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Do Saxophone Players Really Need to Double?

Saxophone and Woodwind DoublingAs a sax player coming up, it was strongly engrained in my subconscious that no woodwind doubling equals no music career.

I remember going to my strict but highly effective sax teacher Vince Trombetta (who also taught this other sax player named Michael Baker – or Brecker or something like that) and the accompanying displeasure of having to whip out the old clarinet. I liked the flute a lot better, but at the end of the day, doubling was more of a chore than a form of creative expression.

I’d always feel guilty for slacking on my doubles, and although I did play a good number of gigs squeaking by (literally) on both flute and clarinet, I was always glad to return to my beloved sax. In fact, after one particular flute performance, I had a wedding band leader in New Jersey so eloquently offer to place my flute in what would have proven to be a very uncomfortable place for me.

So I thought I’d poke around a bit and see if there were any full-time working sax players out there who had bucked the system and skipped the doubling thing altogether.

No flute, no clarinet, no problem.

Matt Otto

Matt Otto

Kansas City Saxophonist Matt Otto

The first non-doubler I was introduced to was Matt Otto, a Kansas City transplant from Los Angeles. Matt makes his living playing mostly small group jazz gigs such as trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, etc. In fact, not only does Matt not double on flute and clarinet, but he sticks to the tenor and soprano saxophones, forgoing the alto and baritone altogether.

Says Matt, “I wanted to play saxophone as a child. I was never very interested in the other instruments.”

As for whether aspiring professional saxophone players should take up doubles, Matt adds, “I think a player should do what he or she wants to do in music. Jazz doesn’t pay much, if you’re doing it for the money you might want to try something else. If you’re doing it for your love of music and art, just play the instruments you love.”

If you listen to Matt play, it is clear that he has a unique and captivating approach to music that’s all his own, so it’s easy to see where his passion is and how he could become the “go-to” guy in his town for the gigs that focus on improvisation. For this reason, he is able to skip gigs that require the type of ensemble playing that often requires woodwind doubling.

(To learn more about Matt’s musical journey, hop on over to mattotto.org to get both his free and for-sale albums, as well as some super-cool free online lessons.)

Johnny Ferriera

Johnny Ferreira

Rock and Roll Sax Man Johnny Ferreira

Like Matt, Canadian rock and roll sax man Johnny Ferriera has forged a career path that does not involve the flute, the clarinet, or any other woodwind besides the saxophone. Since flute or clarinet solos in a rock band generally go over like a clown at a funeral, naturally there is going to be little to zero need for doubling from the sax guy.

When asked about doubling, Johnny says that although he once taught clarinet lessons and still loves the sound of the instrument (affectionately referred to as the “cane of pain” by members of his musical circle), once his recording and touring career took off, the clarinet just disappeared.

Explains Johnny, “Truth is, I never felt comfortable playing it. It had to do somewhat with the fingering, but mostly it was the embouchure that I didn’t fall for. Probably because it’s so different than the sax.”

Johnny continues, “I tried playing the flute in an early band I was in. It was the disco era so there was always a hit song with a flute in it, but playing flute always made me a bit dizzy – probably improper breathing, but I never really took to it.”

“If you’re like me, you’re in a more pop, rock, or blues kind of thing. The keyboard comes in real handy… believe me. A band that wants a sax player will be even more exited to learn that the sax player can also do some keyboard comping to help out their groove.”

(For more on Johnny, you can visit his personal website at johnnyferreira.com. If you want to learn how to play sax well enough to be able to skip the doubles, he’ll be unveiling a new online saxophone lesson course, so make sure to sign up for the email list on his website to be notified as soon as that’s live.)

Other Views on Doubling

When asked about the topic of not doubling, Pete Thomas, the UK session player, composer, and founder of both the book and website titled “Taming the Saxophone” had this to say: “I used to make a living playing just tenor for several years, though I could also play flute, clarinet etc. I now work as a composer and find it best to do as much doubling and multi-instrumental-ing as possible. The best way to do this [ie: make a living playing without doubling] is to be the bandleader yourself. If you have the aptitude to do that side of the business, it becomes much more feasible.”

According to Los Angeles session saxophonist and composer Jeff Driskill, “Most guys I know play at least a little flute and clarinet.”

Echoing Johnny’s take on the keyboard, Jeff adds, “I think that you could make the argument that you’d be better off these days spending your time learning to play the piano as a double rather than the flute and clarinet. But that’s probably more about the kind of work that you want to do. Either way, you have to make yourself as versatile as possible to make a living.”

