Musicians who want to gain some fame or notoriety for their skills have a few options on how to go about it. Some spend a lifetime perfecting their skills at their preferred instrument, becoming among the best and most respected players in the world. Others take the path of songcraft, writing tunes that capture the hearts of listeners for decades to come...or at least long enough to be the summer's hot fad. Still others obtain fame through unusual circumstances, such as being a very young child prodigy at their chosen instrument.
Others, however, take the route of showmanship. They may or may not be supremely skilled musicians or songwriters, but they're a lot of fun to watch. Some become great performers via their charisma and stage presence, others through their ability to connect to the audience, and others through coming up with bizarre, creative, entertaining ways of playing their instruments. The latter category is our focus here.
Impractical Musical Instrument Skills describes nonstandard methods of playing an instrument in order to entertain the audience. This generally translates to various Cool, but Inefficient ways of playing, such as holding an instrument in an unusual manner or using it to produce sound in unusual ways.
While the sky's the limit with this trope, some of its more common manifestations include playing guitar behind one's head (or with their teeth) and playing piano with body parts other than one's hands. Naturally, Impractical Instrument Playing Skills very rarely constitute a musician's primary method of performing; they're awkward and impractical by nature and actually make the instrument more difficult to play. But that's also the point — this is less about music and more about showmanship. It wouldn't be memorable or particularly entertaining if it was common or easy to do.
- Tayuya in Naruto plays her flute to control three giants she invokes (they move according to the position of her fingers). How she can very precisely control these three bodies separately to track her opponent, and still play a coherent melody is a wonder.
- Brook from One Piece claims to be proficient at any instrument; so far, we've seen him play Violin, Piano, and Electric Guitar. On the one hand, he has had fifty years by himself on a ship full of instruments to perfect his skills; on the other, you'd think having no flesh on your fingertips (since he's a skeleton) would, at the very least, make it hard to properly fret a guitar without a lot of extraneous noise...
- In the film version of Amadeus, Mozart plays the harpsichord upside down, crossing his arms so his hands can be on the proper side.
- Jazz saxophonist Lester Young was famous for holding his saxophone at incredibly unnatural angles while he played. 1944 short film Jammin' the Blues has him playing this way less than a minute into the movie.
- In the Rainbow Magic movie, Izzy/Inky the Indigo Fairy has this. She plays a reed like a guitar.
- Volga-Volga: A completely random moment has one of Strelka's peasant friends play a few notes on his flute, then stick the end of the flute up his nose and play it like that.
- Discworld: A line from Nanny Ogg has it that all her family are musical in some way. Including "her Shawn" being able to fart Lancre's national anthem.
- In Black Books, Manny sits at a piano and plays a complex classical piece he heard on the radio seconds before. He can play any piece of music he tries, even when hiding underneath the piano and using spoons to strike the strings.
- In Red Dwarf, Lister is a terrible guitarist, but thinks he's another Jimi Hendrix. Starbug gets stuck in an area inhabited by mind-reading GELFs, and Lister has to go out to make repairs. The crew get two Listers back, and not knowing which is which, test them both on aspects of Lister's life and personality. They give one of the Listers his guitar and tell him to play. He plays brilliantly, and they shoot him. Kryten explains that the GELF played that well because Lister thinks he plays that well. (Incidentally, Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music did the actual guitar playing.)
- In The Sims 2, Sims with high Creativity can play the guitar while holding it behind their backs.
- In The Simpsons version of Amadeus, Mozart (Bart) plays the harpsichord with his feet and his butt. Not at the same time.
- Looney Tunes: there's one cartoon in which Bugs Bunny plays the piano by literally hopping on the keys (as a rabbit, you really don't see him doing that much). He also plays it like a typewriter, complete with a margin bell and hand-returned carriage. Still another scene has him picking up piano keys and then dropping them back into place, producing music all along.
- In the short "What's Up Doc", a toddler Bugs plays a concert-quality piece on a toy piano; shades of Schroeder.
- In more than one Tom and Jerry short in which Tom played the piano ("Johann Mouse", "The Cat Concerto"), he did it with his toes while using hands to try to catch Jerry. In "The Cat Concerto", Jerry also played the piano by plucking out two of the hammers and playing directly on the strings.
- In an episode of Futurama featuring the Beastie Boys, because of them being heads in jars, one of them scratches a record with his tongue.
- In Phineas and Ferb Perry the Platypus does an Homage, playing Dr. Doof's guitar behind his back.
- Background pony Octavia from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic somehow manages to play a cello. She is a non-anthropomorphic pony. How she even holds the bow is one of the great mysteries of the series.
