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A sometimes-mentor and someone in the know at a professional orchestra advised me recently on writing for orchestra. I'll paraphrase his advice here:

Writing for a flute player doubling on piccolo reduces the chance of us playing the piece. Even though it's a very common thing to do orchestration-wise, we'll need to hire an additional player for the night because the union rules don't allow one of the flautists to play it. This additional budget could be the difference between us choosing to perform your piece, or not.

He also suggested I write for a Mozart-sized orchestra as I'm getting my name out there. There is likely a classical-era piece on every program and it's a guarantee that they won't dig into their thin margins to program my work. It sounded like good advice to me.

Now here's the question... Do the same union rules hold true for the clarinet parts? I think they would be much nicer to play on an A clarinet instead of a Bb clarinet simply because of the key signature. But it's certainly nothing a pro can't handle. Note that I am not referring to bass clarinet, just the standard A/Bb soprano clarinets.

In case you're interested, the piece is in A. So the key sig would be B major, or C major for A clarinet.

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    @Aaron I'd say it's more a business question than a legal one - union rules are not laws. But business questions are also off topic, so I agree otherwise. Personally I prefer the sound of A clarinets but I expect the AFM 2022 - 2023 rates (hint, hint) apply doubling rates consistently regardless of section or instruments. Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 2:06
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    Another reason to stick with Bb is for easier licensing to school and community ensembles in the future. There are generally no student or intermediate targeted A clarinets being made, which means anyone who owns an A clarinet probably invested at least $3000 - $4000 just for the A clarinet, and it wouldn't make sense to not have a great Bb clarinet first. So you're looking at around $10,000 in instruments just to bring it to rehearsal. That's nothing compared to a pro violin, but it's generally out of reach of all but working pros. Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 2:19
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    @ToddWilcox There are student/intermediate A clarinets from Buffet starting at about $1600 and others from about $800.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 7:10
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    I recommend to consider non-professional orchestras as well. At the beginning of a composer-career you might easier find one of those willing to play your works e.g. if you happen to know the conductor.
    – guidot
    Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 9:30
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    One more thought: Most notation software should be able to prepare the same part for both A and Bb clarinets without too much trouble. You just want to make sure there's only one on the conductor score. That way you can deliver whichever they prefer or both if they want to choose. The only thing is the clarinetist will want to have the A part for ease and also to get the doubling money. The music director/money people might not want to make that A part available for that same reason, so pay attention to whom you're really trying to sell your work. Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 2:39

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In any professional or semi-professional orchestra (i.e. anywhere where union rules might apply) the clarinettists will be required to play both Bb and A clarinets as needed. There is no reason not to write for A clarinet, although if the piece is simple enough the players might just transpose it on Bb anyway.

An amateur or school orchestra might not have A clarinets available, and they might not play your piece for that reason.

In any union orchestra at least one of the flute players will also have piccolo in their contract.

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  • I think the question is not whether an A clarinet is available to the orchestra, it's how much extra will it cost to play a score that has an A clarinet part. A union clarinet player using both A and Bb clarinets during a single night's program almost certainly must be paid extra for doubling. I doubt any orchestra would have to hire out for an A clarinet, but the doubling fee might make an orchestra on a tight budget less interested in playing a work by an unknown composer if merely adding it to the program is going to cost them more. Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 2:29
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    @ToddWilcox I probably didn't make the point clear enough: in professional orchestras the clarinet players are already paid for A clarinet. For pick-up orchestras 'A' clarinet is not regarded as a double in any union contract I've ever seen (although there may be exceptions). Probably 90% of orchestra concert programs already have a least one piece with A-clarinet..
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 9:31
  • Oh as in they are salaried? But then why would a piccolo cost extra? Regarding programs already having A clarinet, that I totally believe. Still, I have heard that much money can be made from licensing to schools, camps, other youth programs, and community groups, so I feel like a starting composer avoiding A clarinet unless really necessary still makes sense. Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 13:02
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    @ToddWilcox no that is wrong. It's not "doubling" ; every orchestral clarinetist carries both an A and a Bb clarinet, as many pieces switch from one to the other. Unless your local union rules pay only for notes produced (and presumably not rests....), this cannot be a problem. Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 14:54
  • @CarlWitthoft Looks like you’re right that A clarinet does not count as a double for union scale. Still it would be something that non-pros are likely to have Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 17:46
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I have never heard that unions don't allow a fautist also to double on piccolo, and I played in a professional orchestra for 32 years. However, I stopped 10 years ago, so maybe things have changed. I am, though, confident that it's the clarinettist's responsiblity to have both a Bb and an A instrument. I doubt that anyone's going to say they'll have to hire another performer as the Bb player can't play an A as well. If your piece suits the A better, then go for it.

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    I think the point has been missed here. (Not my dv).
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 7:14
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The clarinet in Bb is pretty much the standard clarinet nowadays. Clarinet in A is pretty uncommon, and clarinet in C is basically non existent. Chances are high that if you write your part for clarinet in A they are going to be played on a clarinet in Bb, the player just transposing the part. So unless there is a really good reason to do so just write for clarinet in Bb. If you insist on the part being played on a A clarinet the piece will have lower chances of ever being performed, as some orchestras do not in fact use A clarinets, and then it gets complicated if they are required to use them.

But regarding the way you mean it in your question: Of course everything depends on what terms the orchestra’s union has. To me it sounds almost ridiculous that an orchestra’s union does not allow doubling of regular flute and piccolo flute, which is a very common orchestra practice. Most likely in this case the orchestra won’t be able to demand their players to switch between Bb clarinet and A clarinet. But really, I do not thing that this is a common thing.

But in case: Just ask the orchestra if they rather want to have parts for A clarinet or parts for Bb clarinet (you could even prepare parts for both instruments). Quite differently to Flute/Piccolo the distinction between Bb/A clarinet is small, and most of the stuff that can be played on one instrument can also be played on the other instrument (unless you go into extended technique with stuff like multiphonics).

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    I think this depends on the level of the orchestra and the clarinetist. Pro clarinet players who play classical and baroque works will have to play A clarinet because there's important literature that is either unplayable or doesn't sound right on a Bb clarinet. Mozart's last clarinet concerto (K. 622) is a notable example. Pros are also likely to have Eb clarinets, or at least be able to play one effectively and know where to rent one. Bolero has an Eb clarinet part and that's a significant work. Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 2:26
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    @ToddWilcox technically, you can't play K622 on an A clarinet either, due to a few extra-low notes. Strict adherence to Mozart's intent requires a 'basset clarinet' Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 14:57

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