Nick Semrad Artist Notes: How to Learn to Play in Every Key

I decided to make today’s blog about the ability to play in all twelve keys because I still get questions about this almost every day. It is extremely common for students to ask me questions about how to play shout music in the key of E or what they should play on Ab minor funk tune. […]
Nick12Keys1I decided to make today’s blog about the ability to play in all twelve keys because I still get questions about this almost every day. It is extremely common for students to ask me questions about how to play shout music in the key of E or what they should play on Ab minor funk tune. I usually respond something along the lines of “…well, what’s a key that you’re comfortable in?….” and, once they’ve given an answer, I tell them to transpose, or modulate it, into the uncomfortable key. Let me explain how we can use something called the number system, sometimes called the Nashville Numbering System, to translate the things we know into the keys we don’t.

The Nashville Numbering System

For this system, we’ll be constantly referencing major scales, and every major scale is built the exact same way. There’s the root followed two whole steps, then a half step, then three more whole steps, and a final half step. If we number all of these steps in the order they occur, you get something like this for a C major Scale: C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4 and so on and so on. By numbering things this way, we’re basically giving ourselves a universal harmonic ‘translator’ or amusical Rosetta Stone. If you find yourself able to play shout music in Eb extremely well but can’t play it in E, the answer isn’t some cheat code that you’ll hear or some secret lick you don’t know, but to start translating the things you do know into the number system so that you can move them around at will.

Here’s an example of this process: if I like the following chord voicing (left hand: C-E-A, right hand: D-G-B) for a version of a C major chord, and I’m struggling to find a chord voicing that sounds good in F# major, I can translate this C major voicing into numbers. The notes C, E, A and D, G, B become 1, 3, 6, and 2, 5, 7. Now that it’s been translated to numbers, we can apply those numbers to the key of F#. The left hand becomes F#, A# and D# (the first, third and sixth notes of the F# major scale) and the right hand becomes G#, C# and F (the second, fifth and seventh notes of the scale). You now have the harmonic equivalents of the same chord voicing in two different keys!

I should mention that the whole idea of translating from one key to another comes with a few necessary pieces of information. First, you have to know all of your major scales because the major scale is the default piece of information for learning not just the number system but other scales and things like extensions. A natural minor scale, for instance, has a flat 3, flat 6 and flat 7, and each of those numbers is based on the original ‘default’ major scale. The second piece of information is that, although knowing the numbers of a lick, chord, or idea will help you to translate the notes, you may have to figure out a different fingering for the new key; this is the part that’ll require the most practice. If your shoutmusic trick in Eb is fingered one way, it probably will be fingered completely different in E, and there may not be a perfect guideline on what fingering is the best. This type of practice actually ends up being of benefit because the more unique fingerings we have for any situation, the more types of harmonic situations that we’ll be able to adapt to. My advice here is to do whatever is comfortable while still following, whenever convenient, the basic technique rules of your respective instrument.

The Omnibook

I will say that learning different ideas in every key is some of the most important work that I’ve ever done. Early on in my twenties, during my heavier jazz practicing days, I would spend hours learning Charlie Parker solos from the Charlie Parker Omnibook. I would then spend even more hours translating and learning these solos in every key. This amount of work, though it took hundreds of hours, allowed me to access a lot of this information at will. It allowed me to take ideas that I had acquired from this work and, no matter the key/scale/vibe I was in, pull them out without even a second thought.

Now I know that this amount of work seems intimidating. If you grow the habit of learning everything that you’re working on in every single key, you’re multiplying all the work you Nick12Keys
need to do by twelve. Who has this kind of time, right? Well, I had all these exact thoughts when I was younger. However, as I was working on all of these Parker solos, I started to notice that some of the information repeated itself. The first time I learned one of his solos in every key devastated me for about a month of extremely long practice days, but by the time I got to the second and third song, I noticed that some of his licks and lines repeated from previous songs. Therefore, it turned out that the work that I’d done with the initial tune meant that I wouldn’t have to work near as much on these tunes. It’s almost like the first tune was 100 percent new material, the second was 95 percent, and the third was 85 percent. That month of crazy work had now been cut down to a week or two per tune. By the time I had done 9-10 of these songs, I was really only learning a few brand-new things each time, it wasn’t taking near as long, and my learning became hyper-focused on phrasing, feel, fluidity and dynamics. Every time you put in the work to know another key better, your information gains become deeply cumulative and you’re cutting down the amount of work you’ll have to do in the future.

Angles of Understanding

Another interesting perk of learning everything that you work on in every key is that you are receiving multiple ‘angles of understanding’. Let me try to explain metaphorically. Imagine that you’re seeing a piece of artwork that you’ve never seen before and you’re struggling to understand its meaning because there is so much new information to process. You’ve stood right in front of it for hours, looking from the same perspective, and you’ve become focused on one or two blurry pieces of info. Now, imagine moving 2 feet from your left; the light seems to be coming from a different part of the room, and another piece of the artwork catches your eye. Now step a few feet to the right; you may notice something else. Now look at it from 20 feet back. All of a sudden, you’re seeing the piece as a whole because you’ve looked at it from many angles. This is sort of what happens when you learn something new in every key. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve learned a chord progression that made absolutely no sense to me in its original key, but, after learning it in 3-4 other keys, I’ve seen it in a context that I understood much more clearly. This happens when I learn solos in every key as well; I won’t notice that a specific line is actually just a chord outline of one of my favorite changes until I learn the solo in a key that I’m slightly more comfortable with. Each key we learn something in can and will give us a slightly different perspective on its meaning.

So, musicians, my challenge to you is this: take one thing that you know well and learn it in every key and see how you feel. It can be a chord movement, it can be a lick, or it can be, for those of you that want a challenge, an entire melody or solo. I guarantee that, once you’re done, you’re going to feel like a much better musician then when you started. 

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