Students and gig pay

Over a year ago I wrote about responding to free or underpaid gig “offers.” A commenter asked a fair question, which has haunted me since:

I was wondering how much of this still applies when taking on gigs as a student.

I’ve wrestled with this a bit and I’m not sure I have a real answer, but I do have some thoughts. (As usual, I’m talking here about markets that don’t benefit from a strong union presence, such as most of the USA.)

For someone hiring musicians for a gig, I don’t see a good reason to consider student status at all. You should hire musicians who can do the job, and should pay them fairly. If they are students, what does that have to do with anything?

photo, Ryan Hyde

But the Right Thing to Do seems a little less clear from the student perspective. In a situation where someone is attempting to treat student musicians (or anyone) in an exploitative way, the options are to accept, to attempt to negotiate better terms, or to refuse the gig. The problem is that freelance careers depend heavily on word-of-mouth recommendations, and being “easy to work with” is a prized quality. A student musician trying to get a foothold in the business could hurt his or her cause by complaining about unfair pay, or by staying home instead of playing.

Student musicians have to find the best balance they can between advocating for fair treatment and going with the flow. It’s not reasonable for the least-experienced musicians to have to navigate such a complicated thing with their careers hanging in the balance, but it’s the way things are.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself if you’re a student musician and think you’re being undervalued in the professional freelance marketplace:

  • Who else is on the gig? Would this be a genuine opportunity to make some connections and let some other musicians hear what you can do? Are those musicians the kind who might be able to offer you future opportunities in the near term, or are they others who don’t have much of a career yet?
  • Do you have peers who have taken this gig in the past? Did it pay off in terms of “exposure” or future gigs?
  • Is the experience something that would look good on your word-of-mouth “résumé,” or would it be kind of an embarrassment?
  • Do you have a trusted friend or mentor who is more established in the business, who can advise you on this specific situation? The music world is a small one, and someone who knows the local freelance scene might be able to offer some background.

Be careful of talking yourself into free or below-market gigs because you “just want to play.” That kind of attitude serves you well in school, but not so well when you’re trying to make a living, and it drags down other musicians’ ability to make fair money and pay their bills.

A parting thought: I certainly did some free and underpaid gigs as a student, and in some cases that may have opened doors to better opportunities. (It’s hard to connect the dots definitively.) But I think those of us who are established as freelancers should be careful about treating unfairness as a “paying dues” rite of passage. Shouldn’t we be using our success to make things better for the next generation of musicians?

Interview: bassoonist and inventor Trent Jacobs

Last summer I finally got myself a Little-Jake setup so I could experiment with some electric bassoon playing. The inventor of the Little-Jake, Trent Jacobs, is a performer, educator, and reedmaker, and I’ve linked to his blog posts on a number of occasions.

Trent was kind enough to answer a few questions about himself and about the Little-Jake.


Tell us in a nutshell about yourself and your career.

I have a bachelor of music degree from the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music, and Masters and DMA degrees from the University of Illinois. My primary teachers were Monte Perkins and Timothy McGovern. I moved to Minneapolis in 2009 where I started work at Midwest Musical Imports, and began freelancing and teaching as much as I could around the full time job. In about 2010 I started making reeds commercially under the Weasel Reeds brand, which grew significantly over the years. I started teaching bassoon and music theory at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire in fall of 2015 and left MMI shortly after. I now teach there and in my studio in Minneapolis, continue with the reed making business, help in raising my two children (which includes Suzuki violin lessons), and freelance when I’m able.

What is the “Little-Jake?”

The Little-Jake is a small and inexpensive wind instrument pickup, designed to mount directly to the bocal of the bassoon or similar location on other woodwinds. It gets the name from a nickname I had when I was a little boy. My fathers friends called him “Jake” as short for Jacobs so when I was around I was “little Jake” while he was “big Jake.”

What was the impetus for creating it?

In about 2005 while I was working on my DMA, I started working out that my thesis/project would be somehow related to jazz bassoon. Years prior I was a pretty competent jazz guitarist, but didn’t ever translate that to bassoon much, and never improvised on bassoon until then. So when pursuing jazz bassoon in all facets I encountered (again) the music of Paul Hanson, and his electric bassoon playing.

If you know anything about Paul’s setup at that time, you’ll know he was using a pickup that was no longer being made or serviced by the inventor, and was an unusual piece of gear with odd technical requirements. The only thing on the market available to anyone else was actually a control booth earpiece that functioned as a microphone well enough when fit to a bocal (the Telex pickup).

I was curious about it and happened to have a third-hand connection with Mark Ortwein at the time, and I knew he had a Telex setup which he let me borrow. It worked, but I was rather unimpressed with the sound quality I could get through my guitar amp and pedals, so I set out to make something I liked better. Quite a few dozen experimental pieces later I had a prototype I was close to happy with, that worked with the Telex fitting.

What kind of background or skills did you have that made it possible?

