Ernie Watts’ Thoughts On Doubling
Ernie Watts’ Thoughts On Doubling

Ernie Watts’ Thoughts On Doubling

saxophonist Ernie Watts, tenor saxophone, b&w photography

     Photography by: William Claxton  Source:

I happened to come across an interesting quote by legendary saxophonist, and two-time Grammy winner, Ernie Watts. This quote is interesting, because some might perceive his view on doubling, tripling, quadrupling, etc., to be provocative.

I worked in L.A. for 25 years, … I played oboe, English horn, piccolo, flute, clarinet. But what happens when you do that is you spend your practice time on instruments you are weaker on to make them stronger. The instruments you are strong on become weaker. At some point, you end up in a mush of mediocrity. I was working for quantity, and I wanted to get back to my primary interest, which was to play jazz on the saxophone.


If you’re not familiar with Ernie Watts and his 4 decade-long career, then a visit to his website my be helpful—as might be the following video. It’s from a television program that aired in June 2011, on RTHK’ s The Works.

The Works focuses on Hong Kong’s arts and cultural scene, and features news and reviews of visual and performing arts, design, literary and other works.

Depending on what side of the Pacific you’re on, you might find the host’s pronunciation of saxophonist rather odd. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it pronounced quite like this—and know a lot of people from Hong Kong.


…this is just my blog. My “real” website is If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!


  1. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…………
    OK….that works for Ernie Watts……However…..Throughout my career….Doubling has created many amazing musical and creative opportunities for me….My advice is….
    Follow Your Dream and play your L-o-n-g Tones. Ray Pizzi

    1. Hello Ray.

      You certainly have a long & distinguished career. Apparently you and Ernie Watts have quite differing opinions on this matter. From what I see, your career is quite different from that of Watts. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. If you hadn’t been the doubler that you are, I would assume that you wouldn’t have the career that you have.

      Regardless what career a person pursues in music—and regardless how many instruments they play—as you point out, the one thing that they will need to practice on each and every one of the instruments is l-o-n-g tones.

      Thanks for stopping by Ray.

  2. @ leonAzul: Thanks for the info Paul. I hadn’t heard that before. That certainly might explain it.

    @ Gandalfe & Bret: It is an interesting issue isn’t it? In my HS and university days I played a number of instruments (bass clarinet, trumpet, & bassoon). The only one I was really good at—besides sax—was bass clarinet. However, once I got into the real world, I ended up in situations where my clarinet skills weren’t in demand. Over time I’ve forgotten almost everything I knew about the instrument, and I certainly have forgotten everything about the double reeds and brass instruments I studied.

    I agree with you Gandalfe. Keeping up each of the saxophones is a full time job in itself. I think that’s part of the problem that so many sax players have. They don’t put the time in, and treat the horns the same. They’re not.

    Personally, I don’t consider myself a true soprano player—despite owning 2 of them. I can certainly play them, and even sound decent enough when I put the practice in, but I don’t like the instrument enough to practice the hours necessary to sound like a “real” soprano player.

    It’s a similar story for the alto. I can play alto, and sound like a real alto player, but I don’t like the instrument much. The only reason I can sound like a “real” alto player, is that it doesn’t require as much practice time as the soprano.

    The tenor, bari, and bass are where my leanings are, and those are the ones I choose to spend my practice time on. However, each one is different, and each requires its own practice time to sound “real”.

    I find that the trick is to treat each one of the saxes as if it were its own instrument, rather than just a larger/smaller version of the one that you just played before it. If players approached their saxophones like this, I suspect that they would find that they wouldn’t have time to “double” on anything else.

    And those are my virtual 2 cents on the topic. :2cents:

  3. leonAzul


    That pronunciation of “saxOphonist” was an old bebop joke pronunciation frequently used by Dexter Gordon, as if in mock sophistication. I believe it was meant as a compliment to Mr. Watts’s stature and influence.



  4. Gandalfe

    I hear Ernie’s lament all the time from my instructors. The amount of time it takes to be proficient on sopillo to bass sax, sop to contrabass clarinet alone is staggering, let alone adding flute and double reeds. My commute and job take 12 hours out of my day already. It’s really a balancing act to make any progress. (written on the bus to work.)

  5. Pingback: Ernie Watts on not doubling | Bret Pimentel, woodwinds

  6. I love Ernie Watt’s playing. What a sound!

    No doubt doubling means taking time away from your “main” instrument, and taking time away means slower progress (or even regress). I do often wonder how my life and career would be different if I had focused on a single instrument. For me, doubling was the right choice; for some people, it isn’t.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: