Some woodwind problems with competition repertoire rules

Here are some repertoire-related problems I’ve encountered trying to get my woodwind students signed up for competitions. These range from significant national/international competitions down to small competitions within my own university music department. Some are competitions designed by woodwind-savvy folks and some aren’t. I mention these problems here in the hope that it will be helpful in designing competitions that are fair and sensitive to the particular repertoire quirks of the woodwind family.

Style periods. The clarinet’s repertoire really takes off in the Romantic period (with some notable Classical exceptions), and the saxophone’s doesn’t really get going until the 20th century. Competitions that have requirements related to style periods make things difficult for these instruments, especially if there are restrictions on playing transcriptions. It can also be a challenge if rules for determining style period aren’t clear: can I count something like a Saint-Saëns woodwind sonata as Romantic, even though it was likely written in the 1920s?

Accompaniment. While a pianist, classical guitarist, etc. can play significant repertoire alone, most wind-instrument repertoire is accompanied. This involves extra cost, rehearsal time, and logistics for the woodwind entrant. Concerto repertoire in particular often has unrealistic piano reductions that require a pianist who is both skilled and creative (and therefore expensive and busy). There exists unaccompanied repertoire, to be sure, but pieces of this nature often provide significant challenges to the less-experienced woodwind player. To write convincing unaccompanied works, composers often write for virtuoso players capable of filling up the space with notes. Stamina issues, too, are different for wind players than for pianists and others, and unaccompanied pieces can be especially taxing.

Timing. Competitions that favor singers tend to have shorter time limits, which circumscribe repertoire options for instrumentalists, particularly if there are restrictions on playing partial pieces or making cuts.

Cost. Pianists, singers, violinists, and others can buy large collections of public-domain repertoire by great historical composers for relatively little money. More recent works, such as those for the clarinet and saxophone, are much more likely to be under copyright and sold individually at higher prices. For me as a teacher, this means that I have in my file cabinet, for example, only so many unaccompanied-pieces-for-sophomore-level-clarinet-players-that-fit-within-eight-minutes-and-are-flashy-enough-for-competition. Are there more pieces out there? Definitely, but even to look at the scores may require expensive purchases. There probably won’t be IMSLP downloads or many YouTube performances to peruse.

Multiple instruments. There is significant clarinet repertoire for clarinets in B-flat and for clarinets in A. Saxophone repertoire favors mostly the alto and the soprano saxophones, but also exists for tenor and baritone instruments. Competitions with too-tight restrictions on playing “more than one instrument” limit options for these entrants. It’s a nice courtesy if there is time and patience for entrants needing to bring a second instrument up to temperature before starting, or to wet a second reed.

Many of these concerns dissipate at least somewhat at high levels of competition. But smaller competitions are often geared more toward participation opportunities than toward crowning victors, and a little care in designing the rules can help achieve this goal.

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