The amazing shrinking woodwind section: increasing demands on woodwind doublers

May 26, 2014

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.

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