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

Favorite blog posts, March 2018

Review: “Double Troubles” by Paul Saunders

A few months ago I wrote a review of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a book of woodwind doubling etudes by Paul Saunders. Recently Paul sent me Double Troublesa new collection of etudes. Like So You Want, the new volume includes a piano part plus access to downloadable backing tracks. As I said in the previous review:

This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? … Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room.

Like in the previous book, these etudes are musically interesting and in styles typical of contemporary musical theater. Double Troubles is overall somewhat more challenging, including some saxophone altissimo and flute third octave up to C (though most of the extreme high register playing on both instruments is marked as optional—Paul clarified to me that the upper register is preferable, and the optional 8vbs are to make the etudes more approachable if needed). The book also incorporates soprano and tenor saxophones on some etudes, in addition to the flute/clarinet/alto used in the first book.

Two of the etudes are by guest composers, Darren Lord and Jennifer Whyte. Here’s a quick-and-dirty demo of the tune “Disco Nap,” which is Darren Lord’s contribution:

I had fun playing through these, and recommend Paul’s doubling etude books as one of the best sources of practice material for the flute/clarinet/saxophone doubler.

Favorite blog posts, December 2017

Jazz recital videos, August 2017

This year I played all jazz at my Delta State University faculty recital. Program and some selected videos are below.

I’m very much a part-time jazz player, so it was fun to spend the summer trying to get my chops in shape to play tunes in a variety of styles on a variety of instruments. This was my new record for number of instruments on a recital: flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon (electric bassoon), soprano/alto/tenor saxophones, and EWI, 9 in all. I’ve written previously about the challenges of improvising on multiple instruments, which I suspect might be surprising to non-doublers or non-improvisers.

An additional challenge is that I live in a small town in an isolated area, so I had to bring in some rhythm section players from out of town and rehearsal time was extremely limited. Enjoy the videos warts and all.

I have previously done some things with bassoon and electronics, but I took that to a new level this time around with a Little Jake pickup and a few new effects pedals. This was lots of fun and I’m already brainstorming how I can use the Little Jake with some other instruments.

The pedalboard setup I used for electric bassoon and EWI

Program

 

Favorite blog posts, June 2017

Woodwind doubling on both oboe and bassoon

Mid- to late-20th-century music written for woodwind doublers, such as musical theater “books,” largely solidified around three main types of doubling specialists. The most common of these is the clarinet/saxophone/flute player. Less common but still widely used are the oboist with passable single reed skills, and the “low reeds” bassoon/bass clarinet/baritone saxophone player.

In the 21st century, “doubler” woodwind sections have shown a tendency to shrink in number of players while growing in number of instruments. That means that some new combinations of instrument are becoming common that weren’t before: for example, it would have been very unusual in the late 20th century to write both flute and oboe into the same book, but this is becoming much more commonplace.

My sense is that woodwind doublers today are more willing/likely to embrace double reed playing, despite those instruments’ reputation (deserved or not) for being more difficult and their reputation (deserved) for being more expensive. But there seems to be some emerging conventional “wisdom” that oboe or bassoon is the way to go, and that playing both is inadvisable. I have to disagree.

It seems unlikely to me that the trend of shrinking woodwind sections, with increasing demands on individual players, is going to reverse. I predict that within a decade or two we’ll see movement in major Broadway productions toward doublers playing oboe and bassoon in the same book.

There’s another wrinkle to this: not all doublers are making their living in top-tier performance situations. It’s quite common for a small- to medium-sized university, or a large high school to hire one person to teach “double reeds.” Nearly always, this means hiring someone who is well-qualified on oboe or bassoon and relatively clueless on the other. I think oboists or bassoonists headed for doctoral degrees and university teaching would be well-advised to consider getting a minor, or at least some lessons, in the other double reed. (There may even be room for someone to develop a graduate program in “double reeds,” or perhaps at least the ability to tailor an existing multiple woodwinds degree to accommodate this.)

