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Music Teacher Tip #14 - Key Changes

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Music Teacher Tip #14 - #KeyChanges:

💁🏼‍♀️ This one’s for the choral-music teachers. If you’ve ever worked on a piece that’s having unexplained intonation issues throughout, try changing the key. I’ve only had to do this 3 times that I recall, but all 3 times it worked like magic.

1️⃣ I was conducting an elementary all-county choir. They were singing “Yonder Come Day” which is a Georgia Sea Island Spiritual. It’s SSA a cappella. (The link is below if you’re interested.) For some reason, it wasn’t working. The energy sounded low which was weird for an energetic piece and they were having intonation issues that I didn’t anticipate. I don’t remember the original key, but I do remember asking the accompanist to give me their starting pitches a step higher. Suddenly everything worked!

If a piece is a cappella, this is so easy to do and it’s always worth it to experiment a half- or whole-step up or down. Just check their pitch at the end to be sure that they haven’t morphed into another key.

2️⃣ I was conducting a piece that I had composed for the adult church choir where I was director. It was in the key of D major. They were consistently flat. Even after trying almost all of my teacher tricks, it was still largely out of tune. Since that wasn’t normal for them, I decided to change the key to C. I brought it back to them the next week in the new key. Instantly, no pitch problems.

3️⃣ Very recently I was working with a voice student on a piece that we had co-written (her the lyrics, me the music). I originally composed this song in C major. After weeks of working on continuous air flow, placement, crossing the break, etc., the first part of the song just didn’t sound as good as the rest. I finally remembered my trick regarding key, switched it to D major and.... no more issues.

🎶 Granted, you can’t always change the key and get away with it. If the piece is a cappella, it’s pretty easy to do. If you change the key and then perform the piece for a competition, (MPA for example), then you will need to make a note to the judges in case they have perfect pitch. 🤔

🎶 In my other two cases, I was the composer, so I had the rights to the music. This made changing the key a no-brainer. If you were to want to change the key of a published work, you would need to seek permission from the publisher or whoever holds the copyright to the music.

🎶 Sometimes, the composer can easily change the key for you (as long as permission has been granted). There is a “transpose” feature on most music notation software, so to do this would likely take very little time.

🎶 The main thing to remember as a director is that our job is to lead our singers to the best performance possible. If that means changing the key, (with permission), so be it! 👏👏👏

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