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Improv Tip Week #11- Key Fluency (part 2)

Hey Everyone! Welcome to week #11’s tip…Key Fluency part 2. Last week I gave some tips on how we can better our key fluency and I wanted to continue on the same subject matter this week, but give two additional tips on what you can do to increase your fluency in other keys. August is the month where most school systems across the United States head back to school and one of these tips will be great for band directors in getting all of your students fluent in keys that they might not be the most comfortable. The other tip is a great ear-training exercise that musicians on any level will benefit from.

The first is using call and response. Music is an aural art, therefore time needs to be learning music by ear. Don’t get me wrong, learning to read music is very important. However, I don’t think enough time is spent training the ear. Call and response can be used as an ear training aid, but I want to discuss how we can use it to develop stronger key fluency (especially younger musicians). For those that might not know what call and response is…it’s actually very simple. One person makes a call, or musical statement, and then another person (or group of people) make a response back. There’s different types of call and response (which we’ll be covering in week #12), but for the purposes of key fluency-we’ll be talking about an exact response back. When doing this exercise with other younger musicians, be sure not to give them any music or any ideas pre-written out. This should be done all by ear. If the student(s) don’t get the musical statement the first time, play the same statement again until they do. The person making the call should be the teacher, band director or an advanced student who already has great key fluency. Below are a few quick examples of taking a short idea and running them through the call and response exercise. As the short ideas become easier for the group, extend the lines and gradually make them more difficult. My suggestion is to stick with a key area (or scale) each week to further develop fluency in that key/scale before doing another. The exercise below is using the B major pentatonic scale.

The last tip for this week’s Key Fluency (part 2) is one that’s quite simple, yet often times a difficult one to accomplish. Just about everyone is working on some sort of song right now (or at least should be). Take that song and, by ear without looking at any written music, transpose it to different key areas. It’s a simple tip, yet depending on the song you’re working on-can be a difficult task to accomplish. There’s a wide range of benefits from doing this exercise (i.e. you never know when someone might call that song in a different key at a jam session, you learn certain passages in multiple keys that you can use in your improvisations, etc), but it certainly stretches your ear and helps make keys that might be more unfamiliar to you that much more fluent. If you’re one of those that aren’t working on a song-let me make some suggestions: ANYTHING WILL WORK! Just start playing something! Theme songs from TV shows, children’s songs, jazz standards, R&B, Top 40, Gospel….whatever! Just learn a song and start transponsing it by ear and get to work!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short series on Key Fluency! These past two week’s tips are ones that I am always working on to better develop my own fluency in all keys. If you’ve enjoyed this tip or found it beneficial…please let me know, as I enjoy your feedback. Also, please feel free to share this tip (and blog) via the links below to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. Also, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the video below for the Jason Klobnak Music August Promotional. There’s about half of the month of August left to get your name registered for the $100 giveaway! For more information, you can go to Jason Klobnak Music or click on the link to the right.

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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.

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