It’s rather embarrassing to say, but the first skill needed in making something like this is soldering, which I learned by modifying gaming consoles to play homebrew software. I had learned to do that with some tutorial videos on the internet and had made a few small electronics projects so I had some idea what I was doing. I also got some help from the guy that makes the Altoids box preamps that are now commonly bundled with the Little Jake in the technical aspects of circuit building.

Most of the construction of them isn’t all that different from bassoon reed making in my mind. Small pieces have to be fit together in a precise way, it’s just that the tools and pieces are a bit different. The hardest thing in the early days was getting a good connection with the existing Telex pickup bocal adapter being made by Forrests Music. I was fortunate enough to have a colleague in the bassoon studio at the University of Illinois who was an architecture major and had access to CAD and acrylic laser cutting machines. He helped me prototype and get working pieces to allow for a solid connection.

Eventually I switched everything over to a threaded/screw adapter like what Paul Hanson was using with his FRAP pickups, so he could use my pickups with his existing equipment. That is the only way I make the pickups now.

What instruments are people using the Little Jake with? Are there others that it theoretically would work with?

I’ve seen them used on clarinet and saxophone, although not too much. Nearly any woodwind instrument is possible, as long as the player is willing to drill a hole where it’s needed. Clarinet is best done in the barrel, which is easy. Saxophone could use the mouthpiece but the neck is better, similar to the bocal mount for the bassoon. English horn could be done on the bocal but it’s fine work and I don’t know of anyone that’s actually gone there.

Flute is the one that’s not really necessary, as there are plenty of high quality microphone systems for flute that would be ultimately superior to the sound you could get with the Little Jake anyway, but there is a way to modify a Little Jake and a headjoint of a flute to make it work together. A lot of work and the sound wouldn’t be as good as a commercially available flute mic at the lip plate anyway.

Oboe is the toughest sell: you have to drill a hole at about where the third octave key is on the top joint. Most oboists aren’t willing to sacrifice a top joint to electrify the oboe, so I don’t think it’s been done. Paul McCandless has done it in the past with a FRAP, but I don’t think anyone else ever has.

I’m sure there are non-western instruments that it’d work with as well, as long as there’s a place to drill the hole.

Have you seen any uses of the Little Jake that you found especially surprising?

I’m just always surprised when I find a bassoonist using it and enjoying it in a rock band setting. I’ve had people send me recordings over the years and it’s pretty cool to see something you’ve created being used in contexts you wouldn’t yourself be in. I was blown away when I discovered a band in Iceland that had a bassoonist using a Little Jake.

Obviously using a Little Jake opens up a whole rabbit hole of new gear to buy, but what is a good minimum setup that, say, a bassoonist needs just to try out some electric playing?

The amp is the most important second piece of equipment. The goal of using a pickup with a bassoon is to get the sound space into a place that can be heard even when there are drums involved. When putting together a guitar rig, as an example, the guitar is only half of the sound; the other half of the sound is the amplifier. Ask any guitar player, the amp is absolutely critical when getting the tone you want. All the pedals and stuff you can put between the instrument and amp are just extras. So it’s really important to get an amp that gets you the sound you want at a volume appropriate for what you’re doing. I’ve settled on a really high end acoustic guitar amp, but in the past I’ve used bass guitar amps, powered PA speakers, and guitar amplifiers. It all depends on what kind of sound you want. You can get a good amp used for $100 or less.

For someone who already has that minimum setup, what are the next few things to consider buying?

If you don’t know anything about effects pedals, one of the simple and small multi-effect units for guitar or bass guitar are a good starting point. You can experiment with lots of different types of effects and decide what you like to use before investing in more specialized gear. Those multi-effect units can sometimes be found for $50 if you get a good Craigslist deal.

If you know what kinds of effects you like, you can get dedicated pedals that do that one thing really well. I find that a lot of things respond differently to bassoon than to electric guitar (which is what these things are designed for) so you really have to try things out before you spend the money. It’s always fun to take your bassoon out in a guitar store and start playing through pedals. The people in those shops love it! I also really highly suggest effects units designed with vocalists in mind. A voice or wind instrument is more similar to a bassoon than an electric guitar is. I personally use a lot of pitch shifting effects, modulation effects (phaser, chorus, etc.), and time based effects like delay/echo and reverb. I don’t really use distortion all that much unless I’m really trying to sound like another guitar player in the same band. The other thing that’s always sure to turn heads is an Envelope Filter (sometimes called auto-wah but that’s not really correct). That’s the effect that makes your instrument have that “quack” or “wah” sound when you articulate.

What surprises or challenges do people run into when electrifying their instruments for the first time?

Feedback is probably the biggest issue with amplifying an acoustic instrument. Feedback is where the sound from the amplifier or speaker is picked up by the microphone, which creates an audio loop that quickly becomes very loud and usually very high pitched. Acoustic instruments have more problems with this because they themselves are a bit of an amplifying chamber that can pick up the sound of the speakers. You have to learn what effects and volume levels will create that feedback with your own setups and be ready with a plan to control them (be always close to a volume knob that you can zero out if it gets really bad).

