Q&A: Woodwind doubling advice

A couple of weeks ago I put out a call for questions, in honor of today being the fifteenth anniversary of this blog. A bunch of the questions boiled down to: what advice do you have on woodwind doubling? Here are a few answers:

  • Be a beginner on each instrument. Take the time to work through beginner materials (starting probably with pages of whole notes!), scales, and so forth. Resist the temptation to dive in on advanced or even intermediate repertoire.
  • Get comfortable with a long timeline. You can’t reach the highest levels of playing on a bunch of instruments in the same time that your peers are reaching the highest levels on single instruments, unless you’re a lot more talented than me. And you can’t afford to buy a section’s worth of top-quality instruments in that same time frame, either, unless you’re a lot richer than me.
  • Prioritize what motivates you. Lots of aspiring doublers seem very concerned about what instrument they “should” learn next. There’s no roadmap, and it’s hard to predict what gigs might come your way in the future. So you might as well devote your time, effort, and money to whichever instrument you feel most excited about adding to your collection.
  • Be skeptical of instruments, accessories, method books, etc. that are marketed as “for doublers.” If you want to play clarinet like a clarinetist, use what the clarinetists use.

Some other readers asked about the “secrets” to practicing multiple instruments.

As far as I know there aren’t any; if you want to play three or five instruments well, plan to put in three or five times as many hours. I’ve posted previously about an approach to an instrument rotation for practicing, but it really depends on you particular set of instruments, abilities, and goals.

Another reader asked how hard it was for me to learn secondary instruments.

Beyond general musicianship skills (like reading music or blending into an ensemble), I don’t think there’s a lot of useful cross-training effect. In other words, no instrument is a good shortcut to learning another, at least not learning it well. But I do think there are underlying concepts that can be useful for thinking of the woodwind family and its techniques as part of a unified whole. (I address those concepts in my book Woodwind Basics, or sprinkled throughout the last 15 years of blog posts.)

Someone else asked about when to get serious about woodwind doubling (high school? undergraduate studies? graduate school?), which is something I’ve opined about previously.

Everyone’s circumstances are different, but for my undergraduate music majors (and for me when I was in that stage) there are a couple of things that need to happen in their development: gain a certain level of mastery at operating the instrument itself, and develop a certain maturity of musicianship. While these things should be in development concurrently, achieving the first is ultimately a prerequisite to achieving the second. (You can’t fully execute a mature musical idea if you’re held back by technical deficiencies.) I think it can be a fun side pursuit to pick up an additional instrument or two in high school or college, but I think many people won’t be ready to pursue professional-level playing on multiple instruments until graduate school, and then won’t achieve it within the time frame of a graduate degree.

Another reader asked questions about pursuing a career in playing in musical theater orchestras: is it worthwhile to go on to graduate school? How do you get more gigs (cold-call theaters? take lessons with Broadway players)?

Graduate degrees (or any degrees) aren’t necessary for just about any kind of gig work, although they can provide useful training to improve your skills, gain some experience, and network with fellow musicians.

I would say don’t call theaters. Venues are unlikely to hire musicians directly. Instead, you want to connect with the musical directors or contractors who are likely hiring the orchestra members. Direct outreach to those folks might be effective in some cases. But a lot of musical directors, if they call their usual players and find them unavailable, will ask them for recommendations, so the musicians already playing the gigs you want are both your competition and your best chances at getting hired. Taking lessons is a possible way to get a foot in the door. Sometimes just catching them after a show, introducing yourself, complimenting their playing, and handing over a business card can be enough to get you on their radar.

Additionally, a career exclusively playing musicals would be an oddity. Most woodwind players who do musicals do lots of kinds of gigs. Develop your skills, build your network, and see what possibilities come your way.

Someone else asked a question about the history of multiple woodwinds degree programs.

This isn’t something I have dug into enough to answer with any confidence, but it would make a nice thesis or dissertation for someone working on a multiple woodwinds graduate degree. I do know that I’ve heard lots of folks confidently make conflicting claims about which degree programs were first or biggest or best, or about how the number or configuration or quality of degree programs has changed.

Thanks for the thoughtful questions!

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