Does anyone teach transposing anymore?

The title of this blog entry is a little misleading, as in fact I wonder if anyone ever did teach transposing to more or less every student who passed through their door. But be that as it may, I genuinely do wonder if anyone does teach transposing anymore.

Once upon a time piano exams would include some kind of exercise that needed to be performed in a variety of keys. In the 70s and 80s (when I was taking piano examinations myself) the English examination board Trinity College required students in the lower grades to perform the first few bars of some of the exam pieces in either the dominant or the subdominant, or a tone higher or lower, or some other pair of transposing options according to the grade of the exam.  During this time both the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and Trinity College also offered Keyboard Musicianship examinations, which consisted of aural, sightreading, transposing and improvising tests.

The demise of this kind of examination alternative, and of any keyboard musicianship-type component in standard piano examinations suggests to me that teachers stopped teaching these skills somewhere along the way between the end of World War Two and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  And the fall of the Berlin Wall, for those too young to have watched the news that week, was in 1989, some six years after the release of the Yamaha DX7, which (for the sake of this argument) I’m going to declare as the moment the transpose button started impacting on the performance habits of keyboardists.

Once you can change key at the flick of a switch (or the push of a button) the value of being able to play in any key is somewhat undermined.  And by the later decades of the 20th century it was only pianists who worked with singers performing ‘popular’ music who were regularly needing to be able to transpose at sight or by ear instantaneously.

Add in the rise of the backing track, and the necessity for anyone to be able to transpose fluently on the spot has just about completely disappeared.

So, is my argument that transposing skills are a pianistic ability best relegated to the past?  Well, no.

My argument is that all the practical pressures that lead pianists to develop the skill of transposing might be gone, but the benefits that transposing skills can bring to 21ct century piano students are vast.  So who is teaching their students to transpose? Who is creating pedagogical materials that don’t just tack transposing on as an ‘extra for experts’ suggestion at the bottom of the page? And who is devising curricula that actively seek to provide joyous experiences to students mastering the tonal patterns of the keyboard?

These are not rhetorical questions!  I’d love to know what your experiences are with teaching or learning the skill of transposition.  Why do you do it? What makes it worthwhile? Or, possibly, why did you stop?  And most importantly, does anyone teach transposing anymore?

14 thoughts on “Does anyone teach transposing anymore?

  1. I began piano lessons about the time my mother got fed up with me improvising “fairy music” at the piano, that is c.1978. In the following decade of lessons no one taught me to transpose, although my first teacher had a method of his own which meant that I became a very good sightreader. I vaguely recall transposition exercises of some kind in musicianship, but these were strictly on paper. So it wasn’t until I began my music degree at uni that I was taught transposition and the kinds of skills you mention. It was a “Keyboard” course that all students had to take regardless of their major instrument. My impression was that it was super tough for those students who’d never really studied piano, as a basic technique and reading ability was more or less assumed.

    I recall playing the opening to Tristan und Isolde beginning on every note of the chromatic scale; score-reading string quartets (often more difficult than score-reading orchestral rep, given the textures); learning to handle bigger scores with transposing instruments (tricky when only one line needs to be transposed); learning to read “funny” clefs; learning to improvise “fantasias” in the baroque style; figured bass, of course; and yes, assessments in which we had to transpose a lieder accompaniment at sight.

    My recollection of the teaching of these skills was that it was a bit haphazard. It took place in small classes of two or three students, it was very practical (and in that respect a good thing), perhaps more like coaching. But what we took away from it was probably closer to a set of tips and hints than a methodology. I still have the texts/exercise books I used for the figured bass and score reading, but I don’t think we had anything specific to work from for transposition.

    • Good Morning, Elissa..Hi! I do teach transposing….Each of my 7 students knows how to transpose, but out of all of them, 2 boys are the best at it….They seem to understand the wonder of it….and how useful it is….

      Karen Atwood….Minot, N.D.

  2. For students who play with guitarists at church, they often bring me music in one key which they want me to “write out for them in another key” to which I usually teach them, if it’s in C major, and the guitarist is playing in D major, to transpose by sight. Kerin Bailey gave me a “daily drills” page once, and I get students to transpose that into every key to be able to play at least all the major keys with all the tonic, subdominant and dominant 7th chords.

  3. One of our national exam systems in Canada does have a transposition requirement starting in Grade 5. The exercises (and exam requirements) start out very simply – one hand, up or down a tone initially – then progress every year from there. I’ve noticed that students generally catch on very quickly and it is a skill that’s relatively easy to acquire.

  4. That’s really interesting, LaDona – the Trinity College transposing requirement in the 70s was only UNTIL Grade 5 standard! And was definitely hands together from quite an early grade…..

    And I agree that students do generally catch on very quickly, if they are ever encouraged to transpose.

  5. Hi Elissa
    In 1975 , when I became a crowd control officer [which some people call high school music teaching], I often had students asking me to transpose pieces for them to sing in lower keys.

    Sometimes this was because they had not found their “head voice” and were completely unaware they could sing higher than about an A above middle C.

    I found it very painful to transpose at sight, though I could do it with concentration. I had an acute sense of perfect pitch and found it very difficult to look at one note and play another.

    But perfect pitch seems to fade as you get older, from my observation and also from what I have read about it. In some ways this is a good thing, I think.

    We were taught by Michael Dudman at Newcastle Conservatorium. He told us that, as a church organist he was once asked to transpose a piece up to F# major and felt so foolish being unable to do it that he sat up all night and made himself learn how and ever after was able to sight transpose.

    I took John Mehegan’s advice and tried to play through well known simple hymns and folk tunes in all 12 keys and found this a useful exercise, but also then could not remember what the original key was sometimes.

    Tamara-Anna Cislowska used to have a trick she played on Pamela Page, who has perfect pitch.

    She would play a Bach Prelude and Fugue in the wrong key while Pamela was in another room and enjoy the reaction she gave when she discovered that the 16 year old Tamara was, say playing the E flat major Book 2 fugue in F sharp!

    These days I am finding the keys of hymns too high and am also even lazier than I used to be, so I leave Jeff the trumpeter and Luke the clarinettist in the published key and play the hymn a tone down.

    • A year and a half later – thank you for this post! I read David McKay’s comment about perfect pitch fading with age within a couple of weeks after a casual conversation with another teacher who had mentioned the same thing. This got me digging and thinking – I had never known this would happen to me and it was a bit traumatic at first.

      I’ve written about it at a bit more length on my blog.

      Thanks, Elissa, for all the excellent articles you write.

  6. Hi Elissa
    This is a very interesting topic. You mentioned the emergence of the ‘transposition slider’ on electronic keyboards. This immediately also brings to mind the capo for guitarists (and I think the latter have been around even longer?). These two ubiquitous instruments (and others), if overly used with capos or transposition sliders, may have reduced the transpositional abilities of their players, let alone knowledge of key signatures. This is so widespread that reliance on capos and transposer-sliders seems to be possibly reducing the discriminatory ability of the ear to evaluate the pitch of a note.

    I have a feeling that some who are maybe becoming quite reliant on transposition-sliders or capos are possibly beginning to miss out on something that’s very important in music compositions and the history of music, and with which you and David (and many others would be well aware), namely, *the ‘character’ or unique sound of a key* [on an acoustic piano!]. For example why did Chopin choose C# minor for that piece? What distinguishes one key from another key signature on an acoustic piano, or certain brass or woodwind instruments? That subtle colouration of different key signatures is exactly that: subtle. Yet discernible. And it’s an axial reason as to why composers choose to write in one key signature over another.

    I was taught transposition in both AMEB (theory syllabus) and Trinity College system (UK). I doubt I could teach transposition like you(!) or David(!) but I studied it, and understand the principles. I had an excellent teacher in high school 3unit music – and I learn’t a lot through her too. I don’t have perfect pitch like you had David, yet curiously I can tune a violin’s A-string (my major instrument) to concert pitch (although I’m not quite as good at that as I used to be). Tuning a violin rests completely on aural feedback for pitch judgement because it’s fretless.

    Elliptically-related to your ‘transposition theme’.. I find it fascinating that, when violinists (or other stringed instrumentalists) are asked to play (say) a major scale (without open strings), they tend to play Pythagorean-derived scales (i.e. intervals with whole-number ratios!) But when playing with a piano and or in an orchestral context this can vary: finely ‘realigned’ transpositions. cheers~w

  7. Being mainly a jazz player and improviser I can speak to the ability to play fake book (Charts)in any key.

    I developed a method of teaching piano which enabled an 84 year old woman to play “How High the Moon) in 12 keys. It has to do with forgeting theory and learning where to put ones fingers. This is related to Mehegans method in that we think in terms of numbers rather than letters which in themselves mean nothing. 1 1V and V has relevance. C F and G do not. From that point we discover chromatic harmony by learning how to move our fingers from here to there. It’s exciting to find the pathways as we go. ii V l. etc. starting with the common measurement (half steps).

    • Conrad, I completely agree, it was all about numerical relationships for me learning to transpose as well… Maybe there are other methods, but I can’t see how they would work better! Once you know your starting point you’re away.

  8. I’m interested in what David McKay writes about leaving the clarinettist & trumpeter in the published key and playing hymns a tone down. Doesn’t that sound a bit off to the congregation?

    I’m a church pianist too, and I agree that many of the hymns are too high for most people today. I’ve transposed by ear from the time I was 5 or 6 because my mother did and it never occurred to me that there was anything tricky about it. I often play every verse of a hymn in a different key and occasionally in a different tempo. I think it makes the hymns more interesting and gives the various voice ranges a chance to shine–or at least participate, as many low voices can’t nowadays.

  9. Hi! I do teach transposition. I start out with scales and cadences in every key.
    I like to then add favorite folk songs and hymns….I feel that a well rounded pianist should not only play well by notes, but should be encouraged to play song

    • I do teach transposition in all keys. I feel that a well rounded pianist should be able to transpose in all keys. After the child knows the notes and is able to read well enough to sight read, they are certainly ready to play simple songs like “Mary had a little lamb” by ear starting in C major and go up chromatically…the kids love it if you add the accompaniment….in each key. This means that they have to have a good ear which does develop if one makes it through all of the keys. I have a third grade boy who wants to transpose a lot of his lesson pieces
      Into all the keys. When I was a fifth grader, my teacher had me transpose using the circle of fifths method….I learned, but my kids understand going up half step by half step. They love it and find it a great accomplishment. I also teach improvisation….and how to read chord symbols…..I neglected to say that first they have to learn all of their four octave scales in each key. They love it! Not every student will do this cuz they would rather rent a bench…..but the ones who really want to learn classical repertoire and also are interested in playing blues and jazz have a lot of fun learning to play.

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