How To Practice 'The Difficult Keys'

Hi Hayden,
one of my many weaknesses is “the difficult keys”. I’m not alone.
Roaring along in C, F, Bb, Eb, G. Some good voicing, some interesting licks, nice turnarounds etc. if I get into a mess it’s usually easy to “escape” without much fuss!
But, when suddenly chords appear bearing symbols such as, C#m7(b5), or F#, Gb with various extensions! The safety net has disappeared.

My question to you is, what is the quickest approach to mastering the difficult keys?
By definition, to becoming comfortable in all keys and modes.

With most things in life, one approach is likely to produce the greatest overall improvement in the shortest time. The old 80/20 rule.

Should the student, play every tune in every key? ( He is very unlikely to be asked to play “All the things you are”in B”). That approach will work, but is there more to life?

Should he or she only seek out those tunes littered with ii, v, i’s, and only learn those tunes in a few keys, that way because of the changes within the composition, all keys get covered that way? Cherokee? More fun, and a better return for the work put in.

Should the only thing to play in all twelve keys not be the tunes themselves but be ii, v, i’s, i, vi, ii, v, i’s and every variation there is? That’s the form one is most likely to meet these keys. (With an associated melodic lines of course, not just left hand voicings).

In the main, very few of “our tunes” start off in a difficult key, they simply modulate into a difficult key centre without any change really to the key signature on the sheet music. If our vocalist indicates that her preferred key for a song is B, guess what? She settles for Bb or C. Even so, in C, the middle eight could easily be in E. There isn’t one version of Body and Soul that completely avoids one difficult key or other. I accept one or two aren’t too bad. G/Ab?

Now sheet music! Do you recommend that the student writes out ( or uses notation software), whatever is to be played in all keys, or, “stumble and fumble by ear” ?( yet another weakness!).
Possibly use iReal book for quick changing the chords in all keys, work out the melody by ear?

I’m back to PianoGroove after a long time away, and determined to gain improvement with my effort and your help. I have several areas to address, but I would like to bury the worry of difficult keys, once and for all, but quickly. My practice sessions will be focused in that direction,



p.s. I am working on the ii, v, i, lesson in the advanced section. One melodic line applied to various ii, v, i’s. Hard going, but interesting, and related to the above.

Sent from my iPad

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Wellcome Ed

just my two cents :

  • mainly depends on your goal … just for fun with friends … professional … being able to comping all singers in your area …

  • playing more tune in 'unusual keys ’

  • continuing transposing licks and progression …

all is a long process … so patience is the most important ingredient :slight_smile: you are not alone

But Hayden will talk more deeply about .


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Hi Ed :wave:

Great questions.

Here’s my thoughts:

I have a couple of recommendations here.

1) Using The Circle Of Fifths

I’m a huge advocate of using the circle of fifths as a practice tool. When I was new to jazz harmony I found the circle to be a very useful point of reference and so firstly I’d recommend printing the circle and keeping it near to the piano.

Here is a larger PDF version which also shows the relative minors:

circle_of_fifths.pdf (2.8 MB)

Print that out and stick it near, or on your piano.

When drilling theory, sometimes start with the ‘black keys’.

We all naturally become comfortable with the ‘white keys’ - or the keys at the top of the circle such as C, F, G, Bb, Eb etc… and it’s very easy to neglect the ‘black keys’ such as Db, Gb/F#, B, E etc…

One thing I find useful is to start my theory drills in Db or Gb and then work counter-clockwise around the circle.

We can apply this to all of our drills, scales, chords, progressions etc…

By starting in these ‘difficult’ or ‘less common’ keys, we focus our practice exactly where it is needed and soon our knowledge will improve on these keys and we become more comfortable playing in them.

So that’s the first recommendation… make a conscious effort to start in the ‘black keys’ when drilling different theory areas.

2) Identify The Difficult Keys & Drill Them Straight Away

When playing jazz standards, I find useful to identify the keys I have trouble with, and then drill that key straight away to improve my understanding.

For example, I’m playing through a jazz standard - Body & Soul - I get to that second bar and I notice that I’m not as comfortable as I would like to be with the 251 in Db Major:

Here’s what I would do:

  1. Stop playing the tune and spend 5 or 10 minutes isolating and drilling through that key

  2. Perhaps start with the scales, Eb Dorian, Ab Mixolydian, Db Ionian - run them up and down a few times to visualise the underlying scales

  3. Then we could construct the 251 progression using 3 note voicings in both Type A and Type B. Root in the left hand, and 3rds and 7ths in the right hand

  4. It’s also nice to play the 3rds and 7ths on their own in both hands and visualise the voice leading of b7ths dropping to the 3rd of the next chord in the 251.

  5. Next we could extend add in some extensions, perhaps playing Eb-9, Ab13, Dbmaj9 - similar to the 9th and 13th chord drill here.

  6. Then we could play the rootless voicings - both Type A and Type B, in both hands.

  7. Perhaps now we run the right hand scales over the left hand rootless voicings. Also play the arpeggios over the left hand voicings to familiarise yourself with the chord tones. This is a nice drill to familiarise yourself with melodic development over the progression.

