Clef Reading for Violists

by Mark Pfannschmidt

This article first appeared in Stringendo (Spring 2005), a publication of ASTA MD/DC

Click here for a PDF version of this article

I. Alto clef

Reading alto clef is easy for students who begin on viola. That’s what they read from the start! However, many viola students switch from violin, and for them learning to read alto clef is one of the first hurdles they face. I like to start with some beginning viola materials to immerse the student in alto clef for a week or two. There are various materials that can be used to accomplish this purpose, and different books work better in some situations. What follows is an analysis of a few of these materials, combined with recommendations for their use.

  • Müller, J. Frederick and Harold W. Rusch. String Method. (San Diego, CA: Kjos, 1961). About $4. This time-tested beginning method introduces a few notes at a time with plenty of repetition. Low 2nd finger is introduced midway through the book. The final section of this volume emphasizes C Major. A two octave C Major scale can be easily played in first position on viola. This keeps it very simple for transition purposes! When I switched from violin to viola, this is the book I used to become familiar with alto clef. Have the student play at least 5 pages a day, and be sure to start with the open string pages to develop open string landmarks.
  • Fink, Lorraine, Harold W. Rusch and Frank Spinosa. Quick Steps to Note Reading. (San Diego, CA: Kjos, 1997-1998). 3 volumes, about $4 each. Volume 1 uses only the A and D strings in D Major. The entire book uses only half notes, quarter notes and eighth note pairs in 4/4 time. Volume 2 introduces the G and C strings, but the entire book still has the half step between 2 and 3 with rests, ties, and dotted rhythms. Volume 3 adds low 2, low 1, slurs and hooks. Since Volume 1 is so easy, most students will be able to focus solely on reading the notes. It is particularly helpful for the student who is easily discouraged or intimidated. The notes are large and the lines of music are well-spaced, which makes tracking from line to line easier. Suzuki students will find some familiar tunes, including some hidden snippets of Perpetual Motion (Vol. 2, p. 8). All three volumes include many duets and each has a few trios at the end. Many of the trios are versions of Suzuki tunes. (Note: The voicing in the piano accompaniments for the trios in the back of each book are poor. I wouldn’t recommend them for performance without rewriting. Still, I like the trios as a teaching tool, and I think they stand on their own without accompaniment.)
  • Cohen, Mary. Viola Quick Change! (London, England: Faber, 1996). About $10. The first section of this book is written in a format where alto clef and treble clef are paired together, one staff above the other. Some easier one octave scales are presented, including several minor scales. Familiar folk tunes are presented. For the student who likes to see how the two clefs relate to each other, this book is a great resource. One potential drawback: some students may be inclined to fake reading alto clef, since the treble clef version is written directly above it.

Once the student has learned to read the ‘spots’, it’s time to learn the note names. The lines (from the bottom) are: FACEG. Since the EG is on top of the FACE, you can laugh about EGg on the FACe (thanks to Lynn Denig for this one). GBDF could use a treble clef variant—Good Boys Do Fine (or Girls Buy Designer Fashions). The first three spaces on top of the staff spell ACE. Some students will make the transition easier if they realize that the note is one step higher and down an octave from treble clef (for example, the bottom line in treble clef is E, go up one step to F and down one octave to reach the note for the bottom line in alto clef).

II. Treble clef

Teaching treble clef to violists involves addressing two different problems: reading treble clef itself and switching between treble and alto clefs. Even though many students have experience reading treble clef on another instrument, they must relate treble clef to the viola fingerboard. (This can be particularly problematic if they came to the viola from violin, since they find themselves constantly diving for the wrong string!) There is the additional problem of switching between clefs, which is visually confusing at first. To make matters worse, there is no predictability about clef changes in the real world of viola playing. Sometimes alto clef is used where treble clef would greatly enhance readability; other times treble clef is used where staying in alto clef would simplify the notation. The resources listed below help to address both of these challenges.

  • Cohen, Mary. Viola Quick Change! (London, England: Faber, 1996). About $10. The second section of this work begins with two octave scales, some of which go into treble clef and require 2nd or 3rd position. Included are several folk tunes, all of which are presented in three ways: the two staff format mentioned above, a switching clef version in the same octave, and an alto clef version in the lower range. I think this second section is particularly suited to the violist who is learning to read treble clef.
  • Stuen-Walker, Elizabeth. Treble Clef for Violists. (Miami, FL: Summy-Birchard, 2003). About $7. I first bought this book on the internet, sight unseen, looking for a resource for some of my students. When I first saw it, I was sure I’d made a mistake. I’m so glad I decided to try it with four students as an experiment. (I bought five copies—it was such a deal!) This book begins with twelve pages of open strings (!) in various time signatures. Clef changes occur at least every measure. The rhythms become progressively more difficult, including syncopation and 6/8 time. The second section presents 0, 1, 2, 3 on the G string for two pages, followed by the same material transposed for the D and A strings. This is followed by seven short tunes with frequent clef changes. The next page presents very short melodies which shift into 2nd and 3rd position, and the final page shows the top two octaves of a three octave C Major scale in both clefs. I have found the open string exercises great opportunities to clean up bow technique, and the little short pieces are very useful for learning to change musical character. I like them to be played with at least two different moods, and use them to demonstrate how varying tempo, articulation and/or contact point can completely change the musical effect.

Here again, once the student can play the notes, it’s important to be able to name them fluently. Notes on a SPACE spell FACE, and the lines are EGBDF: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.

Some other variants:

Empty Garbage Before Dad Flips
Elephants “Got” Big Dirty Feet
Every Girl Buys Designer Fashions

III. Treble clef transposed down a fifth

Still another consideration for the advancing violist is the skill of transposing violin music down a fifth at sight—that is, reading treble clef and playing it as though playing on the violin. Even though much violin music has been transcribed for the viola, not everything is readily available. The violist may also have access to a violinist’s library. I am a firm advocate of teaching works originally written for viola, rather than transcriptions. However, there are some things that are not yet readily available for viola that can be very beneficial. Developing this skill gives the advancing musician one more chance to stretch his or her thinking, and is particularly useful for teaching. Just about any violin music would suit this purpose. Some favorites:

  • Hohmann, Christian Heinrich. Practical Violin School. (various editions available). I particularly like the duets, many of which can be played where written, as well as down a fifth.
  • Sevcík, Otakar. 40 Variations for the Violin, Op. 3. (London: Bosworth, 1901). About $11.00. These variations are a real gem. Each one presents a new bowing style in a new character. I am always looking for etude material that is challenging musically as well as technically.

After I first wrote this article I learned that this is available in two editions for viola:

1. One published by Bosworth in the original key (except a few of the last variations)
2. One published by Viola World Press transposed down a fifth, including an optional piano accompaniment

These resources and teaching tips should make the task of mastering clef reading more enjoyable for teachers and students alike.

And then there's reading bass clef in hymns on gigs . . .

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