Peter Hilliard on contracting woodwind doublers

Photo, danifeb

Peter Hilliard has a nice blog, Music Directing the School Musical. It doesn’t offer any information about who Peter Hilliard is (presumably this guy), not even contact information*. But he does seem to know a thing or two about putting on a musical, and, in a recent post, offers some advice about hiring musicians. Here’s a little of what he has to say about hiring woodwind players—I do suggest reading the whole thing.

The actual numbers (Reed I, Reed II, etc.) vary widely from show to show, but if you look through your books, you’ll see the following is generally true:

There is a book (usually Reed I) that looks like this: Flute and Piccolo normally, sometimes Clarinet, Soprano and/or Alto Sax. Normally this book is very flute heavy. In old shows, sometimes it’s only flute, with no doubling. Hire somebody with a good flute embouchure, not a clarinet or sax player who plays flute with an airy tone. Have the guy who dabbles on flute play the book with all the second or 3rd flute parts. For some reason, the alto flute got really popular from the 70s through the 80s, but beware. 1) you’ll never hear it. 2) You’ll never find one! I swear, I called every instrument rental house in Philadelphia and South Jersey for a show recently and nobody had one. 3) your player will pass out from too little oxygen to the brain.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a musical director volunteer to round up instruments for me—I need to work for this guy! By the way, keep that alto flute embouchure focused to avoid passing out, and make sure you’re playing right into the mic so the sound crew has something to work with. Continue reading “Peter Hilliard on contracting woodwind doublers”

Flexible EWI fingerings

With traditional woodwind instruments, the fingers work together to change the effective length of the instrument’s body tube by opening and closing toneholes. Woodwind fingerings at their most basic use the fingers in sequence. For example, a certain note might be produced with an “open” fingering (all toneholes open). When the “first” finger (the one closest to the mouthpiece) closes a hole, the pitch drops, perhaps by a whole step. Adding the next farther finger drops the pitch again, and so on toward the bell end of the instrument.

“Forked” fingerings, in which a lower tonehole is closed while one above it is open, often produce somewhat inferior results—notes that are mismatched in timbre and/or intonation. (Some modern woodwinds use special mechanisms to correct for this, such as the F resonance mechanism on a high-quality oboe.)

An electronic woodwind-style instrument, such as the Akai EWI series, uses a fingering system that is designed to be similar to a traditional woodwind, so that a traditional woodwind player can easily adapt to it. But this is an arbitrary choice. Since the instrument’s tone production system uses electronic circuitry and software, rather than a vibrating air column, the fingering system don’t necessarily have to use the fingers in sequence, and forked fingerings don’t have any inherent problems. The fingerings can be invented completely from scratch, with no acoustical limitations.

EWI fingerings are designed to draw upon the best of both worlds—the familiarity of traditional woodwind fingerings, and the flexibility of a non-acoustical fingering system.

Note that the current-model EWI4000s, using version 2.4 of the operating system, includes several fingering modes. The mode I am considering here is the “EWI” mode, as the “flute,” “oboe,” and “saxophone” modes sacrifice some flexibility for the sake of increased familiarity to traditional woodwind players. You might consider this article to be subtitled, “Why you should be using the ‘EWI’ fingering mode.”

The current manual (“revision D”) shows a mere 17 fingerings in its EWI mode fingering chart (11 chromatic pitches, with B-flat through D having fingerings in two octaves, and B-flat having one additional alternate fingering). But many, many more are possible.

We can consider the individual EWI keys as having individual functions, rather than being inherently interdependent. For example, pressing none of the keys produces a C-sharp:


Adding any key will alter the C-sharp pitch by a given amount:

key pitch change
(in semitones)
LH 1 -2
LH bis -1 If both LH 1 and LH 2 are pressed, LH bis has no effect
LH 2 -2 If LH 1 is not pressed, LH2 produces -1 (this makes LH middle finger C possible)
LH 3 -2
LH pinky 1 +1
LH pinky 2 -1
RH side +1 No effect when used in combination with LH pinky 1
RH 1 -2 If LH 3 is not pressed, RH1 produces -1 (this makes 1 + 1 B-flat possible)
RH 2 -1
RH 3 -2
RH pinky 1 +1
RH pinky 2 -1
RH pinky 3 -2

If I press LH 1, LH 2, and LH 3, the pitch is lowered from C-sharp by a total of 6 semitones, producing the G fingering familiar to saxophonists, oboists, flutists, and clarinetists.

But that is only one possible combination. I could also produce a G with, for example, LH 1, LH 2, and RH 3. Or LH 3, LH pinky 2, RH 1, and RH pinky 2. These fingerings would be extremely unlikely to work on a traditional woodwind, but with the EWI the possibilities are wide open. As long as the total pitch change adds up to -6 (and accounting for any of the listed exceptions), you get a G.

Standard G fingering.(LH 1 + LH 2 + LH 3) = (-2 + -2 + -2) = -6 = G One alternative G fingering.(LH 1 + LH 2 + RH 3) = (-2 + -2 + -2) = -6 = G Another alternative G.(LH 3 + LH pinky 2 + RH 1 + RH pinky 2) = (-2 + -1 + -2 + -1) = -6 = G

These examples are illustrative but likely have few real-world applications. For a more practical example, consider trills, which among traditional woodwind players are a subject of endless discussion and books upon books of awkward, complicated fingerings. An ideal trill fingering involves moving only one finger, preferably one that can be moved in a rapid, controlled, non-awkward way. Continue reading for a musical example and sound clip →

Still going strong: Seymour “Red” Press

The Theater Development Fund‘s Stages blog has a nice little story on Seymour “Red” Press, a veteran Broadway woodwind doubler and contractor and an alumnus of Benny Goodman’s band.

