As a musician, should you be well-rounded, or should you specialize in doing one thing really well? It’s a tough question, one that does not really have a pure answer. Ask me on any given day of the week (or hour of the day) and I’m likely to sway to one side or the other.
The truth is, though, given the option, having a deep knowledge of specialized skills will almost always win out over having a shallow knowledge of many different skills. It should be relatively difficult to call to mind anyone who became famous for doing lots of things “OK.”
Our society favors the exceptional, so the key is to find the one thing (maybe two) at which we can be exceptional and devote almost all of our energy to it. As a performer, I love to play in all types of groups. But I believe I excel most at brass quintet. So that is where I focus my energy.
But how do you separate your exceptional skills from those around you who may share your exceptional skill set? It is no longer enough simply to be great at something. In the modern world we need to not only be exceptional but also unique. And this is where well-rounded becomes valuable.
Every musical experience we have shades our own musicianship and gives us our “voice.” If you have a very limited set of experiences then your voice will be plain and undistinguishable—simply one voice in the crowd. If your experiences cover the entire range of music, your voice will be expressive and different from those voices around you—the kind of voice people will really listen to.
The real key lies in the balance between these two extremes. Try to do too many things and you never reach a level of greatness at anything. But close yourself off to what the world has to teach you and you will never be able to stand out.
Be great at something.
Never turn down a new experience.
Discover what it means to be both exceptional and unique.