Do You Translate The Hard Keys?

posted in: Students, Tiger Music | 0

No Time to “Think Of It As”

One of the nice things about having over three decades of teaching experience is that I sort of have my finger on the normal, most common pitfalls students face as they try to progress with their musical studies. Many of those pitfalls often feel to the student as if they are they only ones who have ever had this problem before. Fortunately, that’s not the case. I feel as if it is partly my responsibility to let the students know which of those speed-bumps is normal and which are not.

One of the things that almost all students struggle with is something I call the “think of it as” approach to reading the more difficult keys. The students almost always have a tendency to cling stubbornly to that which is familiar at the expense of their musical progress.

“Think of it as” is when students translate the notes from what they really are to notes that they are already familiar with. Instead of thinking in their minds that they are playing an A Sharp, they choose to “think of it as” B Flat. For a test in a music theory class, that’s probably good enough. But when you are performing music, or trying to prepare music to a high quality level, there is no time to translate the notes that way.

Mixed Up Madness

One of the biggest problems with the “think of it as” approach is that we lose track of which notes we really are playing when the music calls for extra accidentals. Let’s say you are playing a piece of music in the key of B, five sharps. Then within that key, the composer has also written B Sharps, D Flats, G Naturals… you get the picture. In this context, the “think of it as” approach will fall apart completely. Instead of making the music easier, those students have succeeded in making something that was only marginally difficult into something unreasonably inaccessible.

When we train our musical minds correctly, we begin to actually think in the different keys in much the same way people can think in a different language. Being able to do this is only difficult for a short period of time. Once you establish good practice habits, you can think confidently in each of the twelve keys within the space of one year. Some people get there even sooner than a year.

Then, from that perspective, the growing trumpeter can now digest and process added accidentals without any confusion or difficulty.

How To Get There

The way we accomplish this is first by practicing the Tonalization Studies on a regular basis. The primary function of theĀ Tonalization Studies is to encourage the students to begin thinking in all twelve keys.

When the going gets tough and it seems like you just can’t help but to “think of it as,” you may want to follow the example set by one of my current adult students, Mr. John Addicks. The following is an excerpt from an email he recently sent me:

Today I started out with what we discussed and it is helping.
I am verbalizing the notes and fingering them at the same time and then I play the Tonalization.
So far I have only had to go back once on each of the first three (1,2,3) and none on the fourth (4) #5 (back 3x), #6 (back 3x), #7 (back 2x).
When say back 1x, I mean I went back to the previous set of notes preceding where I made a mistake and then played onward to the end.
It is seeming automatic without allot of thinking what the note is and which valve to press down. Saying out loud the notes slowly (A# B C# D# E#) and fingering them as I say it, for me, I am making much better progress. And I am not getting frustrated. If you count each note as 1 beat I’m playing them at 80 BPM.
Yes I know we are not going for speed. However, the faster I play the better my subconscious is relating to the key signature with the above resulting mistakes. I see the note and I play it w/o having to think which note & which valve.
Mr. Addicks gets it! He is beginning to master the keys on the far side of the cycle of fifths. For students who struggle with those keys, I strongly recommend following the procedure he outlined in his email. Instead of just playing theĀ Tonalization Studies right away, say out loud the names of each note as you finger through the exercise. This verbalization will go a long way towards helping you begin to think in those more difficult keys instead of trying to translate the notes the way so many less successful students do.
Congratulations Mr. Addicks! Keep up the good work!

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