Auxiliary instruments and college study

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.

photo, Carst van der Molen
photo, Carst van der Molen

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?”


3 responses to “Auxiliary instruments and college study”

  1. Steven Hugley Avatar
    Steven Hugley

    I do not see a problem with it. It is practical. I am not a fan of public schools starting bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, etc. I want my young woodwind students to play as technically demanding young literature as soon as possible. I can understand switching a student to one of those instruments if I am low on trombones, tubas, or baritones but I find it better for my young players to play clarinet or saxophone parts not tuba parts transcribe for a low woodwind instrument. Personal teaching approach I guess.

  2. Brenna Hoffman Avatar
    Brenna Hoffman

    I consider myself a bass clarinetist and there are many reasons why I defend my title. I am going into my senior year of high school and I own a Pro Buffet prestige bass clarinet with a low C. Cost me more that 10k. I’ve been playing bass clarinet since 5th grade. I’ve made it into county band every year since 7th grade (yes I auditioned) and district band since 10th(yes I auditioned and this was the youngest my school lets kids audition) I’ve also been part of several college honors bands. So I’ve had many years experience playing solo rep on bass. I am currently looking for colleges that will let me major on bass. I want to go for music education *gasp*. Well just hear me out. From years of working my butt off and practicing almost every day for hours at a time (yes I am REALLY good) I developed tendinitis and carpal tunnel in my right hand and wrist. My pinky is now deformed and when I go to play Bb clarinet this prevents my ring finger from covering its hole. My doctor says I will never regain the kind of motion in my hand to be able to do so. However the bass clarinet doesn’t have holes which means I can play perfectly fine. So my question is if I want to be a music teacher why can’t I just show my kids how to play the clarinet by using my bass? I have the technical ability to do so. Range isn’t an issue for me so why is that an issue? There is nothing preventing me from properly teaching anyone how to play the Bb clarinet, even if I can’t pick one up and play it for myself. So why should I be forced to give up my dream of becoming a music teacher even though I can play the bass clarinet just as well as our principle Bb player can play her instrument?

    P.S. Five schools agreed to take me on as a bass clarinet major even before they knew about my hand. They based their opinion of me on my abilities and my personality and willingness to work. Two more schools agreed after learning about my hand. All seven of these schools and I have come to the agreement that I will play any form of the clarinet that I physically can in addition to the bass.

    One school however denied me as a bass major. They then offered me a scholarship of $5,000 and a professional instrument (for me to keep)…. If I agreed to be a bassoon major. I’ve touched one once. Needless to say I denied their offer ;)

  3. Larry Weintraub Avatar
    Larry Weintraub

    SOme people just are not built to play the smaller instrs or the larger instrs. I consider myself a tenor sax player. It fits my body very well and I can sing every note on the horn. However I also play alto although it feels small on me and sometimes cramps me. I played bari sometimes in the service and like it very much but I cannot sing the really ow notes. However I liked the finger spacing on bari.
    All this being said I own the sound on all three horns tenor, alto and bari. It is just a matter of what is the most comfortable and which one I like the most. The answer is tenor sax.
    Clarinet: yes at one time before I lost feeling on my right hand I really enjoyed playing clarinet. It was my 1st instr. I played clarinet in Concert Band, Musical Shows, ceremonial band and Dixie Bands. I really liked it and I am kind of bummed that it is very hard for me to play now due to the loss of feeling in my RH.
    Bass Clarinet: Love the sound. I also played this in service bands. Being a tenor/clarinet player actually helped me out. The embouchure felt closer to tenor sax but the technique was all clarinet. Having closed or mostly closed holes made it easier to play. I had a Buffet Presitge Bass Calrinet down to ow C. Really great horn however the service would not let me keep it or the bari sax they lent me.
    Technical stuff can be played on soprano, alto, tenor and bari saxws. Also on clarinet and bass clarinet too. If a person wants to play tenor as their major, let them. That was my major sax. I would encourage a bass calrinet student to also learn regular Bb clarinet too mostly because of the music written for it.

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