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The alto clarinet is a member of the woodwind family, along with the other types of clarinets, flutes, saxophones, the oboe and similar instruments. The body looks much like the more common soprano clarinet, but the alto clarinet is larger, longer, with an upturned bell at the end. It is used to accompany other instruments in an orchestra or a band. The notes it produces have a lower pitch than a regular clarinet, but not as deep as a bass clarinet.
The alto clarinet works like many other members of the woodwind group of musical instruments. The player blows air over a mouthpiece that has a single reed fitted into it. The air causes the reed to vibrate rapidly, resulting in sound. The sound can be made higher or lower by the musician by controlling the flow of air and the tightness of his or her lips. Notes are made when the player uses his or her fingers to cover and uncover holes in the instrument.
Since the alto clarinet is so large, a person cannot cover much of the length of the body of the instrument using only hands. Instead, a series of levers are used to control pads that can be made to lift or drop in response to pressure from the user. When a pad covers or uncovers a hole, it affects the air flow inside the instrument, resulting in different notes. Typically several keys are pressed simultaneously in order to produce each note. The many combinations available allow it to play a wide range of notes.
The first alto clarinet was made in France in 1810, taking the fingering technology of the soprano clarinet and applying it to the larger instrument. It was used in military bands of the time, but eventually was phased out as other instruments gained popularity. Despite the fact that it has regained some of its lost popularity, it has never again been used to the extent it was in the early 1800s.
The alto clarinet is less common than the smaller, more familiar standard soprano clarinet. Its deep sound is not as frequently heard in high school and college bands. Some artists and composers find the rich, mellow tones of the alto clarinet pleasing and work to keep this instrument alive and familiar. Composers such as Leon Dallin, Alfred Reed and George Schwartz wrote music specifically for a duet of a piano and an alto clarinet. The performing artist J.D. Parran used one as his main instrument for 20 years in all of his musical performances, helping to introduce countless people to it.