player Magazine, Issue #62 Copyright 2001





Woodwind Doublers in the LA Studios

by Richard Simon

It's possibly one of the music world's oldest riddles: a student asks, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice," comes the reply.

Today, a young saxophonist asks, "How do I get into studio work?" "Practice the flute, practice the clarinet, practice the oboe."

In today's climate of intense competition and shrinking opportunities, it's often not enough to be good on one horn: you'd better diversify.

For the busiest woodwind doublers, an elite corps of multi-instrumentalists who bring from two to as many as 17 different instruments to a session, versatility is certainly one key to their success.

Aside from the percussion family, no section would seem to offer as many options as those available in woodwinds, from saxophones (soprano, alto and tenor down through baritone and bass), to flutes and piccolos, whistles, recorders, clarinets, oboes, English horn, and bassoons. Terry Harrington , who provides the baritone saxophone sounds for Lisa on The Simpsons, was recognized by NARAS (National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences) as the top woodwind doubler for three consecutive years. The one-time Motown standout remembers, at the height of his studio work in the 80s, hauling no fewer than 17 woodwinds around in the trunk of his Cadillac.

One of today's first-call studio players, Dan Higgins, also champions woodwind doubling. "Play as many instruments as you can," he says, "if you like them. If you don't like them, then I don't think it's probably worth doing just for work." But as his own ever-growing list of credits would suggest, he believes that "it's a necessary thing to be a versatile player in town. Gary Foster and I were both on 102 Dalmations--I was playing third flute and Gary was playing third clarinet, and we both had 'saxophone needed.' So we can both hold our own in the woodwind section, and then they have a saxophone player. If you didn't play well on flute or clarinet, that job might not be available to you."

Like a versatile character actor, an accomplished woodwind doubler enjoys a rich array of identities. "A trumpet player is a trumpet player," Higgins says, "but when you see or hear a saxophonist, he might be just a sax player, or a great oboe player that plays a little sax." He relishes the challenge of playing diverse styles well. "It's great, because you have your whole lifetime, and you have all these different instruments, but each one has four or five bona fide styles that I love. Maybe that's why I work a lot: I love all those styles, so that even though it may not be my favorite, I embrace David Sanborn as I embrace Charlie Parker. I don't shut anything out--I love to play raucous, sort of dumb saxophone like a bar-band guy, because it's so against the sophisticated kind of thing you might do on a Barbra Streisand show--the beautiful and sexy fill."

The road to success for woodwind doublers is paved with clarinet reeds. "You want to start with the clarinet, since it's the hardest," says Dan Higgins, "and then you want to go to sax and then flute. That's the sort of tried-and-true combination." The clarinet and alto sax have the tighter, more sophisticated embouchures, he says, "so it's easier to move from alto to tenor sax, or from a clarinet to a bass clarinet. But to start on the tenor, and then try to get your embouchure back to an alto's , which is tighter, it's harder to go upstream in that way. And even though a lot of alto players don't make great tenor players right away when they start, because they're a little tight, when they relax, they go. They have that muscle from the alto."

The life histories of the dynamic doublers share a number of details, beginning with clarinets, caring fathers, and records. Gene Cipriano's journey began at the age of eight. "They say a father cannot teach his son," recalls Cip (his nickname among his many friends), "but my father, a clarinetist himself, was out to prove that he could." For inspiration? "I couldn't wait to get home for lunch, because Benny Goodman had a 15-minute radio broadcast from some hotel in New York every day. Plus, Artie Shaw was from my home town--New Haven, Connecticut--and my Dad had worked for Artie. And when Artie put out that record on 'Stardust,' that was it, man..."

Terry Harrington, too, started on the clarinet. "My father used to write out tunes for me to play," he says, "as soon as I could play a scale. He gave me a huge head start. When I was 14, we used to take Sunday drives, and he'd explain chord changes to me." He also listened avidly: "Soon, I was improvising: my ear picked up where my actual knowledge left off."

Dan Higgins played his clarinet in a Dixieland band in school, and listened intently to his father's old 78s of Pete Fountain and Benny Goodman. (The early exposure continues to bear fruit: Among Higgins's favorite early records was an Andrews Sisters recording of Jingle Bells, and he recently remembered the clarinet solo on it well enough to re-create it for a Barry Manilow Christmas album.)

Eventually, many young clarinetists begin listening to saxophone players, and by the time they're in high school, they start playing saxophone as well. "I loved Georgie Auld and Vito Musso, who played sax with Benny Goodman," remembers Cip. "And of course I loved Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. And I liked Charlie Ventura when he was with Gene Krupa, and Corky Corcoran when he was with Harry James." But it would be the recordings of the Woody Herman Four Brothers band that stoked the fires of Cip's sax playing: "Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Serge Chaloff--that turned me around."

