“What is your primary instrument?”

This is a question I have been asked a lot. It sounds harmless. But I would like to interrogate it and suggest that we be more intentional with our language.

This week when a teacher asked us to introduce ourselves in part by identifying our primary instrument, I had a minor identity crisis. I was a trombonist and singer in high school, composer and music director in undergrad, and pianist and teacher since. What should I say? Am I supposed to have a primary instrument? Do I belong here?

Asking students their primary instrument promotes the idea that a musician should have a primary instrument, that it is preferable to concentrate on a single instrument, that your instrument should be part of your identity, discourages exploring music outside of your instrument, and may cause anxiety for students who do not have a clear primary instrument.

There is nothing wrong with having a primary instrument, but I do not identify as having one. I reject the notion that musicians should primarily identify with their instrument, or that learning someone’s “primary instrument” tells you anything meaningful about who they are. What would we learn about our students, and what would they learn about what it means to be a musician, if we instead asked: “What are your current musical interests, and what is one musical experience you would like to try?”

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