During my first year at McGill, I joined the McGill Clarinet Choir, in which I played the contra-alto clarinet, an instrument that I loved. It seemed that nobody in the group wanted to play the alto clarinet. People saw it as a nasty, out-of-tune, bad-sounding instrument that was unforgiving and difficult to play. Someone would always get stuck with the instrument, and they wouldn't be happy about it.
In my second year at McGill, I was at a wind symphony rehearsal. We were going to play Ingolf Dahl's "Sinfonietta", which has an alto clarinet solo in the second movement. The conductor asked me if I wanted to play the alto clarinet in that piece. I wasn't entirely sure why he'd asked me - perhaps he'd heard that I played the contra-alto clarinet, and thought it would be a good idea to ask me if I wanted to play the alto. I was aware of the instrument's bad reputation, but I agreed to play the alto clarinet - I figured that maybe if I devoted some time to the instrument, I might be able to play it somewhat well. Besides, I'd get to play a solo in wind symphony, which I wouldn't get to do if I just stuck to the B-flat clarinet.
I rented the school's alto clarinet, and started to get to know the instrument. It was indeed difficult to play in tune. But I kept working on it. I played the solo in the Dahl piece. After that concert, I continued playing the alto clarinet in the wind symphony. Occasionally I'd get other solos. One time, I had an unaccompanied quarter-tone glissando solo in a piece by Husa. That piece was broadcast on the radio.
I came to love playing the alto clarinet. I found opportunities to play it outside of the wind symphony. I played in a trio made up of two B-flat clarinets and alto. I sometimes played alto clarinet in an orchestra, substituting for bass clarinet or saxophone parts. I found that the alto clarinet could be useful for bass lines, kind of like a bass clarinet, but more portable.
I came to love the sound of the alto clarinet. I found that it could sound almost like a cross between a clarinet and a saxophone. I found that the alto clarinet could be a very expressive instrument.
In one of my later years in the clarinet choir, I was planning to play the contra-alto clarinet, as I always had in clarinet choir. The usual start-of-year argument was going on, the argument over who had to get stuck with the alto clarinet. Feeling sorry for the instrument, and getting tired of people berating an instrument that I had grown to love, I gave up my contra-alto clarinet position and offered to play the alto.
There haven't been many pieces of music written for solo alto clarinet. For some time, I worked on a concerto for solo alto clarinet, with clarinet choir accompaniment. In the piece, I tried to show the different moods that the alto was capable of expressing. When the piece of music was finished, I performed it with the McGill Clarinet Choir. Here is a recording of the performance.
The alto clarinet is a much-disliked instrument, but I think that a lot of this animosity is unjustified. I think that more people - both listeners and clarinetists - should give the alto clarinet more of a chance.