Approaches for the Tougher Key Signatures

Looking for some tried and true ways to help your string players navigate key signatures with lots of sharps and flats? Simple tips such as having students carefully mark their music for half steps will go a long way toward ensuring success in this area. Lisa Goldman, orchestra teacher at Hilltop Elementary, Beachwood Middle, and Beachwood High Schools in Beachwood, Ohio, suggests a standard procedure that she uses with her students.

Goldman has her students begin by learning a simple piece and memorizing it. These pieces are usually from the Suzuki books. Once kids have memorized the piece and therefore internalized both the fingerings as well as the notes, she “alters the piece once accidental at a time.” For example, if her goal is to help her students become more familiar with the key of D-flat, she might start out having her students learn the Suzuki standard “Perpetual Motion” in D major. Once they have learned this, she asks them to change the placement of their second finger on the D string; for D-flat, students have to use a low 2 (low second finger) as opposed to a high 2 (high second finger). In this way, the new key signature feels like a simple shift as opposed to an entirely different orientation. She also alters the piano accompaniments for the new key so that the students have the same experience of playing with the piano.

After all the above exercises, Goldman teaches students the musical theory behind this downward shift, explaining that the low 2 is an F natural. “The students first produce the new note by ear and then apply what they’ve learned to the page,” seeing what the notes look like on the staff, she explains. “Whenever we’re learning a new key signature, we will preview the sound before learning the theory.” Goldman works with grades 4-12, and this method works at each stage.

Goldman works with a variety of texts that aid teachers in improving students’ ability to play “difficult” keys. One of her favorites is Bach and Before for Strings by David Newell, published by Kjos: “This book contains harmonized chorales in a variety of keys with opportunities for all parts to play either melody or harmonies.” Her other recommendations are High Tech for Strings by doris Gazsa, published by Carl Fischer; Harmonized Rhythms for String Orchestra by Anderson, published by Kjos; and Technicses for Strings by Jim Probasco and Dale Swisher, published by Heritage. Says Goldman, “I use the texts for resources, skill development, and reinforcement as necessary and as the time permits. They each have a unique style to presenting an orderly introduction to most key signatures.”

This article is reprinted from the November 2010 issue of Teaching Music.

— Nicole Springer. November 9, 2010. © National Association for Music Education.