By Carolyn Walter
Woodwind “doubling,” or performing on multiple members of the single reed, flute or double reed family, is a fairly common practice. From an arranger’s standpoint, utilizing players who can double on multiple woodwinds vastly expands the available stylistic and timbral palette available, especially when there can only be a finite number of players in an ensemble. It may seem a bit unfair, but doubling is even expected in certain musical subcultures. For example, a member of the sax section in a jazz big band is often expected to pick up a clarinet or flute for portions of a number. In some cases they may be asked to cover a whole song on the alternate instrument. When a woodwind specialist works in a musical theater pit orchestra situation, their music will sometimes call for the use of not only clarinets, flutes and saxes but oboe, english horn or bassoon as well. If an artist is already skilled at one woodwind, it is often the case that a lot of knowledge can be transferred from one instrument to the next. After all, finger dexterity, articulation coordination and breath support are fundamental concepts needed to play every wind instrument. While woodwind instruments do share quite a few common family traits, it is advisable to pay close attention to all of the things which make each instrument a unique musical challenge. Sounding not only proficient, but authentic on each instrument you are called to play is crucial – few people want to hear a bassoon played like a giant wooden saxophone, or a thin-sounding sax played with a tight clarinet embouchure, or a flute which is woefully sharp in the high register and flat in the lower. Here are a few tips for those of us who double, triple, quadruple (or even quintuple!) on different members of the woodwind family:
1. Find a good teacher early on
It may be tempting to plow ahead and teach oneself when starting a new instrument; however, this quite often leads to an accumulation of bad habits which are very difficult to overcome later down the road. Studying with a patient, skilled instructor from the beginning helps ensure that one’s embouchure, posture, technique and tone production develop properly.
Find artists on all of your instruments, preferably over a wide range of genres, to listen to and emulate. This will allow you to form a clear mental picture of the sort of tone, vibrato, phrasing and articulation you would like to cultivate in your own playing.
3. Use good, well-maintained equipment
Attempting to learn fundamentals on a horn which is leaking air or out of adjustment is no fun. Make sure that all of your instruments are tuned up at the repair shop regularly. If possible, it is always better to spring for a high-quality instrument straight away, rather than getting frustrated with a cheap instrument you will end up replacing in a short while. Used professional or upper-intermediate level instruments, while costly, are a good investment for a performer who wishes to sound professional all-around. For clarinets and saxes, invest in a pro-level mouthpiece as soon as possible. Similarly, the sound and playing feel of a flute can be dramatically enhanced by upgrading the headjoint. For double reeds, make sure that you acquire the best reeds possible. If you have the option, get them from a teacher and have them show you how to make basic adjustments through moving the wires and filing down the cane.
4. Familiarize yourself With essential literature
Time-tested method books such as the Klose Method for Clarinet and Weissenborn Bassoon Method should be a part of any doubler’s library. Sight reading on a doubled instrument is often difficult, and should be practiced early and often – these books contain a wealth of resources for this.
The “Art Of” Series is another excellent resource, as each book contains practical, real-world advice idiomatic to each instrument:
5. Join ensembles
There is no substitute for live rehearsal and performance experience on any instrument. Once a basic foundation is established, one of the quickest ways to get better at a double is to join a community band, clarinet/ flute choir or other ensemble on the new instrument. Plus, this is a great way to make new musical contacts and learn from folks who have been playing their instrument far longer than you have!
Carolyn Walter holds a degree in clarinet performance from San Francisco State University, and is an active music educator and multi-genre performer around the Bay Area.