Q. What’s the definition of a nerd?
A. Someone who owns his own alto clarinet.
In sixth grade, I was persuaded to switch from (Bb soprano) clarinet to bass clarinet. In seventh grade, starting junior high school, there was no opening for a bass clarinetist* in the band, so I ended up playing alto clarinet. In ninth grade, starting senior high, there was no opening for an alto clarinetist, so I ended up back on bass clarinet. I liked the low clarinets, especially the bass, but I never played one after high school.
[* Evidently this is supposed to be spelled “clarinettist”, but I’m having none of that.]
Occasionally I’ve seen used bass clarinets for sale at prices almost imaginable for my budget, and I’ve thought it’d be cool to own one. Not that I’d actually have much use for one, probably, it’d just be fun to have. Recently someone put five alto clarinets and a bass clarinet up on eBay and, due to their being used, un-reconditioned, off brand instruments and the seller not being expert enough to make assurances of playability or even completeness, they went for fairly low prices. I got outbid on the bass, but, for a price of $81, I did get one of these:
It arrived today. Looks fairly good — probably needs some adjustment, maybe some new pads, definitely some cleaning. The instrument’s a Linton but the ligature’s a Selmer and the mouthpiece is an Educator — whatever that is — anyway, the ligature’s too big for the mouthpiece (might even be a bass clarinet ligature or something) and is missing a screw, so if nothing else, that needs to go. And I bet a new mouthpiece would be an improvement.
It’s not a bass clarinet, but it’s near enough for now.
Call an alto clarinet “the viola of the clarinet world” and you’re setting yourself up for a defamation lawsuit from the viola players. You’ll pretty much never find an alto clarinet in an orchestral setting, and even a lot of wind bands don’t use them. Our high school band didn’t, when I got there, which is why I ended up back on bass. Twelve years or so before that, as I discovered yesterday, there were a couple of articles in a music magazine on whether the alto clarinet should be abolished from standard wind ensemble scoring. There was no clear consensus among the experts at the time, though the anti-alto faction had a slight lead. Also yesterday I found a web site (I can’t find it again) with a modern day discussion of (wait for it) whether the alto clarinet should be abolished from standard wind ensemble scoring. Nearly fifty years later, and it’s the same discussion! With about the same results, too.
I also found the above joke, and this quote:
I’m sorry, kids. Clarinet is a fine instrument. Alto saxophone is a fine instrument. Alto clarinet is – an oddity. Learn from it while playing it in school, as I admit to having done, and move on.
And that’s kinder than some of the remarks I’ve seen.
On the other hand, there are staunch defenders of the alto, and even a few jazz musicians have taken it up (here’s one recording picked at random). As for our high school band — a year or two after I arrived, I don’t know why, but the band director got the alto clarinets off the shelf and put them back into service. Personally, I think all musical instruments are wonderful — some more so than others, but I’d no more want to do away with any than I’d want to wipe out a species of mammal. Especially not something like the alto clarinet, whose absence would, I think, leave a lamentable hole in the clarinet family. Anyway, alto clarinet was kind of fun back in the day, and I’m happy I finally own one.
Oh, and here are the clarinets I really want: