Interview: Jonathan Tunick, Broadway orchestrator and more

Jonathan Tunick is a show business legend: a composer/arranger/orchestrator/musical director for stage and screen; a collaborator with Stephen Sondheim, Placido Domingo, Barbra Streisand, and too many more to mention; and a winner of many awards.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear from Mr. Tunick a few years ago, when he contributed some information to my list of Broadway shows. Recently we were in touch again and he was kind enough to answer some of my woodwind-player questions about his work.

Jonathan Tunick

I understand you have background in clarinet playing. Are you still actively playing?

Although I can play the piano after a fashion, the clarinet was my true instrument. My uncle, a dedicated amateur who studied with Bellison, started me on the instrument at age ten, turning me over after a few months to Harold Freeman of the NBC Symphony, with whom I studied for several years. As a college freshman I had a year of saxophone lessons with Jimmy Abato, who gave me a few clarinet lessons as well. Later when I entered Juilliard I studied (mostly clarinet, but some saxophone too) with Joe Allard, a wonderful man and teacher, for four years. I consider him my principal teacher.

I was a fair classical clarinet player, played bass clarinet in the Juilliard Orchestra, and could play either lead or jazz in a band. My flute (Haynes, Louis Lot piccolo) playing was mediocre but passable. I freelanced in New York playing orchestra, opera, dance band, theater, resort and club dates through the sixties until my arranging career superseded my playing and my horns went into the closet.

A few years ago I started playing the clarinet again; chamber music with friends and fronting a 14-piece swing band made up of Broadway musicians around New York. I play a 1959 Buffet clarinet picked out for me by Joe Allard, and alternate between a Selmer Table HS** c.1938 and a Leon Russianoff c.1950 mouthpiece (these are Chedeville blanks faced by George Jenney) with Vandoren #4 and #5 reeds from my stash still in their sealed boxes since the 1960s.

Does your background as a woodwind player inform your orchestrations? How so?

More so as an orchestral and big-band section player in general than specifically as a woodwind player. The orchestra player learns to understand the principles of intonation, attack, articulation, sound color, and balance in a way that the pianist never can. The pianist will tend to hear chords vertically and so stack notes on the score rather than considering the movement of the parts. He or she will be tempted to write for orchestral instruments patterns that are comfortable for the piano, for example, repeated wide skips, which may be awkward for woodwind and other orchestral instruments.

This is why most of the great arrangers have been orchestra players rather than pianists. This said, it must be noted that the exceptions are dramatic ones: Wagner, Debussy, Strauss, Mahler, Ellington, Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Ralph Burns, etc.

What factors do you have to consider when writing parts for woodwind doublers? Do you have any rules of “thumb” about how long of a player will need for an instrument switch, or which instruments can go together in a book, or other logistical issues?

When planning an instrument change (and I try to avoid them altogether whenever possible) I simply count out the bars of rest in tempo while mentally going through the motion of changing instruments. Four bars of moderate tempo, six or eight of fast are usually enough.

I usually organize my sections somewhat along the following pattern, although many variations are possible

  1. (The “lead” chair and “flute specialist”) Lead alto, flute 1, piccolo, alto flute, clarinet 1 or 3. Will usually play 1st clarinet unless busy on flute, in which case reed 2 or 3 will be clarinet 1.
  2. (The “second” chair) Alto 2, flute 2, piccolo, clarinet 2.
  3. (The “clarinet specialist) Tenor, flute 3, clarinet 3 or 1, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet.
  4. (The “oboe specialist”) Tenor, oboe, English horn, clarinet 4.
  5. (The bassoon and “big horns” specialist) Baritone, bassoon, clarinet 5, bass clarinet.

