Novelty and solo multiple-woodwind performance

For a decade now, virtually every solo recital I have played has involved multiple woodwind instruments. I enjoy the variety and the challenge, and audiences are always duly appreciative and complimentary.

However, I do wonder sometimes about the novelty aspect of using multiple woodwind instruments in solo “classical” performance. Often well-intentioned (and much-appreciated!) audience members will tell me something like, “It’s so amazing that you can play all those instruments!” That’s nice of them, but would they say something similar at a single-instrument recital? “It’s so amazing that you can play that instrument.”

Photo, José Camba
Photo, José Camba

I’ve leveraged the variety a couple of times recently to do composer-themed recitals, one of music by Debussy and one of music by Telemann. On a single instrument, I would mostly shy away from playing an hour of music by a single composer. Such a thing could be done, but to make it a real success would require both a very engaging performer and an appropriate audience: for listeners with a casual appreciation of classical music, an hour of Bach flute sonatas or an hour of Brahms clarinet sonatas could be a bit of a drag. My recent Telemann sonata included music performed on six different solo instruments, two of them relatively rarely-heard (recorder and EWI), and that seemed to be enough to keep the audience on board.

But were they on board purely because of the composer’s and performers’ art, or was it the feat of instrumental derring-do that held their interest? Of course I would like for my performances to stand on their own, regardless of how many or how few instruments I use, but it’s hard to tell when the audience is distracted by the parade of shiny objects. I’m not bothered by having a gimmick per se, but I don’t want it to be the only thing holding the performance together.

2 thoughts on “Novelty and solo multiple-woodwind performance”

  1. I think the novelty aspect is certainly there. Performers like Barbara Mandrell and Roy Clark milked that novelty to the point of doing it as a stunt.

    I think non-musicians imagine doubling to be some herculean feat achievable only by a select few. My usual response is to tell them that music is the hard thing to learn. Compared to that, different instruments are just some mechanics to learn to get the music out.

    Most just smile and nod, and probably think I’m being falsely modest. But I mean it. Music is hard. Musical instruments are easy. :-)

  2. I played solo clarinet and alto sax for some seasonal music before a Christmas Eve church service last year. The expectation was I would play only clarinet, but a couple of the numbers seemed to fit the sax better. Several people mentioned the music, but I don’t recall anyone commenting about the doubling.

    My usual audiences have become accustomed to my bringing multiple instruments. I think of doubling as being able to make music in different voices, like the difference between singing a rock and a classical number. I often explain it to others – even fellow musicians – as being like what guitarists do. Sometimes a guitarist will play a common acoustic guitar, sometimes a solid body electric, sometimes a dobro … it all depends upon which kind of sound is appropriate.


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