The value of playing a jazz tune in all 12 keys

Let me ask you a question: If I suggested that you play a jazz tune, such as “Body And Soul,” in all 12 keys, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind?

Is it something like, “What!!!??? Is Ron crazy!!!???

Or maybe it’s: “That sounds much too hard for me to do right now!”

Well, I’ve felt like that too at times, but transposing a tune to all 12 keys is in fact an extremely valuable exercise. Here’s what happened the first time I tried it:

As a college freshman (UCONN; “Go Huskies!”) I had the good fortune to study with an extraordinary musician named Hale Smith. Hale was tremendously supportive of me and did his best to push me to reach my full potential. For Hale, this meant bringing some “real life teaching” into the university classroom.

One of the first assignments he gave me was to play “Body And Soul” in all 12 keys. If you’ve ever played “Body And Soul,” you may be laughing right now. Not only is the song already in a hard key, Db, it has one of the most convoluted chord progressions in The Great American Songbook!

Hale gave me one week.

I left his office and went straight to a practice room to get started. Hour after hour, day after day, I dutifully analyzed the chord progression until I could play it in every key. Same with the song’s complex melody. Then, I practiced improvising over it in all 12 keys. After 7 days, I was ready (or so I thought!).

When the next lesson started, Hale asked me to play “Body And Soul” in the key of G. After a few measures, he stopped me by saying, “You’re slowing down. Keep a steady tempo.” Then he asked for it in another key. When I got to the bridge, he interrupted with, “Oh no! Those chord voicings aren’t any good. You can do better!” And so on and so on.

I was soon getting flustered as he pointed out every flaw in my playing when as far as I was concerned, I was just happy to get through the song in all the different keys! After a few of my attempts, Hale grew exasperated and said, “Well, why don’t you just play it in the original key, Db?” But my mind had become so confused that I couldn’t remember anything at that point. I’ll never forget the comic tone in Hale’s voice as he asked, “You mean that you learned it in every key except the original???” All I could do was groan in response!

Looking back, I see that Hale’s point was that in the professional music world, nobody cares about how much work you did in the practice room. Even if you’re transposing a hard song, the tempo has to be steady, the chord voicings have to sound good, etc. It all seems obvious to me now, but at the time I just wanted to show him how much work I had done. Luckily, Hale saw more potential in me than I myself saw! After another week or so, I could do what he asked.

Practicing jazz standards in all 12 keys will teach you more than just about anything else will. But because it’s so difficult, you don’t have to start with whole songs right away. Pick the first 8 measures of a tune like “Take The ‘A’ Train,” or something like that. Play it slowly in C major, as it’s written, and then gradually learn it in several other keys. After a few keys it’ll become easier and over the course of a few weeks or months you’ll find you can play it in all 12 keys. It’s an amazing experience and will help you see patterns and connections between the keys that you would otherwise never understand.

Remember, in this and in everything else you practice, go for consistency. Even 10 minutes per day, if you do it every day, will give extraordinary results over the course of a year. Have fun and be persistent. You have the potential to play at a whole new level, if you practice in the right way and if you stick with it!

If you want to study jazz piano with me, sign up for my extensive, step-by-step video course. I’ll also give you personal guidance and instruction to help you play fluent jazz piano!

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