If you eliminate the saxophones, a pattern more suited to operetta or classical players emerges:

  1. Flute, piccolo (optional clarinet double)
  2. Clarinet 1 (optional other clarinets and flute 2 double)
  3. Clarinet 2 (optional other clarinets and flute 3 double)
  4. Oboe, English horn (optional clarinet double)
  5. Bassoon (optional clarinet, bass clarinet, flute double)

Here is a good plan for four reeds, with or without saxophones:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute 1, piccolo, clarinet 1 or 2
  2. Alto saxophone, flute 2, clarinet 1 or 2, bass clarinet (this might be on reed 4)
  3. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet
  4. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet (this might be on reed 2)

Phil Lang used a very versatile layout again with or without saxophones:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute 1, piccolo, clarinet 2 or 1
  2. Alto saxophone, clarinet 1, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet
  3. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet 3
  4. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, flute 2, clarinet 4

As bands become smaller, requirements become more stringent. Here is a typical format for three reeds:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute, piccolo, clarinet
  2. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet (much greater clarinet ability required of this player than with 5 or even 4 reeds)
  3. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet

If the score doesn’t require saxophones, The above formats work equally well without them; otherwise I try to do without doubles altogether, such as A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE, scored for 1. Oboe/English horn 2. B-flat/A clarinet and 3. bassoon, or INTO THE WOODS: 1. Flute/piccolo 2. Clarinet 3. Bassoon. This way I have a larger pool of accomplished players to choose from, especially out of town.

Do you often orchestrate for a Broadway-type woodwind section with specific doublers in mind, knowing their individual strengths, or do you more often write for musicians to be selected later? How much does that affect your writing?

I know my players well, and write to their particular abilities. Hiring a section is much like casting a show. I think of my players as specialists; the “flute specialist,” “oboe specialist,” “bassoon and big horns specialist,” etc., as well as the occasional need for a stylist: jazz, ethnic, etc. I assign solos according to the specialties. For example, the clarinet solo will not usually go to the oboe or bassoon specialist. When working out of town with an unfamiliar orchestra I am even more careful, avoiding unusual doubles altogether, even when assured by the contractor that he has people that “play all the instruments.” I remember all too well the guy who played bassoon, bass clarinet and baritone and they all sounded the same!

It seems that over the last few decades, woodwind sections for musicals have gotten smaller and smaller but also call for more and more instruments, including “world” instruments and other things. Is this true in your orchestrations?

In general, no. I use no more doubles than I ever did, and in most cases fewer. I want the player who plays the best, not the one who owns the most horns.

Do you have any advice for woodwind doublers who aspire to play on Broadway or other major venues?

Saxophone players seem not to realize the sheer brute power of this instrument. Three or four of them can swamp any brass section. They are amazed at how incredibly loud the saxes are when I invite one of them to come and listen up front. I’m always on the saxes to play softly, even under loud brass, and to use civilized mouthpieces with medium chambers and baffles.

But remember, this is just me. Other arrangers and leaders will have their own preferences and it’s up to you to find out what they want (very difficult) and do it for them (relatively easy).


Many thanks to Mr. Tunick for sharing his knowledge, and for all the great woodwind parts!

Review: “So You Want to Play in Shows…?” by Paul Saunders

I got a review copy of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a new woodwind doubling etude book. The author, Paul Saunders, is a woodwind player in London’s West End.

The book includes seven studies for doubler playing flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone. It also includes a piano accompaniment book, with piano part recordings available for free on the publisher’s website. This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? Chris Vadala’s book provides rests and trusts you to observe them. Gene Kaplan’s duo book pairs you with another woodwind doubler. Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room. (For a real-world challenge, cue up the recordings in a playlist, and sight-read the book beginning to end with no breaks between etudes.)

