Find Important Alto Clarinet Lines and Rewrite Them in Soprano and Bass Clarinet Parts

NOTE: An earlier version of this article was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Alabreve,

As you begin selecting and rehearsing the music for your concert band’s upcoming performance, take a moment to look at your scores.  Was it published in 1980 or earlier? There’s a lot of great older literature out there, in both our school music libraries and within the required lists of repertoire we can play at Festival (Assessment, Contest, whatever you call it in your state). And this literature is wonderful!  But it sometimes contains an easy-to-miss part that can make or break the quality of your band’s performance.  I refer of course, to the fading and forgotten alto clarinet.

At some point in the history of modern wind band instrumentation, the alto clarinet became a four-letter word. Looking back on articles in The Instrumentalist as early as 1947, one finds well-written pleas to bring back the instrument,1 as well as questions of whether it is even necessary in the modern wind band.2  The alto clarinet’s exodus from the wind band happened for a variety of reasons. The early alto clarinets available to bands were of less than desirable quality, with tuning issues and anemic sound. The expense and time of owning and maintaining an alto clarinet was and is beyond practicality for many bands. Finally, in an ensemble where we seem to be eternally seeking a sufficient number of accomplished clarinet performers, dedicating a student to the alto clarinet may prove impossible. While it is true that the latest models of the alto clarinet (as well as the recently revived basset horn) are quality instruments that overcome the earlier weaknesses in tone production and intonation that doomed the instrument, the heart of the matter is that these other practical concerns have chased the alto clarinet from our bands, and modern composers are simply no longer including the instrument in their scores. As a result, one is more likely to see an alto clarinet hanging on a wall as an objet d’art than in the hands of a high school or college band member.

Faced with the reality of a world without alto clarinets in our bands, what do we do when we meet a concert work that calls for the instrument?  This is the much more practical concern that many of us deal with on the podium, especially when we program wind works published prior to 1980.3 Unfortunately, a common response is to treat the alto clarinet and its part as “optional,” something that can be left out whether it’s covered by other voices or not. This often leads to a sound that at best was not the original intent of the composer, and at worst omits important chord tones not covered in any other voice. However, by knowing how to detect these important lines, and with a minimum of rewrites, important alto clarinet parts can be added to your clarinet and bass clarinet performers’ parts. The results are rewarding for conductor, performer, and audience alike.

Rewriting the Part

First of all, let us discuss how to rewrite an alto clarinet part into other clarinet voices. The two considerations one must weigh are range and tessitura. While a soprano or bass clarinet might have the range to play certain excerpts from an alto clarinet part, the tessitura may not match the intended color in the original alto clarinet part. In its lower range, the alto clarinet’s sound is reminiscent of the throaty, woody sound of the bass clarinet, while in its upper range, it more closely resembles the hollow warmth of the chalumeau register of the soprano clarinet. This chart demonstrates the appropriate target areas for rewriting voices within the alto clarinet’s range.


As demonstrated in the chart, the ranges of the bass clarinet and soprano clarinet overlap in multiple areas (green), and both can be used to replace an important alto clarinet part. The part chosen as the target for a rewritten line will depend on the ability of the performer – and therefore the technical difficulty or exposure of the part – and the desired color. The lower range of the soprano clarinet provides a warm, full sound, while the upper clarino registers are clearer and brighter. The bass clarinet is reedier yet warm in the middle register, and becomes increasingly plaintive and sweet in its clarion register. The conductor must evaluate these color changes when choosing which instrument will receive the rewritten alto clarinet part. A mixture of rewrites in the soprano and bass clarinets will often be the result. The orange highlighted areas feature pitches in which particular care should be taken, as these throat tones may prove challenging, especially when weaker players are given the rewritten part. Of course, practical concerns of who is available to perform a rewritten part will need to be considered.  For example, if you only have one bass clarinetist, that performer will be busy with their own important lines, and therefore unable to perform many alto clarinet rewrites).

Score Study

Knowing how to look for important alto clarinet parts during your score study can help pinpoint those times when a rewrite is required. This can be challenging, as a large scale work that includes an alto clarinet part often features such a plethora of staves that a unique alto clarinet line can be visually “lost in the shuffle.” Also, there are many works and sections of works that simply double the alto clarinet with the bass clarinet, predisposing us to ignore this line. Because of these issues, one of the first steps in your score study should be a thorough inspection of the alto clarinet staff. Look for alto clarinet lines that contain chord tones that are not in any other clarinet part, or lines that double another part in octaves. Finally, look at the areas where the alto clarinet part is exposed while doubling another one or two instrumental parts at the same octave. This is an important color shading that should not be treated as optional.

