Published in BC Musician Magazine – August 2010
I hadn’t ever heard this phrase until my first year of college. My drum teacher, slightly annoyed that I was going to miss another drum lesson because I was singing in a jazz festival, used it as a warning: “Specialize now, or always be sub-par”. Until then I had prided myself in being a multi-instrumentalist. I kept busy learning any instrument I could get my hands on as well as learning sound engineering and the basics of carpentry building makeshift recording studios. True I could do a lot of things, but I wasn’t ‘great’ at any of them. Was I ruining my chances of excelling at one instrument by spreading my time between many? This brought me to the big question: Is being a “Jack of All Trades”really such a bad thing?
Well, according to Wikipedia, the term “Jack of All Trades” used to be a compliment until the early1700s when someone added “Master of None” to the end and it ceased to be flattering. It was probablya jealous blacksmith who only knew one skill and had an axe to grind, pun intended! This was the end of the Renaissance Man. Cultures all around the world jumped on board the specialization train with their own versions of the saying. In Mandarin they say, “All trades known, all trades dull”. The more poetic Cantonese version sounds like lyrics out of a Radiohead song, “Surrounded by knives, none are sharp”. Estonia takes the most stern approach with their saying, “nine trades, the tenth one – starvation”.Pretty intense, but is it true?
In my current band, Scatterheart, I find myself adding new partially learned skills every week. Editing video, taking photos, designing graphics, publicizing, promoting, booking – all things I didn’t know much about a year ago but had to learn because of monetary necessity. What the Estonians didn’t mention in their saying was, “if you don’t do it yourself, you have to pay someone else” – and in this world of specialization, you have to pay them a lot! By doing as much as we can ourselves, Scatterheart has been able to build presence and a fanbase without a big budget. Maybe we haven’t done it as professionally, but I think it’s close.
As a modern musician, there really isn’t much way to get around it. You have to diversify to make a go of it. Knowing the business side of music gives you a much better chance at making a living, and having a few instruments under your belt will keep you in demand – as long as you can play them reasonably well. Local multi-instrumentalist/composers/producers/business people like Brad Turner and Steve Dawson are constantly working and do a great job of everything they do. So it is possible – and more fun! Who wants to do the same thing everyday for the rest of their life? Plus, I find that when I learn something new it also improves my other skills. Every instrument I learn makes me think differently about the ones I already know.
Well, that wraps it up right? Not really. I think the debate of specialization vs. diversification is like the debate of bass players vs. drummers. It’s unwinnable. And in the end everyone’s really looking at the lead singer and the guitarist, right? So, do whatever makes you happy. If you’re happy, chance are you’ll be successful. Which is why as of today I’m hanging up my drumsticks and going back to being a lead singer… just joking!
Mike Southworth is proudly a “Jack of All Trades, Master of None”, including writing. He lives inVancouver with his wife Hilary and pet iPhone.