Do you have any favorite bassoon- (or woodwind-) playing tips?

Don’t play on crap reeds. Life is too short. Practice your damned scales and long tones. Take good care of your equipment: regular instrument maintenance with a specialist on that instrument, store things properly, clean them regularly, buy appropriate cases or covers or whatever to keep things protected. Don’t swing stuff around carelessly. Swab your horn. Especially in my years at MMI I was frequently amazed at how poorly some people, even professionals, took care of their gear. If you’re playing a bassoon at a night club you’d best know that you have the single most expensive piece of equipment in the band probably, and nobody knows it or cares, so watch out for your own stuff.

Would you like to share anything about your recent medical history?

In May of 2017 I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. I underwent 9 weeks of chemotherapy and in early November had surgery to remove the tumor, which involved also removing my entire stomach and a portion of my esophagus. I finished 9 more weeks of chemotherapy after the surgery and have started playing again, but I still have a long road to recovery and learning to live without a stomach. I have started teaching and working again and so far things are looking good for my healing. We will do regular scans and hopefully find nothing.

I found that some side effects of chemo prevented me from making reeds as much as I was used to, and generally being fatigued kept me from playing as much as I wanted. I obviously had to turn down quite a few calls for gigs. I’m fortunate to have a good health insurance plan through my university and have some of the best doctors in the world working on me, so while my income has suffered I have a good safety net. I expect to be in full production of bassoon reeds again in the spring of 2018, so if anyone wants to be notified when I have reeds ready to go again, send a message to me through my website.


Thanks Trent!

Check out a couple of Trent’s performing groups:

And of course his website: Trent Jacobs, bassoonist

Some useful phrases for gig calls

photo, Daniel Grothe

Here are some phrases that have been useful to me when somebody calls about a gig. When dealing with other professionals (or working through the musicians’ union) mostly these aren’t necessary—the caller should give the needed info unprompted. But many of the gigs in my rural area are one-offs for weddings or school or business events, and I’m dealing with callers who don’t regularly hire musicians.

Let me call you back in five minutes.

This has saved me many times. Sometimes I need a moment to think through the money/mileage/scheduling/etc., or to find a polite way to negotiate the terms or just turn the gig down. It’s fine to put the conversation on pause for a moment and prepare your response. (Or, depending on the caller, to pivot the conversation to text messaging, which gives you more time to formulate responses, plus a record of what was said).

Who will be my contact person when I arrive?

I use this one all the time with, for example, brides who are micromanaging the wedding planning (down to calling the saxophone player). If I arrive at the gig and need to know where to set up or collect my check, it’s going to be awkward for everybody if I have to bother the bride with business details On Her Special Day. If necessary, I gently suggest that she put a trusted friend in charge of answering the band’s questions and handing over their payment.

Who is the musical director?

This one is sort of a trick, because if it’s the kind of gig that actually has a musical director, then it’s less important that I know in advance (and, often, it’s the musical director who is offering the gig anyway).

When I really need this one is when a well-meaning non-musician is trying to hire a band piecemeal (“Oh, my cousin is going to play guitar, and this guy I know from church is going to play drums, and my boss’s friend is a piano player…”). Asking this question gives me a chance to drop the hint that somebody needs to be in charge musically. In some cases, I’m able to segue into some friendly advice that they hire an existing professional group, or hire a professional to put together an ensemble.

Just so I’m totally clear, are you offering me a paying gig, or is this more of a volunteer situation?

I do still get calls asking me to donate my time. While I mostly turn those down, I don’t think it’s helpful to be nasty or condescending about it. Phrasing it this particular way gives the caller an easy multiple-choice question to answer without any waffling or weaseling. And when I turn them down, it seems less like I have refused a direct request, and more like I’m just passing up a chance to “volunteer.”

Can I count on $XXX?

Sometimes less-experienced hirers (such as someone hiring for a business or school event) have a budget range in mind, and (foolishly) tell me what that range is (“Well, we can pay between $AAA and $BBB”). The number they are hoping to pay is the smaller one, but I’ve made the mistake before of fixating on the larger one (and being disappointed later). Always nail down an exact fee. I try to get the top end of the range, of course, but make it worthwhile: “Can I count on $BBB? That way I can be sure to get a great keyboard player.” Or: “Can I count on $BBB? Then I can cancel some lessons that week and have time to look over the music in advance.”

If they are hesitant to commit, you can say something like, “Okay, why don’t you call me back as soon as you have an answer, and we can firm things up?”

Is that the base rate, or does that include travel/doubling/etc.?

If the caller really is thinking in terms of base rates, then I probably won’t need to ask this question. But hirers who aren’t tuned in to this are probably counting on me to walk them through the process of hiring me. Asking this question gives me an opening to educate them that it’s appropriate to pay extra for travel time, or for bringing multiple instruments. (A quick web search for “afm wage scale” will give you at least a rough idea of what the union considers fair for doublers.)

