Dealing with Key Signatures

What’s in a key?

Probably the most common phrase I have heard over this Christmas period apart from where and when can I get a Covid test is; OMG look at the key! How many flats/sharps etc!

It funny, but why do key signatures that use more than 3 flats or sharps scare so many musicians? Is it because we don’t normally play in them? Are we scared of making a mistake by omission? Or is it something else….. it must be a psychological thing because in reality they are just simple notes!….it’s like using the black note on the piano, they aren’t any different really.

The first step to overcoming that aura of fear about key signatures is to face your foe…..practice scales and pieces in those unusual keys (notice I didn’t say hard, I say unusual) and listen to them, what you hear in a particular key is the “Tonal Centre” of the work, where does it feel comfortable, the relationship between the notes is no different to a piece without a key signature, it simply sounds higher or lower, rely on your ear to tell you if it sounds wrong or right!

Secondly, look at the key signature of concern and actually say to yourself the notes that are affected. For example; the key of B major has 5 sharps: F,C,G,D,A……. look at them and tell yourself the correct fingering pattern for each sharp, we generally know the first three so concentrate on the last two. Then when you see a key change, look at what notes become changed and actually tell yourself which ones they are.

Thirdly, stop putting a mental barrier in your path. So many times I hear players say “I can’t do that” before they even try or ”that’s too hard” and “Ill never get that” even before you really look at the part…… its funny the number of times you will encounter a challenging key signature only to find that the odd sharps that cause you so much pain aren’t there anyway, remember the key is the Tonal Centre not necessarily to the notes you are required to play.

Lastly, if you need to, write pencilled in sharps and flats adjacent to the respective notes…. This may help but it does little to building your confidence in managing multiple keys, use them and only leave the ones that are absolutely necessary whilst rubbing out the others.

Don’t shy away from unusual keys, take them as a challenge and build your playing skills a little higher each time!