Double, double toil and…trouble?

Lately, the topic of doubling has proliferated trombone social media sites and seems to be a more common practice than it has been in years past. Or perhaps the information super-highway (and my own naivety) makes it seem that way. The most viewed post on this entire website is the survey I conducted a few years ago on orchestral trombonists who double (and often triple) as part of their jobs. Over the past few years I have visited many universities, and am often surprised — for the better and sometimes worse — by how many young players are working on two instruments: primarily tenor and bass.

My personal experience has taught me that doubling can be an extremely healthy practice. As a tenor player, I started dabbling with the alto my senior year of high school. After a severe case of Bells palsy during college, I moved to bass trombone for a year as that was the only register I could play! That entire story is here. As an example from the physical perspective, playing bass trombone helps my air and often extends my endurance. Playing alto trombone makes me focus my buzz and be more cogniscent of pitch. Mentally, switching between instruments demands that I preconceive my sound and style concepts before taking the first breath. In the orchestra, I’ve discovered that I listen in different ways depending on which chair I’m playing, and which instrument I’m using. More on that in a future blog post.

All that being said, I pose that there is also a danger in practicing a double too soon in ones development. It is this authors opinion that all too frequently, there is not enough focus on primary instrument fundamentals. Hear me out before you pounce (as some people did on my “Excerpts: teaching to the test” blog). There is a standard of fundamentals that I feel many people do not achieve before adding doubles to their plate. Concept of pitch, time/rhythm, sound, and articulation are frequently suspect. I’ve heard many collegiate level players on both instruments, with significant flaws in one or more of those categories. My concern is that the double is serving as a distraction, while the development of these skills on ones primary instrument should be of more concern. To me, establishing great control of these fundamentals on one horn is better than mediocrity on a few. The phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind.

Once you establish a solid sense of pitch, you can carry it to any instrument. Same with time/rhythm. Articulation can offer more challenge, as the degree to which one engages the tongue can change instrument to instrument. Sound concept could be the topic of a completely separate blog, but it is this authors opinion that one must spend concentrated time understanding and developing the specific sound qualities associated with each trombone.

So when is the appropriate time to add a double? That really has to be up to the individual player. Some considerations:
– Can you continue to develop and maintain the aforementioned skills while adding more instruments to your practice?
– Can you afford the equipment?
– Do you have a teacher/colleague who is knowledgeable on the double, or another readily accessible resource?
– Are your role models and sound concepts firmly established?
– Is there a professional obligation or incentive to add a double?
– Are you willing to steal practice time from your primary to develop a double?
– Similarly, are you willing to accept that adding more instruments to your plate MAY result in not reaching the highest level possible on your primary? 

This last question leaves room for debate. I myself could argue that doubling on bass trombone has significantly improved my tenor playing, but then again, the time I spent developing bass trombone skills could have been spent practicing tenor. Determining which route would have had more benefit is impossible, but for me, developing the double opened up many more opportunities professionally, and quite frankly, has been more enjoyable.

Once the practice of doubling has begun, I firmly believe in spending time “paying your dues”. If you are serious about your playing, you have already spent significant time with tuning drones, a tuner, a metronome, and a recorder. So why not do the same with your double? The more refined your ear is from developing those skills on your primary instrument, the easier and less time-consuming this should be on your double(s). However, I feel many people simply pick up the double and start playing repertoire, which can leave large gaps in your playing. If you’ve done all your warm-up and maintenance practice on tenor, then suddenly just pick up the Wagenseil Concerto on the alto, you’ll probably sound like a tenor. You can certainly work towards establishing the ability to switch quickly, but pay your dues in the practice room first!

On that note, Colin Williams of the New York Philharmonic recently posted a wonderful video where he discusses and demonstrates how he stays in shape on all his doubles. I like that he talks about doing some of the same exercises on each horn, so that there is overlap. I believe the overlapping exercises also help identify the differences between instruments, and how one compensates for — or accentuates — those differences. He also directly addresses the change of air and concept between horns. Too often, I feel young players don’t spend the time adequately develop this, and end up subconsciously making the same sound on each instrument.

Let me be clear that my intention is not to discourage anyone from the practice of doubling, but rather give serious consideration to how they practice doubling. As with all my blogs, I am not professing to be an expert. I only hope to encourage more careful consideration when it comes to taking on the responsibility of a double.

This season, I am moving over to the Bass Trombone chair, as Jeff Dee assumes his new post in Pittsburgh. While I have been filling in as needed on bass trombone for years, the idea of doing it full time was a bit scary when I was first approached. I have to give so much more consideration and preparation to everything I play in that position, not to mention filling Jeff’s shoes is an imposing task! However, I quickly found confidence in the fact that my concept of bass trombone is rather strong. I credit that to the years I spent hearing some of the best players, both in my education and professional life. Sitting next to Jeff for 7 years created a solid concept, plus having such influential teachers (Randy Hawes and Charlie Vernon) established a sound in my head long before I began playing bass trombone in the orchestra. One of my next posts will include observations from playing the different chairs in the orchestra over the past few years. It really keeps things fresh and educational!


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