Learning Tunes in Keys

One of my students asked me how I felt about learning tunes in all keys.

I told him that knowing how to play in all keys is a valuable asset, but most students go about achieving it in the wrong way.

About ten years ago – early in my university career – I learned to play Charlie Parker’s Confirmation in all keys.

At the time, I thought I was expanding my knowledge and vocabulary.  But after about a month, all practical value in learning Confirmation in all keys was lost. As it turns out, nobody plays Confirmation in A major!  Now, I can only play it in F major – the original key, the key everybody plays it in.

This is because memories fade unless they’re accessed and utilized regularly.  Whenever I access Confirmation, it’s always in F Major.  Even if I were to play it in A Major, it would still only be a transposition from F.  And since everybody plays it in F, I don’t get to practice it any other way!  F major is my home base.

The lesson: Learning tunes in all keys doesn’t necessarily help you play in all keys.

Here’s a strategy you might consider:  Establish a new home base.

I recently learned Gershwin’s S’Wonderful.  Considering that everybody plays it in Eb Major, I learned it, practiced it and worked out an arrangement from the ground up, in E Major.  So I hear it, see it and feel it in E Major.  E Major is my home base.

In addition, whenever I perform it, it’ll be in E major.  Unless of course, someone else calls it, but he/she will likely call it in Eb Major, so I’ll get practice in both keys!

For a more long-term strategy, you could pick twelve tunes – tunes that everybody plays – and learn them, from the ground up, in all in different keys.  Don’t learn any of them in their original keys.  This way, you have twelve tunes, twelve keys and twelve home bases!

Work towards hearing them, seeing them and feeling them in these keys.  Better yet, write arrangements of these tunes and play them regularly. This will create more meaningful and focused references in your memory. You’ll be comfortable playing in all keys in no time!

Next step: learn another twelve tunes!

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