Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments), Part Two

Part One can be found here.

Setting goals

While musicians who pursue doubling often consider the benefits of doing so largely in economic terms, those are not the only kinds of considerations that might lead you to take on a secondary instrument. The low brass player that is considering doubling needs to set individual goals for secondary instrument study and performance. The intensity of study and practice that are needed, and in many cases the choice of secondary instrument to pursue, will be determined by these goals.

Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by doubling. An avocational player seeking only to be able to fulfill different roles in community bands, perform in volunteer church ensembles, and play for personal enjoyment will be able to choose the instrument that “suits his fancy” and proceed with his playing development on the new instrument as whatever pace he likes. However, a player who aspires to perform on his secondary instrument professionally should work with great focus and intensity, seeking to quickly achieve professional-level playing on the secondary instrument. The music educator studying a secondary instrument in order to benefit his teaching might fall between these two extremes. Every player that pursues a secondary instrument does so with different objectives in mind. These will determine the choice of instrument, the intensity with which that instrument is studied, and the end result of this study.

You must also ask yourself “Are my goals reasonable, given the opportunities available to me?” A person that plays for personal enjoyment can choose whatever secondary instrument he desires, provided that he is content to play alone if no opportunities for ensemble playing are available. If you want to double in order to increase performance opportunities, consider the available positions in your area. An avocational euphonium player considering taking up the trombone in order to play in the community orchestra, for example, might find his hopes dashed if the trombone chairs are all occupied. But if the tuba chair is available and no experienced tubists are available, doubling on tuba might be a more reasonable pursuit. Similarly, a trombone-playing music educator looking only to improve his secondary school teaching by doubling should probably not choose the alto trombone as a secondary instrument, since that instrument is rare in such contexts. Euphonium or tuba would be better choices. The working musician looking to play more gigs should consider the unique mix of players and opportunities in his area and choose a double for which there seems to be more gigs than players. The aspiring performer that is still a student can choose any doubling instrument that he thinks will improve his long-term career prospects, provided that he is willing to move to “wherever the work is” upon graduation.

The decision to double is a given, at least in many situations, but the choice of instrument depends upon your individual goals and the opportunities available to you. Unless you are playing purely for your own enjoyment and do not mind playing alone, you must consider the prospects for performing on a given instrument, both short-term and long-term, when choosing a double. Your second-choice instrument, if it is greater demand, will almost certainly be a better option than your preferred instrument.

Similarities and differences

Another area to consider when choosing a doubling instrument is the similarities and differences in a given primary-secondary instrument combination. All low brass instruments have some playing techniques that are similar to one or more of the others and some that differ from one or more the others. The more similar a doubling instrument is to your primary instrument, the smaller the amount of time that will be required to gain—and maintain—the proficiency needed to perform on that instrument.

To illustrate this point, imagine that a tenor trombonist is deciding whether to take up bass trombone or tuba as a secondary instrument, and that in this imagined scenario the performing opportunities and potential remuneration are similar for each instrument. Assume further that the player is equally interested in both instruments, and that the cost of acquiring either instrument is similar. In this scenario, the time it will take to reach an adequate performing level on each instrument is an important consideration. If this tenor trombonist has a strong low register already, adding a bass trombone double would not take very long at all. Most of the slide positions are the same, and the desired timbre and air column shape are similar to those on his primary instrument, only bigger. The greatest obstacles to this player mastering the bass trombone will be learning slide positions and tuning using the second valve and becoming accustomed to the increased airflow and embouchure requirements of the bass trombone. Conversely, for that same player to learn to double effectively on tuba would take a greater amount of time. In that case not only are the air requirements increased, but the method of blowing is different as well, being somewhat more relaxed and more expansive on the tuba than on the bass trombone. Additionally, the player would need to learn fingerings, develop the necessary right hand dexterity, and significantly rework articulation in order to accommodate the tuba’s greater slurring capacities as well as certain subtle differences in tonguing technique for staccato and marcato passages. The bass trombone is thus similar to the tenor in many ways while presenting few differences, while the tuba presents a longer list of difficulties. Not only will more time be required for the player’s initial study of the tuba compared to that for the bass trombone, but the amount of practice time needed to maintain that proficiency will be greater, as well.

