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Improv Tip Week #10-Key Fluency

Welcome back to week #10! I was going to start on a different topic this week, but decided that it can wait. This week, I felt like it was necessary to talk about Key Fluency. I think most musicians will agree that having command of your instrument is an important thing. Part of that command is being able to play in more than just the “comfortable” key areas. A common mistake I see younger musicians making is that they learn their major scales in all 12 keys by just going up and down the scale. It’s a good place to start learning key areas, but is not the end all. Scales are patterns (regardless of what instrument you play). The real test is playing music in that key. I think if someone were taught the Db-major scale as their first scale to work on that it would be just as easy for them to learn as the C-major scale. It’s all in our perceptions and what our starting point was as musicians. I personally don’t believe that any key area (or scale) is difficult or hard for anyone to learn. Andy Classen, my trumpet professor at Drake University, used to tell all of his students that, “there’s no such thing as difficult music, only unfamiliar.”

In this week’s tip (it’s more like 3 tips in one), we’re going to talk about some different ways you can get better at key fluency. Unlike other past week’s tips that give direct advice on how you can better your improvisations, this week’s tip will have an indirect effect. The more comfortable you are in all keys, the better you will be able to apply past tips (and other education/advice you’ve learned) to other keys.

1) 12 weeks to major key/scale freedom! Some of you may be thinking, “well…I already know my major scales-how will this really help me?” I’m glad you asked! When people “work” on their major scales or key areas, they typically spend a little bit of time (maybe 15-20 minutes) a practice session on it and then move on to another scale or key area. We end up trying to cram all 12 major keys/scales into one session. Instead of trying to do all 12 in one session, spend an entire week on just ONE major key area or scale a week. Practice does not make perfect…it makes permanent. If you’re going to engrain a habit (in this case our key area/scale)-spend a considerable amount of time on it. It may seem tedious at first, but you will notice after a few days working in that key area that it becomes significantly more familiar with each passing day. It doesn’t need to be ALL of what you practice, but don’t work on another key area/scale during that time. Just focus on one per week. Also, instead of just running up and down a scale, trying playing the scale up and down in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc. like the example below. Start slow at first-then speed it up a few clicks after you’ve mastered the slower tempo.

2) 12 weeks to minor key/scale freedom! I’ll admit…this one was kind of obvious! There are different types of minor key areas/scales that you can apply the same advice from above. Once you’ve spent 12 weeks on the major key/scale areas…start jumping into the different minors (melodic, harmonic, dorian, etc) and spend one week working on ONE key area/scale. The example below is the exact replica of the one above, but using the melodic minor scale as the reference.

3) DON’T JUST PLAY THROUGH SCALE EXERCISES! I remember when I first started doing the above suggestions that I noticed my ears started to open up and I felt like I had better command of my instrument. But for some reason, I wasn’t seeing the benefits translating into my improvisations yet. Then I read an interview of jazz trumpeter, Tim Hagans. He talked about how he would spend some of his practice time shutting his eyes and playing freely. No determined ideas/licks, no determined music, no time, no backing tracks (Aebersolds, Band-In-A-Box, etc)…nothing but free playing. I took that advice and started applying it to my “key area” of the week. That was my only limitation…I needed to stay within my key of the week. At first I fumbled through and made a lot of, well…interesting note groupings. But, after a while I started hearing on a deeper level and noticed that I liked the sound of certain intervals grouped together. Sure enough, the more I did it, the more some of those sounds started to appear in my improvisations. When doing this exercise, don’t worry about time. Just close your eyes and play in that key area/scale of the week. Your ear will help you determine if you liked it or not. It’s difficult to give a written example of what this might look like notated, but I took just a quick moment and transcribed a few seconds of myself playing in the key of “C-major” (it’s easier for most people to read in C) and put it below:

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s tip and look forward to hearing from you on how your key fluency has improved over the next couple of weeks. If you’ve enjoyed this tip(s), please feel free to share them with others via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc with the links below. Also, if you haven’t already, check out the August Promotional video and the commercial for Targeting: Improvisation with Purpose below. For additional information, you can check out Jason Klobnak Music.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT3V94m920o&w=425&h=349]
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50L4H3FYORQ&w=425&h=349]



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    1. I’m glad it’s helped! If you haven’t already, be sure to check out some of the other tips and feel free to share the blog with others.


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