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Now Play It Again A Half-Step Down

Immanuel Davis | December 2014

    During a recent practice session, I asked myself, “If I practice scales in all keys, then why not my pieces, too?” Truthfully, I have done that before, but only on a Baroque flute and not on a modern one. I had been mulling over this idea for a few days because I had just read an article in a string magazine that suggested this method of practicing as a way to develop intonation.
    Every key has its individual characteristics and qualities. We do not always notice this on modern flutes because they are designed for complete evenness and equality of timbre, but anyone who has dabbled with a Baroque flute knows that D major and Bb major have dramatically different feelings, both technically and emotionally. Flat keys on the traverso sound quieter and more intimate; sharp keys seem more open and extroverted.
    Practicing pieces in different keys might seem daunting at first, but after a little time spent developing this ability, the benefits quickly become apparent. Here are seven suggestions to get started with transposing:

1. Happy Birthday
    Play Happy Birthday several times;  each time start on a different pitch. The intervals of this song are so deeply imbedded in our ears that playing it in different keys should not be difficult. Enjoy playing the song in the various keys and discovering the qualities of each key. Do not worry about what note comes next; the ears will guide the fingers in what to do. Experiment with other well-known songs such as Yankee Doodle or Old MacDonald. Just have fun.
    As you gain expertise, take a piece that you know well (maybe even from memory, since this is an aural exercise) and play it up or down a half-step from the home key. For example start the Mozart G Major Concerto up a half step or down a half step, and then up or down a whole step. After a while, play the Mozart again in the key of G, and I guarantee you that you will have a new experience with an old piece.
    Music is made from intervals, not individual notes. When you practice a piece in a different key, you are developing and internalizing an understanding of the intervals of that piece, and thinking less about notes or the mechanics involved in playing the music.

2. Stable vs. Unstable
    Some notes on the flute are more acoustically stable than others. (For example C#5, C#6, F#6, G#6 etc. can be unstable.) Practicing repertoire in different keys, offers an opportunity to play a piece without having to worry about the stable or unstable notes. For example, if a piece has many unstable notes, and you transpose it to a key with proportionally more stable notes, when you return to the original key, a feeling of stability will naturally transfer to the unstable notes. This allows the flutist to play with a surer tone and technique. For example, all the G#6’s in the solo from Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé are unstable notes. This can make flutists insecure about playing them in the top octave especially when the idea is to play softly and supplely. Start the solo on an Ab6. Now the main note is a G natural, a much more stable note. Explore the nuance and timbre possibilities of G natural. When returning to F# minor, the G#6 should feel more secure and musical.

3. Breaking-up Patterns
    Practicing a passage in multiple keys is akin to listening to many works by the same composer. If you are practicing Varese’s Density 21.5, but have not listened to his other works, you will not have a full grasp of his language or a full understanding of what makes this piece similar to or different from his other works.
    This same idea can apply to a passage in a piece of music. Return to the opening scale in the Daphnis solo. (See Flute Talk, April 2012, p. 16, “Daphnis in Depth” by Mark Sparks for a discussion on the validity of the notes of the opening scale. It could be played with D# and E#, or D natural and E natural, or D natural and E#.) In order to musically embody what each interval means in the opening scale, explore that scale by playing it in every key.  By having to find that famous augmented 2nd of the scale in every key, you will open your ears and get away from worrying about the particular fingering of that one scale.
    Use this concept for technically difficult passages in addition to melodic passages. Often after exploring the finger combinations or sequences in multiple keys, the original version becomes easier to perform. 

4. Engage the Ear
    Besides practicing the transposition technique, one of my favorite practice techniques is to put the flute down and sing the music. When singing, I find and feel the intervals with my ear rather than relying on the flute to find the notes for me. To sing I have to hear the note in my head. When I go back to the flute, the tone is more grounded and sure because my ear has been awakened by the singing.

5. Making the Basket
    In his book, Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique, Pedro de Alcantara quotes basketball coach and Zen teacher Hiroide Ogawa, who said: “The argument for not repeating something that is right may appear strange at first, but a human being becomes less human with identical repetition of the same action. Shooting from the same spot over and over again is no more useful than tightening identical screws from eight in the morning until four. A different stance. A different position. A different ball. A different player. Now it counts!” 
    Practicing a passage repeatedly in the same way is a little like trying to always make the shot from the same spot in the court. Being able to play a passage in any key means that you can make that shot from anywhere, and you will know that playing the passage in its home key is just one of many options that you have at your fingertips.

6. Intonation
    Too often flutists’ idea of tuning is affected by how they perceive the scale of their flute and tendency notes (“My middle C# is always so sharp.”). When practicing a passage in multiple keys, you get away from preconceived ideas about where notes lie on your instrument and start to hear where notes should go in relationship to the intervals that surround them. Flutists tend to get into a pattern of pre-setting for a particular note. This encourages you to respond to what a note requires at any given moment, and the focus shifts away from the tuning tendencies of the particular flute. With a return to the original key, the embouchure is naturally more attuned to the intonation requirements, and intonation is more secure.

7. Get away from the page

    Classical musicians often express trepidation at getting away from the written note. One can witness this fear when a classical musician is asked to improvise a melody or to play something from memory. I have a jazz musician colleague who takes every tune he is performing and practices it in all twelve keys, or he might take some lick and work on that in every key. The benefits of this way of practice are boundless. He frees himself from getting locked into a preconceived pattern. He focuses on his ears and understanding of intervals. He improves his understanding of the underlying structure and harmonic progressions of the piece. Most importantly, he does this  not by endless amounts of repetition, but by knowing all the ins and outs of every interval of the piece.
    So, have fun with transposing. Take pieces, exercises and excerpts and get to know their every turn and nuance by playing them in different keys. I guarantee you will open up a whole new world for your ears, fingers, and brain. Even if you never actually perform the Mozart G Major Concerto in E flat, being able to play it in any key will bring a deeper understanding of the music to the final performance.