Do you have useful phone strategies for lining up gigs (large or small)? Please share in the comments section.

Interview: flutist Tammy Evans Yonce

Flutist Tammy Evans Yonce is an active recitalist, writer, clinician, speaker, contributor to various conferences and professional organizations, and professor at South Dakota State University (plus: she is my former classmate). Her thoughtful blog is a favorite of mine and my regular readers will recall that I have featured her posts on a number of occasions. Her debut CD will be released earlier next year—keep an eye on her website and Twitter for details.

I am always particularly amazed by her brutally busy performance schedule, and she kindly agreed to let me pick her brain about it.

How often do you perform?

I do an annual fall tour, which includes multiple performances and masterclasses. This year it was to Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Sometimes I choose these places because it’s a geographical area I want to explore or because I have friends and collaborators there. This year’s tour included collaborations with some really fantastic friends. I’ve been able to perform in 24 states so far, so that’s been fun.

I always give one on-campus recital each year but also frequently collaborate with colleagues on theirs.

Other performances include festivals, conventions, and such. I like giving 15–20 performances per year.

How do you maintain such a busy performance schedule, on top of teaching full time, having a family, etc.?

It mainly comes down to organization and clearly defined goals. And making consistent progress every day. I work in big six-month chunks, where I have goals listed in a variety of categories (performance, writing, recording, commissions, etc.). Those goals help me organize my day-to-day decisions, and they also allow me to stretch beyond what I think I’m capable of.

I have some general long-term goals but I think the nature of my work (music + academia) means that I can’t anticipate all opportunities that might arise, so I try not to be too rigid about those long-term plans. My upcoming fellowship to Israel came out of left field, for example, so I try to keep my eyes open.

I also have a really supportive husband who carries his share (plus some, probably) at home so I have some flexibility.

How does your performance schedule affect you? What benefits or drawbacks are there to a busy performance calendar?

I enjoy travel and find it invigorating. It helps me to break up my schedule, see new people and places, and be in a different environment, and it certainly helps my teaching. I enjoy collaborating with friends.

Performing frequently has effectively eliminated performance anxiety for me. There’s just not time to be nervous and I have a lot of hours banked actually on the stage. I’ve “practiced” performing so much that I can stay in the moment. Since creation and analysis are completely different processes, if I can stay in the moment I’m not worried about analyzing my performance as it happens.

Being busy might be considered a drawback for some but I feel like the things I do are a worthwhile use of my time. I don’t do things just to have something to do.

How do you maintain balance in your career and life?

I have a couple of trusted people who understand me and my goals that I check in with regularly. We make sure that we’re staying on track. Also, I don’t check work email after 5pm or on the weekends.

Do you have any self-care or stress-reduction practices?

I get regular massages. I used to see this as a luxurious indulgence but being a musician does take a physical toll. I like good food, I travel as much as I can, and I try to work with my friends whenever possible. Finally, I read a lot. I read at least 25 books a year.

You frequently commission new works. How do you connect with and select composers?

Sometimes I’m approached by composers who hear me play and have an idea of something they’d like to write. Other times there are composers I know I’d love to work with, and I approach them. Most of these connections happen either online (Twitter, usually) or at conferences and festivals. Even if I haven’t met a composer, it’s likely that I’ve seen them around online or have mutual friends, so there’s usually a connection.

Generally I work with the composer during the compositional process. We meet via Skype or FaceTime so I can try out their ideas or they send sketches as the piece progresses, so I have a good idea of what the piece is before it’s done. The composers I work with want things to work, so if something is awkward or impractical, we find a solution.

You have done some performing and commissioning with the Glissando Headjoint. How does this play into your career? Is it bringing you opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise? Does it cause you to be pigeonholed?

The Glissando Headjoint has been a lot of fun. I don’t think it has helped or hindered me. I see it as another item in the toolkit I can use to get the musical message across. Since there isn’t much repertoire for it, it has been fascinating to see how composers use it. They are really drawing from their own creativity instead of basing their musical decisions on existing repertoire.

When programming, how do you balance new repertoire with previously-performed works?

Big considerations are the audience, the logistics of the performing venue, and whether or not I have collaborators available.

My recitals have taken a big turn lately and are much more logistically complex. Last month’s recital featured dancers, lines of poetry projected in real time, a lithograph displayed during one piece, multiple collaborators, and a variety of equipment changes. While it was complex, I think it was effective.

I’m already planning next year’s recital, which will involve literature, readings, photographs and other visual art, and several new commissions. Once I get the plans in place, I’ll put more info on my website. I like the impact of a cohesive recital that involves more than just the ears.

Do you have any favorite flute-playing tips?

Practice. You can’t go wrong with lots of etudes and Taffanel and Gaubert.


Thanks, Tammy, for taking the time to answer some questions! Find her at:

Endorsement deals

photo, Sebastien Wiertz

First, let’s be clear about this: in an endorsement deal, the artist endorses the product or brand. The product or brand doesn’t endorse the artist. If an artist claims to be “endorsed by” a company, that is incorrect word usage.

