Frequently asked questions on woodwind doubling


What is woodwind doubling?

Woodwind doubling is the practice of playing instruments from more than one woodwind family (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, saxophones, etc.). Woodwind doublers often find employment in studio recording, stage productions such as musical theater, and jazz groups, where budget or space constraints make it impractical to use a full woodwind section with a specialist playing each instrument.

What, exactly, are the woodwinds?

The term “woodwinds” is outdated, since flutes are no longer commonly made of wood, and saxophones have never been made of wood (at least not on a major scale). The “wood” in “woodwinds” also does not refer to reeds, since the cane from which reeds are made, arunda donax, is more closely related to your lawn than it is to a tree (or to bamboo, for that matter—another common mistake).

The woodwinds may be better thought of as a loose grouping of several musical instrument families. The Hornbostel-Sachs system of instrument classification separates the wind instruments into three major groups: edge-blown aerophones (flutes), reed aerophones, and “trumpets” (which includes not just trumpets, but all of the “brass” group). The flutes and reeds (which can be divided into single and double reeds) comprise the woodwind group.

Still, there is some disagreement as to which instruments really count as woodwinds. I suggest that the “modern” woodwinds consist of five families of instruments: the flute family, the oboe family, the clarinet family, the bassoon family, and the saxophone family. The “orchestral” woodwinds include all of these except the saxophones (saxophones are used only rarely in symphonic orchestras).

This classification, not surprisingly, brings up further problems. For example, some orchestral scores which call for flutes actually require recorders (Bach’s Brandenburg concertos are a notable example). Recorders, however, are often neglected in discussion of the woodwind family.

Additionally, discussion of the woodwinds tends to neglect instruments outside the Western art music tradition, including countless instruments native to every inhabited continent except possibly Australia. (The only wind instrument known to be native to Australia is the didgeridoo, which is played by the buzzing of the lips and is therefore more closely related to the brass family.) The harmonica and various kinds of bagpipes present another problem—they are sometimes considered a “free reed” instruments, in the same family as the accordion, but some period free reeds, such as the crumhorn, are more often lumped in with the oboe.

In terms of woodwind doubling, the usual suspects are the five families of modern woodwinds, though wise doublers do not ignore the marketability (not to mention enjoyment) of the ethnic and period instruments and electronic woodwind-style instruments.

Why did you take up woodwind doubling?

While working on a bachelor’s degree in saxophone performance at Brigham Young University, I had the privilege to study with two very fine woodwind doublers, Ray Smith and Daron Bradford. Both are master musicians, highly trained in single and double reeds, flutes, and ethnic, folk, and period woodwinds. Both are busy as teachers, performers in live settings, and studio musicians.

Seeing these musicians in action convinced me that doubling was the most fun I could possibly have as a musician. What could be better than spending the morning teaching the great clarinet solo literature, the afternoon laying down jazz flute tracks for a movie score and pennywhistle tracks for a TV jingle, and the evening playing oboe and saxophone with the local pops orchestra? Woodwind doublers have a broader tonal palette than any other musician in the studio or orchestra pit, not to mention a richer and more varied repertoire.

Are there really gigs out there for woodwind doublers?

Conventional wisdom says yes. The problem with conventional wisdom is that it’s usually a few years old.

It seems clear that woodwind doubling has declined dramatically over the past sixty or seventy years (see John Cipolla’s History of Doubling). There are not as many jobs for woodwind doublers as there have been in the past. The good news is, there is not as much competition for existing jobs. Particularly in musical theater scores and big band music, many of which were written decades ago but are still regularly performed, woodwind parts often require several instruments.

Ray Smith at Brigham Young University used to tell me that there is never a shortage of gigs if you’re the best (and he would know). Consider this: if the gig is 95% saxophone and 5% bassoon, you don’t have to be the best of all the saxophonists in town to get hired—you just have to be the best among the few saxophone/bassoon doublers. Even better, if the gig is saxophone, bassoon, E-flat clarinet, and bamboo flute, and you’re the only musician in town who can play that combination…

Are there some arguments against doubling?

