Woodwind doubling and the “main” instrument

I identify very much as a woodwind player: as far as I’m concerned, if it’s a woodwind, it’s part of what I do. But when I introduce myself to someone that way, I am frequently asked, “But which one is your main instrument?”

I am hesitant to give a straightforward response to this. To identify a “main” instrument feels like an admission of failure. I work hard to play all of my instruments at a high enough level to be qualified for whatever gig you were thinking of hiring me for—if I pick just one, are you going to write me off as a possibility for the others?

photo, Neil Moralee
photo, Neil Moralee

Do I genuinely play all of my instruments at the very same ability level? Of course not. It would take some strange kind of balancing act to keep them perfectly equal all the time. I do have a woodwind that I played for a decade before getting serious about any of the others, the one I earned a bachelor’s degree in performance with (my graduate degrees are “multiple woodwinds” degrees). To some extent, that one still is my comfort zone, though that gap is very slowly closing.

Not all woodwind doublers feel the same way about it, nor should they, necessarily. There are lots of ways to be successful and fulfilled as a woodwind player. But my own goal is to play them all well enough that I could convincingly claim any of them as a “main” instrument. My favorite compliment is when, after hearing me play several instruments, someone still asks which is my main one. Sometimes I receive that compliment, and sometimes I don’t.

Comments

  1. Jim Kahre

    So where were you on your musical journey when you first described yourself as a woodwind player?

    I unintentionally reached a happy milestone a few weeks ago. I was talking with someone in a nonmusical setting when we each learned the other is a musician. He asked what I played and without thinking I replied “reeds”.

    It was probably a bit of an overstatement. I used to think of myself as a clarinetist, then started adding members of the sax family. At first when I played sax it sounded kind of painful. It’s getting better. I’ve played so much sax and so little clarinet the past six months identifying myself as a clarinetist doesn’t describe what I’ve been doing.

    Maybe if I played more instruments. Perhaps if I played a double reed or could get satisfactory sounds out of the flute stashed in the corner …

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  2. David Heine

    I’ve been playing members of the saxophone, clarinet, and flute families for over forty years. At first I was primarily a clarinetist, then played more saxophone and flute. After I retired several years ago from my day gig, I decided to take up the oboe (and English horn), expecting to play it occasionally as a double in a musical pit and maybe in a community orchestra.

    Well, playing oboe and English horn went beyond the community orchestra and occasional pit gig and now it seems that this year I’m playing oboe more than anything else. I was playing alto sax, including sometimes as a soloist, in a community band. When they needed a new oboist recently, I was asked to switch, and did. I have now been using the woodwind player tag and have no idea what my “main” instrument is anymore.

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