At the small, regional university where I teach, it is common for incoming instrumentalist music majors’ entire previous musical experience to be limited to junior high and high school band. Few have had private instruction prior to entering college. (Although this has obvious disadvantages, I’m not complaining: our program isn’t trying to position itself as a highly-selective conservatory, and our new students generally arrive eager to learn.)
One thing that seems to surprise some prospective students is that we have different views about what I consider “auxiliary” instruments. For example, it’s common for prospects to identify themselves as bass clarinetists, or as tenor saxophonists. Some of these students have never even attempted to play a B-flat clarinet or an alto saxophone, and sometimes show little interest in doing so. They started on bass clarinet or tenor or baritone saxophone as beginners in the public school band and haven’t played anything else.
At the university, I don’t have bass clarinet “majors” or tenor saxophone “majors,” but neither do I have majors in B-flat clarinet or in alto saxophone. I do have majors in clarinet or in saxophone—that is to say, majors in the whole clarinet family or the whole saxophone family.
Since most of my students don’t have prior exposure to serious solo pieces and are taking a less-performance-heavy degree path like our major in music education, I like to focus on core repertoire. For clarinetists, that means probably 95% B-flat clarinet repertoire, perhaps with a few pieces for A clarinet done on a borrowed school instrument or played in a transposed arrangement. The idea of a “primary” member of the saxophone family is a little sketchier, even for classical study, but certainly a large majority of the central repertoire calls for the alto. For a student who has a strong affinity for an auxiliary instrument, I am happy to make sure they get to do a little extra solo repertoire or ensemble participation on that instrument, but at this point it doesn’t make sense to me take them through a four-year degree playing, say, nothing but bass clarinet.
A large fraction of our student population is made up of first-generation college students, and many depend heavily on financial aid and part-time jobs to meet tuition and housing costs, so blithely “requiring” them to buy professional-quality instruments immediately upon matriculation generally isn’t a feasible solution. And I obviously can’t expect high school band directors to steer all their students toward “primary” instruments in the event that they decide to study music in college. Ideally, those students would all be taking lessons while in high school, and those teachers would prep them on what to expect, but that isn’t a reality in this area.
It’s tempting to draw a hard line—nobody blinks when a professor at a top music school insists that his or her students meet specific equipment requirements—but certain of my students genuinely cannot afford to buy another instrument within the timeframe of college acceptance to college graduation. The university serves an almost exclusively regional student population, and is generally more focused on boosting enrolments than on tightening down selectivity.
At this point I don’t have a great solution to this problem. I try to make sure that prospective students understand the situation as early as possible and encourage them to start saving. I tell them that I can work with them now or after they arrive on campus to help them find a good deal on an acceptable instrument. I try to spread the word to high school band directors so that they can start dropping hints to students who seem bound for college-level music study.
I welcome some discussion on this. Am I old-fashioned to expect my saxophone majors to play mostly alto and my clarinet majors to play mostly B-flat, especially if they are headed for public-school band directing instead of performance? How firmly can/should I insist? Are there ways to better serve and accommodate (but also educate and challenge) college music majors who see themselves as “bass clarinetists?”