Introducing Students to the Tenor and Alto Clef

By Jamie Kennedy and Ashley Gittins

Jamie KennedyThe last couple of terms have been “clef-time” with many students starting that journey in their AMEB exams. From the start we’ve always known this day would come, and every now and then throw an exercise or two their way. This helps to prepare the ground a little for the future when we can introduce them to the more advanced etudes of Mr Blazhevich; the fact of the matter is that those pieces require a good deal of musical and technical understanding and they need working up to. Before students even reach that level, we need to ask some important questions: Are there other ways of teaching clefs? What do we need to think about to encourage our students to take some transferable skills from this practice? When is it appropriate to introduce different clefs to young students? To answer these we’ve had a look at the resources that are available and also drawn on our own experience to suggest some different solutions.

There are a few different options to be found for teaching materials, usually in dedicated clef study books and in small sections of method books. The two major approaches that they take are (1) putting familiar musical material into the new clef, and (2) encouraging the student to think in terms of intervals to read new material. One other approach that is much less common in books (but is probably practised pretty widely) is the idea of transposing from a known clef using a particular trick (e.g. think of it as up a fifth; think of it as C=Bb etc.). The transposing approach is often used in conjunction with the others, but it has special significance for anyone trying to initiate a student into (or out of) brass band music – more on that later.

Some books, like Tenor Clef is Easy (Sandra Downing; Dr Downing Music Publishing), start off by putting the same music side by side in different clefs so the student can see how they compare and make some visual connections. They typically then separate the two versions onto different pages so that the student can learn a melody well in a bass clef version and then play it from a tenor clef version. This will suit some learners perfectly, but it might seem laborious to others. In that case it can be helpful to take a slightly different tack and use tunes that students are already familiar with, and hence will be able to self-correct. Here’s an example of an exercise that I (Ashley) use to get my students matching sounds and notes they already know with the extra challenge of switching clef thrown in:


This has familiar elements but it also requires thinking on your feet, so to speak, and for students who need a greater or lesser level of challenge it is a simple matter of altering the placement of the clef changes.

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