The viola of the clarinet world

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:


7 thoughts on “The viola of the clarinet world

  1. We had an alto clarinetist in our band for a little while, although he left recently. It seemed like a difficult intstrument to play in tune and make sound good. We sometimes had someone playing it in wind symphony in college as well. There weren’t many pieces that had parts written for it, so whoever was playing often had to double another instrument. I imagine this is a self-reinforcing loop. Bands don’t have alto clarinets since so few people write for them, which means few people write parts because most bands don’t have them. It does seem a shame to get rid of the instrument entirely. The octocontrabass and octocontralto clarinets are the shit.


    1. Nopers. The Eb clarinet is a sopranino, shorter and higher pitched than the usual soprano clarinet in Bb. The alto clarinet is larger and lower pitched, an octave below the Eb. Here, look: Somewhere on the web I’ve seen that picture with an official caption but I haven’t been able to find it again. Here’s what I think they all are, left to right, but there’s some guessing in here especially on the smaller instruments: Sopranino clarinet in D Octocontra-alto clarinet in Eb Bass clarinet in Bb Soprano clarinet in Bb Octocontrabass clarinet in Bb Soprano clarinet in A Piccolo clarinet in Bb Contrabass clarinet in Bb Alto clarinet in Eb Bassett horn in F Bass clarinet in Bb with extension to low C Soprano clarinet in C Sopranino clarinet in Eb Contra-alto clarinet in Eb


      1. Ah, Thanks. B flat “soprano” is the common one in New Orleans jazz bands with an Eb “sopranino” often used in brass bands– it can really cut through a big band. A few of the old timers played C clarinets; I just know one current musician (the great Evan Christopher) who doubles on one for some archaic jazz and Brazilian tunes. Is the Albert system still much used? In a 6 piece band I’m in, the drummer and guitarist both double on clarinet. I’ve suggested we work in a chorus sometime where we can the 2 Albert B flats, one Albert Eb, and the 1913 soprano sax all playing at once.


      2. I don’t know much more about Albert system than one can find by Googling. Apparently these days it’s mostly used by New Orleans and klezmer musicians. I think it was an offshoot of an earlier system developed by a guy named Müller, and that another offshoot became what is now called the Oehler system, which is mostly used these days by musicians in Germany and Austria; elsewhere the Boehm system predominates.


      3. Very annoying that replies can’t be edited. Anyway, the picture with caption (and other pictures of octocontra* clarinets) is here, and the correct list is: Sopranino clarinet in Eb Octocontra-alto clarinet in Eb to low C Bass clarinet in Bb to low Eb Soprano clarinet in Bb Octocontrabass clarinet in Bb to low C Soprano clarinet in A Contrabass clarinet in Bb to low C Piccolo clarinet in Ab (ordering of this and the last changed to match, but they’re pretty much right on top of each other…) Alto clarinet in Eb Bassett horn in F to low C Bass clarinet in Bb to low C Soprano clarinet in C Sopranino clarinet in D Contra-alto clarinet in Eb to low C


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