Check out this blog post by Helen over at the Bassic Sax blog for some thoughts from saxophone great Ernie Watts about the downside of doubling.
At some point, you end up in a mush of mediocrity.
Sam Newsome asks the question, “Can You Double And Still Be A Great Soprano Saxophonist?”
As I see it, if you play the soprano using a set-up that’s comparable to a much larger horn, you’re not dealing with the soprano on it’s own terms. It’s being treated as an extension of a much larger horn, and not as a separate entity.
Living jazz icon and soprano saxophonist David Liebman discusses his decision to abandon his doubles, even other saxophones:
There comes a point in an artist’s life that he or she must be objective and identify the strongest aspects of their work. After the first flush of talent and success with all the dreams and desires accompanying that stage, there naturally comes a point in development where concentration of energy becomes necessary and one can see that with increased focus greater gains may be realized. … I realized that in a given set of an hour when I played all three instruments it resulted in very few actual moments spent on each horn. It had always been clear to me that one of the most important aspects for attaining a high level was achieved by pure and simple instrumental virtuosity. The only way that is accomplished is by the sheer amount of man hours spent with the horn in your mouth. And that means ONE horn, because though the tenor and soprano belong to the same family of instruments, they are different in many ways. It was clear that the only way for me to advance further was to concentrate energy on one or the other horn.
If you’re not familiar with the Larry Krantz Flute Pages, you need to surf right on over and spend a few hours. Mr. Krantz has been building a major hub for web-connected flutists since back before many of us knew about the Internet. His site is a positively huge repository of flute-related wisdom, including contributed content by the likes of Trevor Wye, John Wion, and Robert Dick.
Mr. Krantz was a doubler in years past, apparently quite accomplished on flute, clarinet, and saxophone, and at least a dabbler in oboe. Nearly twenty years ago, however, he decided to give up doubling to focus on his flute playing.
Mr. Krantz discusses his decision at some length here, in excerpts from discussions on the FLUTE mailing list. While he speaks fondly of his years as a doubler, and points out many of the benefits of doubling, his ultimate conclusion was that doubling was not for him. The primary reason he gives for this decision is that, in his admittedly well-qualified opinion, it simply isn’t possible to maintain a truly fine embouchure on multiple instruments.