Playing in All Keys – You’ll Hear It

Peter and Adam answer a question about how to avoid playing the same lines over and over by practicing in all keys.


AM: I’m Adam Maness.

PM: I’m Peter Martin.

AM: You’re listening to the You’ll Hear It Podcast.

PM: Daily jazz advice comin’ at ya.

AM: Well, I mentioned keys in our brilliantly improvised opening because we had a question from an email. This is from Christopher in New Orleans. He says, “Hi, love the You’ll Hear It Podcast. I came across it a couple weeks ago, and it’s now becoming part of my break routine, when I need to give my ears a rest in the studio.” Well, it’s not actually restful on your ears, but–

PM: Are we that soothing?

AM: “I’m a music producer, hip hop and R&B predominately. While guitar is my primary instrument, piano/keyboard has been becoming more and more part of my day to day over the couple years as I get more work as a producer. The only time I really practice piano though is if I need to record a part. Then I’m just practicing that one part slowly until I’m comfortable playing it at tempo, and this does absolutely nothing for my overall sound. I studied jazz in college, and was mentored by a local jazz musician in New Orleans through high school, so I’m pretty good with theory and figuring out what I’m hearing in my head, and applying that to the piano. My issue is when I’m playing, I’m always hesitating and searching for the notes while playing changes, which makes my timing pretty choppy and limits my creativity for the most part. It’s like my hands consistently fall behind my ears, and I get stuck playing the same boring shapes and voicings I’m comfortable with. I’m comfortable playing in E flat, and I frequently resort to transposing my keyboard so the key of the tune I’m working on plays in E flat on that keyboard.”

PM: Ooh, epic fail.

AM: “That’s the shameful” correct, “solution to my problem, lol.”

PM: No lol. Straight shame. 

AM: “My question is what would be your practice/exercise suggestions for muscle memory in my hands, so I’m not stuck and limited to one position. I hope I explained the issue well enough for you guys to understand it. Also I’m in the Seven Ways to Begin a Tune episode.” We’ll cover that later, but that’s Chris from New Orleans.

PM: What’s up Chris from the Crescent City.

AM: That’s right. And we’ll stick to this question of the keys. And it is, in fact, shameful to be transposing on the keyboard. I mean what do you do when you get an old Kranich and Bach in front of you?

PM: I know. I think it’s shameful – the same amount of shame as if you wanna translate a letter that you’re writing into another language, and you just go to Google Auto-Translate. Your quality’s not gonna be that good–

AM: There’s no shame in that game.

PM: Oh, there’s not, okay. Well, no, but then you try to pass it off as the real deal.

AM: Oh, I get ya, yeah.

PM: A little bit of understanding might come through, but you’re using technology in a way not to develop your own skills, which is really what this is about. And I think he mentions something about how do you get out of the same boring shapes and voicings. So on the piano, and I would imagine too to a certain degree on the guitar, yeah, to a great degree, auto-transposing, you’re not gonna get out of the same shapes ’cause you’re gonna be playin’ the same ones, you know? So a little bit of old school repetition is what you’re gonna need so that you can get, you know, as Chris said, his hands are behind his ears, didn’t he kinda say that?

AM: Yeah.

PM: There needs to be some kind of methodology to how you’re gonna go through practicing, and I think that’s what he’s asking, but you also have to be realistic in how much you can add. You can’t just say okay, I wanna learn all 12 keys, I’m only comfortable with a few small set of boring, what I would consider boring, voicings, but I also wanna be able to play them in all keys, and I wanna be able to hear ’em as I play by the end of the week. It doesn’t matter what computer algorithm, you can program a computer maybe to do that, but you can’t get it so that you have that internalized, you have the muscle memory, the ears, the connection, the taste, the understanding to be able to execute all of those. But within three months or so, I would say, with some nice 20 to 30 minutes of practice on voicings, I think you can develop an interesting pallette pretty much in all keys of basic, but good voices, wouldn’t you say that’s realistic?

