Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

"Reeds, ready" by vincentfuh is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my career during which I’ve made more money playing the oboe than any other instrument.

Here are some of the common problems woodwind doublers, often coming from background in the single reed instruments, have with the oboe:

Fingering awkwardness. Dedicated, conscientious practice of scales/arpeggios and technical material goes a long way here, but there are some additional considerations specific to the oboe.

First, the oboe’s toneholes are rather widely spaced, maybe surprisingly so for clarinet and saxophone players. (This has to do with the oboe’s very narrow bore—the toneholes have to be quite small so as not to catastrophically weaken the instrument’s body, which means they have to be spaced widely to produce a scale.) This can be a cause of tension. Work diligently at keeping your hands relaxed. If it helps, use a neckstrap to further reduce hand strain.

Second, the oboe, more than the other woodwinds, tends to have more keys the more you pay for it. It’s very worthwhile to save up for an oboe with a left F key, and to learn to use it fluently. The left F key should be seen as part of the instrument’s core fingering technique. Many of the other keys available on professional or semi-professional instruments are less-used, but valuable in specific situations.

Uneven tone and intonation. The oboe requires a very low voicing, lower than a saxophonist is used to and much lower than a clarinetist is used to. It also offers little forgiveness for weak or inconsistent breath support. Learn to balance low voicing against steady support to even out the instrument’s sound and stabilize its pitch. (Like fellow conical-bore instruments the saxophone and the bassoon, the oboe’s response suffers particularly in the lowest register when your voicing is too high.)

Similarly, embouchure should remain open, not pinched, regardless of register. Remember that the embouchure’s function is to be a mostly-passive gasket between your air system and the instrument. Resist the urge to bite when moving into the highest register—rely on good breath support instead.

Overall response sluggishness/unreliability. My experience is that many, many intermediate (and especially self-taught) oboists are playing on reeds that are far too stiff. If your notes won’t respond reliably and delicately at a soft dynamic, and you’re sure your breath support, voicing, and embouchure are working well, you should consider a more responsive reed.

Because oboe reeds are so susceptible to change, the best way to sound like a pro reed-wise is to spend a few years’ worth of lessons learning to make (or at least adjust) them yourself. Failing that, it’s worth it to buy reeds face-to-face from a good reedmaker, rather than from a music store or a distant internet reedmaker, so that they can adjust them for you on the spot. Reeds from a local reedmaker are also adapted to your altitude and climate.

Another important and ongoing concern is adjustment of the instrument itself. The oboe has many adjustment screws that need occasional tweaking. It’s best of course to learn this art under the supervision of a good teacher. But if you’re mechanically-inclined and have a good oboe technician standing by to bail you out, there are a number of books and resources that explain the method in a clear and methodical way. A small tweak here and there can transform a stuffy, stubborn oboe into a responsive, cooperative instrument that is a joy to play.

Approach the oboe on its own terms, equipped with good reeds and a good grasp of tone-production fundamentals, and enjoy!

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