Does woodwind doubling prevent you from being the “best?”

"20070402 - Clarinet - 005" by C.K.H. is licensed under CC BY-ND

My recent post about woodwind doubling has been cited lately on various social media sites to fuel discussions over whether doubling is a good or acceptable pursuit.

Many of those arguing that woodwind doubling is a bad idea raise the issue that the “best” players of such-and-such instrument don’t double, and you can’t be the “best” at such-and-such instrument if you are doubling. If you think that, I could name a dozen prominent doublers who might change your mind, but that’s not really the important point.

As an undergraduate saxophone major, I daydreamed occasionally about being the “best” saxophonist. For me it probably wouldn’t have been a realistic goal, and the pursuit of it wouldn’t have led me to happiness, nor to success as I would have seen it through that lens.

When I made the decision to commit myself to woodwind doubling as a career path instead, I knew that would mean my progress on the saxophone would slow down. But it has been a very worthwhile choice for me: I get to play interesting music in a variety of settings, I get to spend all day at my university teaching job talking about the music and instruments that fascinate me, and I even have an audience of like-minded folks who stop by to read my blog posts. Now it’s hard for me to imagine myself being content to play just saxophone music all day.

Most of us won’t land a top orchestral job or tour the world as a concert soloist. And, believe it or not, not all of us want that anyway. We should be encouraging aspiring musicians to seek out niches that they enjoy and are motivated by.

Very, very few of us will ever be the “best,” so if that is your goal then I wish you luck. But for many of us, myself included, that’s not the goal at all. Mine is to have a successful and enjoyable career doing what I love, and so far, so good.

Does woodwind doubling ruin your embouchure?

"Oboe reed" by quack.a.duck is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Nope.

We use our embouchure muscles for all kinds of things: facial expressions, speech, eating, kissing. Do any of those things “ruin” your embouchure? Of course not. The embouchure is made up of very flexible, agile muscles that are very capable of carrying out multiple tasks.

When people (almost always non-doublers) express concern about embouchure ruin, most of the time what they seem to be talking about is tension, or sensitivity loss, or buildup of callused tissue, or maybe strengthening the “wrong” muscles. If playing any woodwind instrument is giving you these kinds of problems, you are playing it wrong. Your embouchure for any and every woodwind instrument should be relaxed, balanced, and pain-free. Get some lessons with a qualified teacher, quickly.

Woodwind doubling presents real challenges. No need to invent fictional ones!

Favorite blog posts, January 2019

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Favorite blog posts, November 2018

  • Stephen Caplan embraces plastic oboes. Related: Elizabeth Brown lists some signs that your wooden oboe has a crack.
  • Clarinetist Miranda Dohrman gives advice on building a freelance career.
  • Jennifer Mackerras provides solutions for recorders slipping and sliding around in your hands.
  • Peter Westbrook shares a 2003 interview with Herbie Mann, covering aspects of jazz flute playing, woodwind doubling, and more.
  • Oboist Jennet Ingle offers some suggestions on a good mindset for solo performance.
  • Clarinetist Jenny Maclay lists some reasons you might not be improving as much as you would like.

Clarifying woodwind doubling goals

photo, Aprilyn Podd

A couple of months ago, I wrote this as part of a sort of tongue-in-cheek FAQ:

Q. Should I be a woodwind doubler?
A. In most cases, no. If you already feel driven to do it, and have the time and resources to devote to it, then maybe.

I got a comment on this by “C Lee”:

I’m a teen who started playing pits last year on flute and piccolo a year ago. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with pit, have played in four more musicals and am actively seeking out other gigs to gain experience. In addition, I’ve also taken up the saxophone and have plans to learn as many woodwinds as I can if not all of them. Do you think I should be a woodwind doubler?

It would be irresponsible to make a recommendation based on so little information, and of course it’s ultimately a very personal choice. I’ve previously suggested some questions worth asking oneself before pursuing woodwind doubling, so I won’t rehash those here.

But I think it’s also worth considering exactly what you mean by being a “woodwind doubler:”

  • Playing as many instruments as possible?
  • Playing a select group of instruments?
  • Playing multiple instruments as a hobby or part-time semi-pro gig?
  • Studying multiple instruments at a university/conservatory level?
  • Playing professionally or semi-professionally as a specialist on one instrument, but adding doubles to increase employability?
  • Competing for the highest-profile doubling gigs in a major market like New York City or Los Angeles?
  • Performing recital repertoire, orchestral music, and/or chamber music on multiple instruments?
  • Using multiple instruments in the creation of a unique personal repertoire (jazz, avant-garde, electronic, etc.)?

Your individual goals might include several of these, or others I haven’t listed. And your goals might be a little fuzzy or might change, which is okay. But just “woodwind doubler” isn’t a very clear path. Having some sense of direction might help you make decisions about education and training, investment in instruments, location, practice strategies, and more.