AM: I would totally agree. And I think the key to this is to be discerning. To find the voicings that, you know in the key of E flat that you like, not shapes that you’re bored with, but take them around to all keys, and you could start slow, take them to keys close to E flat or keys that you get called to play on a lot. If you’re doing hip hop and R&B sessionsthat could be sharp keys, that could be more flat keys, but whatever it is, start out taking it in chunks. Like you said, it’s not gonna happen overnight, but take one little idea and try to run it around the keys in a time that allows you to actually absorb it. And be discerning, you don’t have to take everything that you do in E flat around all 12 keys. Now is the time to start whittling out what you don’t wanna take around in all 12 keys. Get it out of your playing, you know?

PM: What not to play.

AM: What not to play.

PM: In the words of the great Christian McBride talkin’ about bass lines, I can tell you a few things not to do, and that’s gonna get you to the promised land even quicker.

AM: And one of those is transposing the keyboard so you can always play it in E flat.

AM: No, but here’s the thing. I think one problem here, one solution solves the other problem as well because the whole “my hands aren’t catching up with my brain” thing, that’s ’cause you can only play in the key of E flat. You start getting proficient in even just six other keys. Your hands will be way quicker on even E flat. You start understanding the relationships of the intervals better, your fingers become better aligned with the keyboard because you have to play in E, you have to play in A or whatever. I think one hand shakes the other for these two problems.

PM: Absolutely. And I think that, let’s just be clear too, I will just say there’s actually no shame in this idea of transposing the voices if you’re doing that for professional reasons like you’re producing something, and you need to be in another key and you just can’t play it yet. So it’s like you gotta separate that out. Probably the common times that you and I encounter this is in maybe composing or arranging when you’re on a deadline and you just go to somebody else’s score, copy and paste and put it in your own. No, I’m joking, I’m just checking to see if you’re listening right now.

AM: Whoa!

PM: That would be the equivalent of “I don’t have time to write so I’m gonna go grab it.” So now you get into some legal jeopardy.

AM: I was like, “I wonder why that arrangement sounds so close to a Nelson Riddle arrangement, that’s weird.”

PM: No, but I think what it would be, well for instance, you’re gonna do a gig in half an hour and the singer’s like, “Oh, I wanna do ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ in A,” and you don’t really know “Fly Me to the Moon,” maybe you kind of know it in F, but you don’t feel confident being able to do it in A. I would say if you’re at a certain point, maybe go for it but you might need to bust out the, and I pride myself on never using these, but I have seen them, and I play with the Real Book where you can change on the app the keys so it shows to you as opposed to transposing it. If you gotta do it for the gig, you gotta do it, but then at least make a note of that that you’re gonna practice, first of all that you’re really gonna learn the tune because if you don’t really know the tune it’s very hard to hear it and transpose it at the same time.

AM: The Real Book thing, I think that’s a level down from the keyboard thing. I think it’s part of the same family–

PM: You mean even more shameful or less shameful?

AM: Less shameful, a little bit. Because you’re still reading it.

PM: Are we gonna have a wall of shame here?

AM: Yeah, exactly, we should actually make a wall of shame. But the keyboard thing I’m on the fence about this ’cause I hear what you’re saying, it’s a professional situation, you want it to sound good, but also it’s like, I feel like if you’re really gonna get this Chris, you’re gonna have to fail every once in a while in a key you’re not comfortable in. And sometimes the only time to do that is in some kind of performance or a situation where it matters, you know?

PM: Yeah. But I mean, I also think that we, in a professional situation you have to put the best product forward. You don’t wanna be lazy, but you don’t wanna be so aggressive, like you have to think about what is the end result. You wanna get through the tune, support the singer, play a good solo, whatever, but you’re right, you’re not gonna grow, I mean you can push yourself if you’re disciplined when you practice, but that takes a lot, and I mean I really struggle with that in terms of, as soon as I’ve finished doing a performance, especially when I feel like it went really well or an arrangement or a composition or anything with Open Studio or whatever, like that, right when you’re done is actually the time to evaluate and say, “What can I do better next time, what do I need to work on to put myself in a position,” and when it goes well or like if you’ve got the Real Book, you’re playing the chord and having to transpose it, it works and sounds good and sells a bunch of copies or whatever, you’re like, “Oh, I’m cool, I’ll just do that next time,” but you gotta be disciplined and say, “Next time I still want it to sound as good, but I want to actually be in that other key with some new voices.”

