Modern Orchestra clarinet section notes

From a clarinettist. Small thing maybe but this is the straight scoop on how it really works.

I’d drop the D clarinet - don’t encourage composers to use that! Nobody has one, I’ve never heard of it in professional circles, and certainly not amateur. If you use it you’ll just have the clarinets asking you for a transposed part anyhow. Buffet’s cost $8k these days, and they don’t even make one I think, I did a search a while back and there’s only one or two manufacturers. I certainly won’t buy one for the vanity of “it has a better tone”. Uh, yeah, that’s what I’m here for is what they’re thinking.

Second is the A clarinets should all be alternate hand on the Bb’s, in other words have each (of 3) play both Bb and A. That’s the way it’s done all over the world. Every professional has both (and most amateurs) - I bought my first professional A shortly after the Bb. Having both as seperate players makes no sense, the key signature that’ll work in one will not be playable in the other

Third, Eb should really be an alternate/doubling too. Not used too much, but they way it’s done from San Francisco to Berlin is one of the regulars will specialize in it.

Fourth, bass clarinet is much more common, and there’s usually a dedicated player for it in most orchestras (who also alternates with Bb/A), but the bass gets more play time. I’d include that.

Fifth - three clarinets is less common, four is more common. A good starting point would be

1 . 1st clarinet Bb/A
2. 2nd clarinet Bb/A
3. 1st alternate, Bb/A/Bass clarinet
4. 2nd alternate, Bb/A/Eb clarinet

If you wanted to go further, you could include the saxophone. In really top orchestras they’ll call in an extra specialist, but it’s not too uncommon that one of the players will play it (I play both). It’s only used in Bolero AFAIK - a shame, a historical malfeasance that should be corrected. It would be neat if you included sax as a poke in the eye to get composers to use it more.

And that’s all you ever wanted to know about the modern clarinet section!


Forgot to mention - these are notes for the team and the Modern Orchestra template! These touches would make it inline with modern practices.

Also used in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast IIRC.

Yeah absolutely it’s used here and there, I meant in the mainstream literature which unfortunately is what gets played most of the time. The instrument got an undeserved reputation, but it’s a wonderful color to add to your compositions.

David Bruce (British composer) has a good YouTube channel

If I’m remembering correctly, saxophone is used in Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije.


Out of curiosity: if the use of A alongside Bb is essential because of certain keys not being playable on one of both, then wouldn’t there be keys unplayable on an Eb, and what are solutions to that? At first sight, one might think having a D clarinet would be the answer, but apparently that’s not the case.
(Good to know to never use it in an orchestration of course!)
I wholeheartedly second the recommendation of David Bruce’s videos. Funny and thought-provoking.

Yes exactly. Note for orchestrators! Don’t ever give your clarinettists more than say four sharps/four flats. If you do keep the parts simple and consult with a clarinetist - no fast passages. As you add accidentals it quickly becomes unplayable. Up to three accidentals is OK most of the time. If you want special effects - such as that opening in Rhapsody in Blue, notice there’s no accidentals for the clarinettist on that one (you can only play the finger slide on all open holes).

When I compose, I find the key is essentially an argument between the Bb instruments any others you might include, such as the Eb. The Eb clarinet is tricky - I play it, but I’m 6’3" and my fingers are rather too long for the instrument (fortunately I’m thin so while they rub together it’s not too bad). There’s no alternate Eb, and it’s hard to play in tune and to play at all, so it definitely wins for most favorable key.

Hm, my procedure is something like

  1. Pick my desired key - check Bb.
  2. More than 3 - check A, if < 3 then continue. If not then goto 1
  3. If it’s a piece that can support A (e.g. not a band piece) then continue, if not then goto 4. Check Eb if any such instruments are included. Adjust Bb/Eb appropriately, if good then continue
  4. I’ll check f, but I’m not sure that’s necessary. In fact apparently horn/trumpet players don’t even want a key signature, instead preferring raw accidentals.
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Further on the A - it really is only there for a fingering/key alternative. But only expect professional players to have one. Oh, it certainly does have a deeper, throatier tone, but given that AFAIK the clarinet has the highest air pressure of any instrument (your life is spent conditioning your lungs and embouchure), and I’ve heard rumors that composers called for it purely because of the tone, it’s really a practical matter.

You can alternate in a piece of course as you change key signatures, but always give due consideration to the player can adequately prep. Give them some bar rests to quietly blow a note or two if it’s been a long time since played (bonus points if their bar rests are in a loud section otherwise), but they need at least to wet the reed and get themselves set.

It’s harder to play because of the length, so you can do what you want but ideally save the virtuoso solos for Bb. Though having said that the famous Mozart Clarinet Concerto - his last fully completed piece and often considered the greatest concerto ever written, is for A. But it’s not technically hard to play like all Mozart, doing it that way removes all the accidentals, and the piece was originally written for Basset Horn, which is an instrument I’d dearly love to get ahold of. Buffet makes one.

Some recordings of the Mozart do use the basset, which makes a few low passages, especially in the slow movement, incredibly dark and otherworldy. What a magnificent piece it is.
Thanks for your clarifications!


Yeah that’s why I’ve always wanted to have one, it’s a preeminent clarinet IMO with a beautiful, limpid and transparent tone. The bass clarinet (I also play) is more chunky, it bites, but the Basset is just wonderful.

