Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Clef Pride

I love playing the viola.

I don't love having to constantly explain what a viola is, but I figure with each person I take the time to tell, that's one more potential viola fan, so it's worth the effort.

One of the things that makes playing viola somewhat special is that we use an unusual clef.  Violists use alto clef.  "What's that?" the non-violists out there may be asking?  Well, let's start by just explaining what clefs in general are:
Alto, Treble, Bass, and Tenor Clefs
Most people are familiar with a "treble" or "G" clef.  It gets used often as a symbol for all music, even though it only applies to music in the upper register.  A good many people also recognize the "bass" or "F" clef, which applies to music in the lower register.  (Pianists use both of these at once, with the right hand usually playing in treble clef, and the left usually in bass.)

The job of a clef is to tell you what the lines and spaces on the staff mean.  (The staff is that set of five lines and four spaces that the notes are arranged on.)  Now, clefs are technically moveable, which is why they have more than one name.  A "treble clef" is really only called that when it is set on the staff in the position where we are most accustomed to seeing it.  The important part of that symbol is the tail bit on the inside of the spiral, because it overlaps the second line up from the bottom of the staff which is the note G above middle C.  This is why just on its own away from a staff it's really a "G clef" because its job is to show you where G is, but it rarely if ever moves, so calling it a treble clef is fine.  If you moved that symbol higher or lower on the staff you'd be shifting the designated location of that G, and therefore all of the other notes as well.  (The "bass" or "F" clef shows you where the note F below middle C is--it's the line between the two dots.  It also rarely moves.)

An "alto" or "C" clef shows you where middle C is.  It's the line right in the center of the staff getting pointed to by that "arrow" in the middle of the clef.  Unlike the G and F clefs, C clefs do commonly move.  Violists use it in that center position and call it an alto clef.  Some musicians who usually play in bass clef but need to shift higher once in a while move the C clef up one more line and call it "tenor clef."  (When violists need to shift higher the music is usually transposed into treble clef.)

English horn, trombone, and bassoon players may all be expected at odd times to play in alto clef, but it's home base for violists.  Most of the time other musicians see our music and groan, and are happy to have nothing to do with that clef.  I remember when we did sight singing in college if there was an occasional piece in alto clef people used to look accusingly at me as if it were my fault.  (Sure, I was the only one in the room who was comfortable reading it, but it didn't make singing in solfege any easier.)

In any case, viola players take a certain amount of pride in playing in an unusual clef.  We like our weird alto clef, even if the average person thinks it looks like a "13" or a stylized letter "K."  (I chose the font on our official "Korinthian Violins" store logo because the K at the beginning was a bit reminiscent of an alto clef.)

Okay, so now that the lesson is over, here are a couple of clef related things that I've been dealing with lately:

The first has to do with a cello bow I returned.  I carry bows for violin, viola, and cello in a variety of price ranges, and there is a newer bow at the inexpensive end called a "Spark" that I like.  It's a good bow for the price, made of carbon fiber (which is more durable than wood so good for young players), and it's kind of cute because there are metallic threads woven into the stick that sparkle a little.  On the violin bows instead of the frog being plain (the frog is the piece attached to the stick where your hand holds onto the bow) or having a simple eye (dot) inlay, it has a treble clef.  It looks different, and it's pretty, and most players are charmed by it.

I was a little sad when I first ordered the same brand of bow for cello and viola that they didn't have their own clefs on the frog--just a simple eye.  I know violists who don't even need an extra bow in that price range who would probably buy one if it had an alto clef inlay on the frog!  I would.  (Apparently bow manufacturers don't realize that alto clef pride runs deep.)  But an eye is fine.  The important part is that the bow works well for someone, not what it looks like.

But imagine my horror when I reordered a Spark cello bow, and it arrived looking like this:

A treble clef on a cello bow is a problem.  Someone, somewhere, might be able to overlook it, but he or she might not be able to live it down among their peers.

But look closely at the second picture.  That's not even a clef!  That's a mirror image of a treble clef, which makes it nothing, really.  Frankly, it freaks me out a little.  It's the musical equivalent of when children write things backwards.  (My son asked me the other day why the Toys R Us sign has a backwards R, and I told him it was supposed to look cute like a kid did it, and he was insulted.)  What were they thinking?  They weren't, clearly.  I called the distributor and explained I had to send it back.  They were nice enough to scour their inventory for ones with an eye instead and send me those, but I may not be able to get more.

