Choosing a Doubling Instrument (or Instruments), Part Three

Part One can be found here, and Part Two here.

Do you have time?

Doubling is almost always a boon to the low brass player’s musical experience, both for personal enjoyment as well as for professional prospects. However, these benefits will be realized only if you learn to play your secondary instrument well. Having been involved in situations in which a player (happily, not me!) has accepted an engagement for a doubling instrument which he had not yet fully mastered, I cannot imagine a more uncomfortable performing scenario both for the player at fault and for the other musicians on the gig. Perhaps more importantly, the player’s reputation was sullied, perhaps irreparably. While everyone has a bad day from time to time, musicians and contractors can tell the difference between an uncharacteristically poor performance that occurs in spite of diligent preparation and one which occurs because the player has not spent the necessary time in the proverbial woodshed with a particular instrument. Very few engagements of the latter type will be needed for your phone to stop ringing entirely.

In spite of the obvious benefits of doubling, you must consider whether or not you have sufficient time available for such an undertaking. Effective and efficient practice strategies can minimize the time needed to maintain skills on a doubling instrument that you already have well in-hand, but some practice time is required, especially during the initial stages of secondary instrument study. Not only must a substantial amount of time be invested in learning the new instrument, but this should not come at the expense of time spent practicing your primary instrument, at least not in the long term. An accurate understanding of the similarities and differences between instruments will decrease the amount of time and effort needed to master a new instrument, but this merely explains why doubling does not require that you actually double your practice time. Proficient and effective performance on a secondary instrument requires devoting a substantial amount of time to “shedding” on that instrument. Those who are unable or unwilling to invest that time should reconsider any plans to begin secondary instrument study.

Why is it important that so much time be dedicated to secondary instrument practice? Because audiences, contractors, conductors, and fellow musicians do not want to know that a given instrument is your secondary instrument, and if they do know they do not want to be able to tell by listening to your playing. Admittedly, you will very likely not feel as comfortable at first on your secondary instrument as on your primary instrument, though with time and practice you will reach the point where you are at ease playing whatever instrument is in your hands. In any case, your subjective perception of your own playing is often inaccurate, sometimes favorably so, and sometimes unfavorably. (This is why recorded practice sessions and applied lessons are important for your development.) If contractors and fellow musicians are pleased with your work, then be encouraged—and keep doing what you are doing. In time your comfort level will match others’ reception of your playing. If they are not pleased with your work, then regardless of your perception of your playing on a given instrument you need to practice more, and seek guidance in working out nagging problems.

Effective doubling means sounding great on whatever instrument is in your hands. This requires diligent and informed practice. If you are unable or unwilling to invest the time and effort needed play well on a secondary instrument—so well that listeners cannot readily tell the difference between your primary and secondary instruments—then doubling, in spite of its great benefits, is not for you.

Allow me to illustrate this with a personal anecdote. A number of years ago I received a last-minute call to substitute for the bass trombonist in a very good symphony orchestra, my first time performing with this ensemble. I was to report the next morning for a single rehearsal, followed by a performance that evening. As it turned out, the rehearsal was not even of sufficient length to cover the entire program, a summer pops concert which included Fountains of Rome as well as the 1812 Overture. Given the short notice and the challenging part for Fountains in particular, I was quite nervous though excited about the opportunity. Happily, the personnel manager (who was also the tuba player and thus sat next to me during the performance) was pleased with my playing, and this led to several subsequent engagements with that group before I accepted a teaching position in another state. One of these engagements was an early morning educational concert. Because I was primarily a tenor trombonist and at that time not yet comfortable with playing the bass before doing some fundamentals practice on the tenor, I brought both instruments along and arrived very early at the hall to warm-up. The tubist/personnel manager saw me playing the tenor trombone and said “I didn’t know you played tenor trombone, as well!” Based upon my bass trombone playing, this gentleman had assumed that the bass trombone was my primary instrument, when in fact it was only one of several secondary instruments I was playing by that time.

That is the goal: to play all of your instruments so well that the listener cannot tell the difference between your primary and secondary instruments. This requires a great deal of time and effort, but any lesser result should be unacceptable.

Are you willing?

Before finally “jumping in” and beginning the difficult but rewarding work of doubling, ask yourself if you are truly willing to take on this task. The initial costs are significant, the early practicing is sometimes frustrating, and the rewards, while significant, are often slow in coming and are by no means guaranteed. Recouping your monetary investment could take months or even years depending on the instrument chosen, though musical fulfillment usually comes sooner. Indeed, the variety of playing opportunities afforded to doublers makes playing several instruments especially satisfying; in some respects the greater remunerative potential is “gravy.” And yet these rewards, both tangible and intangible, come only when the listener cannot hear the difference between your primary and secondary instruments. The bar must be set high; great musicianship demands no less.

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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