For Terry Harrington, a job on a paper route afforded him his first saxophone, a $75 Martin--"my first bite into that horn," he recalls. Growing up in Detroit, he credits teacher Wally Hine and long-time friend Bill Prince with nurturing his talents, and loved listening to the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Paul Desmond on alto sax. "In high school," he says, "I became a commercial player, playing in society bands and studying at Wayne State University. Then I got on staff at WJR radio, the CBS affiliate in Detroit, and worked for Motown records for two and a half years." It was then Harrington moved to L.A., where he has been a fixture as a doubler ever since.

The next phase of the doubler's progress often includes adding flute and oboe. Harrington studied flute with Albert Luconi, Arturo Toscanini's principal soloist, and picked up the oboe and his many other doubles to stay busy; in Detroit at that time, there was additional work, but no bonus pay, for doubling. "I spent all my time keeping up on the instruments," he says. '"One thing led to another." As a student at North Texas State, Dan Higgins began private study of the flute, and played alto sax in bands. "I sort of put the clarinet aside," he recalls, "because I was way ahead." Gene Cipriano's observations of the scene when he moved to Hollywood provided the impetus to add new horns to his arsenal. "That's when I really started to study flute," he says. "And then I sold my flute to buy an oboe, because there weren't many oboe players at that time. There were a couple of very good oboe and flute doublers in New York, but none out here."

The trend of hiring woodwind doublers can be traced back to the growth of weekly network television shows from the late 50s through the 70s. Before then, studio work for musicians consisted primarily of playing on phonograph recordings and movie sound tracks, with tv work a distant third . "They had studio orchestras here under contract," says Cip , "and there were a lot of 'straight' players--an oboe player just played oboe, a flute player just flute." But then came the new shows, sizzling with Hollywood's versions of the high drama and trauma of urban life, which called for music that was lighter on its feet than what a large orchestra could provide. "When Henry Mancini came along with Peter Gunn," he says, "that set a new trend."

Cip's musicianship, versatility and congeniality are widely acknowledged. "He is the quintessential studio doubler," says Ken Munday, a first-call bassoonist/contra bassoonist, "and he's one of the best musicians and all-around great persons I've ever known." Those assets proved invaluable in the early days of tv studio work. Cip recalls them vividly:

"When Henry [Mancini] called me to do the Peter Gunn television show, he said, 'You'll be playing flute; do you play flute?' I said, of course I play flute--I wasn't going to say no, and it worked out. And when he found out I played oboe too, he used to write me, like, four bars or eight bars Of course, I was still studying oboe on the side. It got around that I played both oboe and flute, and there was no one else in town that was doing it at that time. So I was lucky...I got busy. And that's how they wanted it--all the leaders and composers--because Henry got so successful, they wanted to use doublers: Ted Nash, Ronny Lang, Harry Klee and myself. As I came up in the business, doublers were more asked for than straight players. It was a good era--we had a lot of fun."

Even having gained prominence in the studio contractors' Rolladexes, the busy players had to work diligently to hone their edge. During his recording heyday of the 70s and 80s, "my routine," recalls Terry Harrington, "included practicing flute and oboe every day. They were the most delicate instruments, and demanded the most precision, care and maintenance. I never knew what I was going to play." And when television's ]Kojak and Fantasy Island called, it usually meant loading up the Cadillac trunk again: "One show I had 9 doubles, and made triple scale." On any given date, "it might be bari, tenor, alto, flute, oboe or English horn," he adds. "Generally, you go prepared to do anything they want."

They have to maintain a commando's sort of vigilance at work, according to Ken Munday. "Unlike playing in a symphony, we never know what's around the corner," he says. "One has to be ready to play the hardest thing technically, or the touchiest, soft-attack entrances. Or you might sit around for days and then...have to pull it out big-time in the last half-hour. It's stressful. Everything we play is under more scrutiny than I've ever experienced in any normal playing situation. It's rather unreal. That's why we make the big bucks. Unfortunately, our therapists get a lot of it."

Why, though, with all that training and on-the-job experience, doesn't the work get easier for studio musicians? "We're always on edge--that's what keeps you prepared all the time," says Higgins. "You're kind of prepared for the worst--you don't know what styles you're going to need when you walk in, so you have to be overly conscious of mouthpieces and reeds, and warmed up on the flute." And with so many instruments to cover, it's nearly impossible to play each one flawlessly and with complete confidence. "I think all the guys I work with are insecure because there are always holes somewhere," Higgins says. "I'll get a call to bring my bass clarinet, and you're hoping that they won't do something that's like an excerpt quality that's not really your thing, or it's on piccolo, and it's treacherously soft, and they want it softer."

