Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments), Part One

As I mentioned in a post back in May, I spent most of the summer working on a book for Mountain Peak Music tentatively entitled The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling. I am happy to report that so far we are on track for a release early next year.

Any large-scale writing project involves multiple rounds of writing and revising, as well as discarding unnecessary or superfluous material. When I finished my doctoral dissertation back in 2005 about 30 pages worth of material ended up on the “virtual cutting room floor,” and the present book is shaping up in very much the same way. This is beneficial for everyone involved. Readers get a clearer presentation of pertinent information, publishers spend less on printing because of the book’s smaller size (thus lowering costs passed on to the reader, as well), and authors look like better writers than they are! To put it more briefly, nearly every good book, article, or book chapter begins its life as a somewhat longer piece, and sometimes a much longer one.

Not everything that was cut from the book is necessarily bad, though. Some of it was simply deemed to be unnecessary for the project at hand. This was the case with my original second chapter, which was entitled “Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments).” While thinking and working through these thoughts was important for me as I approached the subject, the publisher thought that readers will have already chosen their instrument(s) and will be consulting our book primarily for guidance on how to approach that instrument. I agreed with is reasoning, and that entire chapter was cut from the book.

Still, I think these thoughts are useful, and since I have a forum here for sharing them, in the next three posts I will present some ideas that low brass players should consider when choosing secondary instruments to add to their performance activities.

Are you ready?

The first question you must ask when considering doubling is “Am I really ready to do this?” Sometimes a player’s ambition can exceed his ability, and the results are unsatisfactory at best. Successful doubling involves extending your fundamental approach from your primary instrument to your secondary instrument, with as many skills as possible being transferred from one to the other. If your fundamental playing on your primary instrument is deficient, that deficiency will manifest itself on the secondary instrument as well, in addition to the usual difficulties which accompany inexperience on a new instrument. You might quickly find yourself being a mediocre player on one instrument and poor player on the other, and the practicing necessary to improve on both instruments simultaneously will be a hard slog, indeed. If your playing on your primary instrument still needs work, you will do best by improving on your primary instrument before trying to add a double.

If, however, your fundamental playing skills are relatively secure and consistent on your primary instrument, you are probably ready to take on a double. Because the basic elements of moving air, buzzing, articulation, etc. change very little between low brass instruments you will be able to focus your doubling practice upon areas where the secondary instrument differs from the primary. You should be able to continue your development on your primary instrument unabated, while improvement on the secondary instrument will be quick and efficient.

Can you afford it?

Taking on a secondary instrument is rarely free. While students can sometimes begin their doubling studies without a significant monetary investment, eventually certain purchases will have to be made. The financial burden of doubling can be divided into two parts: purchasing equipment and supplies, and obtaining instruction.

When adding a secondary instrument you must purchase an instrument and associated supplies (mouthpiece, lubricants, perhaps ergonomic supports, etc.), plus sheet music for study and performance. If you are enrolled as a college or university student you might be able to delay some of these expenses by utilizing school-owned equipment and library resources, but at some point you will need to acquire your own instrument and materials.

At this point the question arises, “How much should I spend on a doubling instrument?” Perhaps the best answer is “As much as you reasonably can.” A new, top-line instrument is a major investment, and although many players can spend that kind of money on their primary instruments, few are able to invest a similar amount in a secondary instrument. Happily, with a bit of searching quality instruments can be found at reasonable prices, particularly on the used market. A modest investment should be sufficient to acquire an acceptable instrument to begin your doubling work; upgrading to a higher quality instrument can wait until your financial position is more secure. Besides, purchasing an instrument with all of the “bells and whistles” might best be saved until you are more experienced on the secondary instrument and have a better understanding of the characteristics that will best suit your playing. Still, if you have the money to purchase a top-quality instrument from the get-go, then by all means do so.

Although thriftiness is usually an admirable quality, resist the temptation to purchase a doubling instrument on the cheap. Today instruments are advertised for sale online at practically every price point, but many of the “great deals” are for instruments of inferior quality, which are likely to hamper your development as a doubler rather than hasten it. It is usually better to purchase a secondhand instrument from a reputable manufacturer than a comparably priced new one from an unknown maker. If in doubt, seek the advice of a fine player or teacher, or, with caution, of a trustworthy instrument dealer.

Besides the cost of an instrument and accessories consider also fees for instruction when beginning secondary instrument study. This is not a major concern for college and university students, as fees for applied instruction are included with tuition or are heavily subsidized. Those that begin doubling while not enrolled as students will likely need to engage teachers at their own expense, at least in the beginning stages of learning a doubling instrument.

As with the temptation to purchase an inferior instrument in order to save money, there might be a corresponding desire to reduce costs by studying and practicing without the guidance of a teacher. Depending on your background and experience, and the similarities between your primary and secondary instruments, you might be able to take up a secondary instrument without private instruction. Certainly there are players that have done just that, and very successfully. However, a good teacher will provide an extra set of ears to evaluate your progress on the secondary instrument, identifying and addressing errors that you miss in individual practice while also suggesting literature and techniques for improvement. Even a few lessons can hasten your development as a doubler while helping you to avoid unforeseen pitfalls.

A low brass player taking up a secondary instrument can incur significant expenses in the short term. Before hastily answering the question “Can I afford it?” in the negative, however, you should ask the opposite question: “Can I afford not to?” You may find that the long-term earning potential from doubling greatly outweighs the short-term costs.

Can you afford not to?

There was a time when doubling was not an absolute necessity for low brass players. The established curricula and methods for training brass players certainly reflect this assumption, given that most perpetuate the model of specializing on a single instrument. While low brass doubling has long been an accepted norm in some circles—the West Coast studio scene comes immediately to mind—in other contexts it has not been as strongly encouraged. When employment opportunities in symphony orchestras, big bands, military bands, and other groups were more numerous (not that they were ever too plentiful), this “specialist model” was not entirely irresponsible.

Times have changed, however, and our methods and emphases in training brass players have not always kept up. Music schools continually turn out more fine players than there are jobs available for them, and while the quality of low brass playing has increased in recent years (at least among the top players), many of these great musicians find themselves underemployed, and some eventually leave the profession. Given the tough job market, possessing a broader array of skills will help you to distinguish yourself among the crowded field of aspiring musicians, making you better able to make a living in the profession. Performing on multiple instruments is one way to make yourself more marketable.

The startup costs for secondary instrument study are great, but when long-term employment prospects are taken into consideration, doubling is a worthy and even necessary investment of time, energy, and money. Whether you want to work primarily as an educator or as a performer, playing multiple instruments will make you a more versatile and ultimately more employable musician. Unless you find yourself in the enviable position of having a salaried and tenured position playing a single instrument, you very likely cannot afford not to double!

To be continued next week. (D.V.)

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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