You've probably heard me use the term "doubler" when referring to myself. I always find this a funny nickname for multi-instrumentalists since we always play more than two instruments.
It takes years to become a professional doubler, but it's not difficult for a student to quickly learn the other woodwind instruments. Most professional doublers out there began their musical training on saxophone, but any woodwind player can learn all the other instruments very easily.
All woodwind doublers play the following basic instruments:
Flutes: Piccolo, Concert Flute
Oboes: Oboe, English Horn
Clarinets: Bb, Bass clarinet
Saxophones: Alto, Tenor, Baritone
Specialized Doublers will play nearly all the instruments in the family from which they began as kids:
Flutes: piccolo, concert, alto, bass
Oboes: oboe, oboe d'amore, English horn, bass, hecklephone
Clarinets: Eb, Bb, A, alto, bass, contrabass
Saxophones: sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass
In the studios here in Los Angeles, there are even people who go beyond the basic woodwinds and specialize in rare instruments like bamboo, native and ethnic wooden & keyless flutes, didgeridoo, duduk, and Asian instruments like the shakuhachi. This is obviously a very incomplete list! It's actually quite amazing what some people have accomplished on the more obscure instruments.
But for the purpose of this blog entry, I'm going to talk about "basic" woodwind doubling.
Becoming a Doubler
Most doublers begin their musical training on a woodwind instrument in elementary school. For most of us, the challenge of learning to play the instrument is a short process, and by the 3rd year or so, we seem bored. Any good teacher will notice the lack of interest an otherwise talented flute student is exhibiting and perhaps suggest they switch to another instrument.
"Switching to the Oboe" is possibly the most common change a band director will suggest for a flute student looking for a challenge. This is, indeed, the most difficult of the woodwinds to learn, but if you can master this one instrument, then all the others seem easy by comparison. The world of doubling has just opened up to this particular child who is now capable of playing the two most difficult woodwinds.
A lot of kids who play the clarinet start talking about switching to the saxophone pretty early on. The beauty of this double is that it's almost the exact same instrument. Just bigger & shinier. The mouthpiece, reed and fingerings are all basically the same. There's very little transition time between the two instruments, so handing a clarinettist a saxophone means that within a week or two, they will be equally proficient on the saxophone. It's a really fun switch for the kids, and an important one. If they ever join a jazz band, they will go back and forth between these instruments frequently.
If a kid can play the oboe, clarinet and saxophone, they are well on their way to mastering the three reed instruments. All the fingers make sense, their lips are strong enough to handle the change between single and double reeds, and they are now equipped to play not only jazz, but broadway style musicals as well.
The hardest instrument, believe it or not, for a reed player to learn to play is the flute. Without a reed, this is a difficult change. The opposite is true, actually, for a flutist learning the reeds. As I've been pointing, out, all the fingerings are basically the same on every woodwind, so the hardest part of learning to double is just the mouth (reeds vs flute) control. And once they can do that, they're home free!
Benefit of Doubling for Students
There are plenty of opinions on whether or not a student should try new instruments, and when they should start exploring those other options.
When I first began teaching in 1992, I discovered I was a woodwind teaching purist despite the fact that I was a doubler! I wasn't suggesting any of my students try a different instrument, and when a parent would ask about their kid trying a new instrument, I would discourage the switch. Why not see how far we can take the clarinet before we distract with the saxophone? I thought that trying a new instrument would detract from their overall musical experience.
I have long since changed my tune on this. I've discovered that trying a new instrument does one of two things: opens up the world of doubling to them or reinforces how much they love their original instrument. Either outcome is perfect for that student.
Sometimes, discovering they can also play the saxophone in jazz band opens up a musical genre to a musician who would otherwise never be able to play jazz. As an oboist, I have zero opportunities to play big band/jazz, but as a saxophone doubler, I've had a blast exploring this fun option! Without the saxophone, I would not have had the chance to play bebop, jazz or some really interesting broadway shows. The opposite is true for saxophonists who spend all their time playing modern music and never have a chance to play classical or baroque -- learning the flute or oboe allows them to expand their musical language as well.
Most schools will allow your child to join the jazz band if they learn the saxophone (or clarinet), and likewise will include your saxophone playing child in the orchestra if they learn the flute or oboe.
Being a woodwind doubler is exceptionally fun! There are rarely any bachelor of music degree programs in colleges and universities geared toward doubling, though Eastman and Ithaca offered a Masters Degree in Woodwind Studies when I was there. Most doublers are self taught at the beginning then move on with private lessons on individual instruments just to make sure they are using proper technique. This is how I advanced my double instruments, and of course learned from those teachers how to teach private lessons on each.
This is a very rare but fun thing. To be able to play woodwinds and brass or percussion or strings is just one more way to market yourself in the very competitive field of music.
All professional musicians are at least proficient on piano and/or guitar. These are not usually considered as part of our doubles list. Being able to play one of these instruments, though, guarantees that we are able to accompany our students in lessons, recitals and performances. In my case, playing the piano also gave me a way to make some money as a choir accompanist for a couple of years while I found financial footing after college graduation.
There are people who have some brass instruments in their bag of tricks as well! I knew someone once who was a trained oboist, woodwind doubler, and a heck of a trumpet player! Come to think of it... they also played a mean timpani.
If you're interested in being able to play all the instruments of the orchestra, one of the best things you can do is pursue a music education degree (whether or not you aspire to be a teacher). As a performance major, you focus solely on your major instrument. If you have time and space in your schedule, you can take a few instrument classes, but it's not encouraged. Performance majors are on track to be specialized in one instrument, to be competitive in orchestral auditions, and to represent their applied teacher's prowess.
Music education majors, on the other hand, are expected to be able to play all the instruments of the orchestra: violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, trumpet, french horn, trombone, euphonium, tuba and all the percussion instruments (but especially marimba, timpany and snare drum). They spend their 4-5 years in undegraduate programs learning all these instruments well enough to be able to play to a high school level. It's actually quite impressive.
But if your child seems to have a knack for picking up instruments and figuring them out easily, their love of music and natural curiosity may be just the right formula for a music education degree.
Of course, not all kids are going on to music school! Which means that exploring all the other woodwinds is for personal growth, and who can say no to expanding a child's horizons with unlimited access to whatever instruments strike their fancy?
If your son or daughter is begging you to let them try a different instrument, just go for it! Who knows, they may stumble on an instrument they love and surprise us all with their newfound enthusiasm for music!