Saunders’s tunes are fun and musically satisfying—to my tastes, the best among the doubling etude books so far. Styles are what you might find in contemporary rock/pop-based musical theater. Here is a quick-and-dirty demo of etude #3, “How Cool Can You Be:”

Mr. Saunders emphasized to me that the etudes are intended for aspiring woodwind doublers, and therefore are of moderate difficulty. I would say So You Want to Play is not as challenging as the Vadala book, comparable overall to the Kaplan book. The most technically-demanding material nearly always falls to the clarinet. The flute parts tend to stay in a comfortable register, rarely breaking into the third octave, and maxing out at a high G. There is a note or two of saxophone altissimo. There are frequent instrument switches, a few of them very quick.

Mr. Saunders was also kind enough to send me early drafts of some a couple of etudes that will appear in a forthcoming second volume. They appear to be more difficult, with some swing feel and doubles on soprano and tenor saxophone.

As I’ve mentioned in reviews of previous materials, I wish there were more resources available for doublers that included the double reed instruments and/or auxiliary instruments. But, as you may know, double-reed doubling is less common in the West End than it is on Broadway, so this book is probably a good fit for most British woodwind players (like Mr. Saunders), and quite a few American ones. So You Want to Play is a solid addition to the flute/clarinet/alto materials available, challenging but fun for an up-and-coming doubler.

Finding information for the Woodwind Doubling in Musicals list

I continue to be amazed by all the interest in and support for my Woodwind Doubling in Musicals list. I hear frequently from musicians who have information to contribute or who just want to say hello or thanks. It’s pretty great.

Over ten years ago(!) when I started putting the list together, I spent a good deal of time and effort compiling data. I don’t do that very much anymore, partly because I have already picked over the most obvious sources, partly because I want to focus more time on teaching and playing music, and partly because I get better information when I get emails from woodwind players down in the orchestra pits with the reed books in front of them.

So these days my role in the list’s upkeep is basically that of editor, data-entry monkey, and mostly-benevolent dictator, and I count on you cool people to send me what you know. In the interest of encouraging and facilitating that, I’m going to dump here (in alphabetical order) some potential resources for gathering information. Maybe some of you know of other sources that you would like to share in the comments section. (I’ll selectively edit them into this post.) Enjoy!

Woodwind Doubling in Musicals

Show publishers, rental companies, etc.

Sometimes these websites list woodwind doublings. You might find that information under something like “orchestration,” or under something like “rental materials.” The information is often vague and has errors, but it’s a start. (Also, keep in mind that I do want submissions for shows that have no reed books, since a verified lack of reed parts can be useful to doublers.)

Information on specific productions

Sometimes in sources like this you can find the orchestra personnel, sometimes with their instruments listed. Or you may be able to use this information to, say, Google the orchestra members and possibly get in touch through a personal website or social media account. Please be super considerate and respectful of people’s time and privacy.

Miscellaneous

  • Google and social media sites. Sometimes people post information from productions, photos of program pages, etc. Sometimes musicians put a brag list on their personal websites of what shows they have played. Or, sometimes you can find out something like a musical director’s name, get in touch, and ask for information (maybe the doubling information itself, or maybe a connection to the woodwind players). Again, be incredibly sensitive about hitting up strangers on the internet.
  • Musical Theatre Reed Book Orchestrations – I believe this one actually precedes my list, though I didn’t discover it until mine was already online. I don’t think it has been updated in a number of years.

Have information to submit? Check out the contribution guidelines and send it along. Thanks, you’re awesome.

The amazing shrinking woodwind section: increasing demands on woodwind doublers

There is a long tradition of using small orchestras in musical theater as a money- and space-saving consideration. Presumably, if budgets and orchestra pit square footages were unlimited, full symphonic orchestras would be used for theater like they are for movies, with an 8-12(+)-piece orchestral woodwind section, plus perhaps a 5-piece saxophone section. But let’s go back a few decades and examine the compromises. Here are a couple of examples:

Flower Drum Song

(from original 1958 orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute, alto flute
  2. Piccolo, flute
  3. Oboe, English horn
  4. Clarinet, alto saxophone
  5. Clarinet, alto saxophone
  6. Bass clarinet, tenor saxophone

