Which instrument should I learn next?

Photo, Jon Delorey

One of the questions I get most frequently from aspiring woodwind doublers is “Which instrument should I learn next?”

The short answer is “Whichever you want.” Woodwind doublers’ motivations (career, artistic, or personal) are varied, and your interests and goals should override any advice I (or anyone) can offer. If you really want to learn to play a certain instrument, then no need to read further—that’s the one you should tackle next. And if you don’t feel motivated about a certain instrument, then your chances of success aren’t good.

But many of the doublers I hear from have designs on picking up several instruments over the long term, and are just looking for advice to maximize some aspect of their current careers:

Employability

If your goal is to get as many doubling gigs as possible, then there are some relatively common combinations of instruments that are used for musical theater, jazz big bands, and other commercial-type live-performance situations. (If you play another combination, then there are probably still opportunities out there if you find them or make them yourself.) Some of the common ones are:

  • Flute, clarinet, and saxophone. For jazz situations, you need good saxophone chops coupled with a good grasp of jazz style and possibly improvisation. If doubling is required, it will almost always be C flute, B-flat clarinet, or both, and often the bar isn’t terribly high on these. For theater, you will find that the weighting depends on the show and the book; often the Reed 1 and Reed 2 books both call for flute, clarinet, and saxophone, but Reed 1 might have the lead flute parts and solos, and Reed 2 is the lead/solo clarinet part. If it’s a jazz-heavy musical, then either part might call for orchestral-type soloing on flute or clarinet, plus demand convincing lead alto saxophone playing. Theater books are also likely to call for doubling on “secondary” instruments like piccolo, E-flat clarinet, and soprano saxophone.
  • Low reeds. In a jazz big band, this means primarily baritone saxophone with some bass clarinet (and occasionally B-flat clarinet and/or flute). For theater, a more “classical” show will likely be bassoon-heavy, with bass clarinet and baritone saxophone doubles; a jazzy show will lean toward baritone saxophone and bass clarinet with less (or no) bassoon. Bass saxophone and contrabass clarinets occasionally appear as well; most smart arrangers will provide ossia lines to enable covering these on more standard instruments.
  • Oboe specialist. This surprising combination shows up in many musicals: oboe, sometimes with English horn, plus B-flat clarinet and tenor saxophone. Generally the oboe and English horn parts call for a soloist-level player, with little more than inner harmonies on the single reed instruments.
So which instrument to take up next? If you play…
  • flute, then alto saxophone in a jazz style is your best bet, followed closely by B-flat clarinet. Chances are good that you already do some piccolo; if not, then it should perhaps be a priority. Alto flute is also fairly common for musicals. Don’t forget about the potential in folk, ethnic, and historical flutes as well.
  • oboe, then saxophone is a good choice, particularly tenor, with clarinet coming close behind. English horn is a must for a working oboist, too, whether doubling other woodwinds or not.
  • clarinet, then alto saxophone and jazz style should be at the top of your list, followed by flute. Even in clarinet-only situations in musicals, clarinet in A is fairly rare, but bass is quite common (even if you are the “lead” clarinetist), and E-flat pops up sometimes too.
  • bassoon, then baritone saxophone and bass clarinet are good choices (luckily you are already accustomed to crushing debt). For pedagogical purposes, I think it makes a certain amount of sense to start with alto or tenor saxophone and B-flat clarinet, but the lower instruments are what will get you the gigs, and, if you study them properly, I don’t see any real reason that you couldn’t jump straight to the big horns.
  • saxophone, then either flute or clarinet can be an equally good choice, perhaps to be followed shortly by the other. It’s worthwhile, too, to be a well-rounded saxophonist, with skills on at least soprano through baritone. If you are primarily a classical saxophonist, it’s time to really buckle down on jazz-style articulation and phrasing.
If you are proficient in four or more woodwind families, you might find yourself in situations where local theater musical directors always call you first, then assign you a book later depending on what other lesser-skilled doublers they can round up. Or that local orchestras like to bring you in to bat cleanup in the woodwind section: bass clarinet on this piece, third flute on that piece.

Profitability

Perhaps you aren’t concerned about gigging every night, but you would like to have some leverage on getting the best-paying jobs. In union situations (or other situations where you have enough leverage to set your own terms), you can usually get an additional percentage added onto your base pay for each additional double, so the more skills you have, the greater the potential earnings. There can also sometimes be “cartage” fees if you are transporting heavy instruments (such as baritone saxophone or contrabass clarinets).

Beyond that, I think it really depends on the opportunities (and the competition) in your area. Oboe has been particularly good for me for getting relatively high-paying gigs, even though it is probably not what I do best. I’ve also occasionally earned bonuses from desperate contractors when I’m the only doubler for miles around who is willing to play piccolo.

Pedagogy

One question that seems to come up often is whether skills on one specific instrument make it easier to learn another specific instrument. In other words, is there an optimal order for learning to play the woodwinds?

For me, the answer is a clear no. I find that only the most basic concepts (breath support, voicing, articulation, and maybe a few others) are really transferable between instruments, and, even then, the applications are different. “Similar” fingerings or embouchures are not necessarily an advantage if your goal is to sound like a specialist on each instrument. (There are many who disagree with me on this, since, for example, a good clarinetist can probably pick up a saxophone and play a reasonable beginner-level scale without much coaching and with only minor experimentation on fingering. If reasonable beginner-level scales are your goal, then, well, there you go.)

In conclusion

Often, the most interesting music for woodwind doublers is written with a specific musician’s skills in mind: a Broadway orchestrator does a woodwind-playing friend a favor by writing to his or her strengths (or adding a few bars of piccolo for that extra doubling fee), or a big band’s staff arranger makes sure to include plenty of clarinet for the second tenor player. If you are known for being good at what you do, then any combination of instruments can lead to great opportunities. However, you may need to fit into some pre-made opportunities until you get good and get known.

Practice hard and good luck!

Comments

  1. Syd Polk

    I started as a Bari/bass clarinet/clarinet guy. I got those books in musicals all of the time. I decided to get serious on flute and picc, and now I always get Reed I gigs. I miss playing bass clarinet; I almost never play it now.

    Reply

  2. Zoltania

    I think it’s better to start clarinet before starting saxophone. It seems to be much easier to learn the precision required for clarinet embouchure and finger hole coverage and then move to saxophone, which requires less precision (except at very high levels, of course), than the reverse course. I know people who have done the saxophone-to-clarinet thing and gotten quite good at clarinet, but it was very difficult for them.

    Reply

  3. Pierre Vyncke

    Nice article ! The irony is, I’m having my first flute lesson today, and according to your article, I couldn’t have chosen better.
    The problem is that up to know I haven’t really explored the other “family instruments” like the bass clarinet or the 3 other saxophones.
    I’d actually like your opinion on this : do you think that I should get my hands on those instruments early on or that it can wait and will be learnt more easily than picking up a brand new instrument like I’m doing with the flute today ?

    Thanks again for your wonderful and inspiring blog !

    Pierre

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Again, I would say it really depends on what you are motivated to do, perhaps with a sprinkling any of the above factors that apply to you (employability, profitability, etc.). Good luck!

      Reply

  4. Graham Lyons

    An interesting and accurate article.
    I earned my crust as a woodwind doubler, mainly in theatre pits. I had auditioned for music college, (52 years ago) on my only instrument, clarinet. There were 150 clarinetists trying for 4 places—but no bassoonists. The auditioning panel said they would accept me only if I changed to bassoon; which I sensibly did. After 4 years at college, I was lucky that only one other woodwind doubler in London played bassoon and knew about jazz phrasing’ And that situation continued for 30 years! In a mega-competitive profession I was hardly ever out of work.
    One comment on the doubles for bassoon. Arrangers think, “Bassoon, therefore bass clarinet, baritone.” All low instruments. I wished they think instead, “Bassoon, a large instrument, therefore we’ll give him alto sax and flute as doubles. Then he can have some room in the pit and he can change from one instrument to another quickly.”

    Reply

  5. Rhonda Rhodes

    I’m enjoying this discussion. My journey in “what to play next” has not been typical. I only played saxophones until I got to college. I started oboe “under the gun” almost. The failing health of an oboe player at college created an immidiate need for someone else to step up. Now, 30 years later, I’ve added clarinet and flute, but double reed playing gets me in the door for most gigs I do. I’m a music educator, so playing in pits and bands is a side thing for me. Can’t imagine life without it, though.

    Reply

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