- As a matter of fact, any earth pony (pegasi might use their wings and unicorns have telekinesis) who plays instruments that expressly need hands fall under this.
- An "ankle" strap with an attached brace would probably fit a bow or pick or hole-stoppers, it could be coat-colored, and it's already established earth ponies have a lot more coordination and "manual dexterity" than humans. But that still doesn't explain the pianos. And while it's probably possible to rig up something piano-like with extra keys, sliders and the like to play chords and simple repeating patterns with just hoof-and-mouth input, those are clearly ordinary pianos.
- Jimi Hendrix playing with his teeth and tongue.
- Some turntablists are known to turn around and scratch (records, of course) behind their backs, scratch with their elbows and shoulders, and pick up the tables by straps and hold them like guitars.
- And, of course, there are people who can play all the parts of a certain song on one instrument. It gets pretty mind-blowing.
- Two guys one guitar or the 4 hand exchange
- Rahsaan Roland Kirk played two saxophones at once, as well as practically every other brass or wind instrument individually.
- Kirk occasionally played a saxophone and a flute simultaneously. He played the sax with his mouth, and the flute with his nose.
- Richard Hyung-Ki Joo plays the piano in numerous improbable ways in A Little Nightmare Music. These include playing while lying down under the piano, head directly under the keys (as if he was a garage mechanic under a car) and playing the strings with a dental drill. His partner, Aleksey Igudesman, plays the violin in similarly fantastic manners, such as playing while Riverdancing.
- The French Vaudeville performer Le Pétomane, whose entire act consisted of farting musically onstage.
- He also played an ocarina. Just not with his mouth.
- Little Richard used to play the piano with one leg up on top of it.
- George Formby was famous in Britain in the 1930s and 40s for singing silly comic songs and playing the ukulele (technically a banjelele, since it had a banjo-style resonator). A recent documentary highlighted his incredibly rapid and precise playing, which has sometimes been ignored in view of the fact that he didn't play "serious" music.
- Michaelangelo Batio is an ambidextrous guitarist known for playing guitars with both hands, at the same time!
- Django Reinhardt, one of the greatest jazz guitarists, played with only two complete fingers on his fretting hand, verging on Disability Superpower.
- Rob Kleiner of Tub Ring will often jump on his keyboard stand and continue to play.
- Stevie Ray Vaughan playing behind his back and behind his head.
- In addition to the upside-down harpsichord playing mentioned above in Amadeus, Mozart once composed a piece with a very wide chord that needed to be played with both hands and a nose.
- Joe Zawinul could play a synthesizer while standing on the far side of the keyboard. Also, he could play from the correct side, but with a reverse key scaling (i.e. from right to left).
- At Schmidteinander, Herbert Feuerstein (former chief editor of the German MAD magazine) sometimes played a recorder by putting the mouthpiece against a nostril.
- The "Ling Ling Workout" courtesy of TwoSet Violin, in which the participant plays the violin while under one or more conditions such as while hula-hooping, with no sound, while upside-down, etc.
- Will Ting from YouTube plays Rondo Alla Turca with hands crossed, hands crossed under his leg, upside down, one hand behind his back and the other in front while standing sideways in front of the piano, and backwards.
- Walk Off the Earth became famous by doing this. Their most famous video includes the five members of the band singing and playing Somebody I Used To Know by Gotye - all on a single guitar. This includes one member tapping out percussion on the guitar's body, three playing on the strings, and one plucking and strumming the parts of the string on the guitar's head, between the nut and the tuning pegs.
- Likewise, The Piano Guys have released two videos (for a cover of One Direction's That's What Makes You Beautiful and a rendition of Angels We Have Heard On High) with five and four people respectively playing on a single grand piano. One or two people play the keys, others tap or pluck the strings directly, run a cello bow's horsehair through the strings in order to bow them, or rap on various pieces of the piano's body or hardware to produce percussion effects.
- Many drummers like Dave Clark of the Dave Clark 5 played standing up; Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish played while standing up, singing lead vocals and fronting the band. Considering the multilayered precision and perfection Jellyfish upheld in their recordings and live performances, the fact that they used no additional musicians or tapes, and the likes of "All Is Forgiven" are in 6/4 time, Andy certainly had a difficult task at hand, especially live.
- Professor Peter Schickele once played a P.D.Q. Bach violin piece by resting the bow against his chin and moving the violin back and forth across it.
- Another piece, under the guise of the accompanist having been delayed, requires sitting at a piano and playing it with one hand, and a bassoon with the other.