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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(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.
(The “second” chair) Alto 2, flute 2, piccolo, clarinet 2.
(The “clarinet specialist) Tenor, flute 3, clarinet 3 or 1, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet.
(The “oboe specialist”) Tenor, oboe, English horn, clarinet 4.
(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:
Flute, piccolo (optional clarinet double)
Clarinet 1 (optional other clarinets and flute 2 double)
Clarinet 2 (optional other clarinets and flute 3 double)
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!
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”→
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.
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.
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.