Creating a Masters Degree in Woodwind Doubling

During my years as a professor, I had the good fortune to create a Masters degree in multiple woodwind performance (woodwind doubling). As someone who has been involved with this part of the music industry for most of my life, establishing this kind of an opportunity for talented students was a labor of love. It also was a pragmatic solution to finding a career path for talented students since the music industry of today offers very few career opportunities for woodwind performers. (By career, I refer to a forty-year period of employment that provides one with a steady livable wage, health benefits and pension.)

Institutions of higher education typically segregate their woodwind performance majors into categories such as “classical, “jazz,” “contemporary,” etc. And if there’s a “commercial” music component offered in a music department, it’s often buried in other degree performances such as a musical theater production, an orchestral performance of a film score, a pop combo performance, or a student composer’s work. It is extremely rare to find a conservatory or university that offers a degree in multiple woodwind instrumental performance with diverse musical styles as its basic music component.

While it sounds like a reasonable and even sensible proposal, the creation and implementation of such a degree is far from simple. It requires a music faculty and university/college administration willing to support the following unique set of conditions:

  1. Creation of a new graduate degree program that has very little academic history; the ability to hire woodwind doubling specialists as applied instructors; and the creation of special ensembles, concerts & recitals for these students.
  2. Allow doubling degree students to study their instruments with several teachers each week of every semester. This implies that someone studying with a single-reed doubler (sax, clarinet, flute) would also study with a double-reed doubler (either oboe or bassoon).
  3. Allow doubling students the opportunities to participate in at least one standard large ensemble including orchestra, concert band, jazz ensemble and musical theater orchestra each semester as well as perform in at least one small ensemble including jazz combo, pop/rock groups, Afro-Cuban ensemble, and chamber ensemble each semester.
  4. Insure that the amount of students in the total degree program is kept small so that all of the doubling students can receive the necessary additional attention from the faculty on a weekly basis.

It must be emphasized that this type of degree can only be successful on a graduate degree level. To be an accomplished multiple woodwind player, one must first learn one woodwind instrument very well before attempting to learn to master others. The undergraduate years should be devoted to that endeavor. This, however, does not mean that talented undergrads should be forbidden from playing and studying other woodwinds.

Also, it is clear to this author that the key instruments at the outset of a doubling career should be the clarinet and saxophone. The clarinet, in my opinion, is the most difficult of the single reeds. It teaches one all of the fundamentals of wind playing (breathing, posture, hand position, articulation, embouchure formation) PLUS the ability to voice intervals by developing greater sensitivity to the tongue, larynx and soft palate. This aspect is harder on clarinet than any other single reed instrument. Furthermore, the classical repertoire (orchestral, chamber, sonatas/concerti) of the clarinet is superior to the other woodwinds and offers training in this style of performance that is invaluable and transferable to all of the other woodwinds. 

The saxophone is closely related to the clarinet but can more easily allow the student to gain a greater understanding of jazz and pop/rock idioms, vital to the prospective doubler’s ability to survive in the industry. The saxophone’s ergonomically friendly keyboard, complete overtone series, and conical bore allows for greater flexibility than the clarinet. Jazz, Rock & Latin music concepts can be more easily developed on the saxophone than the clarinet due to the added flexibility that the saxophone provides. (A list of great saxophonists whose first woodwind was the clarinet includes Sidney Bechet, Al Gallodoro, Jimmy Abato, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, Gary Foster, Michael Brecker, Paquito D’Rivera, etc.) Additionally, I have found that those who come to the saxophone and/or jazz late in their musical development, never really sound “authentic” when improvising or even when playing in a saxophone section. They always sound stilted. Therefore, any prospective doubler should be well developed as a clarinetist and saxophonist and demonstrate some affinity for the jazz idiom by the time they audition for any Masters degree program in woodwind doubling. While some work in the area of concert saxophone is highly recommended during the undergraduate years, it should not represent a saxophonist’s entire musical study.

Graduate woodwind doubling students need to study with professionals who are active woodwind doublers and have similar concepts regarding the fundamentals of woodwind playing. This is an essential component of this degree program. While several university programs have had their doubling students study with their orchestral woodwind teachers, this is ineffective at the graduate level of study for this type of performer. The nature of the job requirements in today’s music business requires a woodwind multi-instrumentalist to be fluent in classical, jazz, pop/rock, Latin, and commercial musical styles which encompass every type of large & small ensemble possible. Most orchestral-trained instrumentalists do not possess the expertise needed in these other styles of playing. Graduate performers in today’s music industry need to be guided by experienced professionals who are active in the student’s discipline and well versed in diverse musical styles. These professionals can offer the student a deeper understanding of the nuances of on the job performance requirements as well as provide greater access to jobs that require this specialty—an absolute necessity in this ultra competitive sector of the industry. 

Finally, all woodwind doubling students of today need to begin to study a double reed—either oboe OR bassoon, but not both. The downsizing in the industry has made it clear that in order to have the best chance of sustained employment as a doubler, a double reed must be part of one’s arsenal. This is the reality and schools of music need to address this in their curriculum requirements in order to give credibility to their programs.

A suggested curriculum for a typical two-year Masters degree program might include the following course offerings:

Required Courses
Major Applied Lessons (single-reed) 4 semesters 12 cr
Secondary Applied Lessons (double reed) 4 semesters  6 cr
Classical Woodwind Literature & Performance 1 semester  3 cr
Jazz/Pop/Rock Literature & Performance 1 semester  3 cr
Jazz & Latin Music Improvisation 1 semester  3 cr
Woodwind Doubling Lab 1 semester  3 cr
The Business of Music 1 semester  3 cr
Graduate Music Large Ensemble 4 semesters  2 cr
Graduate Music Chamber Ensemble 4 semesters  2 cr
Graduate Recital 1 semester  1 cr
38 cr
Optional Electives
Finale Music Notation Software 1 semester  3 cr
Pro Tools Music Software 1 semester  3 cr
The Physics of Music 1 semester  3 cr

If a student demonstrates sufficient knowledge in one or more of the required courses, then one or more of the optional elective course offerings would be available. Also, because of the unique nature of this type of degree, students must accept a heavier credit load than most Masters degrees offered in music. IF NASM accreditation is a concern, then additional courses and credits might need to be added.

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  1. Pingback: Favorite blog posts, May 2017 | Bret Pimentel, woodwinds

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