Advice on writing for doublers

Manuscript score
Photo, liza31337

I got an interesting question by email last week. I’m reprinting the message here, followed by the suggestions I sent in return (I’ve edited a bit).

Hi Bret,

I’m doing my first arrangement for a musical, which will be an amateur production.

I’m going to be hiring players from amateur/student orchestras (university), or simply people who play well enough to take on the parts. I don’t think at this time I will be able to have more than 3 wind players.

One wind player has advised (from their experience as a musician) not to expect a player at this level to be able to play both a single and double reed instrument. Is it common for this to be the case, in your own experience? Is there any doubling of a mix of certain double and single-reeds instruments that’s even commonplace amongst ‘amateur’ players?

Do you have any recommendations of how to group the players, in terms of if I only have 3 available, and they are ‘amateur’ (but still ‘good’) level?

I had a look at the reed books on this site, but had to bear in mind that when putting on professional productions, you’re more likely to find players who can switch between a wider range of instruments. Any tips you can provide would be greatly appreciated.


Thanks for stopping by my website and for taking the time to write. This is a great question with, I’m afraid, no great answers.

Woodwind doublers, like most commodities, are most easily found in larger cities, but can also pop up in odd places. Depending on where you are located, you may have more or fewer (or none) at your disposal. The best solution, when possible, is to line up your musicians in advance, and write for their strengths. Shows on Broadway are sometimes written this way.

Assuming that you can’t do that, you may have to hedge your bets somewhat. You might, for example, do something like this:

Reed 1: Piccolo, flute, clarinet [optional]

Reed 2: Flute [optional], clarinet, soprano saxophone [optional]

Reed 3: Bassoon, clarinet [optional]

In this case, the parts could be played by a flutist, a clarinetist, and a bassoonist. The optional parts could be notated on ossia lines for the “primary” instruments, or omitted according to your instructions. All of these books include clarinet writing, but you would want to put the important solos and the lead clarinet parts in book 2; likewise the Reed 2 flute parts would be harmony parts to Reed 1’s lead.

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Joseph Phillips and Ben Kono on woodwind doubling

In a blog post from last week, New York City composer Joseph Phillips discusses his ensemble Numinous and his decision to use woodwind doublers instead of a conventional orchestral woodwind section.

Joseph Phillips
Joseph Phillips. Photos stolen from Joseph’s post.

When I started Numinous back in the fall of 2000, I knew I wanted flexibility of colors in the woodwind section. Even though I’m a saxophone/woodwind player, I didn’t want a saxophone dominant sound to the section. I also didn’t want to have 10 woodwind players to cover saxophones, oboe, English Horn, flutes, clarinets, and whatever woodwinds I happen to write for. So the most natural solution was to have woodwind doublers who would be able to play multiple instruments. Of course with the demands of my music, I didn’t want or need a typical jazz saxophone doubler: someone that plays maybe passable flute or clarinet but not well enough to match their saxophone abilities. In addition to being able to improvise well on all of the instruments, I really need musicians whose abilities on the other woodwind instruments are all fairly equal and could move easily between jazz, classical, and popular genres.

One of Numinous’s woodwind players is Ben Kono, who currently plays the reed 1 book for Jersey Boys on Broadway. In Joseph’s blog post, he interviews Ben about his woodwind abilities:

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