An endorsement deal means that an artist agrees to be publicly associated with a product or brand, presumably because the company thinks that will encourage more people to purchase their products. In return, the artist generally receives some kind of compensation, which often takes the shape of free or discounted products. The contract might specify some requirements for the artist to fulfill, such as having their name and image used in advertising, appearing at the company’s publicity events, or plugging products on social media. Continue reading “Endorsement deals”

Interview: Jonathan Tunick, Broadway orchestrator and more

Jonathan Tunick is a show business legend: a composer/arranger/orchestrator/musical director for stage and screen; a collaborator with Stephen Sondheim, Placido Domingo, Barbra Streisand, and too many more to mention; and a winner of many awards.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear from Mr. Tunick a few years ago, when he contributed some information to my list of Broadway shows. Recently we were in touch again and he was kind enough to answer some of my woodwind-player questions about his work.

Jonathan Tunick

I understand you have background in clarinet playing. Are you still actively playing?

Although I can play the piano after a fashion, the clarinet was my true instrument. My uncle, a dedicated amateur who studied with Bellison, started me on the instrument at age ten, turning me over after a few months to Harold Freeman of the NBC Symphony, with whom I studied for several years. As a college freshman I had a year of saxophone lessons with Jimmy Abato, who gave me a few clarinet lessons as well. Later when I entered Juilliard I studied (mostly clarinet, but some saxophone too) with Joe Allard, a wonderful man and teacher, for four years. I consider him my principal teacher.

I was a fair classical clarinet player, played bass clarinet in the Juilliard Orchestra, and could play either lead or jazz in a band. My flute (Haynes, Louis Lot piccolo) playing was mediocre but passable. I freelanced in New York playing orchestra, opera, dance band, theater, resort and club dates through the sixties until my arranging career superseded my playing and my horns went into the closet.

A few years ago I started playing the clarinet again; chamber music with friends and fronting a 14-piece swing band made up of Broadway musicians around New York. I play a 1959 Buffet clarinet picked out for me by Joe Allard, and alternate between a Selmer Table HS** c.1938 and a Leon Russianoff c.1950 mouthpiece (these are Chedeville blanks faced by George Jenney) with Vandoren #4 and #5 reeds from my stash still in their sealed boxes since the 1960s.

Does your background as a woodwind player inform your orchestrations? How so?

More so as an orchestral and big-band section player in general than specifically as a woodwind player. The orchestra player learns to understand the principles of intonation, attack, articulation, sound color, and balance in a way that the pianist never can. The pianist will tend to hear chords vertically and so stack notes on the score rather than considering the movement of the parts. He or she will be tempted to write for orchestral instruments patterns that are comfortable for the piano, for example, repeated wide skips, which may be awkward for woodwind and other orchestral instruments.

This is why most of the great arrangers have been orchestra players rather than pianists. This said, it must be noted that the exceptions are dramatic ones: Wagner, Debussy, Strauss, Mahler, Ellington, Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Ralph Burns, etc.

What factors do you have to consider when writing parts for woodwind doublers? Do you have any rules of “thumb” about how long of a player will need for an instrument switch, or which instruments can go together in a book, or other logistical issues?

When planning an instrument change (and I try to avoid them altogether whenever possible) I simply count out the bars of rest in tempo while mentally going through the motion of changing instruments. Four bars of moderate tempo, six or eight of fast are usually enough.

I usually organize my sections somewhat along the following pattern, although many variations are possible

  1. (The “lead” chair and “flute specialist”) Lead alto, flute 1, piccolo, alto flute, clarinet 1 or 3. Will usually play 1st clarinet unless busy on flute, in which case reed 2 or 3 will be clarinet 1.
  2. (The “second” chair) Alto 2, flute 2, piccolo, clarinet 2.
  3. (The “clarinet specialist) Tenor, flute 3, clarinet 3 or 1, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet.
  4. (The “oboe specialist”) Tenor, oboe, English horn, clarinet 4.
  5. (The bassoon and “big horns” specialist) Baritone, bassoon, clarinet 5, bass clarinet.

If you eliminate the saxophones, a pattern more suited to operetta or classical players emerges:

  1. Flute, piccolo (optional clarinet double)
  2. Clarinet 1 (optional other clarinets and flute 2 double)
  3. Clarinet 2 (optional other clarinets and flute 3 double)
  4. Oboe, English horn (optional clarinet double)
  5. Bassoon (optional clarinet, bass clarinet, flute double)

Here is a good plan for four reeds, with or without saxophones:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute 1, piccolo, clarinet 1 or 2
  2. Alto saxophone, flute 2, clarinet 1 or 2, bass clarinet (this might be on reed 4)
  3. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet
  4. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet (this might be on reed 2)

Phil Lang used a very versatile layout again with or without saxophones:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute 1, piccolo, clarinet 2 or 1
  2. Alto saxophone, clarinet 1, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet
  3. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet 3
  4. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, flute 2, clarinet 4

As bands become smaller, requirements become more stringent. Here is a typical format for three reeds:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute, piccolo, clarinet
  2. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet (much greater clarinet ability required of this player than with 5 or even 4 reeds)
  3. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet

If the score doesn’t require saxophones, The above formats work equally well without them; otherwise I try to do without doubles altogether, such as A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE, scored for 1. Oboe/English horn 2. B-flat/A clarinet and 3. bassoon, or INTO THE WOODS: 1. Flute/piccolo 2. Clarinet 3. Bassoon. This way I have a larger pool of accomplished players to choose from, especially out of town.

