Ask yourself these questions before becoming a woodwind doubler

For me, there was a point in my education and career when I decided that I was a woodwind doubler, or at least that I was going to be one. Prior to that decision, I had really identified as a saxophonist, or maybe a saxophonist who doubled a little on the side.

If you are thinking that serious woodwind doubling—committing to playing several instruments at the highest possible level—might be your thing, then I suggest you ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I willing to commit major practice time to each instrument?
  • Am I willing to accept a slower rate of improvement and/or more extensive practice routine than I would if I remained committed to a single instrument?
  • Am I willing to sacrifice or at least postpone some high-level performance goals on my primary instrument in order to devote time to my secondary instruments?
  • Do I have the resources and/or financial discipline to accumulate the necessary high-quality instruments and other equipment?
  • Do I have the guts to perform on instruments that aren’t my strongest one(s)?
  • Am I genuinely interested in and motivated by each of the instruments I intend to play?
Photo, stonelucifer
Photo, stonelucifer

If you answered “no” to one or more, then you might be happier and more successful maintaining a single “primary” instrument, and taking a more casual approach to doubling. Or you may not have fully come to terms yet with the realities of woodwind doubling. Playing any one instrument well requires non-trivial investment of time and money, and very little of that can be truly recycled for a second instrument: if it takes you 10,000 practice hours to achieve your goals on your first instrument, expect to take another 10,000 to achieve the same goals on another.

There are of course many advantages to woodwind doubling, which I won’t rehash in depth here other than to list a few: more and/or different employment opportunities, expanded musical experiences, and, for some, great fun. But it’s not for everyone (probably not for most people). If your answer is “yes” to each of the questions above, then carve out some extra practice time, start saving your pennies, and clear your calendar for some new opportunities.


6 responses to “Ask yourself these questions before becoming a woodwind doubler”

  1. Syd Polk Avatar
    Syd Polk

    For me, doubling allows me to play more and different styles of music. Being primarily a sax player (and a baritone sax player at that) pretty much pegs me as a jazz player. I love being a jazz player, but I love all kinds of music. Playing flute, clarinet, and bassoon has allowed me to play much more classical music, and allows me to play musicals, which I love. And I have discovered that I have a real passion for flute, which, considering how hard it was to get started on in high school, is a major revelation.

    I also have an electric bass. I am terrible at it, but I am trying to learn rock-and-roll material on it.

  2. Great advice. I think making the time to take on another instrument is a tough choice – you either have to double the amount of time you spend practicing or sacrifice some of the practice time on your main instrument.

  3. Steven Hugley Avatar
    Steven Hugley

    Good stuff. When I started doubling it was out of necessity from the university ensembles. The problem I was having with practice time was that I didn’t have good solid fundamentals on my secondary instruments. So I was having to practice fundamentals and struggle through my ensemble music. It was trial by fire. I would change some things of how I started but not that I started. It was one of the best musical decisions of my life.

  4. Geoff Allen Avatar
    Geoff Allen

    For me, the last 2 are the big ones. My interest is in the different tone colors each instrument is capable of. (We woodwind players don’t have the luxury of just sticking different mutes in our instrument to get different timbres.)

    And yes, you definitely have to have guts to play a not-so-strong instrument publicly.

  5. Andrea McKerlie Avatar
    Andrea McKerlie

    I am a beginning doubler (meaning I have been playing flute for 12 years, clarinet for a year and a half and just got myself an alto sax yesterday!) and have just started exploring your site! I came upon this list and found it incredibly insightful. I think the hardest part for me is going to be allowing myself to practice the new instruments and accept that I am at different levels with them than my flute playing. It is also hard to practice the same way, because I still feel like I am “playing” with them as new toys, rather than practicing with discipline.

  6. Neil Clayton Avatar
    Neil Clayton

    I’ve played the flute as an amateur for about 40 years now and took up a second instrument (voice – I am a baritone) about 15 years ago. Voice is now my main instrument but for my 50th birthday my wife gave me an EWI (Akai 4000S) which I am struggling to find the time to get up to performance standard on — its all about finding the time to practice. Also fingers no longer move with the speed and precision they once did and the EWI is pretty unforgiving with regard to slack finger timing! And yes agreeing to play in public when you know you are not as good as on your other instruments is ‘challenging’ in many ways…

    But for me the most important thing to take away from the experience is the benefit of having regular lessons. They keep you honest, make you find the time for practise (well for me anyway— maybe its because when you have done some teaching you realise that it is all too obvious when a pupil turns up who hasn’t done any practice between one lesson and the next). I don’t have anyone I am studying the EWI with and it is far too easy to de-prioritise practice and then never make the progress with it that you hoped for.

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