More thoughts on multiple woodwinds degrees

June 15, 2009

I often get email from people who are considering pursuing a college or conservatory degree in multiple woodwinds. Now that I’ve completed two of them myself, here are a few thoughts.

If you want to enter a multiple woodwinds degree program, you should already have at least a basic technical command of each instrument to be included on the degree. This really should include a background of good private instruction on each instrument. In my experience, self-taught players on any instrument are rarely very well prepared for the rigors of college-level study.

Bachelor’s-level programs are rare, and I think that’s with good reason. For most woodwind players, I think, diving right into college-level study of three or more instruments is ill-advised. You will do much better to spend those years focusing on your strongest instrument, developing your musicianship, learning good practicing techniques, and hopefully racking up some achievements like contest awards or high placement in top university ensembles. All of those things benefited me very much (my bachelor’s degree is in saxophone performance), and it’s likely I wouldn’t have been able to achieve as much if I had been dividing my practice hours between multiple instruments (plus completing music coursework AND general education coursework).

The only circumstances under which I would really recommend multiple woodwinds study at the bachelor’s degree level are cases where young musicians have had several years of excellent instruction on multiple instruments, and enjoyed significant success on each, or perhaps cases where experienced musicians already have professional or semi-pro doubling experience and are entering school a little later in life.

I DO recommend that aspiring doublers at the undergraduate level make good use of their summers, taking private lessons on their doubles, and playing those instruments in less-competitive summer ensemble courses (if available).

Before moving on to graduate degrees, let me point out one thing that doesn’t seem to occur to undergraduate music students until it’s too late: a bachelor’s degree in music performance isn’t good for much. You don’t need a degree to be a professional musician. A BM degree is good for getting an entry-level office-type job that just requires a degree in something—or for applying to graduate music programs. A music education degree, on the other hand, should qualify you to teach music in the public schools. Even if you are planning on graduate study anyway, it might not hurt to have the BME as a plan “B.” If I could go back and do it over, I would give this idea serious consideration.

Master’s-level programs are the most common multiple woodwinds degrees. If you are studying music performance at the master’s level, you most likely are headed for a college teaching career, probably after completion of a doctorate. A multiple woodwinds degree at this level can be a nice CV enhancement for a woodwind player who plans to return to single-instrument study at the doctoral level.

Some multiple woodwinds degree programs are organized in terms of a “primary” instrument and one or more “secondary” instruments, and others take more of a true multi-instrumentalist approach; if your goal is significant achievement on one instrument plus lesser focus on other instruments, then a primary/secondaries program is your best bet.

Doctoral programs are rare but available. I would suggest these programs (even primary/secondaries-oriented progams) only for musicians who are serious about each instrument individually. Here’s why I think so.

Graduates of doctoral-level performance degree programs must, in order to compete in the academic job market, be highly skilled performers. Spreading your focus and your practice hours across several instruments unavoidably results in a lower achievement on each instrument than if that instrument had been studied exclusively. There just aren’t enough hours in a day to learn to play three, four, or five instruments at a doctoral level within the time frame of a DM or DMA program. Graduates of multiple woodwinds programs have a skill set that is broader than single-instrument graduates, but not as deep. There are faculty positions out there that need that broader skill set, especially at smaller schools where the professors wear several hats, but if it’s your goal to be the bassoon teacher at a large and well-known school, then your doctoral work probably ought to be focused on the bassoon.

Some previous posts:

And, of course, check out the list of multiple woodwinds degree programs:

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