Woodwind Doubling

Mike Lawson • Performance • October 1, 2003

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It’s the end of June and your first-chair clarinet wants to sign out a saxophone for the summer. Two thoughts cross your mind initially. Scenario one is that if you hand over the sax, there is a chance that the new enchantment may result in a loss to the clarinet section. Scenario two is if you don’t hand over the sax, you may lose the student’s interest in band. At what cost does doubling come?

There is a point in a music student’s academic career when the thought of learning a second instrument is enchanting and a new challenge. There are advantages and disadvantages to allowing your students to participate in this type of learning experience. The origins of doubling go back to the big band era of the 1930s and ’40s, during which reed players frequently doubled on parts in Broadway shows, big bands and station bands. In these cases, the saxophone players doubled on clarinet, flute, oboe or bassoon.

Today, there are fewer opportunities for doubling in a band than 60 years ago. 
There are definite benefits for both the director and student when doubling is factored into the band makeup. For the director, it offers an opportunity to fill in weaker sections of the band and, in some cases, may expand your repertoire possibilities. It can also create a heightened awareness within your program and of your program when doubling is used as a reward. The students experience a wide variety of genres of music, playing styles, context awareness and, for those looking toward a career in music, it offers a higher level of versatility and marketability.

The benefits of learning a woodwind double are undeniable; however, one must examine all aspects of the situation, including student motivation and primary instrument mastery, before granting a secondary instrument to study.

The Right Time to Encourage Doubling

Doubling can be very exciting and lead to new playing opportunities. It can also quickly become frustrating as the student begins to realize and remember the amount of work and discipline it takes to learn an instrument. Physically, the students should be large enough to handle the instrument comfortably without overextending to reach keys and/or head positions. The primary instrument skill level should be well above that of the class average, and the student should show a clear understanding of musical concepts and appropriate playing techniques, including a solid embouchure.

Playing two instruments requires a great deal of organization, planning and responsibility on the part of the student. Students will need to have strong organizational skills to accommodate extra rehearsals and additional practice blocks into their schedule. Many students today have their schedules booked a year in advance with extracurricular activities and are tightly bound with little flex time. The time commitment involved in learning a double should be factored equally with the student’s primary instrument skill level so as not to cause undue pressure.

A good time to work on doubling with a student is in the summer when there is some additional down time. This will facilitate a more relaxed atmosphere that is conducive to learning and exploring. It is also during this time that students will be able to seek the outside assistance of a professional. Spring break and winter break are limited windows of opportunity because of their length and are largely dependant upon one’s concert and competition schedule.

Generally, it is recommended that students are given ample time to acclimatize themselves on the new instrument and introduce the two instruments into a similar practice pattern. It is also advisable that the director or assistant director be available outside the class via e-mail, telephone or in person, if possible, to assist the student and answer any pressing concerns – particularly during the first few weeks.

Choosing an Appropriate Double for Your Students

Choosing a double for a student is a tricky and delicate task. Most often the student will have an idea of what they would like to play before they approach you. Doubling should not be approached haphazardly; it is of the utmost importance that a good match between the student and instrument be sought out by the director. This affects the immediate success of the student as well as his or her future perceptions of taking on new instrumental challenges.

You may have noted that certain instruments tend to attract a specific type of personality. These observations will now assist you in identifying an appropriate double. Doubling on other saxophones – alto to tenor, for example – is a fairly smooth process. Tenor saxophone tends to be an easy transition from alto or even baritone saxophone with adjustments made to air stream, embouchure and posture. There is minimal interruption in embouchure and hand position, which is beneficial for continuity in technique.

Doubling on soprano saxophone requires a good ear. This saxophone should be left for the senior high school students whom have acquired a marked level intonation, listening skill and ability on their primary saxophone.

Transitioning from saxophone to clarinet is a challenge and can prove to be disastrous without qualified guidance and diligent practice. The largest difficulty is producing a characteristic clarinet tone and going over the break. It may be helpful to provide the student with recordings so that they may imitate the sounds they hear. Going over the break successfully and consistently will require perseverance and it is best suited to a patient and detail-oriented student.

Flute doubling is an anomaly unto itself. As I was learning flute and struggling to produce a presentable tone, I often wondered when and by whom it was decided that flute was a “natural double.” This is the most difficult in terms of air support and embouchure; it is unlike any other double and should be approached with care. Students who will be successful on flute are not focused on immediate results – they are able to see the larger picture and are interested in progress, not necessarily instant notes. Working on the head joint alone is advisable for up to three weeks before the student even moves into the body of the instrument. Again, this is a situation in which recordings will help after the tone begins to develop around month four. Physically, thinner lips may assist the student in obtaining an uninterrupted tone.

