The woodwind doubler as orchestral utility player

orchestral flutist
Photo, Scott Schram

I got an interesting email recently. I’ve edited it heavily and fictionalized almost all the details, since I’m using it here without permission, but you’ll get the idea:

Dear Bret,

I found your web page through a Google search. My company is presenting a themed cruise for classical music lovers departing from Seattle in February, featuring performances by a full symphony orchestra.

I am looking to hire a woodwind doubler to serve as a sort of human insurance policy, should something happen to one of our woodwind players while we are out to sea. I’m wondering if you know anyone in the area who would be interested. We will rehearse in Seattle before departure. Compensation is room and board on the ship and travel to the Hawaiian islands, plus $50 per service to attend all rehearsals, and $100 per concert if called upon to perform. I need someone who can play flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, and the repertoire is standard symphonic fare: Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, etc.

Let me know if there’s anyone you could recommend for this. There’s a nearby university with a degree program in multiple woodwinds, so I figure there must be a number of students or graduates who are available. I would like to hire someone in the area, since unfortunately we can’t pay for travel to Seattle.

Thanks!

Eddie Skousen, President

Classical Cruises, Inc.

I’ll confess to being sort of fascinated by the idea of being hired as a kind of utility backup for an orchestral woodwind section. And I did put out a call for some potential hires, but didn’t get any nibbles. It’s a creative idea, but there are a number of practical obstacles: Continue reading “The woodwind doubler as orchestral utility player”

Doubling fees under fire in Denver

oboe and English horn
Photo, quack.a.duck

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, like so many others, is facing a financial crisis that threatens its ability to continue making music. An opinion piece in Sunday’s Denver Post criticizes the Denver Musicians’ Association (AFM Local 20-623) for its unwillingness to budge on certain elements of its agreement with the orchestra.

The issues here are complex, and I hope that the DMA and the CSO will be able to come to a solution that is fair to all involved and that keeps the music alive. But this point in the authors’ list of complaints caught my eye:

Musicians performing on more than one instrument receive “doubling pay.”

I don’t have the full details of the doubling pay currently available to CSO members (though the amount doesn’t appear to be the issue here—it’s the fact that any doubling pay is offered that seems to offend). But a slightly-outdated agreement between the DMA and the Boulder Philharmonic, summarized below, shows a typical doubling pay structure, and it’s a reasonable guess that the CSO’s is identical or very similar:

  • 25% bonus for first double
  • 10% for each additional double
  • B-flat and A clarinets count as one instrument
  • Alto and tenor saxophones count as one instrument
  • Alto and bass clarinets count as one instrument
  • Piccolo, larger flutes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, contrabassoon, soprano saxophone, and saxophones larger than tenor each count as a double, even when used in common combinations (like flute plus piccolo)
Though I am not currently a union member (due to a dearth of union gigs in my area), I frequently ask for doubling fees when negotiating my pay for gigs. Here’s why doubling fees make sense to me as a woodwind player: Continue reading “Doubling fees under fire in Denver”

Why tune to the oboe?

Photo, nobleviola

Why do orchestras tune to the oboe?

Well, because it’s tradition, I suppose. But, realistically, in a professional group the pitch standard is likely determined in advance, and the oboist will use an electronic tuner to be sure they are giving precisely the correct pitch, so it could just as well be anyone.

But the principal oboist is almost always the keeper of the A. It seems like there are a lot of theories floating around as to why, none of which make the slightest bit of sense. I found all of these professed as gospel truth in less than five minutes of Googling:

  • Because the oboe can’t be tuned. Firstly: hogwash. (True, the oboe doesn’t have a built-in tuning slide. But an oboist can “tune” by switching reeds, and can humor individual notes sharper or flatter on the fly, just like any wind player.) Secondly: if we tune to the principal oboe because it can’t be tuned, then what is the second oboist expected to do? Or the harpist? Or the pianist?
  • Because the oboe’s pitch is the most reliable. More reliable than, say, the glockenspiel? Given a high-quality instrument, an excellent reed, a fine oboist, and a 72.0°F room, then yes, the oboe’s pitch ought to be pretty solid. But on a stage full of trained musicians, I can’t see any reason to expect it to be more reliable than anyone else’s.
  • Because the oboe can be heard better through the group, because of its volume or tone or something. If that’s the criteria for selecting a tuning instrument, then I suggest that we consider the trumpet, or perhaps the piccolo. The Wikipedia article on the oboe, incidentally, mentions both stability and “penetrating” tone as reasons for oboe tuning, but cites an online article that no longer exists.
  • Because the oboe warms up to pitch faster than the other winds. This could be true, but how much longer does it really take to warm a flute or clarinet or trombone up to pitch? Hopefully the other musicians aren’t tuning before their instruments are thoroughly warmed.

Continue reading “Why tune to the oboe?”

The woodwind section in Mozart’s late symphonies

Introduction

The woodwind section of the symphony orchestra has long held a place of preeminence. Woodwind historian Anthony Baines gushes: “…the woodwind [section] is a small cluster of musicians in whom the greatest virtuosity in the symphony or opera orchestra is concentrated. It is the orchestra’s principal solo section… They are stars because composers for over two hundred years have made them so…”1 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart certainly made stars of the woodwinds—in fact, he may have been the most important link between the string-heavy ensembles of the early symphonies and the lush, varied sounds of the post-Beethoven orchestra.

Nathan Broder points out that Haydn and a multitude of lesser figures made contributions during this same period. However, when comparing Haydn and Mozart:

Of the two, Mozart was the more progressive. Younger, more impressionable, more sensitive to contemporary music, and possessed of a wider knowledge of it because of his travels, it was he who, after having learned much from the symphonies of Haydn, took the lead and reached the pinnacle of pre-Beethoven instrumentation. It was he in whose work were combined all the progressive tendencies of the various outstanding composers of the time, and whose symphonies present a summing-up of orchestral advancement in the latter half of the eighteenth century.2

Continue reading “The woodwind section in Mozart’s late symphonies”

Dvorák’s “New World” and jazz music: Heirs to a common heritage

In 1892, Czech composer Antonín Dvorák came to the United States. He came at the invitation of a Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, a wealthy music lover who wanted him to head up her latest pet project—a conservatory of music meant to rival the famous conservatories of Europe.

Dr. Dvorák, already known for his use of traditional Czech musical elements in his compositions, arrived in the New World to find it rich with ethnic music. He was particularly impressed with the spirituals of the black slaves:

I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed with this idea and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. . . . In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. . . . There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.

Continue reading “Dvorák’s “New World” and jazz music: Heirs to a common heritage”