If you’re not familiar with the Larry Krantz Flute Pages, you need to surf right on over and spend a few hours. Mr. Krantz has been building a major hub for web-connected flutists since back before many of us knew about the Internet. His site is a positively huge repository of flute-related wisdom, including contributed content by the likes of Trevor Wye, John Wion, and Robert Dick.
Mr. Krantz was a doubler in years past, apparently quite accomplished on flute, clarinet, and saxophone, and at least a dabbler in oboe. Nearly twenty years ago, however, he decided to give up doubling to focus on his flute playing.
Mr. Krantz discusses his decision at some length here, in excerpts from discussions on the FLUTE mailing list. While he speaks fondly of his years as a doubler, and points out many of the benefits of doubling, his ultimate conclusion was that doubling was not for him. The primary reason he gives for this decision is that, in his admittedly well-qualified opinion, it simply isn’t possible to maintain a truly fine embouchure on multiple instruments.
Without writing a dissertation I would like to say a few words about various woodwind embouchures and how they relate to each other in a practical way. The slack jaw and reasonably loose musculature of the saxophone embouchure seems to have minimal detrimental affect on a flute embouchure. The general tightness of the clarinet and oboe embouchure can be extremely damaging to flute embouchure. The problem as I see it lies in the difficulty in learning refined control with tight muscles as opposed to the same refined control with minimal muscle tension. When you focus attention on one you are in effect damaging the other. With the reed family one must roll the lower lip (both lips for oboe/bassoon) over the lower teeth and use the lip as a cushion for the vibrating source. This contact does tend to deaden the sensitivity of the lower lip slightly which can be quite a problem in flute playing. While maintaing multi embouchures can be a daunting task it can be accomplished. In my opinion, this can be done only to a certain level. A fully affective and functional embouchure for any instrument requires years of intense focus and regularly confusing the muscles only serves to limit the degree to which the embouchure can be developed.
(It’s worth reading the whole thing. This is about as anti-doubling as Mr. Krantz gets; mostly he takes an evenhanded approach.)
Personally, I resist the idea that playing multiple instruments causes either permanent physical damage or muscle “confusion.” In an intense multiple-instruments situation like pit orchestra work, I do find sometimes that playing extended passages on reed instruments can lead to some lip swelling and fatigue, causing problems when I have to pick up the flute eight bars later. But I can’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be able (someday) to play, say, oboe at the highest level one day, clarinet at the highest level the next day, and flute at the highest level the next.
I’m skeptical that playing a reed instrument (or several) “deadens” sensation in the lips. I’m not aware of any lip-numbing effects; in fact, I suspect that constant attention to my various reed embouchures leads to a heightened awareness of sensation in that part of my body. The graduate student in me says that this question would make an excellent dissertation topic for someone with background in both music and physiology (or whatever).
I’m also fairly certain that concern over “confusing the muscles” is misguided. Confusing the brain is a real concern; I do need to make sure that I am fully mentally committed to “flute mode” before I will be able to play it well. If I’m still thinking like a clarinetist, I will have problems for sure. But there’s no reason that, with proper training and conscientious practice, I can’t have perfectly viable embouchures available to me on all my instruments. An embouchure isn’t a single structure—it’s a collection of muscles that do many different things, all day long: speaking, eating, making subtle or not-to-subtle facial expressions, kissing, extracting popcorn hulls from between your teeth, and so forth. If all that isn’t enough to confuse the embouchure muscles, then why should another instrument cause a problem?
For me, the primary challenge of doubling is simply that there aren’t enough hours in the day. I often wonder what level my saxophone playing (for example) would have reached by now if I hadn’t spent so much of my life dividing my time between multiple instruments. It’s a little scary to be approaching the end of a doctorate in woodwinds and feel like I don’t really excel at any of them. If there were a way of quantifying my achievements on multiple instruments, how would they compare to my colleagues who play only a single instrument, but do it very well?
I’ll conclude with another quote from Mr. Krantz.
For me the bottom line is that good music is made my musicians who love what they are doing and if you find that love through doubling then go for it and love it.
I’m going for it.