Recently, I had some interesting experiences involving the idea of a "real musician." First, some performers (who should have known better and likely didn't mean it this way) asked me to sing. When I said I wasn't a trained singer, they dismissed the idea and said I must be able to sing. After I broke down and sang a tune or two, they nodded and said "nice job, we knew you were a real musician." This sort of thing drives me a little crazy since it implies instrumentalists aren't musicians. I am a trained instrumentalist but an amateur singer. A fair amount of the training for the flute transfers to the voice with ease so I can sing well if not brilliantly. But my singing is not up to the standards I expect of myself, as a musicians, when performing for others and I chafe at the idea that "real" musicians always sing.
Now the reverse assumption also happens all the time. I know several vocalists who, when they say they are musicians, are consistently asked what instrument they play. When they answer "voice," the disappointment on the other person's face is almost shocking. It is as if they are saying "you tricked me." And other musicians do this to singers too by asking them what instrument they play in addition to singing.
Of course, it is not uncommon for instrumentalists to sing and singers to play instruments. Musicians get curious about different ways to make music and learn different skills all the time. But I think it is important to remember that this is a form of doubling, that is, learning more than one instrument. Doubling is a skill that not all musicians choose to tackle and this in no way makes them less of a musician.
Finally and just to make my point one more time, there is another group of musicians who get this treatment even more often than singers and instrumentalists; percussionists. They are often dismissed as "the ones with all the toys" or "the people who hang out with the orchestra." This is wildly unfair for a couple of reasons. One is that there is a tremendous amount music that depends on the percussion section. If the rhythm is wrong, no amount of musical skill from the other instruments will fix the piece. Another reason is that playing percussion is just as difficult as any other musical activity. Just listen to what happens when someone picks up a drum for the first time and compare it to a trained percussionist if you doubt me. Or watch a marimba player during a concerto solo (do this anyway; the flying mallets are amazing to see.) Or take a good look at the lone percussionist in a pit orchestra and the vast array of instruments they are expected to play, often all at once!
Many people, musicians included, have very firm and limited assumptions about
what the term musician means and are thrown for a loop when they are reminded
that their assumptions ARE limited. Learning to make music, any music, reshapes the brain. Voice, wind, brass or percussion. It is the study of music in any form that expands the language and fine motor control centers of the brain, not the choice of musical production.
There is no set way to define all musicians. Except that we make music. All the different terms for musicians (guitarist, harpist, vocalist, percussionist) really define the type of music we make. The sheer variety of those terms shows just how creative we humans are about our music. There will always be a new form of music, a new instrument, a new style of singing out there. And those who use them will still be musicians even if we have never heard or imagined that music can be made this way.