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

(from original 1966 orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute
  2. Flute
  3. Clarinet
  4. Clarinet
  5. Bass clarinet, tenor saxophone

The Flower Drum Song orchestration uses a 6-piece woodwind section. The bassoons, sadly, are the first thing to go. The principal flutist has to double on both piccolo and alto flute, an uncommon compromise in the orchestral repertoire, where the doubling is often relegated to an auxiliary flute part to allow the principal to be at his or her soloistic best on a single instrument. (The second flutist also doubles piccolo, which is a bit more common.) Similarly, the oboist pulls double-duty as soloist on both oboe and English horn. The full clarinet section is expected to double not on auxiliary clarinets, but on saxophones.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is not quite as demanding on individual woodwind players; the first flute part does include piccolo (again, this is not typical symphonic-orchestral thinking), and the bass clarinetist doubles on saxophone. The double reed section is eliminated completely.

photo, NK Eide

Now let’s look at how these shows’ orchestrations have been revised in more recent revivals:

Flower Drum Song

(from 2002 revival orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute, alto flute, dizi in C, D, E-flat, F, and B, bamboo flutes in E, F, and G
  2. Flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone
  3. Flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
  4. Clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, tenor saxophone

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

(from 1999 revival orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano recorder, kazoo

44 years later, Flower Drum Song’s woodwind section has shrunken from six musicians to four, but the number of instruments has boomed from 13 to 25. The first flutist is expected to play some “world” woodwinds in addition to an array of orchestral flutes, and the other three woodwind players each cover instruments from three or four woodwind families, with multiple members from at least one of those families.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’s revival after 33 years drops the woodwind section from five musicians down to one. The lone woodwind player covers seven instruments from (arguably) five families: two flutes, a clarinet, two saxophones, a recorder, and a kazoo (which, despite being vaguely woodwind-like in form, is not one). As the only player of each of these instruments, this musician should expect to be prepared to sound like a convincing soloist on each.

Based on these examples and others, two trends seem to be emerging in theater orchestrations:

  1. Fewer woodwind players.
  2. More colorful orchestrations. In the case of both of these shows, the new orchestrations are not simply a slimming-down of a too-expensive woodwind section—new sounds are being introduced. In some cases these might be meant to rebalance the orchestra due to cuts in other sections, but it also seems that recent orchestrations involve creative choices tending toward a broader aural palette.

Both of these mean greater demands upon woodwind players. 21st-century woodwind players need to be able to play a greater number of instruments, from a pool no longer limited to the orchestral woodwinds and saxophones, at a soloist level on each instrument. The common 20th-century clarinet/saxophone or flute/clarinet/saxophone doubler may find him- or herself less employable than in previous years, and less able to hide in the section on a weaker double. Double reeds are a must, and so are auxiliary instruments (piccolo, larger flutes, English horn, clarinets and saxophones of any size) and world or historical woodwinds.

As the number of woodwind chairs shrinks and the standards of musicianship and versatility rise, the specialist and the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none will both be out of a job, and the rare jack-of-all-trades-master-of-each will become an increasingly hot property.

Update: Woodwind Doubling in Musicals

I’m pleased to announce the release of a very much new-and-improved version of what used to be my “Woodwind doubling in Broadway musicals” page. Now it’s just “Woodwind Doubling in Musicals,” since I long ago abandoned any idea of limiting it to shows produced on Broadway.