All of the rewrite examples in this article will be taken from Warren Benson’s The Solitary Dancer and Darius Milhaud’s Suite Française. These works were chosen because they are from composers who have contributed multiple and lasting entries to the wind literature, because they are playable by accomplished high school and undergraduate ensembles, and because this author has put the rewrites into performance practice with his own ensembles. The excerpts given as examples are representative, and by no means the only alto clarinet rewrites necessary in the works discussed.

Unique Alto Clarinet Lines

Warren Benson’s The Solitary Dancer features an extremely important alto clarinet voice, creating marvelous open fifths with the bass clarinet, and generating important chord tones not doubled in any other part. The work is truly incomplete without the alto clarinet line. For example, in measures 43-45, a C-minor sonority would be completely absent if not for the alto clarinet’s Eb concert. Designating a third clarinetist to perform this pitch will complete the harmony.


Later, at measure 65, the alto clarinet generates an important open fifth dyad with the bass clarinet part. This open fifth can be rewritten into either a bass clarinet or soprano clarinet part, depending on available performers.


Alto Clarinet Lines that Complete a Clarinet Choir

Even when the alto clarinet’s pitch is found elsewhere, rich clarinet choir writing that is missing one voice simply does not achieve the composer’s intent. For example, the fourth movement of Darius Milhaud’s Suite Française, “Alsace-Lorraine,” features an exposed clarinet choir choir at measure 55. Though the bassoon 1 and clarinets 2 and 3 take turns covering the pitches in the alto clarinet line, the composer’s clear intent on the page is a clarinet choir; the Eb soprano, all three Bb soprano parts, the alto clarinet, and the bass clarinet are all included in this beautiful, exposed moment. The alto clarinet part is too low for a soprano clarinet to cover, so one bass clarinetist must be assigned to play this rewrite.


Alto Clarinet Lines that Create Parallel Octaves

Sometimes the alto clarinet part doubles another line in octaves, and this is an extremely important sonic quality to preserve, as parallel octaves are a distinct color and texture all their own. For example, in the third movement of Milhaud’s Suite Française, “Ile de France,” measure 12 features a jaunty descending line of open fourths and fifths in the clarinet choir. The first soprano clarinet and alto clarinet lines are in parallel octaves. While the alto clarinet’s pitches are covered in other instruments and other octaves, omitting this voice leaves a hole in what would be a solid span of a perfect 15th. Placing one or more of the third clarinetists on the alto clarinet line repairs this gap in the sonority.


Alto Clarinet Lines that Provide Necessary Color in an Exposed Soli Section

Finally, though you may find the alto clarinet part doubled at the same octave in another voice, the missing clarinet color resulting from ignoring this part can negatively affect the tone quality of your ensemble. This is especially true when the alto clarinet part is only doubling one or two other instruments in an exposed line. For example, Milhaud’s Suite Française features gorgeous alto sax lines, especially in the second movement, “Bretagne.” These motives are doubled (not cued) in unison by the alto clarinet. While the alto saxes are indeed covering this part, the alto clarinet softens and warms their timbre. Omitting this clarinet voice leads to a brighter, reedier sound that is simply not up to Milhaud’s original vision. This necessary rewrite is demonstrated in two areas of the second movement – measures 25 and 36. The same motive is stated by the alto saxophones and the alto clarinet at these two measures, though at different pitch centers. Adding a clarinet voice softens and warms the sound of this line.

At measure 25, the soprano clarinet voice is resting and available, and the register provides an excellent match in timbre to the original alto clarinet part. In addition, the bass clarinet is occupied with a low E concert.


At 36, the motive is stated up a fifth. At this time, the bass clarinet is available to perform a rewrite, and the soprano clarinet would be trapped in a mire of throat tones that would not lead to a desirable sound. Placing the motive into the bass clarinet is more practical, and generates a wonderfully sweet and plaintive sound.


