Bass clef Home base for us - bit of trivia, if you want to catch up a musician, ask them which string instrument in the orchestra is a transposing instrument. The answer, of course, is the bass, as we transpose octaves. And it is amazing how many conductor/composers dont know this. Sibelius software comes to the rescue nowadays
Treble clef The next clef we need to lear in the treble clef. There was a time when orchestral  basses didnt need to use this clef.

Diana Wanklyn tells a wonderful story about a bass player auditioning for the Halle in the 50s or 60, with Sir John Barbarolli and Martin Milner on the panel. The Otello solo was being player and the candidate was well short of the top C flat - Sir John suggested the player was significantly flat, "play a little higher, keep going, still more" which the candidate replied, "right up there, I've never been up there before"!!

Times have changed! I once did the Ligetti Violin Concerto with Sydney Symphony Orchestra and soloist Richard Tognetti. We had a huge section of 12 basses and all of were caught out in one passage - I had glanced at the part in the pad the week before, practiced a few tricky bits - the page in question didnt look too tricky, staightforward lyrical passage that didnt go above the clef much.....but it was not until we got to the first rehearsal that we found out the clef for the whole page was the treble, not bass, and it was a lyrical tune accompanied by the rest of the orchestra, ie uber exposed. Ooops. Moral of the story - check the clef!

Most students will get a good grounding of the treble clef while studying solo pieces and more advanced studies.
Tenor clef Steve Martin refers to Tenor clef as "terror" clef, due to the uncertainty that can arise among bass players when confronted with it in orchestral music.

The tenor clef is a bit of a misnomer in modern music. It hails from baroque and earlier music with the four SATB parts were written in different clefs, treble, alto, tenor and bass. It serves an important role in baroque music, such as Handel's Messiah - when we see the tenor clef in the cello/bass part we dont play it, leave it to the celli as it is the tenor line.

Unfortunately tenor clef has been used in orchestral music - Ein Heldenleben  comes to mind. This is an example where the tenor clef has been used to avoid ledger lines. I still think it would make life easier for us bass players to read two clefs.

I was a cellist before playing the bass and tenor clef was easy to learn. As the strings are in fifths, and tenor clef notes are a fifth higher than the equivalent bass clef notes, the solution was simple - play the passage reading it in bass clef just put it up a string! Unfortunately that doesnt work on the bass, unles you like major seconds, er lots of them. So we just have to learn the clef.

Note for composers - I recommend you use treble and bass clef, try and avoid the tenor clef, as there is little point in using it.
Sight reading This used to be an important aspect of playing an instrument - once upon a time we would get sight reading in an audition. One particularly unfortunate occasion was in a CBSO audition in the 80s, when the high passage from Shostakovitchs fifth symphony was put on the stand, unprepared, much to the amusement of the panel. Suffice to say I didnt get that job!!

I have heard of some orchestras giving unprepared pieces in the warm up room before the next round of an audition.

English orchestras know about reading, due to the limited rehearsal time in the UK.

Sight reading is still a skill tested in graded exams. I teach my students to follow these rules when performing sight reading in an exam:-
1 take your time - dont splash in there, you have more time than you think
2 time signature
3 key signature
4 scan for any trick passages, notes or rhythms
6 sing it thro in your head, possibly fingering it with the LH on the bass
7 find your first note
8 play - and if you make a mistake keep going, dont stop


© 2016 Stuart Riley, all rights reserved