How to Master the Art of Woodwind Doubling

An Interview with Noah Vece

Date Posted: April 03, 2018

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Interview conducted by Alison Evans

Noah Vece is a Vandoren Artist-Clinician and a part of the Regional Artist Program. The goal for the Vandoren Regional Artist program is to enhance the quality of the music experience through education and the assistance of Vandoren. These highly trained professional educators and performers will engage your students through educational and fun sessions. The clinics they conduct cover a broad spectrum of topics and, based on your input, can be customized to fit the needs of your students. Contact us today to arrange your free Vandoren clinic.

Have you always played multiple instruments, or did you pick up others later on in life?

I started off like most people playing one instrument (alto sax) in middle school. I was fortunate to have great and inspirational conductors for many years, but it wasn’t until I was in my college jazz ensemble where one day I was simply expected to bring my flute to rehearsal. I scrambled to find a loaner flute that the methods classes weren’t using the next day and I’ve been doubling from then on. I tend to pick up various instruments as they’re required of me since it’s rather difficult to simply buy them all outright. I recently did a show with lots of exposed and important piccolo parts, so I had to reshuffle my priorities and buy my own in order to be comfortable with the book. Everyone has a unique path depending on the music they play, mine just happens to be pretty chaotic I suppose.

How do you prepare for gigs when you have parts on different instruments?

Well firstly the most important step is to have some basic technique on each instrument- it’s very humbling to have to re-learn your major scales several times, but it’s the most important step you can take. To answer your question more specifically though, before a show with doubling involved I always make sure to practice ACTUALLY switching the instruments in time with the music. If I’m given the book in advance (sometimes you’re not!), I always try and find a recording somewhere and play along with it over a loud speaker to simulate the show. Writing things like, “Hang Alto,” “To Flute FAST,” or “Turn page now!” are really helpful because just looking at the music doesn’t usually tell you where the logistical problems might be. Never be afraid to mark the music with mundane comments if it helps you to focus on playing rather than when to detach your bari sax from the neckstrap during a performance!

"...regardless of what wind instrument you happen to be playing, the WIND is the one thing that should always stay consistent." - Noah Vece

Are there any tricks you have on crossing over?

One thing you learn from switching is that regardless of what wind instrument you happen to be playing, the WIND is the one thing that should always stay consistent. While the playing techniques may change, it’s easy to forget that the only thing that truly powers the instrument is air and air pressure. Especially going from clarinet to flute which requires a massive embouchure change, it’s helpful to try and think less about each of the gajillion muscles in your face and think more about just a relaxed breathing feeling. If you are practicing consistently, you will eventually discover the minute differences between the horns, but tension is public enemy #1! Having good quality equipment is also doubly important for multi-instrumentalists as bad equipment will inevitably spawn bad habits, and there’s enough on our plates as it is without having to spend our practice sessions regaining lost ground due to a poorly faced mouthpiece or reeds that won’t play in tune.

Do you teach any of your students to double on instruments?

I do have a few that came to me interested in doubling and a few more that I’ve converted to the cause. I usually don’t push it though, because it’s a personal venture and most don’t have the time to practice multiple instruments consistently. The cost of the instruments is also a deterrent as well for students. Nevertheless, I’m always secretly waiting on one of my clarinet players to try and pick up the sax to get into their school jazz band!

Which instruments do you think translate well from one to another? (e.g., tenor sax to clarinet or flute to clarinet)

The true answer here is none of them! Each instrument has its own quirks and if you pick up a clarinet with “saxophone hands” it won’t sound quite the way it’s supposed to. That being said, there are lots of lessons to be learned from each horn that will definitely enhance your abilities on the others. With a few exceptions all woodwinds have a similar fingering system; sax to flute is almost identical until the 3rd register and that’s a huge bonus for getting started. Clarinet and sax obviously both use reeds so the method of tone production is very familiar between them (just be sure and cover the open tone holes!). I might add that it’s nice having tenor sax and clarinet both in the key in Bb, but ultimately, you’ll have to be familiar with flute in C and the alto/bari sax in Eb so that is a bit of a short-lived victory.

Are there any big differences that students learning to double should be aware of?

Going back to the question about tricks for crossing over, the main differences are the small technical nuances in the fingerings and embouchure. Clarinet for instance uses the tongue more in its basic technique than any other wind instrument. Being acutely aware of your tongue position (it should be high!) will help tremendously when learning. Playing the flute is mainly a test of producing air pressure from the diaphragm rather than squeezing the face and lips, and learning this was very useful to me when I first picked it up. The good news is that all these techniques are cross-compatible! You may have played the sax for years and never really realized that your tongue was relatively low until you tried clarinet. Once you pick up the sax again, that higher tongue position will help you get a nice focused sound! The trick is really to be willing to experiment and use your ears to detect what sounds good and idiomatic of each instrument. Once again, don’t pick up a clarinet with “sax hands!”

Do you have any advice for teachers looking to teach their students how to double?

Simply put, doubling on woodwinds is too hard for anyone to do if they don’t enjoy it, so really work individually with your students to keep them motivated on the new instrument! I like to mix up styles and play things on one horn that we generally don’t play on the other (jazz duets for sax, baroque music for flute, etc.) as this tends to help give them a different ear for each instrument.

On the other hand, you should never lower the bar just because it is a “2nd instrument.” Always check tuning religiously! Spend time working on the hard stuff such as crossing the break on clarinet, flute articulations, or long tones on sax and don’t let mistakes slide just because it’s a new instrument. In the words of Trevor Wye, “Take pleasure in the difficulties!”

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The goal for the Vandoren Artist-Clinician program is to enhance the quality of the music experience through education and the assistance of Vandoren. These highly trained professional educators and performers will engage your students through educational and fun sessions.

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