Vocal accompanists and repetiteurs need to develop the skills to transpose virtually at sight in order to accommodate the different voice types and the vocal ranges of the singers they work with, but transposition is also a valuable practice tool for the solo pianist. We can use transposition to build and test the aural and analytic memory for those pieces we need to memorise, and we can also use it for refining motor control and coordination in difficult passages. I explore both these areas thoroughly in Chapter 7 from Volume 3 of my ebook series, but I wanted to give an example of the benefits of transposing from a lesson I gave this week on Bach’s Italian Concerto.

Having taught this piece dozens of times over the years, it comes as no surprise that I might have to help a student with the following bars (I have added my own performance suggestions, please excuse the absence of treble and bass clefs):

Italian Concerto_0001

This snippet occurs in three different guises in the first movement – the first time ending on the tonic, the second time on the dominant and the last time on the subdominant. Apart from a tied RH thumb and a modified LH in the last example, the notes and fingerings are the same. The RH seems to trip people up until its contents have been digested and the fingers organised, so how do we do this? Since Bach has been meticulous in showing the parts, we can at least do him the service of practising it thus. I especially like omitting the thumb and practising the upper two parts alone but playing the other combinations is valuable too. If we really want to take this a step further, we might practise these two bars not only in the three settings Bach has written but also in other keys. I suggest all twelve. It will test our ear and refine our coordination, and I can guarantee if you have the time and patience to do this for a few days you will know this spot infinitely better. Bach the educator would surely have approved, plus you’ll enjoy it!

How it Works

A distinguished colleague once told me a story of how in the middle of his career as an international concert pianist he suddenly became aware of a fact about the piano that he was unaware of before. I was intrigued as to what this might be. In a flash of insight, he told me he realised that the black keys were higher up and further away! When we play, we are constantly making micro adjustments within the hand and arm to accommodate the topography of the keyboard, the black-white terrain. Using our kinesthetic sense, we adapt our hand position by curving the long fingers (2, 3 and 4)  very slightly more when playing white keys, slightly less so when playing black keys. When the short fingers (thumb and 5) play black keys, our position is shifted to the back of the keys, with a tiny wrist and forearm adjustment to accommodate this. So when we transpose, we actually learn versions of the same passage that are essentially the same and yet subtly different. We end up by knowing twelve versions of the passage. This is like looking at a statue from many different angles rather than just viewing it from one vantage point. We build up a more complete picture.

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