I had a hard time learning scales as a youth. I would try to play four octaves of the C scale in both hands, and would never get it right. Then one day, after noting my limitation to a piano teacher, I received this reply, “You’re starting on the wrong scale. Start on Db! C is the hardest scale to play.”
I balked, “But the Key of Db has so many flats!”
Big deal, right? It’s a scale. But I had an attitude that something with 5 flats was to be avoided.
Well, that ended a few years ago. I got tired of my mental attitude toward key signatures ladened with sharps and flats. I was missing so much music because of my inclination to stay under five flats or four sharps.
Today I care less about what key a piece is in. I will attempt anything. Here are some tips on how I got over my key-phobia, and how to approach pieces with lots of sharps or flats.
1. Attitude is everything. Stop whining. Let the learning process work for you.
2. Most often I stumble on key signatures because I forget what they are in the middle of the piece. Get the Key into your head. Spend some time with it mentally. It is difficult to look at 6 flats and immediately process 6 different alterations of note names. THINK about what has been changed. VISUALIZE the changes on the keyboard. Get the changes into your head and let your anxiety subside.
3. Before you begin the piece, at least play the scales for the I, IV, and V chords. You’re going to see those scales most often in the piece. Also, play the I, IV, & V chords in the left hand. Play open-voiced chords. Explore combinations with right and left hands. SEE the altered notes in those chords. Where is that one altered note that trips you up the most? Is it E# or Cb? Focus on that in the scale and chord warm-up and OWN it.
4. It’s always the last one or two added flats/sharps that makes the piece difficult. When you find that you repeatedly play the wrong note, you MUST force yourself to stop and get that note change into your head. Choose a passage and repeat it until you no longer have to think about the change. You just need to do some basic muscle memory drills to get that note into your head. But if you skip the drill, you will continue to play the natural note until you consider the whole effort a fail. Then you will walk away from the piece muttering, “I can’t play in 5 sharps,” which affects your attitude. It isn’t the key signature that is making you fail — it is your reluctance to stop and get those changes into your head.
5. Challenge yourself by seeking out pieces that are written in signatures that are beyond your usual preference. You could invest an hour and learn four sharps, but if you spend six months playing in “difficult” keys, you are going to take your music to a new level.
And that is what happened to me. I approached altered keys constantly. I refused to back down or listen to that, “You can’t play this,” voice in my head. Gosh, that was years ago. The key signatures are no longer a factor in determining the difficulty of a piece. In fact, I actually PREFER playing in 4 sharps and 6 flats. I look forward to that fifth or sixth sharp because I KNOW how to get past my anxiety.
I will add a note about pieces that transition from sharps to multiple flats. Chopin’s music does that often. That feature of a piece is a special case, not entirely related to the key signature. I have not found a way to get through passages of multiple accidentals other than to go to the woodshed until I beat that passage into submission. (“Going to the woodshed” is another way to say “practice”.)
The next time you are reading through one of your favorite books of music, take a moment to view each of the pieces you may have avoided because of its key signature. There are hundreds of selections in your collection to discover if you could just remove your resistance to difficult key signatures. I encourage you — you CAN overcome any limitation you feel you have. It just takes time, practice, a method and the right attitude.
But you already knew that, didn’t you? :)