Whether you happen to be a teacher, a performer or a musical hobbyist, I'm sure that this thought has popped into your head once or twice: "Is it better to have a level of competency in a wide range of styles or to work toward mastery in one or two?"
As a preface to this response, it should be noted that I have often thought about this phrase in conjunction with where I am as a musician, and where I want to be in the future. So without making this subject too much of an erudite discussion, I wanted to highlight some points of interest when looking at these two conflictive ideas. Firstly, there are two real issues to be addressed when trying to break down the importance of being a great 'allrounder' and being a 'specialist'.
The first consideration is quite simple but hard to summarise, who decides what is important? Some professional musicians would argue that the opportunity for work in the form of gigs, teaching and producing is heavily reliant on the modern musician being infinitely versatile. This alludes to the basic idea that the market is the decider whether in the form of the audience, the customer or musical MD that hired you. Others may take a different approach by stating that there should be a greater emphasis on individuality to truly stand out. The next issue is perhaps a bit easier to conceptualise, what's important to you? Maybe you don't fall into the category of a professional musician and instead enjoy learning music as a pastime and are intrigued as to why you might benefit from broadening your horizons.
I think it's important for all musicians to have a broad knowledge of stylistic practices, as it's a good tool to have whether working in the studio or discovering new ideas by yourself in the practice room. Expanding your musical horizons has the added benefit of allowing you to establish a department of auxiliary knowledge to fall back on when functioning in unfamiliar musical territory. In truth, western music isn't as uniquely original as some might believe. Much of the music that we listen to today can be traced back to more fundamental genres. Contrary to popular belief, the basis of Metal and many of its sub-genres are closer to the fundamental columns of Blues and Folk music than the Classical music tradition. For several years there has been a growing faction of musicologists, artists and journalists who collectively believe that the old classification of musical genres is outdated and ill-fitting to the ever-changing music environment of today. Essentially, we are living in a time where the concept of the 'sub-genre' has exploded beyond comprehension and is now verging into meaninglessness. From the deconstructionist point of view, once we rid ourselves from old conventions and meanings, we begin to redress our values toward individualism through art.
Whilst it is universally true now that music and the access to music have never been easier, one might think that the need for professional musicians to be authentically versed in lots of different styles is imperative. Yet, the reality is that you can't be good at everything. There simply isn't time in one person's life to become a master of multiple disciplines. Take renowned classical pianists for instance, many of whom start at a very young age and have tens of thousands of hours invested in the specific practices of proper technique, theoretical understanding and an enormous library of genre-specific repertoire. Unfortunately, learning music isn't like riding a bike. It must remain fresh and constantly evolving. The obvious limitations of hours in the day prevent the classical pianist from spending the same hours and levels of concentration on learning the ins and outs of Bebop's stylistic practices. It's not to say that the classical pianist can't become a competent jazz player but rather, it is much harder to reach the same illustrious heights of musicianship. There will always exist outliers to dispel this notion, but for the majority of musicians looking to move towards mastery in a chosen discipline, this is a commonly accepted principle.
I think a lot of young musicians especially are afraid of being labelled as a 'type' of musician when they're starting, which can lead them into this scarcity mindset of feeling like they're behind in their development, but this simply isn't the case. It is in the nature of being a creative that we cannot appeal to everyone. We can't prepare to have an endless bag of tools to employ at any given moment. Instead, we are reliant on what we value to build ourselves as musicians and creative individuals. I have to remind myself about this one quite a lot as it's too easy to draw comparisons with the seemingly endless stream of incredible musicians (and young prodigies!) that crop up on Instagram, YouTube or at a local gig.
On the one hand, I would have loved to have mastered the art of arranging for strings, but on the other hand, I'm perfectly happy that I chose to devote that energy towards transcribing solos and learning jazz standards. I go through this thought process on a bi-monthly basis. I frequently think back to why I got into music in the first place and it encourages me to reassess what I value about playing music and what my greatest satisfactions are. I understand that I'm at the risk of reheating a common answer most people arrive at, but I don't think there's any harm in stating it again. You have to learn to be comfortable being yourself musically.
To most of the students I've had in the past 3 years, I've encouraged them to explore their curiosities alongside the content we've studied together. I've noticed that some have taken a pragmatic approach to learning, and others have customised the information into more imaginative resources. All of them have gone on to be fantastic musicians on the path to establishing their creative voices. So returning to the question, 'is it better to have a level of competency in a wide range of styles or work toward mastery of one or two?' perhaps the content of the question itself isn't fit for purpose and it doesn't matter whether we consider ourselves part of either camp. The world of music is ever-changing and constantly redrawing the boundaries of how we use and define music. There is no longer a 'sound' that defines the 21st century like there was with synths in the '80s. Our generation must contend with the reality that all sounds and possibilities are the defining 'sound' of the 21st century. The access to music from past and present, home studios and infinite additions of technology will never recede. It is not inconceivable that in a number of years the conversations that we have about traditional disciplines and musical practices will have decayed into irrelevancy. The most appropriate answer I can suggest is to stay curious about your journey and actively explore sounds that inspire you to pick up the instrument. Your creative individuality is the only real craft to maintain and it is completely untouchable by anyone and everyone.