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York playing orchestra, opera, dance band, theater, resort and club dates through the sixties until my arranging career superseded my playing and my horns went into the closet.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!

Being a beginner on your doubles

photo, Peter Voerman

I’ve mentioned often on this blog the idea of “being a beginner” on your woodwind doubles. Here’s what I mean by that.

When I was a college saxophone major just starting to get serious about doubling, I arranged to take some flute lessons one summer. At my first-ever flute lesson, the teacher told me she knew that I was an accomplished saxophonist already (a generous assessment) and therefore wouldn’t need much more than some instruction on embouchure. That made sense to me, so she sent me away with my first repertoire assignment: a Mozart concerto. Continue reading “Being a beginner on your doubles”

Favorite blog posts, March 2017

Review: “So You Want to Play in Shows…?” by Paul Saunders

I got a review copy of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a new woodwind doubling etude book. The author, Paul Saunders, is a woodwind player in London’s West End.

The book includes seven studies for doubler playing flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone. It also includes a piano accompaniment book, with piano part recordings available for free on the publisher’s website. This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? Chris Vadala’s book provides rests and trusts you to observe them. Gene Kaplan’s duo book pairs you with another woodwind doubler. Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room. (For a real-world challenge, cue up the recordings in a playlist, and sight-read the book beginning to end with no breaks between etudes.)

Saunders’s tunes are fun and musically satisfying—to my tastes, the best among the doubling etude books so far. Styles are what you might find in contemporary rock/pop-based musical theater. Here is a quick-and-dirty demo of etude #3, “How Cool Can You Be:”

Mr. Saunders emphasized to me that the etudes are intended for aspiring woodwind doublers, and therefore are of moderate difficulty. I would say So You Want to Play is not as challenging as the Vadala book, comparable overall to the Kaplan book. The most technically-demanding material nearly always falls to the clarinet. The flute parts tend to stay in a comfortable register, rarely breaking into the third octave, and maxing out at a high G. There is a note or two of saxophone altissimo. There are frequent instrument switches, a few of them very quick.

Mr. Saunders was also kind enough to send me early drafts of some a couple of etudes that will appear in a forthcoming second volume. They appear to be more difficult, with some swing feel and doubles on soprano and tenor saxophone.

As I’ve mentioned in reviews of previous materials, I wish there were more resources available for doublers that included the double reed instruments and/or auxiliary instruments. But, as you may know, double-reed doubling is less common in the West End than it is on Broadway, so this book is probably a good fit for most British woodwind players (like Mr. Saunders), and quite a few American ones. So You Want to Play is a solid addition to the flute/clarinet/alto materials available, challenging but fun for an up-and-coming doubler.

Low reed stand showdown: K&M vs. Hercules

I’ve had a König & Meyer bassoon/bass clarinet stand for years now, and recently picked up the Hercules version and tried it out on some gigs. I was hoping to form a strong opinion and make a nice clear recommendation here between the two. But the bottom line is that both are really quite usable.

left: Hercules; right: K&M

The exact model of K&M stand that I have doesn’t seem to be in production anymore. There is a newer one with a black finish (nice for onstage use) and slightly different hardware. I would be interested to hear if anyone is aware of any significant difference between the older and newer models.

The big question of course is stability. I spent some time knocking both of these around to see what it would take to tip them over, and based on that non-scientific approach they seemed about equal. (No instruments were harmed.)

I don’t have any concerns about either stand scratching my instruments. The K&M has a rubbery cup for the bottom of the instrument to sit in, and a felt-covered brace at the top. The Hercules has a harder (but not hard) plastic cup and a foam-covered brace.

The K&M’s large, soft, and somewhat grippy cup is a nice feature for quick instrument switches. The Hercules’s I wouldn’t trust quite as much—I would need an extra moment to be sure the instrument is secure. The Hercules has room to add a couple of additional instrument pegs, which is a nice feature for doublers.

Note also that the Hercules’s cup can be rotated 180° from the way I have it oriented, if desired. It is mounted on a leg that is adjustable, which I suppose you could use to change the angle of the instrument on the stand. I like it at full extension for maximum stability at the base.

For quick switches, I like to be able to play bass clarinet with its peg still in the stand if needed. Both stands accommodate this without any trouble.

