Do you feel comfortable playing in all keys? Are you able to transpose technical exercises without notation? The ability to play by ear in every key is an important musicianly skill, one that cannot be developed soon enough. When we transpose technical exercises not only do we develop our aural awareness but also our keyboard geography as we experience the different black-white terrain under our fingers that each new key offers. This adds enormous value to the gains from any exercises we might be practising, and to our technical development in general.

Most of the exercises we find in the various books of technique regimes give the full version of a particular exercise only for one or two keys (usually C major, and if we’re lucky Db) before trailing off with an unhelpful “etc”, or the instruction to “continue through all keys”. The ability to carry on without any further notation relies on two skills:

  • An understanding of the structure behind the given note patterns found in the particular exercise
  • Thorough knowledge of each key (major and minor)
  • Knowledge of the basic chord shapes and qualities – many exercises use mainly major, minor, diminished and dominant 7th chords

Pattern Recognition

It is far better to memorise the exercises as soon as possible so all your attention can be focussed on the matter at hand. It is infinitely more beneficial that your eyes are directed at the keyboard and that your mind is focussed on the task (not being distracted by having to read from the printed page).

The ability to memorise relies on pattern recognition, a skill that improves with practice. Let’s explore this a bit, using the infamous and all-too-familiar note pattern from the first exercise of Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist:

It is not difficult to notice the following facts about what we see:

  • We play only white notes (C major)
  • The hands play in unison, an octave apart, in an unbroken stream of semiquavers
  • We use consecutive fingers up and then down (1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1, etc.)
  • In the first 14 bars in the RH we skip a note between the thumb and 2nd finger on the way up (forming the interval of a third), but play stepwise from 5 to 1 on the way down; in the LH we skip a note between 5 and 4 on the way up, etc.
  • For 14 bars the pattern repeats a step higher with each bar, for two octaves
  • Rather than stopping on the (expected) tonic at the top, there is instead an ascending leap of a fourth to the highest note, G, from which point the note pattern is inverted, bringing us back down to our starting point a bar at a time (not shown in full in the above example)

Actually, most people would notice all of this without necessarily having to go through the mental machinations of spelling it out, but if you struggle to memorise it is a very good idea to go through a similar process. Write it out in bullet points or speak it out aloud (not a sign of madness at all – you are using a different part of your brain from silent thinking!).

At the risk of being repetitive, it is my firm belief that it is far better to memorise and practise exercises based on repeated patterns without the book. For more on memorisation, please see Part 4 of my multimedia eBook series (the third section is entirely devoted to memorisation) or click here for further blog posts on memorisation and analysis.

Feeling Comfortable in All Keys

There is limited value in exercises that are restricted to white notes, so the best exercises are either transposed into keys other than C major, or designed in such a way to cycle through each key (if you happen to like practising Hanon, and many pianists do, try transposing it!).

There are two ways you can practise transpositions – chromatically upwards from C (to Db, D, Eb, E, etc.) or downwards (to B, Bb, A, Ab, etc.). You may decide to start off using two or three different keys, adding to them over time until you can play the exercise in all keys. If you are pushed for time in your practice (and you won’t want to spend too long on this type of thing day by day), you can practise an exercise in a few different keys on the first day, picking up from where you left off the next day. By the end of the week, you will have cycled through all the keys.

The ability to feel comfortable playing in all keys is a musical skill, and a necessity for the advancing pianist. The intermediate player should be very familiar with the major and minor scales (either harmonic or melodic) and arpeggios in all keys. It adds huge value if you can do other things by ear, or by feel in each key – such as a basic I-IV-V-I progression. Learn it in C major, then play it in all major and minor keys.

Make sure to play the progression in the minor keys too, remembering that the seventh degree of the scale will need to be raised. Thus in C minor we play:

As you play this progression, one thing I would stress is to use the technique of chord legato – creating a physical legato in as many voices as possible as you move from one chord to the next, quietly releasing those fingers that cannot join. Let’s look at how this works in the RH chords above.

  • Play the C major chord then release 5 and 1, holding on to 2
  • Feel the legato connection from the 2nd finger to the 3rd finger as you play the F major chord
  • Release the lower two notes of the F major chord, but hold onto 5
  • Feel the legato connection from the 5th finger to the 4th finger as you play the G major chord
  • Release the lower two notes of the G major chord, but hold onto 4
  • Feel the legato connection from the 4th finger to the 5th finger as you play the final C major chord

Larger hands may create two points of legato between the F and G chords:

Developing a chord legato is so much more skilful than lifting up the hand between each chord, and apart from a smooth-sounding result will soon lead to a reliable muscle memory that makes playing the chord progressions second nature.

As you improve, you can expand the progression and add more notes (try playing octaves in the LH):

These progressions should be enough for basic familiarity with all the keys, but you might want to explore others. Here are two more suggestions, in the key of C major:

  • I – vi – IV – V – I (C – Am – F – G – C)
  • I – IV – ii – V – I (C – F – Dm – G – C)

Transposition

Apart from the specialised skill of transposition at sight (reading the piece in one key from the score but playing it in another), there are two other types of transposition that are indispensable for the pianist:

  • transposition by ear (in memory work)
  • transposing the difficult passage (to enhance technical control of an awkward spot)

Advanced level pianists should be equally comfortable playing in any key. If you want to set yourself a challenge, take a piece you consider you know very well from memory and transpose (from memory) into a neighbouring key – slowly is fine. You might start with well-known melodies, and then add simple chordal accompaniments (use the national anthem, or Happy Birthday etc.).

When you can play in easy keys, try a more remote one – perhaps directly opposite in the Circle of Fifths. This will probably be quite tricky at first, but practise little and often – persevering until you gradually improve.

The Circle of Fifths (By Just plain Bill or CC-BY-SA-3.0)

This post is an excerpt from an article which forms part of a new collection of Online Academy resources focusing on technique. Click here to view it on the Online Academy or here to view the following article which introduces modulating patterns that can be used for exercises in double thirds.

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