Health, wellness, and woodwind doubling

I got an email from a college student taking an Occupational Health and Wellness course. He asked me some questions about health and wellness issues in woodwind doubling, and I tried to answer the best I could.

How do you prepare for the many instrument switches in a musical which require changes of embouchure and hand position/key action adjustments? How do you deal with the physical demands of switches between many instruments?

The best preparation is to develop good, relaxed technique on each instrument independently. I try to practice each instrument carefully and produce the best possible sound on each one.

If I have the luxury of reviewing the part ahead of time, I will often practice the “choreography” for quick instrument switches, and make plenty of pencil marks so that I know ahead of time what switches are coming up. I try to keep a consistent layout of my instrument stands for each show, so that I get used to where each instrument is.

As I am making each switch (even very quick ones) I will try to take a moment to totally relax my facial muscles, hands, etc., and, maybe most importantly, flip a mental switch to oboe mode or clarinet mode or whatever.

Good reliable stands and neckstraps are vital.

Would you say that having to adjust to the action and key pressure of multiple instruments makes you more susceptible to hand/forearm injury than a musician who plays a single instrument?

I’m not an expert, but I would think that playing a single instrument is more dangerous in terms of repetitive motion injuries, etc. If I spend five hours a day practicing (I wish!) then I think I’m better off with more varied physical activities.

Photo, MissTessmacher
Photo, MissTessmacher

Does playing any one instrument create body tension that affects another instrument? (ex. flute might create shoulder tension which affects playing the sax)

Poor technique creates tension. If I’m tense from flute and it affects my saxophone playing, it’s because I’m doing it wrong. When this does happen, for me it’s most often embouchure tension.

How long are typical rehearsals for musicals? How many rehearsals and performances do you typically do?

These vary widely. When I do community theater, it’s often one or two two-to-three hour rehearsals. The show might run anywhere from one night to six weeks. Occasionally there are two shows a day for weekend matinees or weekday performances for school kids.

How do you keep from getting fatigued, mentally and physically, during long rehearsals and shows?

Physical: good posture, comfortable clothing, relaxed technique, breaks as often as possible, stay hydrated.

Mental: Breaks as often as possible. Try to stay engaged by constantly improving the part—sometimes that means trying to play the most gorgeous whole notes I’ve ever played.

Does the carrying of cases and assembling of instruments factor into physical strain of playing musicals at all?

Not significantly for me. I try to arrive early enough to make several trips from the car if necessary, and to set up at my leisure. If I’m bringing a lot of instruments, I’ll pile the smaller ones into a shoulder bag. I don’t have a cart for bigger instruments, but some woodwind players do.

Anything you’d like to add?

Getting good solid instruction on each instrument is crucial to proper, physically-safe playing technique. Woodwind doublers sometimes try to take shortcuts on this.

3 thoughts on “Health, wellness, and woodwind doubling”

  1. I played a show where I loaded the smaller items into a duffel bag and slung it over a shoulder while carrying other things in my hands, such as a bass clarinet. My shoulder hurt for a couple days afterwards. No more duffel bags for me.

    I used to play a tenor sax with a case having an optional backpack configuration. It was a great way to carry my heaviest routine instrument. I upgraded my instrument a few months ago. The new case is ridiculously heavy and has to be carried. I’m considering spending the money for a backpack-style case for the new sax.

  2. Fantastic advice, Bret! Your opinion about playing multiple instruments being perhaps less harmful than one instrument has merit. In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher working with musicians, I find there are primarily two reasons that musicians have chronic pain: poor use of themselves (how they maintain posture and balance, hold their instrument, breathe, etc.), and overuse. Making thousands and thousands of specifically precise contractions can easily lead to overuse, no matter how relaxed and efficient technique may be. Anything to switch it up (another instrument) is helpful.

    Besides learning to play with much less tension, it’s also important (as you so rightly mention) to get the appropriate rest. I particularly like you suggestion to pause between instruments to relax your hands and facial muscles (as well as shifting mental gears), even if for a brief moment. These little “micro -breaks” offer huge benefits. Finally, your statement that “Poor technique creates tension”, is absolutely true. I might suggest that the opposite is true, as well: excess and misdirected tension really interfere with good technique. Thanks for this. I’m definitely sharing!


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