Woodwind doublers already understand the benefits of being able to get the doubling gig, but also to get a broader array of single-instrument gigs. If you have the motivation to pursue both oboe and bassoon, I think you will find—as I have—more opportunities to make music.

Favorite blog posts, May 2017

Quick flute switches and embouchure problems for woodwind doublers

photo, Sheri

Lots of woodwind doubler horror stories have to do with quick switches to flute or piccolo. (“Twenty minutes of hard-driving R&B tenor saxophone, then two bars to switch to flute and enter pianissimo in the third octave…”) Doublers in this situation often beat themselves up about perceived deficiencies in their flute embouchures, and commit to even more hours of Trevor Wye, but never quite seem to solve the problem.

While daily work on the flute embouchure is crucial, as is a good warmup, I think often the real problem is the reed embouchures. If playing clarinet, saxophone, or double reeds is leaving your embouchure too tired, tense, or numb to play the flute at your best, then consider improving your reed playing. Adjust your tone production to be less tense, adjust your setup to be freer-blowing, and adjust your mindset to be focused on efficiency rather than muscular effort. Keep up the flute lessons, but touch base with good reed teachers, too.

Interview: Jonathan Tunick, Broadway orchestrator and more

Jonathan Tunick is a show business legend: a composer/arranger/orchestrator/musical director for stage and screen; a collaborator with Stephen Sondheim, Placido Domingo, Barbra Streisand, and too many more to mention; and a winner of many awards.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear from Mr. Tunick a few years ago, when he contributed some information to my list of Broadway shows. Recently we were in touch again and he was kind enough to answer some of my woodwind-player questions about his work.

Jonathan Tunick

I understand you have background in clarinet playing. Are you still actively playing?

Although I can play the piano after a fashion, the clarinet was my true instrument. My uncle, a dedicated amateur who studied with Bellison, started me on the instrument at age ten, turning me over after a few months to Harold Freeman of the NBC Symphony, with whom I studied for several years. As a college freshman I had a year of saxophone lessons with Jimmy Abato, who gave me a few clarinet lessons as well. Later when I entered Juilliard I studied (mostly clarinet, but some saxophone too) with Joe Allard, a wonderful man and teacher, for four years. I consider him my principal teacher.

I was a fair classical clarinet player, played bass clarinet in the Juilliard Orchestra, and could play either lead or jazz in a band. My flute (Haynes, Louis Lot piccolo) playing was mediocre but passable. I freelanced in New York playing orchestra, opera, dance band, theater, resort and club dates through the sixties until my arranging career superseded my playing and my horns went into the closet.

A few years ago I started playing the clarinet again; chamber music with friends and fronting a 14-piece swing band made up of Broadway musicians around New York. I play a 1959 Buffet clarinet picked out for me by Joe Allard, and alternate between a Selmer Table HS** c.1938 and a Leon Russianoff c.1950 mouthpiece (these are Chedeville blanks faced by George Jenney) with Vandoren #4 and #5 reeds from my stash still in their sealed boxes since the 1960s.

Does your background as a woodwind player inform your orchestrations? How so?

More so as an orchestral and big-band section player in general than specifically as a woodwind player. The orchestra player learns to understand the principles of intonation, attack, articulation, sound color, and balance in a way that the pianist never can. The pianist will tend to hear chords vertically and so stack notes on the score rather than considering the movement of the parts. He or she will be tempted to write for orchestral instruments patterns that are comfortable for the piano, for example, repeated wide skips, which may be awkward for woodwind and other orchestral instruments.

This is why most of the great arrangers have been orchestra players rather than pianists. This said, it must be noted that the exceptions are dramatic ones: Wagner, Debussy, Strauss, Mahler, Ellington, Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Ralph Burns, etc.

What factors do you have to consider when writing parts for woodwind doublers? Do you have any rules of “thumb” about how long of a player will need for an instrument switch, or which instruments can go together in a book, or other logistical issues?

