All About the A-flat Piccolo Clarinet

by Jenny Maclay

Date Posted: November 16, 2016

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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!

Read the original publication here.

Jenny Maclay Circle

About Jenny Maclay

Dr. Jenny Maclay enjoys a diverse career as a clarinet soloist, recitalist, orchestral player, chamber musician, pedagogue, and blogger. In 2021, she was the Visiting Instructor of Clarinet at Brandon University (Canada) and was Visiting Lecturer of Clarinet at Iowa State University in 2020. Online, she is known as Jenny Clarinet, where she created her eponymous popular blog, and she is also the Social Media Coordinator for the International Clarinet Association.

In addition to teaching and performing, Jenny is also interested in travelling and researching clarinet cultures around the world. To date, she has visited and performed in over 30 countries, and she enjoys meeting other clarinetists during her travels. Recently, she was selected by the Council of Faroese Artists as an artist-in-residence in Tjørnuvík, Faroe Islands, where she performed and promoted clarinet compositions by Faroese composers. She has also been named an Artist-in-Residence Niederösterreich, and she will study the clarinet compositions of Ernst Krenek and his wife Gladys Nordenstrom during her residency in Austria in 2022.

Jenny was the recipient of the 2015-2016 Harriet Hale Woolley Award for musical study in Paris, where she was an artist-in-residence at the Fondation des Etats-Unis. She received her Master of Musique, interprétation, et patrimoine at the Versailles Conservatoire in the class of Philippe Cuper and her Doctorat en musique interprétation at the Université de Montréal in the class of André Moisan. She has achieved a number of other notable musical honors, including selection as a prizewinner, finalist, and semi-finalist for such international competitions as Concerts Artists Guild and Astral Artists, and other recent prizes include 1st prize at the 2017 Clé d’Or international music competition and highest-ranking clarinetist at the 2016 Tunbridge Wells International Young Artist Competition in England. Most recently, Jenny performed a virtual recital at the International Clarinet Association’s ClarinetFest 2021, featuring a transcription of Brahms’ Zwei Gesänge, Op. 91 for clarinet, theremin, and piano. Other recent performances include a virtual recital for the U.S. Embassy France and a collaborative duo recital with Sauro Berti, solo bass clarinetist of Teatro dell’Opera di Roma at ClarinetFest 2019.

Jenny has performed with orchestras throughout Europe and North America. In 2017, she toured with the Jeune Philharmonie franco-allemande et hongroise, an international orchestra comprised of musicians from over 20 different countries. During past seasons, she has performed with several orchestras, including the Ensemble Orchestral Les Voyages Extraordinaires, Écoute Ensemble de Musique Contemporaine, Orchestre d’Harmonie de Levallois, Florida Orchestra, Valdosta Symphony, and Ocala Symphony. As a chamber musician, she has performed several masterworks in prestigious venues, including the Mozart clarinet quintet at La Seine Musicale and the Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps at the Fondation des Etats-Unis in Paris.

Jenny received her Bachelor of Music Degree in Clarinet Performance from the University of Florida, where she graduated summa cum laude and was a Fulbright Scholar alternate. Her teachers include Philippe Cuper, Karl Leister, André Moisan, Mitchell Estrin, Todd Waldecker, John Cooper, and Donald Dowdy. She was the youngest presenter of refereed research at the 2014 International Clarinet Association ClarinetFest. Recently, Jenny has been an invited artist and presented lectures on musicpreneurship at Louisiana State University, University of Memphis, University of Iowa, Loyola University, Millikin University, Middle Tennessee State University, University of Alabama Birmingham, University of Central Florida, University of South Florida, University of Southern Mississippi, and has been a featured soloist at the keynote ceremony of the Alabama Music Educators Association Conference.

Jenny Clarinet has been featured in The Clarinet and the Clarineat podcast and has been named one of Feedspot’s “Top 20 Clarinet Blogs, Websites, and Influencers to Follow.” To date, she has published over 300 articles which have been read in over 177 countries and translated into multiple languages, and she has contributed articles which have been featured in The Clarinet, Vandoren WAVE newsletter, Deutsche Klarinetten-Gesellschaft, Rodriguez Musical Services blog, and Lisa’s Clarinet Shop blog. Her first book, an examination of unaccompanied clarinet repertoire, is currently in publication. Jenny Maclay performs exclusively on Vandoren reeds, mouthpieces, and ligatures.

In addition to clarinet, Jenny is also learning to play the theremin, an early electronic instrument and the only one played without physical contact. After writing this blog post, Jenny became interested in the theremin and has collaborated and performed with theremin virtuosi Grégoire Blanc and Charlie Draper. You can listen to some of these collaborations here andhere.

When she’s not onstage or in a practice room, Jenny enjoys travelling and has visited over 30 countries. During her travels, she likes to befriend the local cats and enjoys reading books at kitschy cafés. Her caffeination of choice is espresso or Earl Grey tea.

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