Do you often orchestrate for a Broadway-type woodwind section with specific doublers in mind, knowing their individual strengths, or do you more often write for musicians to be selected later? How much does that affect your writing?

I know my players well, and write to their particular abilities. Hiring a section is much like casting a show. I think of my players as specialists; the “flute specialist,” “oboe specialist,” “bassoon and big horns specialist,” etc., as well as the occasional need for a stylist: jazz, ethnic, etc. I assign solos according to the specialties. For example, the clarinet solo will not usually go to the oboe or bassoon specialist. When working out of town with an unfamiliar orchestra I am even more careful, avoiding unusual doubles altogether, even when assured by the contractor that he has people that “play all the instruments.” I remember all too well the guy who played bassoon, bass clarinet and baritone and they all sounded the same!

It seems that over the last few decades, woodwind sections for musicals have gotten smaller and smaller but also call for more and more instruments, including “world” instruments and other things. Is this true in your orchestrations?

In general, no. I use no more doubles than I ever did, and in most cases fewer. I want the player who plays the best, not the one who owns the most horns.

Do you have any advice for woodwind doublers who aspire to play on Broadway or other major venues?

Saxophone players seem not to realize the sheer brute power of this instrument. Three or four of them can swamp any brass section. They are amazed at how incredibly loud the saxes are when I invite one of them to come and listen up front. I’m always on the saxes to play softly, even under loud brass, and to use civilized mouthpieces with medium chambers and baffles.

But remember, this is just me. Other arrangers and leaders will have their own preferences and it’s up to you to find out what they want (very difficult) and do it for them (relatively easy).


Many thanks to Mr. Tunick for sharing his knowledge, and for all the great woodwind parts!

Responding to free or low-paying gigs

Time to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Here are some sample scripts for phone calls or emails about “gigs” that pay nothing, or not enough. (Some inspiration came from Jessica Hische’s online tool for responding to graphic design inquiries.)

A friend wants you to provide music for a wedding, party, etc.

Sounds like a fun event! Thanks for thinking of me. There are a couple of ways we can handle this:

I can treat you like a regular client, with a real but affordable budget. Usually I charge [$XXX] so I can afford the time and expense of putting together a really great [party band/wind quintet/jazz quartet/etc.]. I charge extra for special song requests so I can work out [sheet music/rehearsal time/etc.]. Let me know and I’ll fill you in on the usual details about how and when to make payment. Since you’re [my bestie/my brother-in-law/etc.] you’ll get my top-of-the-line professional treatment plus [some extra love/a 10% discount].

Or, if it works better for you, I could just pick out one song I think you will really like, and it will just be me with my [flute/saxophone/etc.]. I can play it to help make a moment that is extra special, and then I can hang out with you and the gang for the rest of the night. You can just [feed me dinner/give me some free tax advice/call it a wedding gift] and we’ll consider it even.

A non-profit or other good cause wants you to donate musical services for a fundraising event:

Thanks for reaching out. I really respect your cause and what you are trying to accomplish.

Since I do this for a living, I’m sure you understand I have to be careful about giving away my time for free. Do you have a budget for the event that is paying for the [food/waitstaff/venue rental/prizes]? If so, maybe we can come up with an affordable option, like [a duo with me and this great cellist I know]. As a policy I really can’t give away my time when other professionals are being compensated. If everyone involved is 100% donating their services, then I can play for free occasionally for the causes that are most important to me personally, [and I would be happy to help for an hour/but I’ve really already done all the charity work that I can afford lately].

A business or person wants to hire you and can seemingly afford to do so, but has underestimated the cost of your services:

I appreciate the offer and would be interested in figuring out a way that we can make this happen. At this point it sounds like you are working with more of a [DJ/somebody’s-iPhone-plus-a-Bluetooth-speaker] budget, and if so then I might be able to recommend somebody.

But if I’m understanding you right, you’re looking for that really classy, upscale touch that live music provides. To give you that kind of service, I have to charge [$XXX] to hire the best people for the band, taking into account it will be an hour’s drive for everybody, plus there’s the time to set up and tear down all our gear. Don’t get me started on the gear—it cost as much as my car! I’m sure you get where I’m coming from.

Listen, I provide the very best for my clients, like I know you do for yours. My band just played for [the mayor’s/your competitor’s/etc.] holiday party—they like us so much they have us back every year. What do you say to giving us a try?

