Finding a Musical Career Through Woodwind Doubling, Part 2
In Part 1, I began the tale of how I became a woodwind doubler. Actually, that title is a bit misleading. A “doubler” is often required to play more than two instruments. I just had a recording session where I played four woodwind instruments plus percussion (soprano, alto, tenor saxophones, flute, shaker, tambourine, castanets). Also, titles like multi-instrumentalist, woodwind specialist, and multiple-woodwind performer/artist are used to describe a musician that plays many different woodwind instruments. The most instruments I have ever played for one performance is eight. That was an extreme case. On average, most doubling situations I encounter are 3-4 instruments. The are some Broadway shows that require 10-12. A lot of those are from one instrument family, but still, that is asking a lot of any one musician.
Woodwind doubling isn’t just for musicals. Although it is not called for much these days, there are bands and artists that need doublers. Some nationally touring artists supplement their touring band with local players including woodwind doublers. I have had the pleasure of sharing the stage with the likes of Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Idina Menzel, and Joan Rivers to name a few. Each of these gigs required doubling on sax and other woodwinds. Also, big bands and Salsa groups sometimes require the saxophonists to double on other woodwinds. Diversity, flexibility and adaptability are key to succeeding as a woodwind doubler. All of the above mentioned situations require knowledge of many styles of music. Yes, it is challenging to be on top of so many things. Woodwind doublers are often considered to be a jack of all trades (and master of none). It’s hard to be a master when in one performance you are expected to play, for instance, multiple instruments from 3-4 woodwind families, any number of different musical styles, and improvise (sometimes). It is the ultimate multi-tasking challenge.
I am primarily a saxophonist, but the longer I continue to develop my skills on other instruments I feel more comfortable, sound better, and enjoy myself more when I am playing them. The road to woodwind doubling is long and requires much persistence, patience and dedication. I didn’t start doubling seriously on more than one woodwind instrument family until I was 27 years old. It’s easy to look back and say “man, I wish I had started earlier”. But, that doesn’t help anything. All you can do is try every day to become better at what you do.
I attempted to teach myself the clarinets, flutes, and double reeds (bassoon, oboe, English horn). Although they all have similar fingerings and techniques, not everything transfers from one to another. I did not make much progress until I started taking lessons from specialists of these instruments. I find that lessons with orchestral musicians are the most beneficial. They are grounded solidly in the classical approach and they are experts in ensemble playing. Some of my lessons with these players/teachers have been the best instrumental lessons of my life. Every woodwind family has it’s own pedagogy, literature and history. If you really want to learn an instrument, I think it is best to study with a seasoned expert. You can accomplish good things on a DIY path, but you will miss the finer points. For example, you can be a saxophonist that plays clarinet or you can be a clarinetist. This can only be accomplished through serious study. I only went to school for saxophone, but I have been taking lessons on and off for the last decade or so. I still take an occasional lesson. I always learn something that I can take with me and continue to develop for many months (or, years) into the future.