Must you read alto clef to play alto trombone?

Take a look at excerpts from the music written in the 18th Century for the first trombone and you’ll find music written in alto clef. Here’s an example from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:

The principal reason for alto clef was to make the higher parts easier to read by using fewer ledger lines. That first note in the above except would require three more ledger lines in order to display that high C.

Modern trombonists, however, have developed the ability to quickly discern three, four, and five ledger lines, so bass clef is the standard clef for trombone.

Classical music adheres to the alto clef, however, other forms of music are principally written in bass clef, with some in tenor clef. Tenor clef make sense for parts that are consistently written above F above the staff.

Let me firmly and without reservation dismiss the seemingly obligatory connection between alto trombone and alto clef. It is perfectly acceptable to read bass clef for the alto trombone.

I’ve said this many times, that my playing career would have been non-existent if I had required alto clef for the big band, trombone choir, salsa, pop, and other music I’ve recorded and performed.

The dependence on alto clef

I discussed the topic of alto clef one time with a well-known orchestral trombonist who said that most trombonists he knows who play alto can ONLY play the horn by reading alto clef. That seems like a huge mistake and will limit those musicians’ musical abilities.

When I was writing my book Alto Trombone Savvy, I originally had no intention of writing an alto clef version. In fact, I had pretty much finished writing the book when I sent a copy to the great trombonist Carsten Svanberg for his review. He loved what I had put together but added that I should create an alto clef version. 

“I highly recommend Alto Trombone Savvy for players around the world wanting advice on handling the alto trombone at the highest level. Classical and jazz players both share the same challenges, and it’s great to have this book in either bass or alto clef to help answer some of those challenges.”
Carsten Svanberg
Carsten Svanberg
Trombone Soloist and retired Professor of Trombone at the University of
Music and Arts Graz

I took a deep breath and began diving into alto clef. 

Full disclosure, I have not read very much alto clef in my life. Once I start hearing what I am playing, I can acclimate to it pretty well, but I don’t do my best sight reading with it. 

But my issue against needing alto clef for playing alto trombone is not because of my personal limitations with alto clef. Players are limiting themselves, not just by needing dots on the page, but to needing those dots to be in a specific clef.

I can sightread very well in treble clef as well as bass. Seeing music on any clef should be a recognition of what the music sounds like instead of a mechanical reaction to a symbol. I would also be encouraging those weeded to alto clef to get better at playing by ear. Play Happy Birthday in just three different keys anyone?!

The market speaks

As it turns out, about 50% of the buyers of the book opt for the alto clef version, so from a business standpoint, it was a good suggestion and worth the effort to create the book in alto clef. 

And here I am six years later revising and rewriting the book in bass clef and trying to justify in my mind why I should not expending the effort to also translate this new version into alto clef. Don’t worry you lovers of alto clef, I will make a version for you.

Honestly, i’d like to convince prospective buyers to not buy the alto clef version and only use the bass clef version. I guess this post is my attempt to do that!

You see, my guess is that 90% of the players who buy Alto Trombone Savvy are primarily tenor players. They visualize music in bass clef. They’ve probably become proficient readers of bass clef. They see a concert Bb on the staff, hear Bb, and play Bb.

Everyone’s relationship to their instrument and to the printed sheet is different, so I’d be interested in your experience with alto clef/alto bone.

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