The cast of Chicago changes frequently, but if you listen to the orchestra behind the actors, then you’ll hear the same man night after night.

Woodwinds player Seymour “Red” Press has been in the orchestra of the long-running Broadway revival since it opened in 1996, and that’s just part of a career that spans over fifty years and 100 shows. He’s played everything from Pippin to Meet Me in St. Louis to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, not to mention the original production of Chicago.

Read the whole thing here, and see a photo of Mr. Press in his natural habitat.

This thread at the Clarinet BBoard brought the story to my attention, and has some nice comments from some of Mr. Press’s colleagues and admirers.

Quick review: Bo-Pep Flute Finger Rest

I’ve been working on my Taffanel and Gaubert this summer to shore up some aspects of my flute technique. The very methodical, repetitive nature of those etudes made me aware of some tension in my left hand. My hands are fairly large, and my hand was tending to collapse inward somewhat.

For less than $8, I decided it was worthwhile to try the Bo-Pep Flute Finger Rest, which is designed to help with this problem. It’s a little plastic thing that clips onto the flute’s body, allowing a more open hand position.

It looks like this…

the Bo-Pep Flute Finger Rest Continue reading “Quick review: Bo-Pep Flute Finger Rest”

Petition: Ask the U.S. Congress to support better air travel for musicians

instrument cases
Photo, nobleviola

The American Federation of Musicians, the world’s largest organization promoting the interests of professional musicians, has put its support behind the U.S. Senate’s version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill (S.1451). This bill seeks to overhaul many aspects of air travel, and the official summary includes this text:

(Sec. 713)

Requires an air carrier to permit an air passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument on a passenger aircraft without charge if it can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft or under a passenger seat. Sets forth requirements for the carriage of musical instruments as checked baggage or as occupants of a purchased seat.

The AFM is calling for “all musicians” to sign a petition in support of including the relevant text from the Senate version in the final version of the bill. You can sign the petition at the AFM’s website. Continue reading “Petition: Ask the U.S. Congress to support better air travel for musicians”

Advice on writing for doublers

Manuscript score
Photo, liza31337

I got an interesting question by email last week. I’m reprinting the message here, followed by the suggestions I sent in return (I’ve edited a bit).

Hi Bret,

I’m doing my first arrangement for a musical, which will be an amateur production.

I’m going to be hiring players from amateur/student orchestras (university), or simply people who play well enough to take on the parts. I don’t think at this time I will be able to have more than 3 wind players.

One wind player has advised (from their experience as a musician) not to expect a player at this level to be able to play both a single and double reed instrument. Is it common for this to be the case, in your own experience? Is there any doubling of a mix of certain double and single-reeds instruments that’s even commonplace amongst ‘amateur’ players?

Do you have any recommendations of how to group the players, in terms of if I only have 3 available, and they are ‘amateur’ (but still ‘good’) level?

I had a look at the reed books on this site, but had to bear in mind that when putting on professional productions, you’re more likely to find players who can switch between a wider range of instruments. Any tips you can provide would be greatly appreciated.


Thanks for stopping by my website and for taking the time to write. This is a great question with, I’m afraid, no great answers.

Woodwind doublers, like most commodities, are most easily found in larger cities, but can also pop up in odd places. Depending on where you are located, you may have more or fewer (or none) at your disposal. The best solution, when possible, is to line up your musicians in advance, and write for their strengths. Shows on Broadway are sometimes written this way.

Assuming that you can’t do that, you may have to hedge your bets somewhat. You might, for example, do something like this:

Reed 1: Piccolo, flute, clarinet [optional]

Reed 2: Flute [optional], clarinet, soprano saxophone [optional]

Reed 3: Bassoon, clarinet [optional]

In this case, the parts could be played by a flutist, a clarinetist, and a bassoonist. The optional parts could be notated on ossia lines for the “primary” instruments, or omitted according to your instructions. All of these books include clarinet writing, but you would want to put the important solos and the lead clarinet parts in book 2; likewise the Reed 2 flute parts would be harmony parts to Reed 1’s lead. Continue reading “Advice on writing for doublers”

B-flat and A clarinets: redundant?

I wrote this a few years back for a graduate school course. The professor, not a wind player, raised the question of why I limited the discussion to clarinets in B-flat and A, and ignored, for example, the C clarinet. The reason for this, which may not be obvious to a non-clarinetist, is that the B-flat and A instruments use the same mouthpieces, reeds, and sometimes even barrels. Since other sizes of clarinet require their own mouthpieces and reeds, there is a clearer separation between these instruments.

Photo, Ollie Crafoord

Alert concertgoers will be aware that the orchestral clarinetist is often seen on stage with not one, but two clarinets, which appear to be nearly identical. These are clarinets in the keys of B-flat and A, and, in truth, they very nearly are the same—identical in keywork and playing approach. The difference is one of an inch or so in length, giving the A clarinet a range that is deeper by one semitone.

It seems a redundancy to have two instruments so close in range. The ubiquity of the B-flat and A clarinets is a vestige of the clarinet’s early days, when its simpler keywork made it poorly suited to playing in more than a handful of keys; early clarinetists owned several instruments of different transpositions so that they could play in whatever key was required. But the modern instrument has a more involved mechanism that allows much more chromatic agility. The problem that remains is that the clarinet has accumulated two hundred and fifty years of repertoire, some of which calls for the instrument in B-flat, some of which calls for the instrument in A, and even some that calls for a little of each. Continue reading “B-flat and A clarinets: redundant?”