Bought a viola, not looking forward to alto clef, are the methods the same?

November 6, 2019, 9:11 PM · Scott Cao 750 15", my arms are short, and it's the same scale length as the mandolins I know so well.

I like light soft CF bows, so a Luma will be the first try, although a more aggressive one may come down the road.

I need to buy some basic alto clef stuff to practice sight-reading.

I am a beginning student, but with a background in music and pretty good reading skills in treble and bass clef, alto clef will be new so I will need to focus there a bit.

I am curious, are most violin methods also available in alto clef? Or is it a whole new world there?

Replies (25)

November 6, 2019, 9:49 PM · As far as I am aware all the usual stuff (Kreutzer etc) is available in a viola version, which is in alto clef. Its nothing to be scared about :)
Edited: November 6, 2019, 10:32 PM · As a violinist I launched into viola by looking at the Suzuki viola books, selecting one that I knew I could sight read and then buy that book (Book 4) and the rest of the series and just launched into playing one after the other. It took me about a week to read through all of them and feel fairly secure.

The alto clef notes are confusing to violinists at first. Some violinists start by reading the viola first position fingerings as violin third position fingerings on the same "numbered" string (i.e., I, II, II, IV). Then they read viola third position notes as violin 1st position one string higher. This is OK for starters but it is just a tool that you get over pretty fast and before you know it you are actually reading alto clef like an "old pro."

And - what Jake said for building technique.

I'm about 5 years in now concentrating on viola and not playing violin much at all and have found a tendency to confuse fingering on the two instruments last week when I actually had to practice some violin orchestra music - but that cleared up in a day or two. Going forward it looks like I'll be playing violin in orchestra and viola in chamber music on a regular bsis for some time.

Edited: November 7, 2019, 2:47 AM · I only ever looked at the alto clef for a minute, but the thing I found most eye-opening was that the middle line to the gap above is a whole note (middle C to D), whereas it's a half note (B to C) in the treble clef, lol.

Since I play piano and thus know the bass clef it really shouldn't be a problem.

But it also surprised me how much of the bass clef I forgot in 35 years of not playing the piano.

Edited: November 7, 2019, 6:42 AM · A lifetime cellist used to the tenor C-clef might have an initial difficulty in getting used to the confusingly similar alto C-clef of the viola, as I'm fairly sure I would, but it's not an insuperable problem. My cello teacher, for example, played both instruments professionally during his long career in symphony orchestras, including one of the BBC's.
November 7, 2019, 7:06 AM · Middle c in the middle. However virtually all method books that we study are the same however post Kreutzer you can do campanogli caprices which are only viola and Fuchs etudes are quite advanced viola etudes. However we pretty much have transcriptions from wolf hart to dont or Paganini
November 7, 2019, 11:23 AM · Yes, methods are the same. The suggestions above for how to start out in alto clef are valid, but after a while, just like with languages, immersion is the only way. In other words, work towards not over-thinking it and just spend a little time each day sight reading in the clef, using simple music at first (Wolfhart, etc.) Then, when you can, play in quartet or orchestra so you become fluent (the immersion part). I started on viola but after doing the above on violin over the years, I'm now fluent in both. If I have to play the violin for any serious purpose, I start in again on scales and sight reading so I can get into the head space and stop thinking about it - and just play.
November 7, 2019, 11:44 AM · I found that learning the clef was the easy part of switching to Viola. Tone and bow control is the hard part. Learn Alto clef the same way you learned treble clef; straight, no short cuts or tricks.
500 years ago, whoever decided to use the alto clef for violas made a big mistake. If we used the uncommon mezzo-soprano clef, middle C on the second line from the bottom, then the notation system would be the same for both violin and viola.
November 7, 2019, 12:15 PM · For me, the Suzuki books wouldn't work because I already know the tunes and it's too each to cheat by playing them by ear.

So what I did was go to IMSLP and find some easy viola studies that don't correspond immediately to any violin studies that I've done, that way I'm actually forced to READ the clef. I think they were by Hofmann. By the time I got through the first half-dozen or so, I was ready for community orchestra. I still make the occasional clef error but it's pretty rare now.

