Pianists: How to become comfortable playing in the “hard” keys

Last night I was reading an email from an online piano student of mine who lives in South America. I couldn’t help chuckling a little when he said, “I’m afraid of the black notes.” I laughed because I could relate to this. We’ve all felt this way at one time or another! I remember feeling that way myself the first time I practiced Chopin’s “Black Key Etude.” Or when I first tried to improvise a solo on “Body and Soul” in it’s original key of Db major.

I admired this student’s honesty. Most of us would admit to perhaps being uncomfortable in some keys, or maybe even sounding worse in those keys, but I loved hearing someone just come clean and use the word “afraid,” even in a playful way. Yes, it’s OK to be “afraid!”

It’s a fact of playing piano that some keys have more black notes than others. It’s not that these keys are intrinsically “harder” than the white-note keys, but rather that we’re usually less familiar with them. Not as many pieces are written in those keys so we automatically get less practice in them. (BTW, I once knew a pianist whose childhood piano teacher started her on the black keys before teaching her the white ones. She felt totally comfortable playing in every key. No fair!!!)

But I do know from experience that it’s just a question of familiarity. I’ve learned this many times and in different circumstances. I remember playing dance rehearsals for a Broadway show called Swinging On A Star. (It was my Broadway debut; I was associate conductor, played keyboards, and wrote some arrangements and orchestrations.) One day I played a Latin-style song during a long dance rehearsal. It was an easy song, and I must have played it about 100 times that morning while the dancers learned their choreography, literally step-by-step.)

What made the rehearsal memorable for me was that the song was in the key of Db major, which has 5 flats. The song, “You Don’t Have To Know The Language,” is a nice tune from the 1940s and my job was simply to play the chords, melody, and bass line with a steady beat; over and over for 2 hours. Even though I could play the tune easily, I do remember having to “think” about the key a little. After all, I didn’t play in Db every day and my hands didn’t automatically go to the right positions for each chord. I had to make sure it was correct.

But something wonderful happened over the course of the rehearsal; the key of Db began to feel comfortable. Effortless. By the end of the 2 hours I didn’t have to think about it any longer.

The story would end there, except that over the course of the next week I noticed something remarkable: I could improvise better on jazz tunes that were in Db as well. Previously “hard” tunes such as “Body and Soul” and “Lush Life” came easier than before. The truly amazing thing is that I could even play bebop-type licks over them in Db now. Even though I had practiced soloing in Db before, it had never quite “clicked.” But now, even though I has simply played the melody, chords, and bass line of a song in Db, my soloing became fluent too!

Why is this?

It’s because when we spend time in a new key, we’re not just playing the notes; we’re “thinking” in that key. Living in it, so to speak. As our hands become acquainted with the new shapes on the keyboard and acquire muscle memory, our brain forms new mental patterns too. So after all that time both playing and “thinking” in 5 flats, Db felt just as easy for me as, say, F major.

Try this out for yourself. If you want to learn a complex tune in Db, like “Body and Soul,” “Lush Life,” or even the beautiful closing section of Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” you don’t necessarily have to start with the tune itself. Find some simple music in the same key and learn that first. As your hands (and brain) become accustomed to the shapes and sounds of all those black notes, you’ll be preparing yourself in a big way to tackle the more complicated tune you want to learn. The good news is that it’ll come a lot easier to you when you get there.

Good luck with your playing, and don’t be afraid of the “hard” keys; they get easier!

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