Time required for instrument switches

Photo, mbshane

I got some questions by email yesterday from Sy Brandon, about the multiple woodwinds piece (Divertissement) he is writing funded by my Co-op Press Commission Assistance Grant. He is considering a movement that involves switching between instruments, and wanted to know about some of the technical details. Here are my answers:

Keeping reeds wet is a minor hassle but quite doable, especially for a movement that’s only a few minutes long.

Time required for switching instruments is an interesting question. Short answer: anything shorter than about five seconds is risky.

A slightly shorter switch might be possible with something like saxophone to flute or clarinet, since you can just let the saxophone hang from its neckstrap. And switches among flute and clarinet and, to a lesser extent, oboe (due to its fragile reed) are reasonably fast because there aren’t any straps to unhook and you can pick one up while you’re setting the other down. Bassoon is more difficult—it uses either a seat strap or a somewhat awkward harness, and definitely requires both hands to pick it up or put it down.

Slower switches (8-10 seconds or more) are safer and even provide a chance to re-wet the reed, etc., but doublers are used to having to shift gears quickly and sort of pride themselves on it. It may be worth taking the visual aspect into consideration—it can become a little bit of a comedy act if the switches are frequent. Not that a little humor is bad, as long as it’s intended.

Like most doublers, I’ll make any reasonable effort to accommodate even the fastest switches, but if some little thing goes wrong (a tangled neckstrap, an instrument stand moving on a slippery stage, etc.) I will sacrifice the entrance to rescue my instruments.

One thing that I didn’t mention in my emailed answer, but that is worth considering as a performer, is whether to sit or stand in performance. The advantages of sitting are that you can use a bassoon seat strap (still my preferred method) and that you’re down closer to your instrument stands. Sitting also becomes a requirement if you are using any instrument supported by a floor peg, such as one of the larger clarinets. Standing, on the other hand, makes for a nicer stage presence and may contribute to better playing posture.

It should also go without saying that good, reliable stands are also a must for quick instrument switches. Don’t skimp!

I’d be interested to hear other doublers’ thoughts or tips—leave a comment below if you have something to contribute.


9 responses to “Time required for instrument switches”

  1. As long as we’re considering just the time to switch instruments, I think to/from bass clarinet is the slowest switch for me. My Hercules bass clarinet stand holds the instrument securely – perhaps a little too securely. The Hercules stand works best for me if it is more beside the chair than in front of it, which at least results in the music stand not interfering with the switch. The second slowest switch for me is to/from tenor sax. Getting it under the music stand and into its stand without bumping anything is sometimes challenging.

    1. Hi Jim,

      I’ve done quick bass clarinet changes by not even removing the instrument from the stand—situating it so that I can just tilt the instrument to me with the peg still in the stand’s base. (Mine is a similar design to the Hercules.) I usually try to keep the tenor at my right hand—as close to playing position as possible. If I slouch for a second, I can just hook up the neckstrap, sit up, and be ready to go. Or, of course, you can plan ahead for a quick switch and keep the tenor in your lap, neckstrap attached, while playing flute or even (awkwardly) clarinet.

  2. I have to switch from bari sax to bass clarinet all the time. I just let the bari sit on my lap with the strap still on and play the bass clarinet out front of that with a peg. Still 8 second or less to swap drive me crazy.

  3. Ron Nelson Avatar
    Ron Nelson

    There is not only the time to change instruments in the hands, but getting the mouth ready too. Any sax or clarinet to flute or piccolo, especially if it has been a number of minutes since the flute or picc has been played is difficult. Five seconds is not long. 8 to 10 if better.

    1. Hi Ron,

      For me the biggest part of getting the mouth ready is getting the brain ready. If I can successfully make the mental shift, I can mostly count on the body to follow.

      Granted, flute and piccolo are something of a special case because of the particular demands on the embouchure. If I do a good, thorough warm-up on flute before the gig, I find that my embouchure stays in better shape even if I’m doing a lot of reed playing in between.

      1. Ron Nelson Avatar
        Ron Nelson

        You hit it on the head, Bret. The key to the whole thing is the warmups. That’s the reason why my standard is 5 minutes warmup time on each instrument. SO…if I have all 6 of mine (soprano, alto, tenor, clarinet, flute, piccolo) on a gig (and I did that for 1 show), then I need 30 minutes. And the flute and picc may get steal an extra minute from 1 of the reeds.

  4. Richard Krishnan Avatar
    Richard Krishnan

    The slowest change for me is baritone saxophone to / from bassoon because the both hang over on the right side of the lap when being played. For shows that call for bari sax, bass clarinet, and bassoon, I have the bari on the right on a Hercules stand and I can play it while still on the stand, the bass clarinet tilts over from front-left with the peg still on the stand to play from there and the bassoon rests, still attached to the seat strap, on the neck of the bassoon stand which is next to the bass clarinet stand. Every thing is precariously positioned but makes the under 2 seconds switches possible. So short time is possible, but stressful. I would be very grateful for 5+ seconds for a switch.

  5. I’m a jazz player doubling on clarinet and sax. My biggest challenge in switching is that the instrument I’ve just picked up has invariably cooled off a bit, and will play somewhat flat. Since I live in Canada, this can sometimes be a real challenge during the winter. No kidding! So even if I’ve warmed everything up completely prior to a gig, I hope for a furtive moment or two of blowing hot air through my horn before wailing away.

    1. Musicknitter Avatar

      I hear you! I play a show with the air conditioning blowing right on my doubles. I tune cold. Most times on this particular show I don’t play enough for the double to warm up. Plus most of the brass players play a little sharp. So it works out! Short clarinet barrels help too.

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