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. )