  8. Next we could spice things up with some altered harmony. Methodically working through each alteration. I like to use 2 hands here, playing Eb-9 or Eb-11, then Ab7b9, then to Dbmaj9. Repeat this with the other alterations #9, #11, and #5/b13.

  9. Then it would be nice to play the 4 upper structure triads of Ab7. Here’s the upper structure triad cheat sheet to work through the formulas:

Upper_Structure_Cheat_Sheet.pdf (1015.7 KB)

  1. Perhaps add in the 6 dominant and create a 2516 progression. This creates a nice ‘circular progression’. Circle around the chords with the drills above and then you are also working on the 2516/1625 turnaround in the difficult key.

By now we will have a much deeper understanding of the key, and so go back and play the tune again experimenting with the different variations we have just explored.

Now, one of the reasons I find this approach useful is that we are taking something out of context, and then putting it back into context

When drilling theory, it’s easy for it to remain a theory drill, and never truly be able to apply it in context of jazz standards - which is typically the end goal for us.

Using the above approach, we are identifying the keys we have trouble with, isolating them and drilling them, and then immediately applying them back in context of the tune.

I find this to be the most effective way not only to improve my weaker keys, but also to give me more creativity and inspiration to find new ways to play a tune, or a specific section of a tune.

Try it out and let me know what you think.

Personally this is not something that i have ever done and this ties into @Pierrot’s point on your goals and aspirations.

If you play at home purely for personal pleasure, then I think it’s unnecessary to take all tunes through all keys.

However if you are performing/gigging regularly and are required to change keys on the fly, then of course this would be very important for you.

It can help to learn and memorise the numeric harmony and the common forms… see this course for more information:

Yes if you do want to take a tune around all 12 keys, it would make sense to take a tune that contains a lot of 251s instead of a modal composition for example.

Particularly if the goal of the exercise is to improve our knowledge of common harmonic cadences.

Exactly as you say… we would get more return for the work put in.

I think I’ve answered this above.

It depends on your goals.

I also outlined my method for improving my weaknesses in context of playing jazz standards. I find this method to work best for myself.

Yes playing with vocalists raises a whole new set of challenges.

The key here is to memorise tunes numerically, and perhaps also simplify the form as Lyndol suggests in some of her lessons.

Body & Soul is a tricky tune due to the number of modulations.

My opinion is that notation and/or iRealPro should be used as an additional aid if needed.

The end goal for us is to have the information at our fingertips so that we can play it on demand.

By all means use these things as an aid, but don’t forget that the end goal is independence from music and chord charts.

Well welcome back Ed!

Check out the Practice Plan Section of the forum, I will be adding these for all courses:

You will see that I use and reference the circle of fifths throughout and I feel that it’s important for students to follow a methodical and structured approach like this.

Above anything else Ed… don’t forget to have fun with it… this is supposed to be a fun hobby after all. I must admit that sometimes it can be easy to forget that with the huge task that lies ahead of us.


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Many thanks for such a well constructed, detailed and extremely helpful reply.

There are several ideas there that should accelerate the rate of improvement. That said, it is as it ever was, one needs to put the work in.

Just starting with the black keys will be top of the list.

Thank you once again,


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And my thanks as well, Hayden. This serves as an excellent review/pep talk. Sometimes there seems to be so much to master that it becomes daunting. :thinking:

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Hello Hayden: I just read your response to Ed’s equally well formulated question and find the thread and the suggestion mooooooooost helpful. This is because, like Ed, I have been struggling with the ‘black key curse’ : in my case, my fingers keep slipping of the black keys and I found a simplified solution: play open voicings with the focus on 3 and 7 combinations. [I noticed that M. LeGrand keeps licking his fingers in one video while playing; maybe I should try that with the finger-slipping?]. At any rate, this is really helpful. Best, Smole

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Thank you to Smole for the comments and the tip.
Regarding the “black keys”, discomfort with them, for many of us, is only borne out of a lack of familiarity.
If someone had the time, ( I’m not serious), to analyse any fake book, the number of tunes in Ab and beyond, D and beyond, negligible.
(I’m talking standards not contemporary compositions).
I often wonder if F and C would have been difficult keys for me now, if from the beginning I had been playing most of my tunes in Gb, Db, A and the beloved B? Probably!
Most text books, web sites and instructional videos carry on with the attraction to C. Most chord voicings are first of all presented to us in C. I can understand why, but you can see how it compounds the problem to a degree. One area where the black key difficulty manifests itself. Intros.
I expect one or two working pianists will agree that we are invariably called upon to “play us eight bars in”. I can bring anybody in on the familiar keys, right on the money. It’s more of a lottery with the “difficult” keys.

Probably enough on this topic from me, Hayden’s response has pointed the way of to get on top of it, and for that I am grateful.

Briefly, Ed., only to say that I love your analysis and agree with it. There are two phrases I learned to hate: “for example, in the key of C…” and the other “practice this in all 12 keys!!” I could hear my teeth grinding when I come across them.

You are also right, enough for this thread, back to work everyone. Best, Smole