November 7, 2019, 12:24 PM · Seems like 3 clefs an octave apart would have been more practical....
The french violin clef - a g clef on the first line from the bottom is two octave above the bass clef. Life would have been easier if that clef had won.
As it is now we just have to embrace it. Do some easy sight reading and play in an orchestra if you can. Forget about all the "tricks" like imagining you are in third position on the violin etc. The half steps will be in different places so you are not doing yourself a favour. The only way is to learn it for real from the beginning.
November 7, 2019, 1:09 PM · I regularly mix up my clefs, especially if I'm teaching violin, viola, and cello in one day. I make light of it and we laugh it off (even though I feel like an idiot, lol!)

I started by writing notes in as guidelines, and then just memorizing. It was tough at first but now I feel confident.

November 7, 2019, 1:24 PM · I also forget which clef I'm in, both while playing and doing theory stuff. I had done a past paper and read the thing in bass clef even though in alto. Also the beginning of Morpheus I had been playing it in alto clef for a week and a half before I realised it was actually treble -_-
November 7, 2019, 2:12 PM · Hooray! for you Joel.

That's what I wanted - so you just "play the string" and, like cellists, you just move up one string for the higher treble clef (tenor, for cellists). But then cellists also have to face the old (Dvorak and others) standard of treble clef read an octave down - easy for pianists - a damn nuisance for cellists since it's just one note away from tenor clef note placement and thus cellists have to worry about reading 4 clefs.

Grumble, Grumble! Always one excuse or another.

November 7, 2019, 2:57 PM · I recommend using the open string locations as landmarks first, then relating other notes as intervals from the open strings. Early in my alto clef reading days, I would need a reminder at the beginning of the next line, and sometimes I still write in a note name or finger number when an interval is large or otherwise surprising. Gradually, you'll get faster at connecting the note name. Arranging and transcribing has also helped although I'm still slow with C string notes.
November 7, 2019, 6:35 PM · continued-- If you look at the older edition of the collected Bach works you will see a lot of different C - clefs. I think part of the reason for that is that writing ledger lines is extra work for the copyists and engravers. For me, I have mental trouble sight-reading anything with more than 3 ledger lines, so I like the 8va notation for violin high notes, and treble clef for high viola notes.
November 8, 2019, 1:28 AM · But even reading all those ledger lines comes with practice - look at a flute part.
November 8, 2019, 5:24 AM · I'm learning viola also (albeit on the lower 4 strings of a 5-string violin) and my brain feels like it's exploding after an hour of reading alto clef. I'm beginning to reach the point where I am on the violin side of things, where seeing the note on the page translates automatically to string/finger placement, but I'm still on basic rhythms, nothing too fancy.

My wife suggested the String Builder series, so I got all three books and have worked through the first one and am mostly through the second one. I also picked up all four of the Solo Time For Strings books and am in the middle of book 2.

After a lifetime (started playing trumpet in school 56 years ago) of reading treble and bass clef (started playing euphonium 53 years ago) it's a struggle but one which I'm winning and you will also with patience and time.

Rhythms are the same no matter the clef, so in a couple more months I expect to be as comfortable reading and playing viola music as I am reading violin music.

I have downloaded a lot of material at IMSLP but before I tackle those etudes I want to move slowly simply getting comfortable with playing from alto clef. I've understood it ever since college, but understanding something and being able to actually use it in a practical way are two different things.

Regular work and patience and it will become easy.

