Woodwind doubling in musical theater orchestras: Taking the insanity out of Crazy for You

Crazy for You is a Broadway-style stage musical by Ken Ludwig. The show, which premiered in 1992, uses songs written by George and Ira Gershwin for musicals in the 1930’s. In January and February, 2003, the Brigham Young University Department of Theatre and Media Arts and School of Music produced the show.

Synthesis, BYU’s award-winning jazz ensemble directed by Dr. Ray Smith, filled the role of pit orchestra. The five-member Synthesis saxophone section became an orchestral woodwind section, with a combined arsenal of over twenty instruments. The practice of “doubling,” or playing more than one instrument, is common in theater orchestra woodwind sections. A woodwind doubler may be expected to play instruments from all five woodwind families (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone) in a single show!

The woodwind parts in Crazy for You provide an excellent case study for the challenges facing the woodwind doubler. The show requires five woodwind players. The first woodwind part calls for flute and piccolo, clarinet, and soprano and alto saxophones. The musician playing this part is the primary flute, piccolo, and soprano saxophone soloist, as well as the lead saxophonist in saxophone ensemble passages. Special considerations include extensive use of the extreme high ranges of the flute and piccolo, as well as trills in less-common keys and in the high register; and jazz inflections, including pitch bends, in the saxophone parts.

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Multi-instrument method in Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Creole Love Call”

The artist1

Roland Kirk was born in 1935. As an infant, he was blinded, possibly by negligent medical care. He attended the Ohio State School for the blind, where he played in the school band. At the age of sixteen, he led a dance band that performed around the Midwest. It was also at age sixteen that he got the idea to play more than one instrument at once, an innovation he claimed to have received in a dream. He acquired a battery of instruments, including such oddities as the stritch and manzello (obsolete cousins of the saxophone), and set about mastering them individually and in combination.

Kirk recorded as early as 1956, but got little attention until 1960, when critics began to accuse him of gimmickry. Kirk maintained that his unorthodox techniques were born of musical expression rather than cheap showmanship, and his following began to increase.

In 1970, he added “Rahsaan” to his name, having been prompted to do so by another dream.

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Sidney Bechet’s “Summertime”

View the transcription

Sidney Bechet may be jazz’s most unfairly forgotten genius.

Once the favorite son of his native New Orleans, as well as his many adopted European hometowns, Bechet’s recordings are now too often overlooked. Bechet, born in 1897, was a true virtuoso of the clarinet, and played a major part in establishing the instrument’s role in Dixieland and early jazz. His pioneering use of the soprano saxophone set a precedent that would come to fruition in a later generation of saxophonists. Bechet’s penchant for unusual instruments is documented in a few surviving recordings on the bass saxophone and the sarrusophone, instruments as nearly obsolete in Bechet’s day as in our own.

But Bechet’s genius transcended his choice of instrument. His abilities may even have rivaled his contemporary, and sometime bandmate, Louis Armstrong. The eminent Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet upheld Bechet as “the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.” Ansermet would no doubt be disappointed to find his prediction has been disproved.

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The modern saxophonist: The changing career climate of the concert saxophone artist

The neglected saxophone

Despite the saxophone’s widespread acceptance in jazz and popular music styles, its acknowledgment as a viable solo instrument in classical music has been slow. Few composers have included it in orchestral scores. Only in recent years have conservatories and university music departments begun to recognize the saxophone on a somewhat equal footing with, say, the flute, the piano, or the violin.

Perhaps this neglect was a lingering byproduct of the instrument’s chronology. After all, by the time of its invention by Adolphe Sax in the 1840’s, the instrumentation of the modern orchestra was already becoming somewhat standardized. Maybe the inattention had something to do with the saxophone’s longstanding reputation as a “jazzy horn” and association with burlesque1. Or maybe the upsurge in amateur interest since the 1920’s had spawned too many inferior saxophonists for anyone to take the instrument seriously2.

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Saxophone vibrato

What is vibrato?

Carl Seashore, in his In Search of Beauty in Music, defines “good” vibrato as “a pulsation of pitch usually accompanied by synchronous pulsations of loudness and timbre, of such extent and rate as to give a pleasing flexibility, tenderness, and richness to the tone.”

Debate over saxophone vibrato

Saxophone vibrato is a controversial topic for several reasons. In fact, some have questioned whether vibrato should be used at all. Paul Berler, in a 1996 Saxophone Journal article, notes that wind instrumentalists have only made serious study of vibrato in the last century. Robert Luckey points out in a 1983 article in Woodwind, Brass, & Percussion that “prominent saxophone teachers have equated their instrument with the human voice,” and that, since vibrato is accepted as a natural embellishment of the human voice, it should be accepted as a natural part of the saxophone tone.

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Choosing instructional materials for beginning saxophone students

Importance of appropriate materials

Choosing the right method books and materials—or choosing not to use them—can be a deciding factor in a beginning saxophone student’s success. A student assigned page after page of boring finger exercises will lose interest quickly, but a student given only “fun” assignments may fall behind in development of sound technique.

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