Your Life as a Non Doubler

Since session, big band, and backup band playing are extremely unlikely without the skill of woodwind doubling, here are the types of jobs you’ll need to land as a non-doubler:

  • Rock and Roll or pop gigs
  • Jazz small group gigs at coffee houses, restaurants, jazz clubs, concerts, and jazz festivals
  • Gigs jamming along with DJs at dance clubs
  • Gigs at private events (corporate parties, weddings, etc) where the saxophone is the only woodwind instrument called for

The Pros

If you want to make saxophone playing your full-time profession, then you should go into it being informed that doubling is going to dramatically increase your odds of being one of the few who make it.

Playing several instruments can’t help but widen your perspective on music as a whole. As many great saxophonists will tell you, achieving competence on an additional woodwind instrument will require the training of both the body as well as the ear, and that is almost certain to improve your saxophone playing. It is also common for doublers to grow extremely fond of their doubles. In fact, and some, such as Sam Sadigursky have written etudes and books for their alternate axes.

Doubling’s Dirty Downsides

Some of us dream of becoming Joe Henderson or Charlie Parker with nary a flute or clarinet anywhere within the same zip code. What if a saxophonist with the innovative artistry of Joe Lovano or Lenny Picket had become discouraged because it was drilled into their head that they need to either get their doubles together or find a new line of work?

In the end, we all have one life to live, and we have to decide what it is we want our careers, and really, our lives to look like and work backwards from there. While it’s true that many of the best saxophone players have also been excellent doublers, that may not be everyone’s path. With enough focus and hard work, it is certainly within the realm of possibility to succeed without having the other woodwinds under our belt.

My Two Cents

If you haven’t done so yet, I’d recommend you at least give doubling a try. In keeping an open mind, you’ll know whether or not you’re ready to go deeper with the doubles, or shift your focus to a career path closer to Matt and Johnny’s.

So go dust off that clarinet! (or leave it under the bed for another 3 years. )

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About the Author

I've been playing the sax since the late 80's, but my musical journey has run quite the gamut. The musical rap sheet includes tours with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and reggae master Half Pint, center stage at the L.A. Music Center, cozy cafes, raucous night clubs, gear-drenched studios, and the pinnacle of any musician's career - playing weddings in New Jersey! (duh). There's a lot of other stuff too, but you should be reading these blog posts and leaving comments instead. Now off you go!

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Comments (25)

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  1. Rick Hirsch says:

    Excellent topic.

    Most of us need to have versatility in one way or another in order to survive as independent musicians. SOME sax players diversify their skill sets by doubling. Others are good private teachers. Others are good business-people (like Pete Thomas suggests).

    My double is composing and arranging (with some music copying in there, too).

    Like Matt Otto suggests, you really need to do the things that call to you and make it work — rather than taking up something like woodwind doubling because you’re “suppose to if you wanna make a living.”

    my two cents…

    ~ Rick

    • Doron says:

      Yeah, I totally agree. So interesting that I’m hearing over and over lately that composing is the new “doubling.” Especially since with the advent of home studios and software such as Finale and Sibelius, it really is possible to crank out music quickly and inexpensively.

      Thanks for the insights Jeff!

      Doron

  2. Gandalfe says:

    I’ve been doubling on clarinet for ~3 years and it isn’t getting easier because I don’t spend the time on my doubles. And the flute, sigh.. let’s just say that I have a better flute with a custom head than I deserve based on how *little* time I spend on it.

    But it’s not all bad, because I did start up my own band and ensembles. So I get to pick the literature we play. And I did squeak through the clarinet solo on Moonlight Serenade this year. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but I wasn’t abismal… just bad. ;O)

    • Doron says:

      Well, it seems like the more players I talk to these days, the more ways there are to double besides just on the various woodwinds. I hear of sax players who play keyboards, drums, compose, customize mouthpieces, and the list goes on and on. I think it’s a matter of doing multiple things which you love instead of doubling on the woodwinds out of some obligation.

      Thanks Gandalfe!