Recital videos, August 2018

Here are some videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I enjoyed tackling Brett Wery‘s challenging Sonata for multiple woodwinds (flute, clarinet, alto saxophone) and piano, plus some little oboe pieces and the André Previn bassoon sonata. As always, the goal was to challenge myself, so, as always, the performance had some hiccups. But it was a valuable growth experience for me and a chance to perform some new repertoire.

Recording: Claude T. Smith Suite with Delta State Wind Ensemble

A few months ago I got to perform Claude T. Smith’s Suite for Solo Flute, Clarinet, and Alto Saxophone with the Delta State University Wind Ensemble, conducted by Dr. Erik Richards. It’s a fun showpiece for a woodwind doubler with band, which I’ve had a few opportunities to perform over the last 10 years.

The Suite requires more-than-casual doubling on flute, clarinet, and saxophone. (Some of the altissimo in my performance isn’t in the original part.) Like most of Smith’s music, the Suite is light and appealing, with some rhythm/meter hijinks and a hint of jazz influence. Worth tackling if you’re a serious flute-clarinet-saxophone doubler and get a chance to work with a good wind ensemble.

Here’s a YouTube video (audio only) of the April 11 performance:

Frequently-asked questions about woodwind doubling, and their unpopular answers

photo, Jon Delorey

Q. Should I be a woodwind doubler?

A. In most cases, no. If you already feel driven to do it, and have the time and resources to devote to it, then maybe.

Q. What’s the trick to getting in enough practice time on all these instruments?

A. Figure out what to de-prioritize in your life to devote more hours to practicing.

Q. What’s the trick to affording all these instruments?

A. Figure out what to de-prioritize in your life to devote more money to instrument purchases.

Q. What instrument/mouthpiece/etc. should I buy?

A. The one that you have carefully, methodically selected from among dozens or more high-quality specimens, without blindly following internet recommendations.

Q. What’s a good mouthpiece, instrument, etc. for a doubler?

A. Only buy things “for doublers” if you want to sound like a doubler. If you want to sound like, say, a good clarinetist, use what good clarinetists use.

Q. Which instrument should I learn next?

A. Whichever motivates you enough to devote the necessary time and money.

Q. Playing one instrument already means it will be easy to learn another, right?

A. If your goal is to develop only a superficial command of the instrument, then yes. 

Q. How do I know when I am “good enough” at an instrument to count it as one of my doubles?

A. You stop getting fired for how you sound.

Q. How do I get gigs?

A. Sound great, behave professionally, and be liked by the right people.

Favorite blog posts, June 2018

Q&A: Woodwind doubling

photo, Neil Moralee

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

What are the highlights of your career related to doubling thus far?

Hello, I was wondering about how feel about what you play as a woodwind doubler vs as a single instrumentalist. Do you feel like you’re still able to connect musically with things like pit orchestra as opposed to solo repertoire? Or what other options are there for woodwind doublers to express themselves?

I’m not a Broadway pit orchestra doubler, or a Los Angeles studio doubler, or even working in a medium-sized market. When the opportunities have arisen I’ve done the usual journeyman doubling work: playing local musical theater, regional orchestras and chamber groups and big bands, church gigs, and rock and blues bands. I enjoy all of these, and in particular I enjoy the variety in my performing career.

For me the biggest highlights have been connected to my academic career. This includes my attempts at bringing doubling to the recital hall, doing recitals (on my own college campus and others) of concert repertoire on multiple instruments. It also includes my teaching of multiple instruments in a studio setting, as well as woodwind methods courses, plus the textbook I wrote. This blog has been a highlight, too, that has put me in touch with woodwind doublers around the world, including some of my heroes.

How does someone with a full time job, kids, etc. who does doubling as a hobby effectively split practice time among all of their instruments? I’m usually able to practice 1 hour per day. Should I split my session among instruments, or focus on one a day? What’s a good rotation? Any tips or tricks are appreciated!

There’s never enough time in a day for a woodwind doubler. The answers to your questions will probably depend on you: what are your goals? do you want to play all your instruments equally, or do you want to have a “primary” instrument? are you practicing for specific performances or with specific goals in mind, or are you just trying to maintain and develop your skills in a general way? I think the answers to these questions will help clarify for you how you should be allocating your time.

For me personally, an hour is just enough to feel like I’m making some amount of progress on a single instrument, so I suppose if I were in your situation I would mostly practice one instrument per day. Your results may vary. If you’re practicing for general skill development, I do think some kind of pre-planned rotation is valuable, though I don’t think the specifics are important. For me, just having some kind of purposeful rotation makes sure I don’t fall into a rut of, say, grabbing my flute every time because it’s easier than getting a reed wet.


Thanks for your questions! It’s extra special to me to hear from fellow woodwind doublers.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A