November 8, 2019, 10:40 PM · Joel - I was party to a ledger line discussion recently and it seemed the consensus among violinists at that particular gig was that ledger lines visually signal approximate fingerboard location and therefore inform the player of note/finger spacing. It was a modern piece by a living composer, handwritten looking, and the 8va sections weren't exactly melodically straightforward, which meant my own read-by-intervals advice was of limited use. Some of them hated it so much that they would bring it up repeatedly.
November 9, 2019, 1:57 AM · Ah - the Joy of poorly handwritten music with many ledger lines. Don't you just love it when all the note heads are at the same height and they manager to squeze in different number of ledger lines in below.
November 9, 2019, 2:43 AM · For my first gig on the viola I volunteered to deputize, solo, for one performance of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. The first half went well but after the interval I had a severe attack of clef disorientation and played complete rubbish. I don't suppose anyone noticed.
Edited: November 9, 2019, 11:47 AM · cont.-- my first big piece on Viola was Stravinsky Firebird, as section principal (!) in a youth orchestra. It was like being thrown in the deep end of a pool, I had to learn quickly. Re.: Ledger lines; I guess everyone's mind is wired a little different. What helps a little for me is to know that the note names starting at high E are the same as on the regular staff; E-G-B-D-F on the lines, F-A-C-E on the spaces. There is a theory among the anthropologists that the natural mind can only count, instantly recognize, up to three. After that, we have to use a learned system. There is a tribe in Brazil that has this math system; "one-two-three-a lot". There was an experiment done, maybe in the early Rennaisance, that added another line to our 5-line staff. It was probably too hard to read, so they pulled back to 5. Watches and clocks used to use the Roman numeral IIII for four o'clock, then changed to IV.
November 10, 2019, 7:19 AM · What Andrew said about the method violinists use to learn alto clef is right on and is an excellent shortcut to start with. As with most of the violinists who add viola, you end up having occasional "violin moments," as Karen Allendoerfer once put it. You are doing viola, and you suddenly see B below middle C on the sheet music and play an open string because on the violin it would be the A above middle C. It does not happen often, but it still happens to me six years into viola.
Edited: November 10, 2019, 4:39 PM · "However we pretty much have transcriptions from wolf hart to dont or Paganini"

Edited: November 13, 2019, 10:52 AM · As a violist who has actually played more violin, I had one brief moment when my fingers were on one string, and my bow on another! I was very, very, tired.

Many violists hate using the treble clef at all.

Practical advice?
Learn an ├ętude on the violin, play it on viola while reading the violin version, then play it from memory while "following" the viola version.

I.e, take full advantage of aural and tactile clues to help along the written ones.

Edited: November 18, 2019, 1:16 PM · There is a slight difference between playing the violin and playing the viola. BOWING! Because the viola is in the midrange, its sounds have to complete with sounds above and below. A soprano line will be more easily heard because there is nothing above it with which to compete. Also, the bass line has nothing below it with which to compete. Hence, we tend to hear the soprano and bass lines the best (rather than the midrange where the viola is). Think back to music theory classes in college when you had to do ear-training and transcribe four-part harmony from listening. Melody was first, then bass, and after that one figured out the alto and tenor. When bowing on the viola one needs to use MORE HAIR to get the MORE SOUND out of the string. Violinists often play with the bow tilted slightly, playing on only about 2/3 of the hair. Violists need to play with a more flat bow stroke in order to have more horsehair in contact with the string. Research the violist Michael Tree and his comments about this. Also famous violist Walter Primrose felt that the open strings so often abhorred by violinists were a violist's bread and butter, and that open string should be used MORE by violists in order to bring out the viola's sound. (This last part, because of the sometimes strident open string sound, is somewhat more controversial; however the part about flatter bow, more hair contact is GOSPEL!)
November 19, 2019, 3:49 PM · Since the viola is a larger, heavier instrument than the violin, you need to dig harder into the string to get a good sound.

Don't spend too much time thinking about the alto clef in terms of the treble clef. Learn alto clef on its own. What helped me was to learn the locations of the open strings on the staff, and to remember that the middle line is middle C (which is why I tell people that violists are about as middle-of-the-road as you can get). After a couple of weeks I found myself thinking in alto clef, and sometimes now I'll get clef dyslexia when switching back to violin.

Thinking of the viola as an overgrown violin might get you started, but you'll soon learn that the viola is sufficiently different that in many ways you'll think of it as another instrument entirely. If a violinist doesn't believe you, hand him your viola and watch the look on his face when he draws the bow across that open C string for the first time.

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