The above example is a bit artificial (tubas almost always cost more than bass trombones, after all), but it illustrates the point being considered here. The doubling instruments that are most closely related to one’s primary instrument are usually the quickest and easiest to master as secondary instruments. The player that is concerned mainly with moving his doubling from the practice room to the gig as quickly as possible might be encouraged to consider these instruments most strongly. However, there are additional factors that might alter this conclusion.

Returning to the above example, suppose that the player is working as a school band director, or aspires to do so, with freelance performing constituting a substantial but still secondary part of his income. While learning the bass trombone would provide him with additional freelance income in less time than the tuba, taking up the tuba might be of more benefit to his primary employment as an educator. Or, perhaps he has an opportunity to acquire a quality tuba at little or no cost, and would need to spend more to acquire a bass trombone of comparable quality. In such circumstances the player in our example might choose the tuba over the bass trombone, in spite of the greater learning and maintenance times, in order to save money or realize benefits to his career beyond his short-term gig prospects.

Although secondary instruments that are closely related to one’s primary instrument offer the easiest route for the player seeking to begin doubling, there are certain challenges which must be acknowledged and addressed. Returning to the previous example of a tenor trombonist seeking to take up bass trombone (or vice versa), while the large number of shared fingerings between these two instruments make this particular doubling combination an easy one in some respects, those shared fingerings can also become problematic. After all, no two B-flat trombone slides are exactly alike. While A-flat can be played in third position on every B-flat trombone, the precise location of that third position will always differ slightly from one instrument to the next, and likewise with all of the slide positions. The player that fails to acknowledge this and adjust to the peculiar tendencies of each instrument will play with poor intonation on at least one of the two instruments, if not both. Indeed, similar problems can present themselves even for those players who regularly play two of the same type of instrument, such as small- and large-bore tenor trombones, or smaller and larger tubas with the same fundamental pitch.

A related but equally problematic issue occurs with players that play two instruments with similar core tonal ranges but different tone qualities, such as tenor trombone and euphonium, or even euphonium and baritone horn. In such cases, the many shared characteristics of the two instruments can lead the player to prematurely decide that he is ready to double on a certain instrument professionally, when in fact he has only “scratched the surface” of what is needed to succeed on the secondary instrument. As a trombonist who has spent many years perfecting my skills as a euphonium doubler, I am always offended when a trombonist declares himself to be a competent euphonium player, and then proceeds to play the euphonium with a timbre and articulation which sound more like a poorly-played trombone than a euphonium. Having grasped the correlation between trombone slide positions and euphonium fingerings, such players are soon able to accurately produce the correct notes and rhythms on the new instrument, but instead of accepting this area of similarity between the two instruments and focusing on mastering differences, they ignore the differences entirely and settle for a euphonium sound that is both uncharacteristic and unpleasing. Perhaps the most common forum for displaying this particular fault is when an unprepared trombonist occasionally doubles on euphonium in an orchestral setting; it can make for a very unhappy “Bydlo” solo, indeed.

All of the low brasses have shared characteristics which make doubling among our families of instruments relatively easy, but some low brass instruments are more closely related than others. In most cases, the more traits a given secondary instrument shares with your primary instrument, the quicker and easier that secondary instrument will be both to learn and to maintain. Nevertheless, close relationships can lead to laziness in acknowledging and mastering areas of difference which do exist, a tendency which must be avoided if you wish to become a successful doubler. Besides, depending on your particular situation the easiest choice might not be the best one; the ease with which you can gain mastery should be only one of several items you should consider when choosing a secondary instrument.

To be concluded on Monday, October 20.

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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