Saturday, September 5, 2009

Top Ten Hardest Musical Instruments to Play

Instrument: Didgeridoo
Difficulty factors: Hard to build, impossible breathing technique, sound varies from instrument to instrument, Noise to music gap is wide, practice tolerance by others - low
- Aboriginal craftsmen spend considerable time searching for a suitable tree to make into a didgeridoo. The difficult part is in finding a tree that has been suitably hollowed out by termites. If the hollow is too big or too small, it will make a poor quality instrument. Then, you have to learn circular breathing where you have to breath in through the nose while breathing out through the mouth. You can make a noise, but is it music?

Instrument: Bagpipes & Uillean pipes
Difficulty factors - Noise to music gap very wide, practice tolerance by others extremely low
- Bagpipes can be painful to listen to when well played. Poorly played they can be excruciating. That's why pipers march when they play - Makes it harder for snipers to hit them. Uillean pipers have to sit, so they don't last long. I don't think there's a soft setting for practice. At least with my banjo I can stuff a towel in the back and take the edge off it a little. With pipes you can't plug them into headphones or anything, so in order to learn to play the pipes you have to be able to afford an isolated practice site where the neighbors or your wife won't kill you.

Instrument: The violin and its cousins
Difficulty factors: Fretlessness, bow technique difficult to master, awkward position, noise to music gap wide
- Bowed instruments like the violin have a long learning curve, practice time can be painful for loved ones and neighbors. Not as loud as the bagpipes, but the slightly off-key scales and practice tunes can grate on the nerves of everyone, including the player. You have to have a good ear for pitch to master it. If you don't, you'll never be any good.

Instrument: Pedal Steel Guitar
Difficulty factor - too many things to do at once
- This one is simply physically challenging, practice isn't too painful for the listener, but the distance between making the notes pretty well and good music can take a while.

Instrument: Banjo
Difficulty factor - Doing 3 things at once, getting up to speed
- Banjo is easy to make sound on, chording isn't too tough, but getting your fingers up to speed and coordinated takes a lot of hours. Doing repetitive runs and rolls, practicing hammer ons, pull offs and slides and bumbling around high up on the neck and can make you distinctly unpopular round the house. If you're naturally uncoordinated, you may never be able to master it. Fretless banjo adds the difficulty of finding the pitch if you don't have naturally good pitch. You don't get any help from the frets.

Instrument: Oboe and anything with a reed in it
Difficulty factor: Getting rid of the squeal
- My wife was good at the oboe. Nobody else in her band would even get near the thing. She has perfect pitch and is a genius on the musical aptitude scale - it makes me crazy. She can just listen to something and know if it sounds right. Me, I can only judge whether I'm in tune by the rate of incoming wilted vegetables and spoiled fruit.

Instrument: French Horn
Difficulty factor: Getting sound from the thing
- All the difficulty of getting the lip thing going plus you have to hold it funny and it's hard to get sound from.

Instrument: The Human Voice
Difficulty factor: You need perfect pitch to be any good, you either inherit a good voice or you don't
- Though Bob Dylan seems to be the exception to the rule, the rule is pretty tough to overcome. You can whisper sing like Richard Harris and get away with it, but he did some training you can bet. If you're Earl, you let Lester do the singin'.

Instrument: Accordion
Difficulty factor: The constant ridicule and lack of respect
- You've got to admire Flaco Jimenez and the guy from Lawrence Welk and all the Irish squeezebox guys and the polka guys and the guys from Brave Combo. The accordion player gets so much abuse, never gets girls and has to deal with the back strain of carrying around what is essentially a small pump organ. It's a wonder anyone ever learns to play Twinkle, Twinkle little star, much less masters the thing.

Instrument: Electric sewer pipes
Difficulty factor: Telling your Dad he's paying for you to go to Julliard so you can study the electric sewer pipes
- I don't know of anyone but Blue Man group that plays the sewer pipes. I had hoped that, upon hearing them play the sewer pipes that PVC pipes would become the next musical fad, but was disappointed. I guess the instrument is so original that everyone else would have been derivative who tried to pick it up (kind of like Riverdance without Michael Flately or like the fat sweaty step dancers in that commercial).

Instrument: Tabla
Difficulty factor: No one will tell you how to play unless you marry one of their women
- The playing technique for these drums from India involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different types of sounds; these are reflected in the mnemonic syllables. The heel of the hand is also used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion, so that the pitch is changed during the sound's decay. This "modulating" effect on the bass drum and the wide range of sounds possible on the instrument as a whole are the main characteristics that make tabla unique among percussion instruments. The preservation of these techniques is important amd for centuries the secrets of playing were closely guarded and only passed along family lines. Being born into or marrying into a lineage holding family was often the only way to gain access to this knowledge. Now that makes an instrument really tough to play. Kind of like if you had to marry Earl's daughter (assuming he had one to spare) in order to learn Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I'd hope she was really cute, you know.



Just one man's opinion....

Tom King

(reprinted from "Just One Man's Opinion" (c) Tom King: 8/17/2007)

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