Trombonists often get quite a raw deal when it comes to clef use in brass bands, orchestras or quintets. Very often the part will swap between the different clefs for no obvious reason, and a brass band player may get easily caught out if the music that they normally play in is just treble clef.
Usually trombonists will play in treble or bass clef and as these two are used often, they will feel a lot more familiar. Alto and tenor clef appear far less regularly and when they do it can be tricky to try and remember what is going on quickly.
However, following these simple points should help every player work around the problems that these clefs can sometimes cause.
Since the idea of swapping clefs in the first place is to avoid the need for lots of ledger lines, I have kept the examples below close to the stave. In figure 1 I have shown all of the notes for treble clef from a Middle C up to a G above the stave.
The easiest place to start thinking about the different clefs visually is from the C in the 4th space up. I will refer to this note as C4. I will refer to middle C as C3 and hopefully this will avoid any confusion!
Alto clef, mostly no used by viola players, has C3 on the middle line of the stave. See figure 2 for the notes and where they are placed on the stave.
Carefully compare the position of the note C in alto clef with how it is written in treble clef. You will notice that each note is one note higher in alto clef than in treble clef. If you now think of alto clef by adding 2 sharps and playing one note higher than what is written all will sound fine!
Tenor clef works in a very similar way, but this time instead of thinking up a note, you think down a note. See the note positions for tenor clef below.
For tenor clef, you can now read the music as treble clef down a note, and adding two flats to the key signature.
The important thing to remember when applying these rules is where middle C (or C3) is in relation to what you are playing. If you find you are trying to play abnormally high, or if what you are doing doesn’t quite sit right in the ensemble you are in, you may well have the wrong octave.
Let your ears be the guide, and always keep listening!