In fact, the last batch of violin bows even had backward clefs on one side and I sent them back, too.  The guy on the phone at the distributor was good enough to promise to find me only proper clefs from now on, but then he asked out of curiosity why it mattered.  I told him it was the equivalent of if he'd ordered something with his name on it and they wrote it backwards.  He immediately agreed that that would not do.

The second clef related thing will start off sounding like I'm on a completely unrelated tangent, but stick with me.

Earlier this year my husband was gone a couple of weekends for Army work, and my oldest daughter went with him across the state to stay with my brother and see if she could be of help with his baby.  Those also happened to be weekends when my assistant was available to take the store, so I got some real time with just Mona and Quinn.  We borrowed a ton of movies from the library to watch while curled up together, we got our meals from our favorite taco truck, we did some cool craft projects, and we went to Discovery World.

Now, normally we go to Discovery World when we want to look at fish, but they also have an amazing craft room sponsored by Kohl's and we went the first time specifically to see what kind of projects they were offering.  All of the crafts were too basic for my kids, so we asked if it was possible to just use the materials and do our own things with them.  They thought that was fine.  We started to play with pieces of cardboard and felt, but then we decided to wander around the room a bit.

They have lots of tables set up with glue guns, etc., but at the very back was a table with what turned out to be a vacuum press, and a rubbery horseshoe crab.  That got our attention and we asked someone what that was about.  They said it was a project from a previous session where people could make plastic forms of a plaster horseshoe crab and then use that to make a foam rubber cast.  My kids lit up--of course we wanted to do that!--but the crafting people on duty said that was a special sponsored project and they weren't authorized to break out the foam.

We could, however, learn to use the vacuum press.   !!!

We got a tutorial on heating it up and inserting the plastic blank and switching on the vacuum.  As long as we were careful we could make molds of whatever we liked.

We got busy making things that would fit on the press with whatever materials were available.  Mona and Quinn both decided to use play dough to make things, which was crumbly and a bit frustrating, but they managed to make it work.

Mona ended up creating a really cool form of a chameleon.  When we got it home she started cranking out chameleons in kinetic sand. 

I decided I wanted to make a mold for an alto clef with the goal of being able to use it to make chocolates.

That first weekend I didn't have a lot of luck.  I tried using wood and cardboard to make my original shape, but then I couldn't get the wooden pieces out of the form. 
The next Army weekend with Aden gone too, where Quinn and Mona and I had a rerun of our other weekend together, we went back to Discovery World armed with our own modelling clay.  The first time we used the vacuum press machines was on Super Bowl Sunday, so the attendance at the craft area was relatively low.  We asked at the time if we could come use the machines again even if they weren't out, and they said as long as things were quiet and there was room to do it we certainly could.  Lucky for us, even though on our second visit things were very busy, one of the new projects was to make a foam rubber heart, so getting access to a vacuum press machine was easy.

Mona made a spider and a shark, Quinn made an octopus, and I took another stab at my alto clef.  The best part was one of the people on staff was able to provide me with a food-grade-safe piece of plastic for my mold, so I could indeed use it for chocolates!

I tested it first at home with kinetic sand to see if I liked it, and I do!

(A side note about using the modeling clay in the vacuum presses:  Not the right material.  It was easier for us to control the things we were shaping, but it melted a bit under the heat of the machine and rounded out all the edges of everything.  Not to mention the fact that any clay that ended up on the bottom surface was very hard to clean out of all the little holes on those plates.  Our thought for next time is to sculpt things ahead of time out of epoxy putty.)

After doing a little research about how to use candy molds I went ahead and melted some chocolate and did a real test.  The alto clef mold works great!  It will be annoying to only be able to make one chocolate at a time, but there is not currently a need for more than a couple on hand anyway.  The few I've made I've packaged in little bags tied with a bit of purple ribbon.  A good gift for a violist with a sweet tooth!

I love my weird clef, and if making it in chocolate will help others to love it too, I'm happy to do my part!  Long live the alto clef.


  1. Your last two posts have been fascinating...I love learning about your musical world!

  2. Hey! Awesome!!