Oboe and bassoon doublings are uncommon today and are not highly recommended due to their intricate methods, specifically reed-making. It takes an individual that is bound and determined to play this instrument to make it work. The player’s body, spirit and being should be immersed in the oboe or bassoon. This type of determination and dedication is needed to persevere through the reed-making/sculpting process and the acquisition of precise technique. The fingerings on these instruments are awkward and cumbersome and are often coupled with quick and exposed passages. Diligent, detail-oriented students who are more inclined to lead in a band are best suited for a bassoon or oboe double.

Developing Split Personalities: A Necessity

With doubling, it is important to approach the instruments independently – as two separate entities. You can describe it to the student as a different instrumental hat that changes a player’s role in the band as well as his or her physical and mental awareness. Provide the students with a small break during which they can mentally prepare for the separation of instruments. Physically preparing for two separate instruments requires that the student be aware of the physical differences between the instruments from positioning to embouchure and breathing. By using this “new instrumental hat,” they are able to approach the music from different perspectives and understand their “new role” in the band on the doubling instrument fairly quickly.

When Doubling Goes Wrong

I’ll tell you a personal story if you promise not to repeat it…it took me two failed attempts before I latched on to doubling on clarinet. My first attempt resulted in me packing the clarinet up and demoting it to the depths of my closest for three months. I could not get over the break to save myself and I did not have the support of a professional. I gave up and it colored my perception and sense of musical worth. My second attempt was not much better. The difference this time was that I had the support of a professional.

Sometimes the student or the director will perceive that there is no light at the end of that doubling tunnel. My suggestion is to see it through until there is light, even if you have to make that light yourself. There is a qualification to this statement, however: There are signs that the extracurricular instrument is not working out, and there are times when one needs to stop the situation before it results in an unfavorable outcome. Signs to look for include a decreased amount of interest, a declining level of confidence, severe lack of motivation that is affecting the primary instrument and an overall withdrawal. The student should be approached with care, respect and sensitivity. At this point one should try to control and minimize the damage while retrieving and piecing together the positive aspects and motivations that got the student interested in the program initially.

Sometimes the timing just isn’t right and the double doesn’t work out. The objective is to refocus the student on what he or she does well and his or her contributions to the program. A special effort should be made to ensure that these students feel not as though they have been defeated but as though they have tried their best and given it their all. It can be a powerful learning experience for both the student and director, although the outcome may be disappointing.

Dispelling the Myths of Doubling

They are not the same fingerings! If there is one pet peeve I have, it is when I have heard directors explain to their students that picking up a double should be easy because the fingerings are the same. This is not true and oversimplifies a woodwind double, with the exception of the saxophone family.

Mouthpieces and reeds are another area of debate. I would highly recommend that a middle-of-the-road mouthpiece be used, in terms of facing and chamber. The more generic the mouthpiece, the better opportunity to produce a reasonable tone suitable to a number of genres. This also applies to reeds. The most reliable brand is often middle-of-the-road and consistent in terms of quality.

Prepare both yourself and the students for the difficulties that may lie ahead. A kind word goes a long way for both you and your student. When the road ahead is bleak, often a few select words of encouragement wisely placed can make the road seem shorter. It may be of value to advise your students of tips and tricks of the trade when doubling – for example, what you’ll need and when you’ll need it. I recommend a small plastic box or container to hold multiple mouthpieces and reeds to make organization easy and minimize the “I-forgot-my-mouthpiece” syndrome.

The Benefits of Doubling

Doubling creates a sense of pride and motivation. It will give students who have been pushed onto instruments another opportunity to explore their “first choice.” It provides a wider choice of arrangements and orchestration for the director, and students doubling may fill holes in the group and provide opportunities for others. One can use doubling as a “special” honor for students who exemplify hard work and promise and allow students to work toward the opportunity to double. There are many benefits to including doubling into your yearly band planning – the trick is to find the balance between the two.

Lindsey Berthiaume has been doubling on woodwinds – saxophones, flute, clarinets, oboe, ney, mey and xiao – for the past 10 years. Her specialty in ethnomusicology has enabled her to go beyond the normal reed doubling and expand into the world music scene. Berthiaume’s experience in private schools, public schools, community bands and ethnic groups has given her a unique perspective and allowed her to address and raise awareness of the importance and viability of doubling. As a performer, she has been able to use her instrumental doubling skills in a variety of western and non-western playing idioms. She is a sought-after private teacher and clinician in the Toronto area specializing in world music and woodwind doublings.

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