The importance of playing melodies and songs in ‘all twelve keys’ is widely known among professional players and teachers of brass instruments. Playing in every key helps to develop familiarity with the entire instrument so there are no key areas (and patterns unique to those key areas) that remain under-developed. Additionally playing in all twelve keys helps to develop the ear as intonation inconsistencies in certain keys will become highly evident when compared to the same phases being played in more familiar keys.
What is less-known is the importance to visually see music presented in all keys (which totals more than twelve) so visual symbols can become associated with certain musical responses (motor output- i.e. playing the correct notes). There are several ways in which modern tendencies in how we teach and learn to play brass instruments as beginners can have a staggering effect on our potential for improvement later.
Blocking Effect- When one symbol is presented (Written F in bass clef), we learn how to play a sound that is associated with that symbol. We learn what it sounds like and what it feels like. F is a common note in flat keys, such as Bb, Eb, and F. These are commonly referred to as ‘the friendly band keys’ because most band music (especially for beginners) is written to favor these keys over others. Similarly, early methods tend to disproportionately utilize these keys in the educational setting. Young brass players work from watered-down method books that stay within these key collections for far too long. Students might have 50 or 100 trials where the only version of “F” they see is an F natural.
As a student progresses, they will undoubtedly be exposed to other keys, such as G major, A major, etc. and in these keys, there is no F natural. It is now an F# as determined by the key. The blocking effect comes in to play when a student has seen the same symbol hundreds of times and developed a strong association for that symbol to mean “F natural”, but now it could also mean “F#”. With such a weight placed on the single option during the initial learning of the notes, the number of trials required to balance out the familiarity with both responses is disproportionate as much as 20-to-one. A student that has 100 trials where only F natural is a possibility will now need 2000 trials where the correct response is F# in order to develop the neuroplasticity to weigh each possibility as equal.
College brass players- ask yourself: How many times have you seen a ‘concert Bb’ and accidentally played it as a ‘concert B natural’? Now ask yourself how many times you have seen a ‘concert B natural’ and accidentally played a ‘concert Bb’? A vast majority of players will experience the second scenario much more frequently, especially if their early brass training was primarily in large ensemble instruction in school utilizing a disproportionate amount of ‘friendly keys’. Old habits are hard to replace.
Because of phenomenon like this, it is imperative that young brass players be exposed to all keys, even if the repertoire is extremely basic. That was my motivation for creating a database of songs printed in all keys.
In the coming months I will be adding free PDF downloads of simple melodies and songs here. Make sure you are becoming familiarized with all the keys. You’ll be glad you did later!