Most clarinetists are familiar with the core members of the clarinet family, from the unwieldy contrabass clarinet to the tiny E-flat clarinet, but there is one “black sheep” of the clarinet family – the A-flat clarinet.
If you think the E-flat is small and shrill, you’re in for a rude awakening when you hear the A-flat clarinet. Not only have I have performed and recorded on the A-flat clarinet with a clarinet choir, but I have lived to tell the tale! Many people share my fascination and curiosity of this unusual instrument, so I’d like to share some information and my personal experience with this beast.
Let’s start with the basics: the A-flat clarinet is the absolute smallest instrument in the clarinet family (unless we include decorative Christmas tree ornaments), measuring just over a foot in length. The mouthpiece is about the size of a medium thimble, and the reeds are similar to large paperclips. The mechanics of the instrument are the same as soprano clarinets, but the upper and lower joints are combined into one piece (like the E-flat clarinet). The instrument is so tiny that it can easily fit inside the bell of a contra clarinet. The first time I tried to play a scale, my right pinky hit the bell instead of the pinky keys.
So why did I choose to play this oversized toy? Much like the wand chooses the wizard, the A-flat clarinet chooses the musician, except its choice is based mostly on hand size.
The A-flat piccolo clarinet was most commonly used in Italian military bands during the first few decades of the 20th century. A few famous composers used this instrument in their music, most notably Verdi and Bartok. Bartok includes A-flat clarinet in his rarely-performed “Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 2,” with many passages in unison with the soprano clarinet. Verdi used this instrument in a few of his operas, and John Tavener used it in his “Celtic Requiem.”
Although very rare and seldom produced, there are a few companies which manufacture A-flat clarinets today. Buffet Crampon has produced a small number of A-flat clarinets throughout the years and still makes them for special orders today. Leblanc produced A-flat clarinets during their production years, and these instruments can occasionally still be found today. Ripamonti, Orsi, and Schwenk & Seggelke also manufacture A-flat clarinets. Vandoren produces reeds and mouthpieces for the A-flat clarinet. The A-flat clarinet that I used for my performances was a Leblanc, and I used a Vandoren mouthpiece and reeds.
The range of an A-flat clarinet is from low E to altissimo G or higher, depending on your ability level. The fingerings are the same as other clarinets, but I had to invent and use special fingerings in the altissimo register for tuning and timbral purposes. Because the instrument is so small, the overall tuning is erratic, and the timbre can be thin and nasal. My advice to anyone playing this instrument is to sit down with a tuner and get creative with your fingerings to find what works best on your particular instrument. To achieve the upper altissimo register, use fast air and support the sound so it doesn’t crack or squeak (although to be honest, the altissimo register all sounds like squeaks on this instrument).
To get used to the tiny fingerboard of the A-flat clarinet, I practiced Baermann scales and Rose etudes very slowly. This also helped to listen to the tuning tendencies of the instrument. Most people will have to have a more rounded hand position when playing this instrument, using the fingertips instead of the pads of your fingers. I highly recommend getting an expert clarinet repair technician to check for any problems which prevent the instrument from playing at its optimal level – it’s difficult enough already, so it’s important to get your A-flat clarinet in pristine working condition.
I performed the A-flat clarinet on several of Lucien Cailliet’s clarinet choir arrangements, and I recorded the A-flat clarinet variation of Paul Harvey’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Clarinet Choir (which you can listen to here). During the recording session for this CD, the recording engineers would give comments and feedback after each take. After the first take of the A-flat clarinet variation, there was only laughter (hopefully at the instrument, and not my playing!).
I hope I’ve given enough information to quell your curiosity and help any potential A-flatters out there!
Here are some pictures from my A-flat clarinet journey:
A box of Vandoren A-flat clarinet reeds (notice how the B-flat and E-flat clarinets are crossed out)
An old Leblanc photo with the entire clarinet family, with the A-flat is front and center