That horrible feeling of being caught out…

In last Thursday’s blog I opened up the topic of practice, and got lots of feedback on and off-line about it. I promised a follow-up blog today – so here you go.

I’ll start with a story. In my early days as a gigging musician, I used a Roland RD700SX – a nice (if heavy!) keyboard that had a nice feel and a decent acoustic piano sound.

It also had a transpose button.

This meant that I could learn a song in one key, and if a singer on a gig called it in a different key, I could just press this button. It meant I could play the same notes, but they would produce a sound that was either higher or lower, depending on what the singer wanted. Happy days.

Until I walked into a venue one day and I was told I didn’t need my keyboard – there was a lovely baby grand there waiting to be played. Once again, happy days – I always prefer to play a nice acoustic piano if possible.

Until I realised there was no transpose button. And my stomach sank. Of course there wasn’t. It’s an acoustic instrument. But the whole gig was now in jeopardy. Because I could only play these songs in one key.

I told the organisers that I would really prefer to use my keyboard but they were having none of it. They were proud of this beautiful instrument and wanted it to be used. And they were right.

So I ran backstage, panicking. I hurriedly wrote out some chord charts in the correct keys for some songs, muddled through others on the spot, but it was not one of my finest moments and I wouldn’t have blamed the singer if she never wanted to work with me again.

But I learned my lesson. Never have to rely on a transpose button. Be comfortable changing keys on the spot. Not an easy skill to master, but a worthwhile one.

Below is a chart detailing the most commonly used keys in popular music. Courtesy of hooktheory.com, it is based on a database of over 1300 songs, and paints an interesting picture.

The biggest thing I would take from it is that apart from C, there really isn’t much between the other 11 keys. And so there are no shortcuts – it just makes sense to be comfortable in all 12 keys.

And so to get back to practicing, one of my slices each week in the practice cake mentioned in last Thursday’s blog is a transpose section, where I take a song I know, and take it through the 12 keys, making sure I can play it in each one, and not moving on until it is as smooth as in the original key.

And sometimes, like all practice, it can get boring, but if it means I never again have a feeling like I did on that gig, it is worth every minute.