I know this was a lot to read about an instrument we so rarely consider these days.  But if you’re playing any of that pre-1980 literature, including the two pieces mentioned in this article, I promise it’s worth you time to look for the alto clarinet part! While it is highly likely that the alto clarinet will never permanently return to most of our bands, it is important that we not ignore the scoring for this important voice in the earlier wind band literature. As with any other instrument in the ensemble, it was and is an important timbre, and we can still provide this line through other clarinet voices. Taking a moment to scan your score for these important alto clarinet lines, and then rewriting those lines that fall into the categories listed above, will yield a significant and audible improvement  in your ensemble’s performance.

1 Sawhill, Clarence E. WOODWIND: Problem of the Alto Clarinet, the.” The Instrumentalist, 47, 1947. 8.
2 Rohner, Traugott. WOODWIND: Shall we Eliminate the Alto Clarinet?” The Instrumentalist, 47, 1947. 30.
3 Mark Wolbers, “Alto Clarinet: The Endangered Species of the American Band,” paper presented at Annual Meeting of the College Band Directors National Association, University of Washington, Seattle, December 23-26, 2011), PDF file, (accessed December 28, 2011).

5-Minute Read: The Problem with the Percussion

As a school band director, you wish you spent 100% of your time dealing with music. But we know that’s not the case.  In fact, like all teachers, you spend a vast amount of brain power on plain old classroom management, that is, getting your students to be on-task throughout class time.  And if we had to wager where a large percentage of your classroom management efforts went, we could safely say “the percussion section.”

I’ll be the first to admit that every instrument has a stereotypical “personality” that dominates those who play it. In that regard, percussionists as a group of humorous, rambunctious, and sometimes mischievous young people can indeed be true.  But people who play percussion aren’t ill-behaved or poorly-prepared during rehearsals because that’s who they are.  It’s because of us!  Let’s examine some ways we can maximize your percussionists’ participation in your rehearsals, thereby minimizing management and behavior issues that might arise at the back of the room.

Proximity is Important

It’s no coincidence that most behaviors disruptive to a rehearsal take place the furthest from your podium.  Ensemble members just feel “safer” to engage in off-task behavior when they feel like the conductor can’t “reach out and grab them” (note: do not reach out and grab your performers)! Percussionists are not only at the back of the room, but they also have several 100 pounds of equipment blocking your vision of their area.  So increase your proximity to them.  Create some lanes in your ensemble’s seating plan that allow you to get off the podium and walk back to work directly with your percussionists several times during a rehearsal.  Here’s a really important tip if you have a very large percussion section and/or a particularly immature group of young folks, consider placing an empty row of chairs in the front of your ensemble.  During those pieces that don’t involve many percussionists, those players can come and sit and study in that front row, nice and close to the podium.

Downtime is Dangerous

How often are your percussionists sitting doing nothing during a rehearsal?  The nature of the instruments’ scoring means they have many more counts of rests per performer than many other members of your ensemble.  Some works barely have any percussion scoring at all, leaving several of your percussionists to sit tacit while you rehearse that piece. This leads to lots of downtime when percussionists are bored and ignored, and that opens the door to trouble.  Here’s are a few tips to help you avoid percussion downtime:

  1. Always include percussionists in the warm-up using scales, rhythms, rudiments, you name it.
  2. Try to schedule your percussion-light works towards the very beginning or end of your rehearsals, so that your percussionists can use that time to either prepare for percussion-heavy rehearsal or to pack up all that equipment!
  3. Always designate a few minutes of your rehearsal plan to focus on a tricky section in the percussion parts!

Respect Your Percussionists and their Musicianship

Some of the most incredible and thoughtful performers I have ever known have been percussionists. They care about sound and musicianship as much or more than any wind, string, or vocal performer. But we sometimes don’t treat our percussionists, their time and their musicianship, with the respect they so adamantly deserve. For example: how many percussionists have shown up to a rehearsal, ready to go, set up all the myriad equipment needed to perform the upcoming concert’s literature, and found that they barely played a note the entire rehearsal? How disrespectful of those percussionists’ time and efforts.  We just plain forget them in our planning.  So here’s how you involve and respect your percussionists and their musicianship:

  1. Always write your rehearsal order (including on which areas of the pieces you’ll focus) on the board. That way, percussionists can set up all the equipment they need, and none that they don’t!
  2. Vocally and visibly engage in your percussionists’ music making.  Take time to stop and actually say how you want that cymbal crash to sound, what technique they should use, and have them demonstrate.  Percussionists and wind players alike need to know that sound quality matters with every instrument.
  3. color_coded_malletsHave the proper range of sticks and mallets, and engage with your performers in which ones to use. This is a big one!  Don’t let them hit those instruments with whatever happens to be lying around.  Grow and maintain a quality range of mallets that you can easily distinguish visually from the podium, and then make sure that matched and appropriate equipment is being used to evoke the colors you want.  Bright, exuberant timpani? Hard wooden mallets! Brittle, crystalline bells? Hard brass mallets! Gentle vibraphone lines? Soft yarn!  And here’s the pro tip: you can see what they’re using from the podium if you make sure these sticks and mallets are color coded! Some companies manufacture their mallets like this for you, but you can always use a small band of colored electrical tape to visually match and distinguish sticks.
  4. Care about percussion equipment organization and maintenance. Please, don’t let your percussionists play a triangle that is dangling from a string of carpet they ripped from the floor. Make sure that there is a system that your percussionists use to properly store and maintain their equipment. If a suspended cymbal felt is missing, replace it.  If a marimba string is broken, fix it. A disorganized, broken set of instruments leads to a disorganized, broken rehearsal.  Pro tip: organize the percussion cabinet yourself, then take a picture of it and tape that picture to the percussion cabinet.

Respecting your percussionists’ time, equipment, and musicianship will make them realize that they are part of the ensemble like every wind player.  By applying these techniques, you can greatly reduce behavior problems in your percussion section, increase their readiness to rehearse the scheduled pieces, and develop their musicianship to a new level.  Give these techniques a try this week!

Guest Conductor to the 2016 Rapides Parish (LA) Honor Band

I’m honored to be the invited conductor and clinician to the annual Rapides Parish Honor Band festival in central Louisiana.  I’ll be conducting the ensemble composed of the finest high school musicians in the area.  The two-day festival, held at Bolton High School, will also feature a junior high honor band conducted by the Associate Director of Bands at Southeastern Louisiana University, Mr. Paul Frechou. Thank you to Joshua Reeves for the invitation to participate in this event!

Guest Article: A Plea for Methods Classes

Instrumental “Methods” classes are among the most important, if not the most important classes taken by a music education major studying to be a band director.  It is in these classes that the band-director-in-training is supposed to learn how to teach each of the instruments.  This knowledge is critical to the future director’s success when he/she begins working with their band. While there are so many things to learn about each instrument that we can’t list them all here, there are four things that a student must take away from a methods class:

1) Form a Correct Embouchure

A good embouchure is fundamental to good tone production and intonation.  This is the very first thing a band student should be taught and taught correctly.   

2) Produce a Characteristic Sound

This closely follows my first point above.  There is no substitute for a beautiful characteristic tone.      

3) Knowledge of Basic Fingerings

While fingering charts are available and are useful for trill and other unusual fingerings, the director can waste a tremendous amount of rehearsal time looking up fingerings if he/she doesn’t know them.

4) Knowledge of Intonation Deficiencies of the Instrument

It is impossible to manufacture instruments that play perfectly in tune.  While many notes on any given instrument are in tune, others are not.  Learning which notes these are, and what to do about them, is essential to teaching a band to play in tune.  This knowledge seems often to be missing, even with some experienced directors.

A Plea for More Instrumental Methods Instruction

A serious problem with the current model for methods classes is the amount of (or lack of) importance they seem receive in the instrumental music education curriculum.  Recently, in looking through the curriculum model of a college with which I’m familiar, I found that within a 128-hour curriculum, instrumental music education students take only one two-hour brass methods class, one two-hour woodwind methods class, and a single one-hour percussion methods class.  That’s ridiculous!  How could a person possibly learn and be able to do the four things listed above for every woodwind or every brass instrument in a one-semester, two-hour class?  It’s simply not possible!  And why would the single course in which the students are supposed to learn about the multiplicity of percussion instruments receive only one hour credit?  In my opinion, this simply makes no sense.

I’m afraid that unless more emphasis is placed on learning to teach the instruments, and unless more time is devoted to this important part of a future band director’s training, new directors entering the profession will be poorly prepared to do their job.  Let’s put more time and energy back into these instrumental methods courses!