is alto clef becoming extinct?

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In the age of music notation software, composers and arrangers can crank out music quickly, and for the most part, neatly. However, in their quest to get an arrangement out the door asap, arrangers can often cut-and-paste lines of music from one instrument to another. I don’t have a problem with this – I’d mostly likely do it myself, if I were pressed for time – but what often happens is that the material that’s brought in from another instrument is kept in the same clef as the original instrument. Often, this isn’t a huge deal. Violists read two clefs in their everyday lives: alto, and treble. Here is a visual guide to how alto clef fits in with treble and bass clef (what pianists read when they play):

Three clefs, nesting in harmony (*cough*).

Those note heads designate the open strings of the viola. As you can see, the viola spans roughly half of each of the treble and bass clefs. Because of this range, the alto clef, squarely in the middle, works best, because if provides from the least amount of ledger lines (lines added above or below the staff) in the most commonly used range of the instrument.

That low C that you see in the bass clef – that is our lowest note. Unless we tune down our C-string, we can’t physically play any lower than that. However, we can play well up into the treble clef, using many ledger lines – if we tried to notate those notes in alto clef, it would be impossible to fit them on the page! Therefore, we use treble clef quite a bit for the sake of readability and ease of music engraving (what it’s still called even though most music publishing long ago abandoned engraved plates for printing).

Too many lines! Too many lines!

To make a long story a bit shorter, here is the received wisdom of orchestrating for the viola: use treble clef to enhance readability, and don’t go lower than the range of the violin (because many of us either play, or have played the violin, and going below G on treble clef puts us in territory where we can’t quickly read what the notes are).

So, back to our composer and arranger (mostly arranger) friends. They are on a tight deadline, and they cut-and-paste music from one instrument to another (or from a piano score to an instrumental score line), and the music is shoe-horned into the clef that the arranger has chosen for the viola part. Often, this is in treble clef, because they’re working from a treble clef source, and it’s easier for an arrange to quickly read (most people who don’t play viola or trombone aren’t super fluent in alto clef). Sometimes, this works great. Other times, not so much. When the arranger doesn’t proof their parts, we get stuff like this to read:

You can see that most of the chart is in treble clef – not a problem, usually, but at m. 47, we get the dreaded treble clef below-the-staff ledger line issue which makes all violists see red and post to twitter with #OrchestrationMatters hastags.

Please, arrangers, use alto clef for violists! And use treble clef only if it keeps our line within the staff or the normal range of the violin! Please, we beg you!

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Super Bowl Whining?

The following thoughts were posted by violist-composer Kenji Bunch on his Facebook page this morning. They were written in response to his timeline full of classical musicians complaining about the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. I think that what Kenji says is right on point.

For my classical friends who were disappointed/offended/alienated/etc. by Coldplay’s show yesterday, specifically the way the YOLA students were incorporated into it, here are a few thoughts:

1. Commercial music and musicians are with us, not against us. Composers’ royalties are subsidized by their revenue, orchestral seasons are aided by Pops ticket sales, film scores remain an important entry point for many people into our little world. Though their training and techniques may differ from us, musicians working in this field usually like, respect, and admire us “serious” musicians. Why then, do we self-servingly anticipate “classical music’s big moment” at the Super Bowl only to deride the band that graciously created the opportunity and bemoan their misuse of the great maestro Dudamel? Just as we snarkily complain about Taylor Swift’s lack of “real” musical talent, until she donates thousands of dollars to our orchestras. It’s like we want to have our cake and refuse to eat it because we’re gluten free, too.

2. You don’t own your instrument. I mean, of course you probably do own the particular one you use professionally, but my point is this: you represent merely a brief moment in time within the lifespan of your instrument and for the continuum of history in which it travels. You’ve no doubt worked hard for a long time and made many sacrifices for the study of your craft- I have, too- no one denies that. And if you choose to dress up like a footman from Downton Abbey, sit down and read sheet music on a stand when you perform, and include your audience in the experience only by standing up to acknowledge them at the end of said performance when you allow them to applaud your work, that’s fine.

But if a group of young, colorfully outfitted Latino musicians play those same instruments while smiling, dancing, and perform a memorized version of a soaringly orchestrated pop song for millions of viewers worldwide, it’s also fine, and it’s also classical music. And it’s also quite possible they’ve just done more in a few minutes for the future of your instrument than many of us will ever do in our lifetimes.

Are jealousy and bitterness the best way to respond to this notion, or could it be possible that we should simply thank these beautiful kids and the folks who gave them this platform? I dunno.

china forbes talks about her recovery from vocal surgery

UPDATE: Stabler has an expanded print interview here.

From today’s online edition of the Oregonian, courtesy of David Stabler: