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CAPTAIN SENSIBLE | Doubling – A Useful Skill Or Another Expensive Instrument To Buy?

By Michela Comparey on February 3, 2016


Sometimes the most fun you can have watching a musical performance is when some poor soul has to switch instruments halfway through a piece really quickly. Usually they have a decent amount of time to do it, but it’s still always impressive to see someone perform flawlessly on one instrument only to pick up a completely different one and continue nailing it.  Doubling on a second instrument is undoubtedly cool and can make you a more versatile player, but how useful is it really?

Doubling is usually defined as playing a second instrument in the same family, for example two woodwinds or two brass instruments. Technically if you play a woodwind and brass you’re still doubling but it’s not nearly as common or useful.  Some exceptions exist; tuba and bass used to be fairly common, and could still have some benefits today.

The potential for more work is the most obvious benefit of doubling.  While it’s less common to get work solely on a second instrument, fewer people are great doublers, so competition is decreased.  As Bret Pimentel, a woodwind doubler who has done some writing on the topic, points out, “Consider this: if the gig is 95% saxophone and 5% bassoon, you don’t have to be the best of all the saxophonists in town to get hired—you just have to be the best among the few saxophone/bassoon doublers. Even better, if the gig is saxophone, bassoon, E♭ clarinet, and bamboo flute, and you’re the only musician in town who can play that combination…”

Another advantage of doubling is an increased fee. Doubling fees vary by union and by employer, but in some cases they can be as much as an extra 50% for the first doubled instrument with additional fees for third and fourth instruments.  The one caveat about these extra fees is that some instruments don’t count as a double (for example, two different kinds of trumpets or certain combinations of percussion instruments).  Regardless, the extra fee can be a great incentive to get good at doubling and actually saves the employer money because they can hire one musician instead of two.  An opinion column in the Denver Post raised the hackles of many musicians when it included doubling fees in a list of what were deemed unreasonable demands from the union.  This perspective ignores many of the challenges of doubling that warrant an extra fee.

For all the benefits of doubling, it has downsides too.  In addition to the expense of owning more top-of-the-line instruments, achieving a high level of performance on a second instrument involves a great investment of time.  If it takes years of practice to master one instrument, mastering a second can be a daunting task, especially if it means reducing the amount of time spent maintaining skills on the first instrument.

Furthermore, myths frequently circulate about how learning a second instrument (particularly in the wind family) can adversely affect your first.  Because you spend so much time developing a consistent embouchure needed for one instrument, the idea that developing the muscles for a different embouchure could set you back is not a pleasant one.  It’s hard to imagine that the detrimental effect would be noticeable unless one spent an inordinate amount of time on an instrument with truly opposing technique, but few people are eager to find out.

The usefulness of doubling really depends on what kind of music you’re out to make.  While doubling is very common in musical theatre pits and jazz, it is less so in classical and orchestral music. In an industry where many people are combining a number of different jobs to create the equivalent of full-time work, it poses a lot of advantages. That is not to say that many musicians can’t achieve that without doubling. In the end it comes down to musicians wearing a lot of different hats, it’s up to each person to decide which kinds of hats (and how many) they want to wear.


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Michela Comparey

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