NFA 2011: Woodwind doublers roundtable discussion

Here I am at the far left saying something brilliant and witty. Tereasa Payne, Shelley Collins, David Weiss, and Jim Walker look on in wonder and delight.

At this year’s NFA conference, I had the very cool opportunity to be part of a discussion panel about woodwind doubling. The panel was organized by Florida flutist and doubler Tereasa Payne, and moderated by my Delta State colleague Shelley Collins. The panel consisted of me, Tereasa, Hollywood studio great Jim Walker, and David Weiss, who is the ethnic flutes soloist for Broadway’s The Lion King. It was an honor to be included in a group of such stature!

We spoke to a surprisingly large and enthusiastic crowd. At one point Shelley asked for a show of hands by the doublers in the audience, and we were blown away by all the hands that shot up. The audience asked great questions, and many stayed afterward to talk some more. I was delighted to meet several of you personally who read this blog or who have communicated with me by email or on Twitter.

In advance of the panel, Tereasa had prepared some questions for the panelists to think over. I took some notes to organize my thoughts, and I’m providing them here in an edited version. This isn’t a transcript of the live panel, but it should give you an idea of what was talked about, and of my thoughts about some of those topics.

What instruments do you play in your profession, and in what capacity do you play them?

I teach collegiate oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone, and freelance on those instruments. As a freelancer, I also play the flute, and occasionally some ethnic flutes and woodwinds and electronic wind controller.

Woodwind Specialist, Doubler, Multiple Woodwinds Performer… there are so many titles for what you do. Do you have a preference for what you are called?

Woodwind doubler seems to be the most common term, so that’s what I usually end up using. It can be problematic because sometimes people take “doubler” to mean “dabbler.” It also seems incorrect if you play more than two instruments. “Specialist” also seems like a misnomer, since doubling is really sort of a refusal to specialize. I kind of like “woodwind multi-instrumentalist,” since to me it seems clear enough and has a certain amount of dignity, but I’m still looking for something shorter.

And none of those names really captures the way I want to see myself: as a flutist AND an oboist AND a clarinetist and so forth.

Did you get into doubling for the money? (haha)… What are you in it for?

I got into it because I was interested in it and looking to expand my employability, and stayed in it because interest and ambition turned into passion. As a college student I started gigging a lot more than my classmates, even those who played their single instrument far better than I did. So I’ve probably earned a lot more money by doubling, but on the other hand I’ve probably also spent more doing it.

How and when did you begin adding instruments? Do you have any opinions on the order that students should add additional instruments?

I started as a saxophonist, and dabbled a very small amount in flute an clarinet as a teenager because someone told me I would need those for jazz. As an upperclassman undergraduate student I very deliberately started study of each of the woodwind instruments because I had decided I wanted to become a doubler.

In terms of being the most marketable, I think for saxophonists it makes the most sense to pick up clarinet next, then flute, and then, if desired, a double reed or two. For flutists, oboists, clarinetists, or bassoonists, I would go to saxophone next, then follow the saxophonist sequence. One possible alternative for a double reed player who is headed for an academic career is to add the other double reed and apply for the relatively frequent oboe-and-bassoon teaching positions; however, there are very few performing situations that call for this double.

Did anything or anyone ever discourage you from doubling?

I had a few teachers who were not hot on the idea. I think those that objected felt that doubling would mean I couldn’t or wouldn’t be a serious “classical” musician.

How does doubling affect your flute playing?

It takes time away from the flute. I don’t feel that doubling hurts my flute playing in any ways besides that, like hurting my embouchure or mixing up my fingerings. Occasionally in the heat of battle my lips will be a little swollen from playing reeds, or I’ll be too tense, but that’s evidence that I’m doing something wrong on the other instruments, not on the flute. If I’m playing each of my instruments relaxed and with good technique, and I’ve thoroughly warmed up before the gig, there’s no reason I can’t make a quick switch to flute and play at my best.

How do you manage your practice time on so many instruments?

Often it’s triage: deal with the patient that is hemorrhaging the worst. (Sometimes they can’t be saved.) When I have the rare luxury of not being in panic mode, I try to rotate instruments so that I don’t necessarily get to each one every day, but so that each one does at least get a few days in a row. For example, Monday is flute-oboe-clarinet, Tuesday is oboe-clarinet-bassoon, Wednesday is clarinet-bassoon-saxophone, and so forth. It means each instrument gets neglected for a couple of days, but then it gets practiced a few days in a row so I can hopefully get a little momentum going.

What are the most challenging aspects of being a doubler?

Time and money. If you think if how many hours you would have to practice to be a top-level flutist, and instead divide that time by three or four or five instruments, then you can see how you might start to feel like you’re falling behind. And it’s expensive accumulating good instruments—plus reeds, accessories, lessons, sheet music, maintenance, insurance…

It seems there is a very small percentage of women doublers. Why do you think this is?

I don’t have a good answer to that question. However, data from my recent survey of woodwind doublers does seem to indicate that younger women are doubling more than older women, so perhaps we are witnessing a surge in the number of female doublers.

What advice would you give to flutists wishing to “branch out” into woodwind doubling?

Pick up the alto saxophone, and get some good coaching (including lots of listening) on jazz style. In theater music, the part with the flute solos is often also the part with lead alto writing.

Another good way to expand your skill set as a flutist is to explore ethnic flutes. Recorders, pennywhistles, and simple bamboo flutes are all pretty versatile, fairly easy to play, and don’t have to break the bank.

My general advice for anyone who wants to double is “be a beginner.” Give yourself the advantages you wish you had had as a beginning flutist: a great teacher, a quality instrument, and dedicated practice. Start with a beginning method book and practice those whole notes like they are the most important thing you will ever play (hint: they are). Build your fundamental skills on each instrument with deliberation and thoroughness. Don’t try to skip steps.

Was it always your childhood dream to be a doubler? When did it become your goal?

As a teenager, I wanted to be a professional saxophonist and university professor, so I went to college to study saxophone performance. I was fascinated by musical instruments, and I had dabbled a little in flute and clarinet but hadn’t pursued them seriously.

One day I was sitting in saxophone studio class and realized that one day my teacher would retire and create one job vacancy, but there were twenty of us in the class. I knew at that point that I would need to carve out a more specialized niche to be competitive in the job market. Getting serious about doubling was a solution that made me more marketable and really expanded my musical horizons as well. Now I can hardly imagine going back to playing “just” one instrument.


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