Regular readers of this blog are by now probably tired of posts about doubling, the last several of which have served in part to promote my recent book The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling. I apologize for that and plan to move on to other things after this post. For the past several days I have been preparing a presentation on the subject to give tomorrow at the Big 12 Trombone Conference at Texas Tech University. For that reason, I had no time to write a separate blog post on another subject, and in any case as I was preparing my talk a set of three overarching principles became particularly apparent. These are discussed in the book, of course, but not necessarily highlighted in the way that I will do tomorrow and as I am doing here. If you are—or hope to become—a performer on multiple low brass instruments, let these three principles guide you as you move into addressing the requirements of each individual instrument.
Overall Organizing Principle #1: Avoid Duplicative Work Whenever Possible.
Mastering one instrument requires a massive investment of time, money, and effort, as we all know, and few people have the ability to invest similarly in a secondary instrument, much less adding two, three, four, or more doubles. Successful doubling thus requires the player to identify areas where the techniques and approaches of his primary and secondary instruments are the same or very similar, and to structure both his mental concept and practice time in such a way that unnecessary duplication is avoided.
To put it the opposite way, when learning and practicing a secondary instrument or instruments you need to know how those instruments differ from your primary instrument, and emphasize those areas in your secondary instrument practice while allowing areas of similarity to carry over from the primary instrument to the secondary with little or no additional practice. In this way your secondary instrument work will be as effective as possible without exceeding available practice time.
Overall Organizing Principle #2: Have a Primary Instrument.
One primary goal of the working doubler is to have listeners not be able to tell which instrument is your primary instrument and which are secondary instruments. However, that there should be little or no discernible difference in sound quality between your primary and secondary instruments does not mean that there will be no differences in your efforts or approach. In fact, it is vital that the distinction between primary and secondary instruments be maintained in your practice and concept.
The approach to doubling that I have found most successful is one in which one instrument is the primary instrument and the others treated as departures from that. With regard to practice time, the primary instrument will receive the most attention, including the most comprehensive fundamentals work. Secondary instrument practice will occupy considerably less time and will, as I mentioned previously, be focused upon areas where your secondary instruments differ from your primary instrument. Your overall mental concept of “how to play” should be similarly focused upon the primary instrument, with doubles treated as departures from it.
As you become more proficient with your doubles, and particularly if you begin doing equal amounts of work on all of your instruments, resist the urge to abandon the primary instrument concept and place all of the instruments on an equal footing. I tried this for a time in an attempt to save time, and found that it actually required more time and effort because I was repeating things that didn’t need to be repeated and unintentionally neglecting areas that needed work. I had become the proverbial “jack of all trades and master of none,” or at least I felt like it.
I thus learned through experience that centering my playing concept and development upon a single primary instrument, and treating other instruments as departures from that, was actually the most efficient and productive way of approaching doubling. I call this the “jack of all trades and master of one” approach. Even though the primary instrument gets the most attention, the results heard by others are most like playing each instrument on an equal level. (Or, at least, deficiencies in your secondary instruments are not all that perceptible.)
One more note about this, while having one primary instrument and the other instruments secondary is important, the identity of the secondary instrument need not be fixed. If you find yourself doing most of your playing work on one of your secondary instruments you might seriously consider moving that instrument into the primary spot. I did this a while back when I was doing most of my work on the bass trombone, and then changed the large-bore tenor back to the primary position as circumstances dictated. There were no ill effects from this and if anything I saw an improvement in my bass trombone playing which has been largely retained.
Overall Organizing Principle #3: Strive to Have the Same Tonal Range on Every Instrument You Play.
My working theory is this: All low brass instruments have—or should have—the same tonal range.
That’s an outrageous statement, so let me qualify it. I don’t mean to say that every instrument will sound its best or respond the easiest in every part of the range. That’s one reason that we have alto trombones, and bass trombones, and tubas. I don’t even mean to say that there aren’t some low notes that will be reachable on a contrabass tuba that you won’t be able to produce on a small trombone, or vice versa.
What I am saying is that you should pursue doubling practice in such a way that your tonal range is as independent as possible from the particular instrument in your hands at the moment. This means, among other things, that you will need to include both extremes of range in your regular fundamentals practice on every instrument, including playing pedal tones and low false tones on the alto trombone and “squeaky high notes” on the contrabass trombone or tuba. While you might not use all of those extremes of range in live performance, not depending upon the instrument to create range possibilities for you is very freeing. You will find that your consideration of what instrument to use in a particular context focuses upon timbre and efficiency, not upon range. This is as it should be.
With that, I’ll conclude discussing doubling here on the blog, at least for a while. Any more writing on the subject and I’ll be “giving away the store,” as it were. To see these ideas fleshed out and applied, get your copy of The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling today!