Some of the questions I am asked most frequently about woodwind doubling are about how I practice. Specifically, how often do I get to each instrument, and how do I divide up my time?
The truth is that there isn’t an ideal solution, and maybe not even a good one. There are only so many hours in the day. The best, say, clarinet players are spending a good number of those practicing the clarinet. If I practice the same number of hours, but I’m dividing that time among multiple instruments, then I’m likely to feel a bit behind. This is the big obstacle to fine woodwind doubling: practice hours are hopelessly divided.
Sure, there are ways of improving your practicing efficiency, but the best single-instrumentalists are using those same approaches. And any cross-training effect is minimal at best for players who are beyond the beginner level. If you want to sound like a serious player on your secondary instruments, you have to put in the hours on those instruments.
Realistically, an embarrassing amount of my practicing is triage: which instrument needs to sound passable to get through the next performance? But when I have the luxury, I like to organize a little better.
For me it generally isn’t useful to squeeze too many instruments into one day, since the time allotted to each instrument gets too short to be productive. So, if I am trying to practice five instruments about equally and can find about three hours per day to practice, I might decide to practice three instruments per day, for an hour each. But if I rotate through the instruments too fast, different ones each day, I’m not able to reinforce my improvements enough to make them permanent. So I usually settle into something like this:
In that example, I practice each instrument three days in a row, then neglect it for two. That balance, for me, seems to be a reasonable compromise. If I want to rotate but I feel like a certain instrument needs extra attention, I might assign it two blocks of time on the days it appears in the rotation, and adjust the other instruments around it.
When organizing your own practice time, you should be asking yourself some questions about your own priorities: How many instruments are you practicing? Are you trying to bring them to a uniform level of proficiency, or do you have primary and secondary instruments? Do have instruments that are “behind” and need extra time for catching up? Does it make sense for you to devote separate blocks of time to (for example) flute and piccolo, or will you fit them within a single block?
Practice smart, and keep at it.