Cip recalls one particularly harrowing experience. It was on a score by Jerry Fielding for The Wild Bunch. "He wrote some hard English horn parts," he recalls. "It was really challenging. I don't think I left my chair once, even during the ten. I was looking at the parts, and making sure my horn was working. One cue that he wrote was extremely hard, and we had to stop because of me. But sometimes, Jerry wanted a better take over all from the orchestra, or he'd stop for somebody else--maybe a clam in the a French horns, for example. But then, when you start doing it over and over again, you hope this is going to be the last one. A lot of times, you think, God, I hope they keep this, because I felt pretty comfortable, and they'll say, 'Well, in bar 12, the violins weren't together, so let's do one more take.' And you're hoping you'll pull it together."

Today, after decades of contractors hiring doublers, the wheel has come full circle. Sandy de Crescent, the top contractor in Hollywood, has seen the change develop. "Orchestras in the past ten years have been orchestral in nature," she notes. "Therefore, I don't have a long list of doublers. Usually, it's a very legit orchestra." One instrument per chair has come to be the rule. "On movies now," concurs Cip, "they use mostly straight players, like a straight oboe player. Most of the big composers, like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, never use doublers." When James Newton Howard puts a picture together, or Alan Silvestri, they're all straight players. Instead of hiring four saxophonists who double on flute and clarinet, they'll hire three oboes, three clarinet players with one doubling on bass or e-flat contra; then they'll hire three flute players, like Louise Ditullio, James Walker or Sheridan Stokes--that's all they play is flute. And of three bassoon players, one will double on contrabassoon. That's the way the sections are now.

"But a lot of times," Cip continues, "for the third flute player, they'll want a guy who can also play soprano solos. That's where a Dan Higgins or Gary Foster comes in. The younger composers want the younger guys--they feel they have that 'hot' style down. Michael Brecker is the hot man now, and he's wonderful. They want a soprano player to sound like Kenny G, and Dan can do that. He grew up with Michael Brecker." Harrington concurs: "If they want a sax solo, they'll bring a specialist in. They want what's happening right now. You have to be able to adapt." The majority of the doubling calls today involve television work, not film scores. "When I go to work now, a lot of my calls are just oboe, flute and clarinet. But I did the Jerry Lewis Telethon on saxophone and doubled, and I did the Emmys with Tom Scott, Dan Higgins, Joel Peskin and Sal Lozano--we were playing flute, saxophone and double reeds. I've been doing shows like Star Trek, and The Simpsons, and Family Guy."

It's no secret that movie work has declined in Los Angeles. "No matter how you slice it, " says contractor de Cresent, "it's still about they money. When you [see movie producers] go to Seattle or London, it's a buyout. They don't want the back-end encumbrances."

The changing face of the industry has decimated the ranks of the woodwind section in the studios. "I remember my first calls were all among four or five woodwind players," recalls Higgins. "I got into a period where you could get a lot of experience doing tv shows listening to other players, sort of emulating them. But then when synthesizers took over and the sections got smaller, your responsibilities grew: you were the flute soloist, now you had the clarinet solo."

More and more, the figures add up to less and less. Higgins says, "I used to have five or six tv shows every season; and for the last four or five years, I've had none." And as Gene Cipriano notes, "Nowadays, if you have two shows, it's really something." Today, even when it comes to the music of a live show such as The Lion King, "and it's a big show, where usually there's four or five [woodwinds], yet there's one. They bring in synthesizers, even in musical shows."

"I call it the lily pad theory," says Higgins. "There are all these lily pads out there: one's records, one's jingles, one's tv and one's motion pictures. They're all sinking, and everybody has to jump to the next one. The record industry went away from the great disco era when they needed horns every week. Then tv was great, and everybody was over there. Then that's sinking, so everyone's on this motion picture lily pad, and it's taking on water. If that really goes away, I'll probably feel a pretty strong hit. It's such a strong payment because of special payments. Motion pictures have already gone down about 30 per cent. They're a nice place to be, with their big budgets, but because of that, it's going to London and other non-union areas." Then too, increasing use of synthesizers has created inroads into the woodwind doubler's domain. "When they first tried to imitate an oboe sound, it was terrible. That was one of the hardest instruments to duplicate. Now, it's hard to tell if it's a real oboe or not."