Woodwind Doubling in Musicals

Here is what’s new, besides the title:

  • Each show now has its own page. I know some of you will object to this change. Sorry. This has been a long time coming; almost 1,100 shows is clearly way too many for one page. Splitting things up shouldn’t really slow you down if you are using the list as a reference and looking up shows using the navigation at the top of the page; it is, admittedly, less convenient for idle browsing. It is also kinder bandwidth-wise to those visiting from mobile devices, which is more and more of you.
  • This is huge: there is now a commenting system. Many of you who have contributed over the years (since about 2005!) have included insightful commentary along with the specifics of instrumentation for each show, and I haven’t had a good way to incorporate that information. Please go to town sharing useful information on each show’s individual page.
  • There are some new ways to browse, including by production location, year, etc. This information is far from complete, so please please help me fill in the blanks. In the earliest days of the list, I didn’t keep track of sources or of any background info on each show, so there are still a lot of listings that are pretty bare other than instrumentation.
  • If you want to keep track of the very latest updates and are RSS-savvy, you can hook up to feeds. The most useful ones are probably the main site feed, which delivers the most recently modified listings, the whole-site comments feed, and the comments feeds for individual shows that you care about.
  • You can now “register.” There aren’t a lot of really clear reasons to do so at this point, but it creates the possibility in the future that I could extend editing privileges to trusted contributors. And I’ll tell you what: if you register for an account and send a donation of any amount at all (except I think the PayPal minimum is a buck), then I’ll turn off advertisements for you when you’re signed in.
  • Which reminds me, there are ads on the individual show pages. I know. But I have put many, many hours into this thing. Also, I would happily consider running your ads instead if you have something relevant to promote and want to purchase some space.
  • I have brought back the Frequently Asked Questions, and created a new page with hints and guidelines for submitting information.

Please do check it out.

Which instrument should I learn next?

Photo, Jon Delorey

One of the questions I get most frequently from aspiring woodwind doublers is “Which instrument should I learn next?”

The short answer is “Whichever you want.” Woodwind doublers’ motivations (career, artistic, or personal) are varied, and your interests and goals should override any advice I (or anyone) can offer. If you really want to learn to play a certain instrument, then no need to read further—that’s the one you should tackle next. And if you don’t feel motivated about a certain instrument, then your chances of success aren’t good.

But many of the doublers I hear from have designs on picking up several instruments over the long term, and are just looking for advice to maximize some aspect of their current careers:

Employability

If your goal is to get as many doubling gigs as possible, then there are some relatively common combinations of instruments that are used for musical theater, jazz big bands, and other commercial-type live-performance situations. (If you play another combination, then there are probably still opportunities out there if you find them or make them yourself.) Some of the common ones are:

  • Flute, clarinet, and saxophone. For jazz situations, you need good saxophone chops coupled with a good grasp of jazz style and possibly improvisation. If doubling is required, it will almost always be C flute, B-flat clarinet, or both, and often the bar isn’t terribly high on these. For theater, you will find that the weighting depends on the show and the book; often the Reed 1 and Reed 2 books both call for flute, clarinet, and saxophone, but Reed 1 might have the lead flute parts and solos, and Reed 2 is the lead/solo clarinet part. If it’s a jazz-heavy musical, then either part might call for orchestral-type soloing on flute or clarinet, plus demand convincing lead alto saxophone playing. Theater books are also likely to call for doubling on “secondary” instruments like piccolo, E-flat clarinet, and soprano saxophone.
  • Low reeds. In a jazz big band, this means primarily baritone saxophone with some bass clarinet (and occasionally B-flat clarinet and/or flute). For theater, a more “classical” show will likely be bassoon-heavy, with bass clarinet and baritone saxophone doubles; a jazzy show will lean toward baritone saxophone and bass clarinet with less (or no) bassoon. Bass saxophone and contrabass clarinets occasionally appear as well; most smart arrangers will provide ossia lines to enable covering these on more standard instruments.
  • Oboe specialist. This surprising combination shows up in many musicals: oboe, sometimes with English horn, plus B-flat clarinet and tenor saxophone. Generally the oboe and English horn parts call for a soloist-level player, with little more than inner harmonies on the single reed instruments.

Reader email: Chinese woodwinds

Some dizi and xiao from my collection

I recently got email from a reader about the use of Chinese woodwinds in theater and film music. I did my best to answer his questions, and I’m posting them here in case they are of use to anyone else. Both questions and answers are edited here for length and awesomeness.

