Woodwinds – Keep a Tight Hold on That Auxiliary!

There are two important aspects to auxiliary wind instruments that are interrelated, yet off the radar of many orchestrators. They are:

  • Sometimes, it’s better that a player stays on their auxiliary instead of changing back to their principal instrument, and…
  • Auxiliary instruments are useful as part of the general fabric of a composition, not just as soloists or as extensions of their sections.

Let’s say that you’re second oboist for a mid-sized orchestra. You play a lot of cor anglais parts as a result. On one new work, you’re piping away at some very good writing for second oboe – clean, well-supported, and easy to articulate. Then you’ve got a little solo on cor anglais a few bars later, followed by a quick change back to oboe II for a few background notes. Then you’ve got to play that solo again, and then trade of back and forth several times over the next few minutes.

What’s the main thing you want to tell the composer at that point? “Why can’t the cor anglais play those background notes?” For indeed, the cor anglais is a most flexible instrument. And yet it’s hard for composers to realize that it’s a great supporting instrument, capable of very soft playing, and a range that’s in some ways more even throughout its registers than its prototype, the standard oboe.

An excerpt from my latest story for orchestra and narrator: “Give Me My Bone!” The cor anglais part plays 6ths and 7ths below oboe I (sounding down a perfect fifth from written notes), then finally reaches all the way up to a perfectly playable C trill above the staff. For the player, this represents support of a tutti, with some melodic doubling of second violins.
An excerpt from my latest story for orchestra and narrator: “Give Me My Bone!” The cor anglais part plays 6ths and 7ths below oboe I (sounding down a perfect fifth from written notes), then finally reaches all the way up to a perfectly playable C trill above the staff. For the player, this represents support of a tutti, with some melodic doubling of second violins.

The same applies for piccolo. Many are the passages in which a composer has carelessly scored a bunch of changes back and forth between second flute and piccolo, unnecessarily if all the passages are in the same basic octave above the staff in concert pitch. As long as the dynamics are handled intelligently and there aren’t too many loud notes below written D in the staff, there’s no reason why a player mightn’t just play right through the whole passage on the piccolo. The instrument can add a pearly color to support textures, or merge seamlessly into the background with upper strings or unison with flute I.

Of course, there are exceptions to this, especially with instruments of an octave extension downward, like the contrabassoon. In this case, the rougher buzzing of its immense reed gives it away in higher passages, making it hard to blend as naturally with the standard bassoon. But the same isn’t true for the bass clarinet, whose paler upper register is enormously useful in support scoring. It can fill in a midrange harmony along with a regular B-flat or A clarinet, or eerily track the flutes at one or two octaves, or thicken the viola line. It doesn’t have to just bounce creepily around in the basement.

How to avoid an unnecessary instrument change - see paragraph below
How to avoid an unnecessary instrument change – see paragraph below

The above sample depicts a passage in which the composer wants a featured bass clarinet solo in its bottom register. Halfway through the passage, the top version asks the player to put down his instrument and pick up his clarinet, playing some chalumeau register harmonies with the wind section. Then it’s back to bass clarinet again for some more spelunking. But as you can see in the lower version, there’s no need for such a change. The player can stay on bass clarinet for the whole passage. There’ll be virtually no difference to the listener.

The implications go further than merely the fussiness of constantly alternating between two instruments and two different types of reading. There’s also the issue of instrument temperature. A player is going to want to hold onto their instrument for as long as possible once it’s warmed up. Think about that next time you hear an E-flat clarinet or cor anglais entrance that’s a little flat. Don’t always blame the player: the temperature of the hall and lack of planning by the orchestrator may be factors as well. Yes, you can actually write a part into your piece where you’ve created a risk of sounding off, or at least less than perfect intonation. Keeping instrument changes to a minimum can be key to lessening this risk, and realizing that auxiliaries can cover certain parts can be liberating in this process.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

One thought on “Woodwinds – Keep a Tight Hold on That Auxiliary!

  1. Taking this a step further, in my current (almost finished) composition, the second oboist not only stays on cor for the whole of the first movement, but I’ve tried to write this as a structural feature, with higher cor tone being used to colour a particular idea every time it comes around, sometimes doubled by the oboe, sometimes by a clarinet.

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