When planning an instrument change (and I try to avoid them altogether whenever possible) I simply count out the bars of rest in tempo while mentally going through the motion of changing instruments. Four bars of moderate tempo, six or eight of fast are usually enough.

I usually organize my sections somewhat along the following pattern, although many variations are possible

  1. (The “lead” chair and “flute specialist”) Lead alto, flute 1, piccolo, alto flute, clarinet 1 or 3. Will usually play 1st clarinet unless busy on flute, in which case reed 2 or 3 will be clarinet 1.
  2. (The “second” chair) Alto 2, flute 2, piccolo, clarinet 2.
  3. (The “clarinet specialist) Tenor, flute 3, clarinet 3 or 1, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet.
  4. (The “oboe specialist”) Tenor, oboe, English horn, clarinet 4.
  5. (The bassoon and “big horns” specialist) Baritone, bassoon, clarinet 5, bass clarinet.

If you eliminate the saxophones, a pattern more suited to operetta or classical players emerges:

  1. Flute, piccolo (optional clarinet double)
  2. Clarinet 1 (optional other clarinets and flute 2 double)
  3. Clarinet 2 (optional other clarinets and flute 3 double)
  4. Oboe, English horn (optional clarinet double)
  5. Bassoon (optional clarinet, bass clarinet, flute double)

Here is a good plan for four reeds, with or without saxophones:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute 1, piccolo, clarinet 1 or 2
  2. Alto saxophone, flute 2, clarinet 1 or 2, bass clarinet (this might be on reed 4)
  3. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet
  4. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet (this might be on reed 2)

Phil Lang used a very versatile layout again with or without saxophones:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute 1, piccolo, clarinet 2 or 1
  2. Alto saxophone, clarinet 1, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet
  3. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet 3
  4. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, flute 2, clarinet 4

As bands become smaller, requirements become more stringent. Here is a typical format for three reeds:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute, piccolo, clarinet
  2. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet (much greater clarinet ability required of this player than with 5 or even 4 reeds)
  3. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet

If the score doesn’t require saxophones, The above formats work equally well without them; otherwise I try to do without doubles altogether, such as A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE, scored for 1. Oboe/English horn 2. B-flat/A clarinet and 3. bassoon, or INTO THE WOODS: 1. Flute/piccolo 2. Clarinet 3. Bassoon. This way I have a larger pool of accomplished players to choose from, especially out of town.

Do you often orchestrate for a Broadway-type woodwind section with specific doublers in mind, knowing their individual strengths, or do you more often write for musicians to be selected later? How much does that affect your writing?

I know my players well, and write to their particular abilities. Hiring a section is much like casting a show. I think of my players as specialists; the “flute specialist,” “oboe specialist,” “bassoon and big horns specialist,” etc., as well as the occasional need for a stylist: jazz, ethnic, etc. I assign solos according to the specialties. For example, the clarinet solo will not usually go to the oboe or bassoon specialist. When working out of town with an unfamiliar orchestra I am even more careful, avoiding unusual doubles altogether, even when assured by the contractor that he has people that “play all the instruments.” I remember all too well the guy who played bassoon, bass clarinet and baritone and they all sounded the same!

It seems that over the last few decades, woodwind sections for musicals have gotten smaller and smaller but also call for more and more instruments, including “world” instruments and other things. Is this true in your orchestrations?

In general, no. I use no more doubles than I ever did, and in most cases fewer. I want the player who plays the best, not the one who owns the most horns.

Do you have any advice for woodwind doublers who aspire to play on Broadway or other major venues?

Saxophone players seem not to realize the sheer brute power of this instrument. Three or four of them can swamp any brass section. They are amazed at how incredibly loud the saxes are when I invite one of them to come and listen up front. I’m always on the saxes to play softly, even under loud brass, and to use civilized mouthpieces with medium chambers and baffles.

But remember, this is just me. Other arrangers and leaders will have their own preferences and it’s up to you to find out what they want (very difficult) and do it for them (relatively easy).


Many thanks to Mr. Tunick for sharing his knowledge, and for all the great woodwind parts!