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.