Musical skill is a real and valuable thing—don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth!

Students and paying gigs

Sometimes I get phone calls from people hoping to hire my students for gigs. I’m delighted when I can pass a professional opportunity on to a hardworking, high-achieving student, but often these calls are troubling.

Obviously, the callers want students because they assume students will work cheaply. Lots of college students work for not much money, as restaurant waitstaff, custodians, babysitters, and so forth. Those jobs don’t pay much because they are (ostensibly) “unskilled” labor. But “musician” is very much a skilled job.

The Symphonic Wind Ensemble is the premier wind/percussion ensemble in the School of Music.  This highly select, 40-member ensemble represents the finest wind and percussion instrumentalists on campus. The ensemble will perform at this year's Penn State President's Concert at the Strathmore Music Center near Washington, D.C. The President's Concert, a joint production of the Penn State President's Office, the School of Music, and the Alumni Association, has been held at major concert venues including Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Last year's concert was held in Carnegie Hall.
photo, Penn State

Not long ago I was hired to play lead alto saxophone for a gig backing up a singer, and the contractor asked if I had a couple of students who could play in the section. Then he asked what I thought would be fair to pay them. I told him immediately that he was hiring them to do a professional service, and should pay them as professionals. Happily, he saw my point and agreed to those terms.

I suppose some hiring parties assume that students will be cheaper than non-students because they are not as skilled, and therefore can’t negotiate higher fees. (This may or may not be the case—I’ve certainly played gigs with “professionals” who would be far outclassed by undergraduate music students.) Sometimes they want to compensate for hiring less-skilled musicians by planning extensive rehearsals. In most cases, I think they would better spend that same money hiring skilled players to sight-read.

Musicians, enrolled students or not, are specialized, skilled professionals, and should be treated (and compensated) as such.

Teaching multiple instruments: IDRS 2016 presentation

Lecture notes from a presentation on teaching multiple instruments, especially double reeds in a higher education setting, from the 2016 International Double Reed Society conference.

Downloadable version

Teaching Multiple Instruments

Dr. Bret Pimentel, Delta State University

IDRS Conference 2016, Columbus, Georgia

More and more university music teaching positions require wearing several hats, sometimes including teaching multiple instruments. (Oboe plus bassoon is an especially common combination, even though it’s unusual for musicians to play both well.) Teaching multiple instruments is also a potentially valuable skill for instructors at lesson studios in private music schools or in music stores, for instructors in middle or high school band and orchestra programs, and for those establishing private studios from their homes.

Getting hired

  • In many multiple-instrument hiring situations, the expectation is proficiency on one instrument and willingness to fake your way teaching the other(s). Any actual training or background on secondary instruments immediately sets you apart. Strongly consider taking at least a few lessons on a secondary instrument—this shows seriousness about the multiple-instrument thing, even if it doesn’t make you a virtuoso.
  • Having access to books (or websites) isn’t a substitute. Neither is “knowing a guy” who you can “ask questions.” Though those are usable resources, they aren’t convincing to hiring committees because they don’t demonstrate any actual effort prior to submitting your application.
  • Be honest but positive with yourself and with hiring committees about your ability and/or enthusiasm for teaching multiple instruments. For example:
    • “I play oboe professionally, but I am deeply committed to both instruments and am working to improve my bassoon skills. I have some experience playing bassoon in semi-professional settings.”
    • “Bassoon is really my thing, but I took oboe lessons for a couple of summers during graduate school and am enthusiastic about teaching the double reeds.”
    • “Teaching bassoon would be a brand new challenge for me, and one that I would take seriously.”

Lesson time

  • You won’t have to fix all of your students’ technical issues on day one, but you will have to assign repertoire and studies right away. Spend some serious time browsing other teachers’ syllabi and “suggested repertoire” lists (many are available online!), and start compiling some lists of your own. Are you ready to recommend, for example:
    • some remedial etudes and an easy solo for an incoming freshman?
    • an hour’s worth of varied and challenging-but-doable repertoire for a junior entering a competition?
    • a solid program for a senior recital that can double as serious graduate school audition repertoire?
    • Baroque pieces?
    • pieces with extended techniques?
    • chamber pieces with strings?
    • concerti with concert band?
    • and so on…
  • You will, of course, have to address technical issues at some point. Be advised that your students know when you’re making things up. But it can be a great experience to spend a few minutes researching a question together, or calling a colleague or mentor on speakerphone for advice.
  • Both you and the student can learn a lot when you dare to get an instrument out and try some things together. Your students know it’s not your main instrument, and appreciate seeing you step out of your comfort zone. Consider giving them a chance to teach you something—teaching is a skill they should be learning anyway.