The Buffet is 8k or 10k, and when you pick a new horn you need to audition several to find a) a good one with good tuning and tone and b) one you particularly like. Even if I decide to splurge one day, I have no idea where I’d find a showroom with a half dozen of these! Probably have to go to the factory in Paris.

Now you know why nobody has a D!

Well, many years ago, in one of my first attempts at orchestration, I wrote an Eb clarinet into a piece for an amateur orchestra near Amsterdam. That was not clever. In the end, I believe they borrowed one from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, where the conductor knew the right people. Lesson learned: for amateurs, don’t ever use the Eb as well. Need high notes: stick to flute.

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Yeah, I had some snotty (no name composers) inform me once that the D clarinet was preferred because of the dulcet tones. It might have been on this forum. I don’t play in concert anymore - no time, but if I saw it show up in a score I’d laugh in the composers face and tell them they made a rookie mistake.

On Eb, because it’s small you can these days get a quite good one off - of all place - Amazon, for a few hundred dollars. Rosewood to boot. I have one, the front tone holes are plastic lined instead of metal, the silver plating tarnishes too easily, but it’s got a good tone and the tuning is pretty good too. It would do just fine everywhere except a top tier orchestra, so I say call for it as you wish as it’s very affordable.

Unfortunately the bass clarinet. being larger, is not available in a good cheap instrument, but on the other hand those are relatively easy to find or borrow. So basically I’d say these days you’re in good shape to use the clarinet section as you wish. Just don’t call for a D!

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I’m not a clarinetist so let me have it if I’m wrong. I’ve read that in these later times, a fairly significant advantage to the D clarinet (if available) is to smooth out the technique required for passages in certain keys. The example noted was the virtuoso E flat clarinet solo near the end of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe.

Keyed or valved instruments often are mixed or matched to give the player a bit of a break. The D trumpet is often used in the chattering Goldenburg and Schmuyl movement of Pictures at an Exhibition. The grace notes fall under the fingers easier.

That could well be, but with the practicalities it’s a moot point. I never heard of it before I started hanging out with other composers when the internet came about - clarinetists from all walks never mention it and I’ve never seen one, didn’t know it existed. My composition teachers never mentioned it either.

There’s plenty of lines in mainstream literature that are rough to play, but we put up with it as best we can. There are some that are downright unplayable but everybody fakes it as best as they can. So getting the right tone, or playing a difficult line well, is part of our job, as long as you don’t abuse it too much.

Mainly you have to consider the poor clarinetist, who pretty much is the only one in the orchestra who absolutely has to own and be proficient in at least two top tier instruments. Which by the way, wear out in about seven years of professional use (that hot moist air column is destructive). If that wasn’t enough, we need to play a bass, and an Eb when called for (not to mention the others in the family if we play in a band). And they have different reeds and mouthpieces - is the D a different reed/mouthpiece? Better not be. Don’t get me started on reeds.

And by the way we’re also about the most exposed instrument in the sense of it being a kind of lynchpin for the orchestration. Winds are the color, and we’re the glue. Well known that conductors abuse the clarinets because of it (I’ve certainly been there). Every one is a soloist is something I’ve been told enough times, so given the difficulties with being conversant with different horns I’d be loath to pick up another. I hate to play my A, for example, on quick passages, it just isn’t as good for that. There’s more to technique than fingering.

This is why asking us to get ahold of another one, which is rare and never used in practice for 99% of the literature, a non starter. As I said you just end up having to supply a transposed part anyhow, and better hope it happens to be in a good key.

I think this might actually go to oboes. There’s so much built up pressure that they have to practice breathing OUT before they can breathe back in. I used to belch the first 10 minutes of playing because all of the pressure forces all the air out of your stomach.


True. As a retired oboist, I confirm. I could hold a note (no circular breathing) for a minute & 7 seconds. My teacher at Eastman could hold a note for 2 minutes.

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Circular breathing is a technique for not interrupting the tone, correct? That’s different than the amount of pressure I believe. Clarinets can circular breath too, though I believe it’s more commonly done with saxophones, because a greater volume of air is needed there at lower pressure. It’s much harder on the clarinet. But the clarinet can hold long tones easily because littler air volume is required relatively, but a high pressure. This is why we can achieve niente so well because we have control over the instrument to zero sound. AFAIK only the clarinet pulls this off so well.

If memory serves, when I was young and on tour in Europe, one of the games we had is to try each others instruments. I remember an oboeist once trying my clarinet - I spooned her and had my arms around her for the fingering (you can see why we liked these games), anyhow I remember her spluttering and exclaiming on the crazy amount of pressure it needed.

That’s the basis for what I said, but after so many years could be misremembering. Pretty sure it was this one sexy oboist or this bassoonist, but maybe somebody else. I did a little searching just now but didn’t see anything.

I’ve played both, for years each, mate. Obviously clarinets are higher pressure than flutes, but not as high as oboes.

Thanks, though, for all the info about pro clarinetists!

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Belshazzar’s Feast is an awesome work. Did an analysis of it way back in Graduate school.:upside_down_face:

[Writing replies while traveling today] That last is true, but I believe the capability for echo tone is due to the combination of the single reed and the cylindrical bore, rather than the air pressure. Saxes can also do an effective fade-out – as long as the note is not too low. Saxes and double reeds, with conical bore, get louder toward the bottom.