Saturday, February 1, 2014

Alto Clef Anxiety

So I'm picking out pieces to play at a special church service this evening, and I run across a really fine and timely work by a favorite 20th century composer. It looks like it might be fun to play, too. The only problem is the clef-sign for the left-hand part (shown at left). It may be news to singers (other than those proficient in Gregorian chant), keyboard players, and most other musicians except those specializing in a few instruments such as the viola, but this funky, stylized capital K looking thing is officially known as the Alto Clef. Sometimes one doesn't bother distinguishing between the Alto, Tenor, and Soprano Clefs (and perhaps others), but simply speaks of the "Movable C-Clef." This is because the crook of the stylized capital K looking thing always straddles the line that represents Middle C, regardless of which line it is positioned over. This is in contrast to the Treble Clef (a.k.a. G-clef, because the curly bit curls around the line for G) and the Bass Clef (a.k.a. F-clef, which curls around the line for F), which are mostly fixed in one place on the staff and only move up or down in rare instances. So the notes on the lines and spaces of the Alto Clef are thus:

This is a new wrinkle for those of us who had the notes of the Treble and Bass Clefs drilled into us from an early age, until we could play any note on or near the staff on sight without thinking about which note it was. I'm a little long in the tooth to be learning new tricks like this, so playing a piece with one or more staves in a C-Clef is a matter of continual, agonizing effort. It doesn't happen often enough to become routine. And one reason for this is the dumbing down of performance editions.

If you go back to the Urtext of many keyboard works by Bach, Buxtehude, Pachelbel—and even some by Brahms!—you will find many instances where at least one staff is notated in a C-Clef. These composers evidently assumed that performers would be as proficient in reading C-Clefs as Treble and Bass. Most modern performance editions, however, play to the deficiencies in present-day piano and organ pedagogy. They start the first system of the piece with a depiction of the original clef signs and key signature, then translate that into modern G- and F-Clef notation, possibly transposing the piece to an easier or lower key as well. This key-change business happens particularly with chorale preludes, where between the rising of concert pitch and the sinking of the average singer's vocal range, hymn tunes have gradually been transposed into lower and lower keys. The editors, loath to leave well enough alone, seem devoted to the idea of the prelude being in the same key in which the hymn would be sung.

But the clef-change bit simply feeds off the apparent consensus of editors and pedagogues that keyboard players cannot read C-Clefs as fluently as Treble and Bass. And this consensus is correct, for the reason that pianists and organists seldom if ever have to read music notated in a C-Clef. This, in turn, is so because editors keep changing the original notation into Treble- and Bass-Clef notation, depriving players of either the necessity or the opportunity to learn C-Clef reading. It's a vicious circle. But at the bottom of it all is the dirty secret that, at some point, the leading authorities in piano and organ pedagogy decided to stop teaching their students how to read C-Clef notation. The outcome is a new generation of scores translated into the Treble and Bass Clefs... and the occasional spot of bother with pieces by 20th century composers, like Helmut Walcha for instance, who sometimes still wrote keyboard parts in a C-Clef, and whose works are still being published that way.

As a beneficiary of the new pedagogical practices that pointedly omit C-Clef reading from the curriculum, I must admit that I'm miffed. Miffed at the system of teaching that denied me the opportunity to learn C-Clef reading when my brain was a sponge. Now I can play Treble- and Bass-Clef notes on sight without having to think about which notes they are. But I'm not likely ever to have that level of proficiency with C-Clefs, partly because I'm older and my brain has stiffened up, and partly because I'm not faced with the need to read C-Clefs very often. Not often at all. And when I do, my emotional reflex will be to become miffed at the composer and/or editor who, at this hour of the day, left me wrestling with a notational wrinkle that makes my brain overheat. I mean, isn't it cruel that I can read Buxtehude in modern notation, but I have to struggle with C-Clefs in Walcha?

I'm going to have to take steps. Steps to lick this C-Clef problem once and for all. To start with, I'm going to have to do the kinds of memory tricks that helped me through the first-grade Note Spellers by John W. Schaum, way back when I was starting piano lessons at age eight. You know: "Every Good Boy Does Fine" (or Deserves Fudge) for the lines of the Treble Clef, bottom to top; F-A-C-E ("Face") for the spaces; "Great Big Dogs Fight Animals" for the lines of the Bass Clef; and "All Cars Eat Gas" (or Cows/Grass) for the spaces. I'm starting by inventing new mnemonics for the Alto Clef, where the crook of the K embraces the third line of the staff.

The lines: "Freaking Alto Clef! Eat Giblets!!"
The spaces: "Gold Bricks Don't Fly."

But until this sinks in, and I can work on other exercises for recognizing the notes on sight, I will have to continue doing what I have been doing. With constant, wearying effort, I will have to THINK about every single note on the Alto-Clef staff, and either (1) pretend that it's in the Treble Clef, transposed down a seventh; or (2) pretend that it's in the Bass Clef, transposed up a seventh; or (3) think, "OK, the third line is middle C, so this note is..." And ultimately, I'm going to have to keep practicing the piece until I've got the left-hand part learned by heart, because reading the notes is just going to confuse me. And I'm going to hate it, because I thought I had put that problem behind me in, like, third grade!

EDIT: A more "G-rated" version of the lines: "Fie, Alto Clef! Eat Giblets!" Tenor Clef lines: "Don't Fret About Cracked Eggs." Spaces: "Eggs Go Bad Daily."

No comments: