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The alto clarinet is one of the members of the clarinet family pitched in the key of E-flat, which is a major sixth below the written note. It is a larger clarinet that has been mostly used in clarinet ensembles, and wind ensembles. The E-flat alto clarinet is never used in orchestra, but instead the Basset Horn, otherwise known as the F alto clarinet, is used.  It was also an instrument that was not taken very seriously. The melodies composers wrote for the alto clarinet tended to not be very interesting and band directors sought for its removal in the 1950s. There are improved modern versions of this instrument that contain the low e-flat, while older versions of the instrument only descend to the note ‘e’. It is recommended to avoid the older instruments as the new versions have been modified to be of better quality mechanically with improved intonation. Find out more about how to play the alto clarinet from this step-by-step guide.

Step 1 Position of your case

Always make sure that your instrument case is in the right position so that the top of the case is up. This way you do not end up opening your case and have your instrument spill out on the floor. Usually there is a logo on the cover of the instrument brand that will help you position your case. In other models, there is a pocket for your music.

Step 2 – Know the parts of your instrument

The alto clarinet consists of five parts. The top and bottom joint are the same size to one another. The way you can tell the difference between the two of them is because there are bigger cups for the pads on the bottom part of the instrument, longer rods and bigger keys. Make sure you do not grab the instrument by the rods as they bend very easy, but by the keys. The bell is shaped with a curve and is made out of metal. There is not a barrel, as you would see on a B-flat clarinet, but a ‘neck’ that is also curved and made out of metal.

Step 3 – Put the instrument together

Now that you know all the parts of your instrument, you can put it together. You can start by moistening the reed by either placing it in your mouth or in a small vile of water. If you are playing a new instrument, the corks might be new. Make sure to apply cork grease on the tenon corks to make it easier to assemble the instrument.

Start with the lower joint and the bell. Make sure that the front of the bell is aligned with the keys. Once that is in place, grab the upper joint with your left hand by the keys, while you are holding the lower joint with your right hand. There are two bridge keys; one on the upper joint and one on the lower joint that must align together. To avoid injury to the instrument, press the ‘d’ key down so that you can bring the bridge key up. Connect the upper joint in so that the two bridge keys are apart, and once they are connected, make sure that the bridge keys are aligned.

Once the top and bottom joints are attached together, attach the peg to the instrument. There are some instruments that do not have pegs with which you will have to use a neck strap. There is a ring on the thumb key that allows you to attach the neck strap, if needed. You can use both the neck strap and the peg for additional support.

Attach the mouthpiece to the neck. Make sure that the flat part of the mouthpiece where the reed is supposed to go is facing towards you. Take the reed and place it on the flat part of the mouthpiece. You can take your thumb and pointer finger to align it so that the reed is on straight. The top of the reed should be flush with the top of the mouthpiece. Then place the ligature carefully over the reed to hold the reed and mouthpiece together. 

The next part is to take the assembled part of the mouthpiece and neck and connect it to the body of the instrument. A good way to check if the mouthpiece is aligned correctly to the instrument is using the thumb key as a reference. If the reed is aligned with the thumb key and the register key, then it is placed correctly on the instrument.

Now that you have your instrument together, you can begin playing!

Step 4 – Check your posture

Good posture will help you in being able to use your air more efficiently. Sit towards the edge of your chair with your back straight. Your upper body should feel lifted and have both of your feet planted on the ground.

Step 5 – Lots of air!

The alto clarinet requires a lot of air. Make sure that when you play you always take a full breath. In order to do so, make sure that your shoulders are relaxed and that you are taking your air through the diaphragm. A good analogy is to think of yourself as a hot air balloon that expands as you take in care and deflates after use. Make sure that you are taking air through the corners of your mouth and not your nose.

Now that you know how to put the instrument together and how to play it, you can begin looking for repertoire. While there is a limited amount of repertoire available for the alto clarinet for the moment, there are transcriptions of works written from basset clarinet and alto saxophone. This is a great place to start in your search for music to play on the alto clarinet.