My question for you is about bamboo flutes. I see the term bamboo flute thrown around (such as in the reed 1 book for Aida) and I wonder what exactly that means. Do those musicians own 12 bamboo sticks with holes drilled in them, or do they use a specific style of bamboo flute from a particular part of the world?

If the part calls for “bamboo flute” with no other clarification, I think that leaves it pretty well open to interpretation by the flutist and musical director. Aida is set in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, where, according to my Wikipedia research, bamboo per se did not grow. Probably the best-known bamboo-ish Egyptian flutes are neys, made from bamboo-like reeds.

My guess is that most woodwind players would substitute some variety of bamboo transverse flute, such as an Indian bansuri, a Chinese dizi (perhaps with the buzzing membrane replaced by a piece of tape), or a non-culture-specific bamboo flute like those sold by Erik the FlutemakerDoug Tipple’s PVC flutes make an excellent and economical substitute for bamboo, with nice tone (I dare you to hear the difference) and consistent intonation and response. You might be able to contact musicians who have worked on specific shows, and find out what solutions they came up with; the Internet Broadway Database is a good starting point.

Your listing for The Lion King is much more specific, which brings me to my next question: dizi keys. I happen to be in China right now. Tunable dizi flutes are cheap, and one-piece dizi are cheaper. Do I need 12 tunable dizi? What keys are actually played in theater and film in the US? Continue reading “Reader email: Chinese woodwinds”

Interview: Gene Scholtens, Broadway woodwind doubler

Gene Scholtens

One of the awesome things that has happened since I started my list of reed books in musicals is that great people from all over the world have contacted me to contribute to the list. These contacts are always a pleasure for me personally, and they serve to make the list more accurate, complete, and useful for others.

I have a number of regular contributors who contact me periodically with updates, and until recently the record was nearly twenty individual contributions from one much-appreciated person.

That record was shattered when, a few months ago, I started getting emails from Gene Scholtens. The first email was a small correction for one show, but then the floodgates opened. Gene revealed that he has been playing woodwinds in Broadway orchestras for over thirty years, and has been keeping his own very comprehensive log of who plays which doubles on which shows. Gene’s contributions to my list at the time of this writing number a staggering 72.

As it turns out, Gene is not only a talented musician and a prolific record keeper, but also a very nice, humble, and generous guy, and graciously agreed to talk to me on the phone about his career. Here’s what he had to say. [Note: edited for length.]

 

BP: How many shows have you played?

 

GS: I’ve been playing on Broadway since roughly 1980. The last count was somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-95 shows.

 

Wow. Continue reading “Interview: Gene Scholtens, Broadway woodwind doubler”

From WindWorks Design: Wind controller in a pit orchestra

Photo, mabel.sound

“Gertjan” at the WindWorks Design blog posted some interesting comments about using a wind controller in a local production of Seussical the Musical. Gertjan (I wasn’t able to positively identify him from the WindWorks website, but maybe he will find his way here and let us know who he is) played saxophones in the show as well, and used the wind controller to cover a number of wind and non-wind instrument parts.

Although it gives me a little indigestion to see a wind controller substituting for woodwinds that might otherwise have been played by a doubler, I do think there is application for wind controllers in orchestra pits. Keyboard-driven synthesizers are ubiquitous in recent shows (or are sometimes used to replace other instruments, especially a string section), and, in some cases, a wind synth might be even better suited to certain kinds of synthesizer parts. Gertjan mentions some synthy sounds like “vocal doo,” “scary voices,” and “ghostly shimmering breathy sound,” all of which strike me as likely to be very effective with a wind synthesizer’s breath control. Some others, like “harp” and “tinkle bell” seem like they might be more intuitively assigned to a keyboard. Continue reading “From WindWorks Design: Wind controller in a pit orchestra”