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Flexibility and Marketability for the Woodwind Doubler

by TSgt John Dawson

TSgt John DawsonHow important is it that saxophone players learn to double on flute and clarinet?

If you want to make a profession out of playing music, you will be constantly looking for new ways to make yourself more marketable as a musician. As a woodwind player, you have the opportunity to accomplish this by learning secondary instruments. If you can develop and maintain proficiency on several instruments, you qualify for many jobs that others simply cannot perform. Most commercial music gigs that are available will not be awarded to a player that plays only saxophone. You will be expected to blow a swinging tenor solo on one tune, play section clarinet parts on the next, and whip out symphonic flute or even piccolo parts on the next. This kind of versatility is not only vital in the musician's marketplace, but it's also a lot of fun.

How can I develop proficiency on saxophones, clarinets, and flutes?

It is real balancing act to keep up your chops on different instruments. The first thing you have to do when you pick up your secondary instrument is to eliminate the mindset that it is secondary. You may be a doubler, but when you pick up your flute, you are a flautist. Your listener doesn't know that you're not playing your main axe.

The most important aspect of your playing is your sound. When you are developing your flute sound, you should listen to great flute players. James Galway and Jean-Pierre Rampal are most commonly credited with having the best sounds. I like to put on Galway recordings and just take one note that I think sounds amazing, and try to make the same sound. This is not to say that you should eventually try to sound like Galway (which wouldn't be a bad idea anyway) but the ability to copy that sound will greatly enhance your flexibility. For clarinet, try Richard Stoltzman or Eddie Daniels. I've used primarily "classical" players as examples for a few reasons. First, because they all create an inherently good sound, and provide a strong model for developing players. They are also good examples because the ability to produce a pure sound in that genre makes you a much more marketable player. The majority of parts that I see as a doubler are more classical in nature than the Benny Goodman or Herbie Mann style.

To properly balance your practice time between instruments, try to maximize your efficiency. If you can work on your flute sound while you learn the melody and chord changes to a new tune, you've increased your effectiveness. As another example, try transposing a favorite lick or pattern into twelve keys on clarinet. If you can remember to keep tabs on your sound quality when you do this, it gives you a bigger benefit for less time. Don't forget to get out of the practice room either. You'll make the biggest improvements when the pressure is on, so put yourself in situations that will stretch your abilities. If you play saxophone in the school band, ask the band director if you can play in the clarinet section next year. It might be hard for a while, but you'll get better at it much faster that way than if you tried to make your improvements solely in the practice room.

Will my saxophone playing help my flute and clarinet playing?


Yes, your saxophone playing will be a great advantage to you when you're learning the other woodwinds. However, one of the first things you need to do is identify the differences between the instruments so that your saxophone playing doesn't become a hindrance to your doubles. Take some lessons from teachers who are not doublers, and they'll identify your saxophonist tendencies right away. For example, your clarinet embouchure will be very different. The mouthpiece should be at a shallow angle with your chin, so that the instrument itself is mostly upright. If you stick the clarinet straight out, it might feel more comfortable for you at first, but it will probably sound something like a duck, and you'll squeak a lot. Play it like a clarinet, not a saxophone.

On the flute, you'll be learning to control muscle groups that are much smaller than those you control on the saxophone. Your cheeks and jaw should be relaxed, and the hole between your lips should be very small. This will help you control your air, which is a problem for most saxophonists because the resistance of your mouthpiece and reed are gone. If you're getting light-headed, practice some breathing exercises to teach your body to have control over a tightly focused stream of air. If you have any kind of problem with response, sound, pitch, or many other obstacles, nine times out of ten the solution will be to improve your air.

Once you've got a handle on the basic differences in the way you ought to approach each instrument, try to maximize the benefit you can gain from your saxophone playing. If you are working on an exercise on saxophone, play the same one on your doubles. Doing these back to back on different instruments will magnify the variations and help you to develop a control of them. As another example, if you're practicing an inflection on saxophone like a scoop or a growl, try it on the doubles. The actual mechanics of creating that particular sound might differ quite a bit between axes.

You don't really have to start from square one on each additional instrument. Use these ideas and come up with your own methods to maximize the crossover benefit. A considerable amount of growth on each instrument will occur subconsciously. Your musician's ear, which is already developing, will help you make corrections along the way.

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