Managing resources

  • Institutional resources like money, time, and space are often allocated per faculty member, not per instrument taught. As appropriate, consider making a case for the following (for example):
    • Funding for your oboe studio plus funding for your bassoon studio. Per-faculty funding can be unfair to students, who won’t benefit from purchases made for the other studio.
    • Additional prep time built into your schedule to accommodate the logistics of multiple studios.
    • Studio space and storage space suitable for several studios’ worth of instruments, sheet music, reed desks, etc.
  • If you are a single-instrumentalist teaching multiple instruments, consider forming partnerships with others in the same situation. Visit each other’s schools once or twice a year, maybe more often if the travel is short. Be each other’s consultants, guest artists, masterclass teachers, reed sources.
  • Consider which aspects of running a studio you can streamline to accommodate multiple instruments without multiplying your workload. For example:
    • Use your university’s LMS features, perhaps to combine all of your applied students into one “course,” instead of having to communicate separately to each instrument group.
    • If permissible and appropriate, rotate or combine things like studio classes and chamber group coachings.
    • Repurpose, say, oboe sight-reading excerpts as saxophone excerpts, or vice-versa. (Doesn’t work as well between oboe and bassoon. Clefs, you know.)

Staying sharp (figuratively)

  • Join an organization. Attend conferences. Read the journal. Summer camps (that welcome or at least tolerate adults) are great, too.
    • For oboe-plus-bassoon teachers, IDRS is perfect! Be sure to attend recitals and masterclasses for your secondary teaching instrument, and familiarize yourself with equipment and repertoire options in the vendor exhibits.
  • Build your library of recordings, pedagogical materials, and experiences related to your secondary teaching instrument(s). If it suits your goals, budget toward buying or upgrading your secondary instruments and investing in your further education.
  • Be smart, informed, and conscientious about learning what pedagogical techniques, ideas, etc. you can share between instruments and what you can’t.
  • If you are at even an intermediate performing level on a secondary instrument, strongly consider playing it on your faculty recitals (one short, easy piece?). Keep yourself challenged to improve.
  • Shameless plug: Keep an eye on bretpimentel.com for blog posts and other resources related to playing and teaching multiple woodwind instruments, and the fundamental techniques that those instruments share.

Long-term career planning

  • Is teaching multiple instruments an end goal for you, or just a way to get that first teaching job that will be a stepping stone to something that fits you better? Hint: either is okay, and it’s also okay to change your mind.
  • If you need to meet certain expectations for tenure, annual reviews, etc., be smart about how your multiple-instrument duties affect this. For example:
    • If leadership in professional organizations is important, you may need to attend your major instrument’s conference every year, instead of bouncing from conference to conference.
    • Understand student recruitment expectations—will you need to keep your studios balanced in a certain way, or is it acceptable if, say, recruiting for your main instrument is more successful?

Stuff bad music teachers say

We can all stand to improve our teaching. Here are some things I’ve either said or heard said that are symptomatic of gaps in pedagogical knowledge.

“I’ve been doing it this way for years and I’m very successful.”

Nobody is arguing with your success. But success isn’t a reason to stop improving, nor is it evidence of a perfect approach. Be open to new ideas. Choose to accept or reject a new approach based on its merits, not based on inertia.

“My famous and well-respected teacher taught it to me this way.”

The craft doesn’t progress if your let hero worship blind you to new ideas. Would your teachers want you to cling to outdated pedagogy out of loyalty, or to further your knowledge and advance the discipline?

“Well, those scientific results don’t matter, because this is music and it can’t be studied in that way. I think musicians know a little more about music than scientists, don’t you?”

Sound is a phenomenon very observable, measurable, and understandable through empirical study. Don’t worry, more information won’t ruin the magic. Take the example of high-level athletes and embrace careful, systematic scientific method as a means of achieving more.

In woodwind teaching in particular, I hear a lot of vague, contradictory, or fantastical ideas that fall apart after even a cursory study of anatomy, acoustics, or fluid dynamics.

And, just like you wouldn’t expect a stodgy old scientist to fully grasp the finer points of your musical performance, recognize your own limitations when it comes to scientific rigor. The Wikipedia article or a blog post you read probably aren’t very solid sources, and the experiment you did with different mouthpieces in your living room probably wouldn’t pass muster with a scholarly journal.

“It’s not a contradiction.”

If your teaching is making you and your students experience cognitive dissonance, getting defensive and brushing past the problem doesn’t help. Watch out for this kind of nonsense: “You have to increase the breath support as you go up to the high register. No, no, don’t reduce the breath support as you go back down to the low register.”

“No, I haven’t read it.”

Music teachers should be active readers of pedagogical materials new and old, and should be actively questioning what they read. (Attending masterclasses, watching videos, etc. is also good, but you will find someone’s clearest, most organized thinking when they have to commit it to paper and/or digital text.) Proliferation of small publishing companies, self-publishing operations, and, of course, the internet, have made the bar for “expertise” very low, but have also made it possible for conscientious readers to consume more and to police what is written. Readers shouldn’t take anything at face value, and authors shouldn’t expect a pass on low-quality work.

Have the courage, conscience, and dedication to pursue deeper, broader, and more accurate knowledge of the concepts you are teaching!