Yes. The most common argument against doubling seems to be that it will harm your technique on your primary instrument, by dividing your practice time, or causing detrimental physical habits, or causing mental hangups. For some good points along these lines, see flutist Larry Krantz’s comments here.

Another good reason to consider not doubling is the financial investment. Good instruments are expensive. So are reeds, accessories, sheet music, recordings, insurance, and, of course, private lessons.

When is the right time to add a second instrument?

I usually don’t recommend that my young students add a second instrument until they reach an advanced high school level. This isn’t so much an age consideration as a question of adequate commitment. Age notwithstanding, if you’re not seriously practicing your main instrument on a daily basis, you’re probably not up to playing another instrument.

What is the best combination of instruments?

If you play any combination of instruments well, you have a good chance of finding a niche. Here are some useful combinations, though:

Jazz saxophonists are often called upon to play clarinet and/or flute, especially in a big band setting. Clarinet is very common with swing-era music, and flute (and sometimes piccolo) is more common in post-bop-type big bands. If you play baritone saxophone, bass clarinet is a common big band double.

Orchestral clarinetists are sometimes expected to cover saxophone parts. In a close orchestral audition, ability to play even a little bit of saxophone might give a clarinetist a competitive edge.

Virtually every combination of woodwind instruments turns up in musical theater scores. (See a huge list here.) Woodwind players who specialize in a double reed instrument are especially valuable here. Common combinations using double reeds seem to be oboe (and maybe English horn) with clarinet and tenor saxophone, or bassoon with bass clarinet and baritone saxophone.

Flutists can qualify themselves for additional gigs by taking up the baroque flute, other wooden flutes like those used in Irish traditional music, bamboo flutes like the Chinese dizi, Indian bansuri, and Native American flute, and “fipple” (whistle) flutes like recorders and pennywhistles. In musical theater, the solo flute book may also include “lead” jazz playing on clarinet and alto (sometimes soprano) saxophone, so familiarity with swing-style articulation and inflection is helpful.

Any tips for success at playing multiple instruments? How should I divide my practice time?

The only way to play more than one instrument well is to put in the full effort on each one. Approach each instrument like you have never played anything else—get a good teacher who specializes in that instrument, and start with beginning lessons according to their usual procedures. Don’t count on carrying over anything but general musicianship from your primary instrument. Learn embouchure, fingerings, instrument care, practicing techniques and everything else from the ground up.

With the help of your teachers, learn good solid warmups for each instrument. Do them faithfully at the beginning of each practice session, and warm up thoroughly on each instrument before a gig.

Divide your practice time so that you at least touch on each instrument regularly, but spend sufficient time on one or two instruments that you can make some noticeable progress. For example, if you play five instruments and practice three hours every day, spend a month practicing one hour per day on each of two instruments, and use the third hour to rotate daily through the other three instruments.

For pedagogical information on specific instruments, try my woodwinds page.

How good do I have to be at a secondary instrument before I can claim to “play” it?

There’s no clear answer here. But I suggest that you be able to play it consistently in tune with a characteristic tone quality before you go looking for gigs. By the time you reach that point, you should probably also be able to play basic major and minor scales and arpeggios throughout the standard range of the instrument.

Any tips on buying instruments?

Buy the best ones you can afford. Good instruments, well maintained, will serve you for a lifetime. And if it’s not your primary instrument, then you especially need a quality instrument. A specialist on that instrument might be able to make an inferior instrument work, but a doubler can’t afford that.

Sometimes I hear people refer to specific models of instruments, or especially mouthpieces, as being good for doublers. I’m not sure what that means, but if it means, say, a mouthpiece that will let you play clarinet with a saxophone embouchure, then it’s probably not a good idea. Get equipment that a specialist on that instrument might use, and learn to use it properly.

For tips on buying specific instruments, click here now.

Do you play them all at the same time? Ha ha.

Very funny. And original. But such things have been attempted, with rare successes. Try this.