How many instruments do you play?

“So, how many instruments do you play?” I get this a lot.

The way I prefer to answer is this: I play all of the major modern woodwind instruments, plus some folk and ethnic woodwinds.

That answer usually doesn’t cut it.

So, if pressed, I give a slightly more detailed response: I play flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone, plus recorders, whistles, and so forth.

By this point, people with musical background usually get the picture. But some people still demand a precise number, perhaps thinking that my caginess is modesty, and that it will be polite for them to insist upon an answer.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I avoid the question because I don’t exactly know the answer. A former teacher of mine indicates in his bio that he plays “over 45 instruments.” I can’t help but wonder how he came up with that impressive count. Is he including B-flat clarinet, A clarinet, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet? C clarinet, alto clarinet, basset horn, contrabasses in E-flat and B-flat…

I suppose I “play” all the members of all five major modern woodwind families. But I don’t own all of them, and some I only play very rarely and on borrowed instruments (contrabassoon, alto flute, oboe d’amore…), and there are even a few I’ve never really played at all (sopranino saxophone, clarinet in C…). Bringing in ethnic instruments, of course, just compounds the confusion.

How many instruments do I play? Don’t ask.

1 thought on “How many instruments do you play?”

  1. The answer for me is, what will I play if I get paid for? Some instruments, such as oboe, English horn, recorder, shawn, crumhorn, Albert-system clarinets, pre-Boehm flutes, etc., I can make recognizable music out of, but it is not of sufficient quality for me to get paid. I can also make quasi-musical noise out of most brass instruments, and I use piano, electric bass and guitar when I compose, but I am not even good enough to play those instruments for my kids.

    I have a rank order for proficiency and desire to play the instruments I will play in public:

    1. baritone sax
    2. alto sax
    3. tenor sax
    4. soprano sax *
    5. bass clarinet
    6. piccolo
    7. flute
    8. contrabass clarinet *
    9. contra-alto clarinet *
    10. Bb clarinet
    11. A clarinet
    12. alto flute
    13. alto clarinet *
    14. bass saxophone *
    15. contrabassoon *
    16. bassoon
    17. Eb clarinet

    * means I don’t own one, but I can play it. I have been paid, or part of a professional-level amateur group, to play all of the above except contrabassoon. I have also appeared playing random percussion instruments here or there, but I do not consider myself a percusionist.

    So, using this definition, I play 17 instruments.


Leave a Comment

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.