We’ve all heard how important it is to practice things in all 12 keys, and for good reason. It not only builds our technique and our fluency in each of the keys; it actually deepens how we hear and understand the things we’re playing.
Suppose there’s a musical phrase that you’d like to be able to play in every key and assimilate into your vocabulary.
You could write it out in all twelve keys, then learn it in one key, and another and another until you’re through all twelve.
Of course a better approach is to learn the phrase in one key and then play it in all the other keys without reading. Doing it that way builds a much deeper understanding, and the effort involved in recreating the phrase in each key, based on your knowledge of the phrase’s structure, creates engagement that will result in more lasting retention of the skills… and hence more efficient use of your time.
But we can do even better than that.
To see how, let’s look at an example—a phrase you’d like to practice. You’ll want to choose a phrase that’s somewhat challenging for you, so that it would take you a minute to reconstruct it in each key. We’ll look at the first phrase of Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology”… but you could apply the same ideas to one that’s easier, or one that’s longer and more difficult.
(I’ve written this in the key of C. When you’re practicing in every key, it’s useful to to write everything in the same standardized key, such as C, so you can “compare apples to apples”):
A Better Way
Rather than learn the phrase in one key, then another and another, try this instead:
First learn #1 in every key. And #2 and #3.
Identify every note by its scale degree to determine how to execute it in each key.
Practice these phrases until you can hear and play them easily. Only then, move on to #4 and finally #5:
Observe how each of the first three phrases features an individual element of the goal phrase:
#1 gives the skeleton of the phrase’s structure.
#2 teaches the chromatic double-approach to the major third (also called an “enclosure”).
#3 teaches the pickup and beginning embellishment.
The remaining phrases combine these elements into larger entities:
#4 combines #1 and #2.
#5 combines #4 and #3, to produce the goal phrase.
The Efficient Sweet Spot
By progressing in stages this way, you build up from simple building blocks rather than struggling with a more complex task from the start.
As a result, the process is considerably more efficient. You’re grappling with things at the frontier of your ability, not beyond it, making use of component skills you’ve established, and reinforcing those skills in the process. Practice becomes a challenge in the sweet spot—neither needlessly simple, nor too advanced to produce deep rewards. Not to mention: far fewer annoying & time-consuming brain freezes. :)
Obsess a Little
Your goal phrase can be quite long, but component phrases are short. Think it’ll drive you a little nuts to play the same short phrase over and over in key after key? That’s not such a bad thing. Practice a phrase in all keys a little every day until it’s what you hear in your head when you wake up in bed. Chances are you’ll be hearing it with a clarity you wouldn’t have achieved otherwise, and you’ll be singing along silently while you practice it. That’s exactly what we want!
Avoiding Rote Memorization
Building the component skills in stages also saves us from the pitfall of rote memorization, wherin we learn musical passages that are beyond our ability to hear and understand and, consequently, trap ourselves into performing those passages verbatim. It’s only when we are able to hear internally (to “audiate”) what we’re playing and to understand how that sound arises from the notes we’re choosing to play that we can make changes to the material on the fly to vary the result. Otherwise we play the same phrase each time by memory and muscle, increasing our ability at just that precise phrase, in a vicious cycle where we become ever more trapped into the “licks” we play.
Mean what you play
Crucially, the approach of building skills in component stages lets you spend much more of your time playing things you can hear and understand. When we listen to the great jazz masters, it’s obvious that they have a clear intention of what they’re playing —that they know the sound of what they’re going to play when they play it, and not merely afterward. That process of having a musical intention and executing it is a central part of improvisation. That’s where the artistry and expression resides, not to mention most of the fun! But we’re not going to be able to do it on stage if we don’t spend time practicing it, so it’s key to maximize the amount of our practice where we’re able to hear and intend and execute, and not just execute by formula, waiting for the hearing to catch up.Masterful musicians don’t just move their fingers; they intend the sounds they create with every ounce of their being. We owe it to ourselves to practice music in that state too. Here’s how. #DeepPractice Click To Tweet
Conclusion: The Long Game
As improvisers, we want to be able to express anything we can hear in our head, and hear in our head everything we can play. That means that if there’s a phrase that we’d like to have in our vocabulary, enough that we learn it in every key, then we ought to be able to play all the parts of it… or any simplifications of it we might come up with. Which is to say, we need to learn the component phrases anyhow at some point. Given that that’s the case, it makes much more sense to make the “detour” of learning them first, as it will have us spending much more of our time in the realm of hearing what we play, and intending the music rather than just moving our fingers.
The amazing twist is that learning component skills first turns out to be not a detour but a shortcut since, when we’ve mastered the easier skills and move on to work on the goal skill, we are fully prepared to hear and perform at the level required. The learning is efficient, engaged and long-lasting. And we learn the skill deeply and pliably, so that when we use it in improvisation we can modify it on the fly and express it with emotion.
Don’t just believe me—try it for yourself. Here is a pdf file you can print to practice this sequence of phrases, leading up to the Anthropology phrase (click to view):
Customize it to your needs; if playing the first phrase in all keys is difficult for you, start with something even simpler—say, the first two notes. Then, say, the second and fourth notes, etc. Finally, combine them into the first phrase.
If you use the Random Roots app, you can just point your camera to the QR code on the pdf page (or tap this link) to automatically launch the app and import the five exercises to practice them there. If you don’t use Random Roots yet, give it a try! It’s a super-efficient way to practice things interactively in all keys… and it’s a free download for iPhone or iPad.
[Download Random Roots now]