AM: Yeah, I think that’s good. But honestly too, as a button on all of this, I can’t say enough how important it is to practice in all 12 keys, to have them comfortable. You have to do it, it has to happen one way or another at some point and the only way to do it is to actually practice in keys like E and G flat and A and B and you know, D flat. There’s plenty of examples of tunes that are in these keys you can just take tunes that you know and go through these keys. You can take licks that you play or language that you–

PM: Voicings.

AM: Voicings is super important. Super, super important.

PM: Yeah, and I think that with voicings there’s two top level ways to go about this. Like, say if you have some nice voicings in E flat, I would actually recommend first going through the flat keys, circle of fifths, circle of fourths, as opposed to going chromatic. At least with the first set because with the piano it’s a little bit easier to comprehend, the shapes are gonna change less as you go through the flat keys as opposed to jumping between flat and sharp keys so to speak. From a theoretical standpoint, there are some things that I think that are a little easier to understand from a chromatic standpoint, so the next one you do you may wanna switch to that, and then you also get a little bit of both sides as opposed to being dogmatic about practicing. Does that makes sense?

AM: It does. I think there’s actually ways of… Any way you can practice all 12 keys differently, I think, is good, so circle of fourths. Is it cycle of fourths, circle of fifths?

PM: It’s both, it’s both. I always learned circle of fourths ’cause I learned it on a circle, it goes around.

AM: Cycle of fifths? I thought one was one and, no maybe not. Well, chromatically too you can also do, sometimes I’ll practice something on the whole tone scale, so like up to C, D, E, G flat, A flat, B flat, and then go up a half step, B, D Flat, E flat, F, G–

PM: If you forget that last part, you’re only gonna be like wow, this is cool I went through all the keys, only six of ’em. Awesome.

AM: Yeah, exactly, oh cool, I’m good. But that point is different ways to fool your brain so you don’t get into these patterns so much that you–

PM: A little Chaos Theory.

AM: A little chaos, so that you really lock into these memory wise. We talked about this with the Memory-Work episode we did, but so that when you’re cycling through these if you do it in a different way every couple of times you’re gonna remember them faster.

PM: Big shout out to a gentleman that I learned about Chaos Theory about 15, 20 years ago who actually has a jazz connection as well, the great mathematician: Jeff Goldblum in the original Jurassic Park. Yeah, when my older kids were first watching that when it came out, I remember he broke down Chaos Theory.

AM: “Put a drop of water in your hand, which way’s it gonna go?” That’s my Jeff Goldblum, it’s terrible.

PM: When he was in that helicopter, I think stoned or whatever talkin’ about, anyway, but we diverge. Okay, so Chris in New Orleans, hopefully that gets you on the right path, and then disciplined practice for this. Take it slow as you go through either the circle of fifths, circle of fourths, whole tone, chromatic, but have some goals for yourself. I think if we think about adding one key per week would be very conservative in terms of at least a place to start. And look in 11 weeks, you already know E flat, in 11 weeks, less than three months you’ve got ’em all at least with a subset of changes. But the other side of your question too is you also have to develop some other voicings so I think you can go through this systematically as far as learning them in different keys and getting the shapes together, but also introducing some new voices. A lot of great resources, we’ve got a bunch on the blog actually.

AM: I was gonna say Chris, you know where you can go is to our blog, there’s a piano section where we have tons of great blog posts about all kinds of different voicings. You can get some ideas there.

PM: Yep, yep. And a bunch of other great folks online and in person.

AM: That was a great question.

PM: That was good, thank you. And I was wondering about his teacher from New Orleans. He said it was an arrangement teacher, a piano teacher, I wonder if that was Buddy Bolden. I guess that’d be going back a little far probably.

AM: Chris is very, very old if that’s the case, especially for a hip hop producer.

PM: Yep, yep, good stuff. Well, ’til tomorrow:

AM: You’ll hear it.

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