  3. Ross Walters says:

    The harmonica is a popular double for myself and many sax players I know. Being a strong harmonica player opened the door to one of the most important gigs in my life. Pennywhistle is another handy little double that can add a celtic sound to your repitoure. I think every gigging sax player should learn to shake a tamborine and a shaker. Percussion, guitar, keys, vocals, these are all super valuable, non-traditional ‘rock and roll doubles’ that can open doors into higher paying gigs. You can drive yourself mad trying to get yourself on some kind of marathon practice routine on all these instruments. That doesn’t work. You go through seasons where you are passionate about one of them and you make a great deal of progress on it and then, as the muse strikes, you move on to something else.
    I admire players that can stick to one instrument and be content. I just hear more sounds in my head than what the tenor sax can produce.
    Someone asked tenor player Pete Christlieb at a club performance if he brought his clarinet “It’s in my closet squeaking” he said. Which is a funny line.
    The clarinet has fallen out of favor with sax players but it sure was a neat sound back in the day when arrangers would have the whole sax section switch to clarinet for part of a tune.

    • Wow, doubling on harmonica and pennywhistle, never thought of that but it makes total sense. It’s really cool to read how the definition of “doubling” has shifted so much from the big band and studio definitions of the past into the many permutations we’ve seen in the last 20 years or so.

      I do know that playing flute and clarinet can still increase one’s income by quite a bit, but at the same time, doing what you love is really the most profitable thing in the long run.

      Thanks for the insights Ross!

  4. Meluvsax says:

    I have noticed a new era starting in pop music. Obviously being so young that’s a majority of the music I have heard. Lately I’ve heard sax solos in modern pop songs, there have only been three so far; hair, edge of glory and last Friday night. I think putting sax in the new pop songs is a very good idea and they go well together, especially with a soprano or alto.

    Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are two of my favourite singers and I hope they inspire people to bring sax back to modern music. There is a small beam of hope that in about 10 years, it becomes popular again and I have improved enough that I can solo in new songs.

    I found that they have kept the sax parts pretty simple in these songs, and with a bit of practice I bet I could easily do those solos (and I’m only 13, been playing for 3 years) …maybe not, I think I’m being up myself again.

    But could you imagine? Being able to play the sax for lady gaga… a dream come true. And wouldn’t Alex be jealous. As long as I don’t play for Justin Bieber, that would just be horrific. Lol, but I would love to have a courier playing the sax.

    • Hello Meluvsax,

      Thanks for stopping in!

      I think that everything comes and goes in a cycle. Although the sax isn’t as widely used in pop music as it once was, I am confident that it will have its day again, as it is an extremely soulful and vocal instrument that lends itself to passionate and energetic music of all sorts.

      I definitely encourage you to keep on with your musical studies and if you really, really go for it, there’s no reason that it couldn’t be YOU up there on stage with Lady Gaga (and not Justin Bieber, as you pointed out).

      :)

      All the best,

      Doron

  5. Great article, Doron. As a fairly committed doubler constantly grappling with the feeling of being spread too thin musically, this issue is often on my mind. Funny enough, two of the artists you mention, Lenny Picket and Joe Lovano, are, in their own ways, two of the best doublers around. Lovano plays some brilliant alto clarinet and flute on some of his recordings, and I’m told Lenny is an accomplished clarinetist and that it’s somewhat of a secret passion of his.
    The difference with these two guys is that they both have used “doubles” as a tool to further their art, and not just a means of getting gigs in the commercial world. You probably wouldn’t want to hear Lovano play a clarinet solo on the Forrest Gump soundtrack, but nor would I want to hear most of the acclaimed studio clarinetists on anything improvised or creative.
    If somebody loves the sound of an instrument and is so inspired by that sound to take up that instrument, then nothing should stop them. Somebody who comes to mind for me is Scott Robinson, who besides playing pretty much every woodwind out there with a very personal sound, is also a great trumpet player as well! When we hear the word doubling it’s often connected to only increasing the amount of gigs one can do, but there’s an artistic and creative way to go about it that I don’t feel is explored often enough.

    • Yeah, I think that’s totally true. Just like composers and producers like to create music for an unlimited variety of instruments and sounds, I think it’s great for sax players to have their own palette of sounds to work with. Thanks for shining some light on the creative aspect of doubling!

  6. Doubler here says:

    I started on flute, so my “double” is that and soprano sax. I also play piccolo a lot. There may be a clarinet in the family and I would love to give that a try. I honestly don’t mind the different instruments, but I’m sad that I wont really be playing sax much next year. In years after I probably will continue but next year is probably just flute, and maybe piccolo.

