Problems playing bass clef? Try this…

Perhaps you’ve just recently bought a bass recorder. You want to become proficient at playing bass clef, but it sometimes feels really tricky. How can you improve your bass recorder and bass clef skills in a way that’s fun, but doesn’t necessarily involve spending a lot of money on books specifically for bass recorder?

Why playing bass clef matters

Students usually start learning on a soprano recorder, and after a little while move on to a treble. After gaining proficiency on these two instruments, it’s completely reasonable for players to want to branch out into consort playing – because it’s fun – and they start wanting to learn to play tenor and bass recorders. Tenor functions like a very large soprano and so is relatively easy to learn. Bass recorder, however, for many players involves learning a whole new clef. Even if the player has bass clef skills from keyboard or another bass instrument, it can still be a challenge to link bass recorder fingerings to the notes on the stave.

But it’s really important to learn, for two reasons. First of all, it vastly increases the amount of music you can play, and your versatility as a consort player. And because of this, you’ll have so much more fun. That, by the way, is the second and most important reason for working on your bass skills: you’ll have so much more fun!

Playing bass clef…

Once you’ve started to get used to the bass recorder and you can (mostly) reliably get your fingers around the notes, I suggest this. Instead of buying lots of expensive books where music is adapted for bass recorder, try taking advantage of some of the music you probably have hanging around already. For example, if you’ve been doing grade exams, you may have started collecting editions of sonatas by Handel and other Baroque composers. These usually come with a keyboard part and a part for basso continuo. This part, usually for a cello or viol, is a great practice ground for the novice bass recorder player.

Take a look through the basso parts you have, and try and find one where most of the notes fit the range of the bass recorder. Then work on learning the basso part. A good example is Handel’s sonata for recorder in B flat major, HWV 377 (also known as Fitzwilliam Sonata no.1).

Handel sonatas like these Fitzwilliam Sonatas are great for playing bass clef from basso continuo parts.

This sonata has a lovely cello line that is almost entirely playable on the bass recorder. Not only that, but it uses notes that are quite high up on the instrument in places: this will help you to learn how to play high notes on the bass and not be afraid of them! If you don’t have any sonatas lying around the house, try searching IMSLP, using a search term like ‘Handel recorder sonata’, and see what you find. There are plenty of good sonatas out there.

The advantage of this approach is twofold. You get practice playing bass clef, and on parts that can be relatively easy. But you also get to hear Baroque bass lines, which will be really useful for your solo line playing; you learn what the cadence points sound like, and the sorts of harmonies that composers like Handel used regularly.

And bonus practice on the treble…

The other advantage of playing the basso continuo part of a recorder sonata is that you can double up by working on the solo treble recorder line, too. You could even try recording yourself playing one of the parts, and then play along to your own recording. 

Working like this will sharpen up your bass recorder and bass clef skills, and get you to a point where no intermediate level consort bass recorder part should be a problem. You’ll be able to join a group and know that you’ll hold your own. And then you can have tons of fun.