Woodwind doubling in musical theater orchestras: Taking the insanity out of Crazy for You

June 1, 2003

Crazy for You is a Broadway-style stage musical by Ken Ludwig. The show, which premiered in 1992, uses songs written by George and Ira Gershwin for musicals in the 1930’s. In January and February, 2003, the Brigham Young University Department of Theatre and Media Arts and School of Music produced the show.

Synthesis, BYU’s award-winning jazz ensemble directed by Dr. Ray Smith, filled the role of pit orchestra. The five-member Synthesis saxophone section became an orchestral woodwind section, with a combined arsenal of over twenty instruments. The practice of “doubling,” or playing more than one instrument, is common in theater orchestra woodwind sections. A woodwind doubler may be expected to play instruments from all five woodwind families (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone) in a single show!

The woodwind parts in Crazy for You provide an excellent case study for the challenges facing the woodwind doubler. The show requires five woodwind players. The first woodwind part calls for flute and piccolo, clarinet, and soprano and alto saxophones. The musician playing this part is the primary flute, piccolo, and soprano saxophone soloist, as well as the lead saxophonist in saxophone ensemble passages. Special considerations include extensive use of the extreme high ranges of the flute and piccolo, as well as trills in less-common keys and in the high register; and jazz inflections, including pitch bends, in the saxophone parts.

The second woodwind part includes flute and piccolo, B-flat and optional E-flat clarinets, alto saxophone, and ocarina or pennywhistle. The player should be prepared to function as clarinet and jazz alto saxophone soloist. All E-flat clarinet parts can be played on B-flat clarinet, and ossia (alternate written parts) are provided, though some sections demand use of the upper altissimo when played on B-flat clarinet. The clarinet passages include some difficult technical material. There is some lead alto saxophone playing in ensemble sections. The pennywhistle passage (optionally playable on ocarina) is transposed incorrectly for a G whistle in the printed part; it can be played on a high G pennywhistle if rewritten down a minor seventh, or on a D whistle reading the ocarina line (a half-holed or cross-fingered C-natural is required in this case).

The third woodwind player contributes oboe and English horn, clarinet, and tenor saxophone. This musician will play oboe and English horn solos, but will generally play inner ensemble voices on clarinet and saxophone. Some oboe passages include difficult technical material. Switching instruments causes special problems here for the oboist, who must take special pains to keep reeds adequately wet while playing other instruments. The fourth woodwind part requires flute and piccolo, clarinet and bass clarinet, and tenor saxophone. There are few marked solos (those marked are on bass clarinet), but this part may be the most demanding overall, requiring solid technical ability on flute, clarinets, and saxophone. The fifth woodwind part calls for bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, and bassoon. Solo material falls mostly to the bassoon. The bassoon passages also present the most difficult technical material. The bassoonist should be prepared to read tenor clef and play to a high D (a major ninth above middle C).

All the woodwind parts require more than a passing acquaintance with each instrument, including technical ability, beautiful and soloistic tone, and accurate pitch. The last is of special importance due to passages played behind singers on the stage, or in combination with strings, brass, keyboards, or other woodwinds. A woodwind passage in which none of the players is playing their “main” instrument can be a hair-raising experience if not done with sensitivity and care.

Individual effort will be crucial to the success of the pit orchestra woodwind section. No substitute can be made for thorough preparation on each instrument; the smart doubler will seek out private instruction from the most qualified teachers. Instruments and mouthpiece should be of the highest quality affordable, and in perfect working condition. Reeds should likewise be selected and prepared with extreme care. It is recommended that each musician study his or her part assiduously, noting difficult or exposed material. Musicians should practice all parts thoroughly, including switching instruments within the time allotted. Before each rehearsal and each performance, a full warmup should be carried out on each instrument, with attention to tone production as well as fingering.

The woodwind section must work as a group to achieve musical blend, matched intonation, and consistent interpretation. Ideally, the woodwind section should have additional rehearsals without the rest of the orchestra, in order to expose and solve problems within the section.

Break a leg!

Comments

  1. Dr. Alan Mandel

    We are performing this musical at a local high school, I am on REED 2 For the penny whistle part, I am using a GARKLEIN (sopranissimo C recorder—need smaller fingers, I think). For reed 4, we have a musician playing the oboe parts on sop. sax, the English Horn part on alto sax (Both require a M2nd transposition, so that’s easy).

    The extreme piccolo pasages are a pain, esp. the high G to high A trill in the Can-Can section…but that’s life!

    Thanks for all the info!

    Reply

  2. Bret Pimentel (Your host)

    Hi Alan,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing a few ideas for substituting instruments.

    My fingers are too big for my garklein, too. Maybe a sopranino would do?

    Reply

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