    • Well, I think that if you’re primarily a flute player, my guess is that you’re probably playing a lot of classically-oriented music, no? I would think that in classical music, woodwind players aren’t really expected to double the same way jazz and session-oriented players are (no offense if you’re a jazz or session player!). At any rate, here’s hoping for more sax for you next year!

  7. ValerieMrtnz3 says:

    I play tenor sax (the best sax in my opinion, alto too high, bari too low for me) and i play piano. I want to play clarinet, drums, and guitar, maybe a flute, or piccalo. I guess to really be good at doubling, you have to want to

  8. Al Haney says:

    Doubling, like everything else is a compromise. It takes a great deal of time for me to stay “decent” on clarinet,flute and sax. If I spent as much time on one horn I’m sure I would be better on it. But all three do different things for me. You can play the same song on all three and they interpret so different that you would think they were played by different people. That said all three kick my butt on a regular basis. They are as rewarding and frustrating as raising children.

    • Yeah, it seems as though what the doubles might take away in technical mastery of your main axe they give back in terms of broadening your general musical concept. Thanks Al!

  9. Larry Weintraub says:

    Doron:

    These days I’m playing a lot more tenor than clarinet. BUT, I have done shows where I had to play both tenor and clarinet and it was important to sound good on both instruments.

    If I had my ‘druthers I would just play tenor in a jazz combo all the time. However being able to play clarinet well has gotten me gigs, especially shows. It also helped to get me into the Navy Band Program. Believe it or not I also played clarinet when I did the Four Tops Show. Also a lot of big band charts do require sax players to play either flute, clarinet or bass clarinet. That’s 1 thing I really liked about playing in Navy Bands, I got a chance to play bari, bass clarinet, clarinet and my tenor. I was given a chance to be featured on tenor, bari and clarinet. We did Artie Shaw’s “Concerto For Clarinet” and I was Shaw.

    Besides playing tenor and clarinet I also teach both. It all adds up to being part of your income earning bag of tricks. Btw – I also play piano.Not good enough to be in a Jazz Combo but good enough to help w/arranging, showing students how to comp etc.

    Well that’s my 2 cents. Check out Dan Higgins, Gene Ciprano, Gary Foster, Sal Lozano and other LA Studio cats to see how they double/triple etc.

    Later,

    Larry

    • Yep, there’s no doubt that being a doubler increases your income as a sax player, in many cases exponentially so. Not doubling definitely makes playing sax professionally an even more risky venture. But then again, if you have a very specific vision for what you want to do musically, and you’re very passionate about that vision, and it doesn’t involve playing doubles, then it might be worth the added risk.

    • Ronny lang says:

      Were you able to hold the double high c at the end? as an old retired doubler who had a great career as a sax player. doubling was the key to making a living as a musician. R lang

  10. Larry Weintraub says:

    Doron:

    Well yes it all depends on what you want to do or are able to do and get the calls for. Some really great non doubler’s today are guys like Eric Alexander, Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen. Actually Harry does play clarinet but he has said that it would take up to much of his time to keep it to the level he would need it to be at to play gigs on it. Those guys are into the more creative aspect of music than the commercial/teaching part of it.

    Personally I am really into that myself these days. I keep my clarinet chops up to the point where I can teach it and play 1 or 2 tunes a night on clarinet on my jazz gigs. Because I started on clarinet it might be a bit easier for me to put my chops back together after a layoff than other guys who started on sax.

  11. Larry Weintraub says:

    Ronny Lang: I know who you are. You were on several Mancini records, did Hollywood studio dates etc, etc. Weren’t the the guy doing the alto sax work in the movie “Body Heat” back in the ’80′s. I believe you also did the Mickey Spillane TV show.

    Okay, no I did not play the ending of the Shaw Concerto the way it was written going up to the C above high C. I am good up to an “A” and that’s about as high as I can get on clarinet. I played Shaw’s part until it got to high. Then I took it down an octave and right before you get to the double high C I played a original jazz lick and went down and ended on a low G. The rest of the chart I played it exactly as Shaw did. I have a recording of Shaw playing it and I have seen the movie that he played it in.

    Btw – hats off to you. Your one of the guys who did it all, the King of the Sexy alto sound. In the book the “Devil’s Horn” which is about the saxophone the author said when you heard the sexy alto usually played by Ronny Lang you knew something “romantic” was going to happen on the screen.

    Take care,

    Larry W

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