In these days of shrinking studio opportunities, the best players stay busy by being flexible . From time to time, there's lucrative local work outside the studios "A lot of guys out here used to frown on doing a job at a musical theatre," says Cip. "Now, they want those jobs. A really fine flute player, Steve Kujala, is doing The Lion King at the Pantages theatre. They expect it to run a couple of years. There are musicians just dying to get on that gig." Touring is another option, he adds . "Nowadays, even the great players--Pete Christlieb, Ernie Watts--have to go out on the road to make ends meet. Bob Sheppard may go out on the road with Sting, and when he gets back in town, he'll call a contractor and say hey, I'm back in town."

For now, Los Angeles is still the place for the best studio musicians. "People here have the highest sensibilities," marvels de Cresecent. "I'm a big cheerleader for LA musicians. People come here to get the 'Hollywood sound.'" She cites the recent Mel Gibson film What Women Want as an example: "Inside the body of a full orchestra, you had a Latin band, a rhythm section and a big band. You could never do this anywhere else. It was sensational." Also, there are specialists here, such as Gary Foster, or accordionist Frank Morocco, the likes of whom can't be found in a new movie locale such as Budapest.

But, says Higgins, "if movies keep going to other places, those gaps will end up being filled in, and players will move there. Somebody who's got a choice out of college might not move to LA in the future; he might move to Toronto or Seattle. If they're talented, and they get the experience of working on those studio calls, they'll grow, and then they will become really excellent at the job, and it'll make it even harder for us here."

Despite the general slowdown in the industry, Gene Cipriano, a young 72 years old, continues to work. "The phone is still ringing, and I still enjoy it. As long as I feel I can still produce, and not drag down anybody, I'll work. And my wife doesn't mind."

Ken Munday says, "I'm incredibly lucky to do what I do and to associate with so many truly amazing musicians. This is my advice to young players who want to break into studio work: Good luck! You're really going to need it."

SIDEBAR: How to Make It in the Studios/How to Get the Gigs To gain access to studio work, it's whom you know, and who knows you . For referrals, contractor Sandy de Crescent says, "I look to the professionals. If Joe Blow sends me a resume, and he uses the names of the people I use, it doesn't matter what the resume says." Getting to know the musicians who might recommend you means playing in a variety of situations--clubs, private parties, community orchestras, rehearsal bands-- to be heard. A good player gets around, and eventually, his reputation does, too. Higgins says, "I still go by the Gary Foster rule of playing as well as you can, and once someone hears you, you might get a shot at it." An opening will occasionally arise in the studios, and an established player will be asked for a recommendation. He must take care to provide the contractor a qualified candidate, or his own reputation will suffer.

You're more likely to get a referral if you can play just about anything. Accepting work in a variety of situations and playing a multitude of styles will help develop that versatility. Studio players often describe themselves in metaphors--they're chameleons; they wear many hats; they're "the hunter-gatherers of the modern era" (Ken Munday). The best among them are also sponges--they soak up a wide variety of musical styles, and when they're squeezed into action by a movie or tv score, they're remarkably effective. So, along with the years of woodshedding required in the making of a top studio woodwind doubler, it takes years--and an open attitude--to absorb, and then create, the music that spills across the tv or movie undercore.

Sending a contractor a cassette is probably not going to get you in the door. As Sandy deCrescent points out, it's one thing to prepare an impressive demonstration of musicianship on tape, but "it might be performed in the comfort of their own home, but it won't prove that player's ability to perform when the red light goes on in the studio." Cip agrees that direct solicitation is not the way to go. "There are people who do--and they really bug the contractor. The contractor isn't going to hire them anyway. Contractors don't want to be bothered; they got so many other things on their mind."

Beware, too, the temptation to slip in by way of a free pass: you might not be able to ligature self in the morning. "I had a neighbor whose ex-husband was the head of NBC," recalls Dan Higgins. "She heard me practicing and she said, 'Do you want to do the tv shows at NBC?' I said no--that's not how it works. I want to work my way in on my own. I wouldn't want to walk in and have them go, 'What happenend to Ronny Lang today? Who's this guy?' That's the last thing I'd want to do, alienate the players. I just want to work up through it, take it and move up, not crowd your way in when you're not ready for it. I'd have been a nervous wreck. Not being ready, you'd do yourself a disservice by stepping in too soon."

Penetrating the soundproofed walls of the studios takes considerable patience, too. "It's a slow-moving process," says de Crescent. "You've got great players in their 70s who are still in their prime."

SIDEBAR: Skills You'll Need to Qualify to Work (and Keep Working) In the Studios

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