Upper braces on both stands are height-adjustable to about the same height. At around full extension the braces are out of the way of keys on the bassoon’s long joint (the bell key is on the side where the braces don’t touch it). Neither quite adjusts as high as I would like for a low C bass clarinet (with the peg extended a little), so unfortunately for me the left index A and A-flat keys rest against the brace.

Both stands fold up, but neither is tiny. The Hercules is more portable if you remove the cup, but that means fussing with a wing nut and then having one extra piece to carry around (or lose).

The Hercules does win on price, at about 60% of what the K&M costs.

Overall, I guess I lean toward the Hercules a little for bass clarinet, mostly because I could add, say, pegs for B-flat and E-flat clarinets and be ready for a utility clarinet gig. And I like the K&M slightly better for bassoon because its larger, softer cup makes a better target during a quick instrument switch. If you’re still torn, the Hercules’s lower price point may be a good tiebreaker.

Favorite blog posts, October 2016

Favorite blog posts, September 2016

So many great woodwind blog posts in September. The flute bloggers are on fire!

Recital videos, August 2016

I performed a recital with a faculty colleague on our campus at Delta State University, and again at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”). Program and videos are below.

The idea behind the first half was to play Paris Conservatory competition pieces from 1916 (100 years ago). The Büsser and Lefebvre pieces are not unknown, and the Fauré Fantaisie for flute and piano is core repertoire. The Paul Puget Solo for bassoon and piano was much harder to find, as it seems to have been out of print for some time. The University of Michigan library has it, and was willing to send their yellowed copy on interlibrary loan for a fee. (I am hoping to get it up on the IMSLP. Update: it’s now on the IMSLP.) If anybody is familiar with the piece, I would be curious to hear from you.

No special theme on the second half, just a couple of contemporary works I wanted to do. Greg Pattillo’s Three Beats for beatbox flute was a fun challenge and a crowd pleaser. (My beatboxing has a long way to go. Also: I bought the piece as a PDF through Pattillo’s website, but the site seems to have been updated and now I can’t find it to link to.) And Roberto Molinelli’s Four Pictures from New York is a charming piece for saxophonist playing soprano, alto, and tenor, performed here with piano but also available in several ensemble versions. I copied Otis Murphy‘s substantial cuts to the third movement, which make sense for the saxophone/piano texture.

Program (PDF)

Preparing for a multiple woodwinds recital

For over a decade, all of my solo recital performances have been on multiple woodwind instruments. Last month I performed (twice) a recital program with pieces played on flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and three saxophones. Here are some of the things I do to prepare.

multiple-woodwinds-recital_mini

  • Practice the physical changes. I opened my program with an oboe piece, and followed that with a flute piece with a delicate entrance. As the recital approached, I made sure to follow each oboe practice session by practicing that flute entrance, to be sure I could do it under those conditions. Something that didn’t work very well: after the oboe, flute, and bassoon pieces, my hands and jaw tended to be a little tense for clarinet playing. If I were preparing this recital again, I would bump the clarinet to the end of my practice sessions to work on playing relaxed even when fatigued.
  • Practice the mental changes. If I can put myself into the right place mentally for the instrument I’m about to play, my physical technique seems to fall into place. Sometimes I will do some rotating warmups—play, for instance, some scales on one instrument, and then immediately play them on another, and another. That gives me a chance to practice shifting mental gears. Once I have my program order set, I also make liberal use of Post-it Notes to give myself reminders between pieces: “take a moment to relax embouchure,” “keep breath support strong in low register,” “clear moisture from octave vent.”
  • Make thorough checklists. With seven instruments on my most recent recital, I surely would have forgotten something—a bassoon seat strap, a case of clarinet reeds, a piece of sheet music. I made a detailed list and used it to set up for a dress rehearsal. Sure enough, there were a few things that hadn’t made it onto the list, and I was able to retrieve those items and add them to the list before the first public performance. When I traveled a few hours for another performance, I was confident that I had everything I needed.
  • Use good stands. Good ones are sturdy and make it easy to set down or pick up an instrument without fuss. Since I played flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon on the first half without leaving the stage, having some good stands kept things moving smoothly and let me stay focused.
  • Do thorough warmups. As the performance approaches, it’s tempting to practice in panic mode, and skip over things like warmups. I always play much better if I do my warmups faithfully all the way up to the day of the performance. I find that if I warm up slowly and thoroughly on each instrument before the performance (this might take a few hours with multiple instruments! I usually do it in the morning), then I’m able to switch between them more easily.

Break a leg!

Favorite blog posts, April 2016