Playing in Different Keys

Question: Hi, I am wondering how to get better at playing pieces in different keys. Different keys have different chords, which have different fingerings. For example, I am good at playing songs at the key of B-flat but a hard time playing in A.

Albert’s reply: To improve playing in different keys, first and foremost you need to know all your piano scales. Scales are the foundation for all of piano playing and for a good technique. You need to bring all of them to the same level. I recommend practicing all of them with a metronome at the start of each day’s practice session. If you have difficulty with one, stop and concentrate on it alone until it is perfect at whatever tempo you can play it with perfect evenness in terms of rhythm, dynamics and tempo.

Next, make sure you know all the major, minor and dominant seventh arpeggios in all keys. This isn’t quite as daunting a task as it may seem, since many of the patterns are identical. For instance, if you know the C major arpeggios, then you should also be able to play F major, G major, D minor, E minor and A minor equally well, since they are also played using only the white keys. In these cases, the keys change but the pattern for the fingers is identical.

You should learn all inversions of each arpeggio once you’re comfortable with the arpeggios in root position. Chords have as many positions as they have notes. For instance, a C major triad has three notes (C, E and G) and hence three positions: root position (C on the bottom), first inversion (E on the bottom) and second inversion (G on the bottom). Again, learning chord inversions and practicing them as arpeggios (broken chords) isn’t as difficult a task as it may seem. Once you learn a few, you’ll quickly be able to play the rest as well.

Finally, learn the common chord progressions and transpose them into each key. This will require considerable practice, but once you’ve learned the most common chord progressions in each key – along with your scales and arpeggios – playing any piece in any key will no longer be a problem!

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