slightly before the right hand. Musicians who successfully transition from guitar to piano learn how to get rid of this stutter.
Another thing for some string players to consider: if you’re switching from an instrument that is devoted to one clef, you might need to learn a new clef; if you are coming from a TAB-based instrument, you’ll need to learn how to read sheet music. Also, proper seated position at a keyboard might be a bit uncomfortable for some string players, but you’ll develop it with practice.
Many of the challenges here are the same as the ones I mentioned for switching from piano to wind instruments.
Additionally, if you’re a guitar player who has developed calluses on your fingers, you may have some trouble with open-holed instruments, as the calluses on your fingers may cause a gap. You’ll have to press down with extra strength to seal the hole.
Here’s the bonus: Some air-blown instruments can be played while you play your stringed instrument, like playing a harmonica with a guitar.
Moving from a stringed instrument to a percussion instrument, like from guitar to drums, is a relatively easy transition. Both use wider arm movements, and both tend to be used as rhythmic instruments. Percussion sheet music is similar to TAB, and often the rhythm string players are used to listening for the kick drum to help them keep time. The left-hand dexterity that is developed in many stringed instruments is also good for helping you play smoothly.
However, if you’re switching to a drum set that requires playing with both hands and feet, this is where you’ll need practice.
This may be one of the more difficult transitions to master. Muscle memory will need to be re-learned, since your hands will transition from being in-line to side-by-side. You’ll be a pro at reading one clef — but with keyboard you’ll need to read two clefs (and up to 10 notes) at a time.
For this type of switch, I recommend approaching each finger on the keyboard as if you were looking at a separate wind instrument. Spend a lot of time learning how chords and harmony work, too.
This can also be a bit of a tough switch, as you’ll have a similar problem with the hand positions. You also may have a lot of pain as you develop calluses on your fingers, and as you develop muscles in the arms you are not used to using.
Also, if you play an open-holed wind instrument, keep in mind the same advice applies from transitioning from strings to air-blown instruments. Your calluses might get in the way of achieving a nice tone on the stringed instrument. You may also need to learn how to read tab, if you’re switching to guitar.
If you play a wind instrument, switching to percussion might seem like a bizarre transition. For some percussion instruments, you’ll need to get used to using both your hands and your feet!
Keep in mind, though, that rhythm doesn’t change from one instrument to the other, so the rhythmic principles will always apply. And the fact that you are used to playing left and right hands in various sequences will do you well when you switch over to the drums.
Switching from drums to piano produces a lot of the same challenges as the other way around. On the plus side, it’s good that you can use both your hands and your feet. This will be useful, especially if you are going to be playing the organ.
But there are a lot of new musical principles that percussionists will need to learn. For example, you’ll have to learn chords, scales, how melodies work, how chord progressions work, how harmony works, and the differences between major and minor and modes. It’s a far greater learning curve than the other transitions that I mentioned above.
As a percussionist, you’ll likely have rhythm down pat — so that part will be easy for you. But for this transition, you’ll learn to focus on one note and one hand position at a time. While you might find this a bit constrictive, in the end it will give you another outlet for your musical expression. You’ll also need to practice breath control and support.
Like the transition from drums to piano, switching from drums to strings has a whole host of challenges. The foremost is probably development of finger strength, which is not something most percussionists spend a lot of time on (unless you play something like the djembe or cajon). Other issues include learning tab or sheet music, learning about chords and harmonies, learning about melody, and all of the other things that you would learn if you were to transition to the keyboard, as mentioned above.
On the plus side, you’ve probably built up your arm strength, which will carry over well.
Post Author: Willy M.
Willy M. teaches guitar, ukulele, and mandolin lessons in Winston Salem, NC. Willy has been teaching for 20 years, and his students have ranged in age from young children to folks in their 80s