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.


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:

  • Only a small subset of doublers can cover all of those instruments at even semi-professional level. It seems that many doublers are primarily saxophonists, so even if you can find someone with good flute, clarinet, and double reeds skills, there’s a good possibility that you’re hiring someone to play everything but their strongest instrument!
  • The pay scale indicated above hasn’t been altered from the original email. Though musicians’ fees vary widely based on location and a number of other factors, these numbers look quite low to me, especially considering there are no guaranteed performances. “Eddie” was looking for a relatively rare and highly skilled musician, but offering compensation that seemed rather amateurish. I expressed this opinion in a return email, and Eddie did indicate some willingness to work with a potential hire on this, since even substantially higher pay would be cheaper than bringing along a separate sub for each instrument.
  • I also mentioned to Eddie that this seemed like potentially a very high-pressure gig, with the doubler needing to be prepared to cover any of four principal spots or four second parts at a moment’s notice. Playing one principal woodwind chair is pressure enough! Eddie clarified that the doubler would most likely cover second parts, and the regular second players would be prepared to take over the principal parts if needed. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine a satisfactory rehearsal situation: I would definitely want to rehearse each part I would be expected to cover, but would the regular orchestra members be willing to hand over their own rehearsal time?
  • Even for departing from a fairly major city (not actually Seattle), I fear that Eddie may not be casting a wide enough net to find someone willing and able. The existence of a nearby multiple woodwinds degree program probably doesn’t guarantee as many local doublers as he is thinking. I graduated from two such programs; each of those programs reached a peak enrollment of two students while I was there, and each had had zero enrolled for several years within recent memory.
I would be curious to hear from anyone who has done a gig like this, on land or sea.

9 thoughts on “The woodwind doubler as orchestral utility player”

  1. “a sort of human insurance policy, should something happen to one of our woodwind players while we are out to sea”

    Ut Oh…….I’m scared

  2. If the person doing the hiring was realistic about the level of playing that they could expect from their emergency sub then it could potentially be a great opportunity for an aspiring college-level doubler in “Seattle”.

    Realistically though, a more tenable solution (assuming they can’t afford to hire four subs) would be to hire a clarinet/bass clarinet/flute player.

  3. If the player has to be available for the concerts, he or she needs to be paid for them, regardless of whether he or she actually plays any of them.

    • Agreed. We discussed this via email, and the person pointed out that part of the “compensation” included the free travel. I certainly wouldn’t have done it myself without a guaranteed paycheck.

  4. If there is no guarenteed paycheck, I can’t see a competent doubler taking this job. You are correct Bret, proposing that the doubler only be paid for actual performances is indeed amateurish. My high school-age daughter can and already does play symphonic music on all the woodwinds, and she is equal in ability on double and single reeds (perhaps she is unusual). There is no way she’d take a job like this one. Is the cruise ship actually proposing to pay the doubler less that the musicians playing single instruments? Wow.

  5. The idea of this is something I’d be completely interested in, but the pay is the only issue. I think reasonably, there should be some compensation for just being there on call. It doesn’t have to be as much as a full performance, but being on call, away from other job opportunities, means that you’ve lost out on some possible money. So, maybe it could be proposed that you get paid a certain amount for just being there, and an additional amount for playing.

    This, ironically, is almost like my situation with an orchestra I sub with regularly. Usually, barring any other conflicts, I’m on call to play. Usually it’s violin or viola, as there are 3 oboe positions filled in the orchestra, but she has me on backup to play oboe if anything happens. It’s a pretty nice deal. And with my violin background, and the greater probability that a violinist will drop out, I usually get to play. I haven’t had a chance to this season due to conflicts with school and another symphony job I recently won, but it does work out.

  6. 1) I completely agree with everyone’s comments about compensation being offered for simply being there. Saying you get to travel is up there with the “but you’ll get exposure” argument.

    2) Assuming this is a ship that has a showband orchestra…. Why doesn’t he contact the Musical Director on the ship that his charter is on and see if one of the saxophonists has really good flute/clarinet doubles that can cover those books and is willing to at that price? Sure, not everyone would, but it would be worth looking into it.

    If it was a charter that doesn’t use the band, they get paid anyways. And paying someone that is already on board $50/rehearsal and $100/show isn’t all that bad since you would be on board anyway. It would be a decent way to earn some extra cash.

    Assuming there is someone that can cover the flute/clarinet part, they could find an oboe/bassoon cover. They are going to be paying only 1 flight/cruise, and double-reed player would only have 2 books to cover.

    Less pressure all around and more practical in my humble opinion.


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