I've been reading Ross Russell's biography of Charlie Parker, Bird Lives!: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker. One point about Bird's early years on the saxophone struck me. He didn't have much formal instruction, so it was not until after he'd gained some facility on the instrument that he discovered that there exist more keys than the one he knew. According to the book, he was laughed off the stage at his first jam session for this conceptual oversight. So Bird took it upon himself to learn the rest of the keys. No one told him that as a horn player, he only needed to practice three or four different keys in order to grasp most of the music he wished to play. So he gradually taught himself how to play in each of the twelve keys, one by one, until he was comfortable with all of them. This no doubt laid the foundation for his later reputation of calling familiar tunes in unfamiliar keys at unmanageable tempos.
As a guitar player, realizing transpositions and key changes doesn't present the conceptual hurdle that it might to a horn player. I just move the same shapes up or down a few frets or to the next set of strings. With the exception of playing with open strings in first position, playing in different keys doesn't physically feel different on the guitar. Everything but the starting point is the same. So I had never given much thought to delving into any specific key to learn its unique quirks, as it sounds and as it's played on the guitar. Learning about Bird's methods inspired me to try it out.
Earlier this month, I decided to start with the key of C and proceed with one key per day for thirteen days (including F# and Gb). Any scale or arpeggio exercises I was doing were to be confined to the key of the day. I've been working on different approaches to jazz blues progressions, so that work was also restricted to a single key. I went back to my Mother of All Major Scale Exercises every day.
The most important work I did during this period was with sight reading. I used my Sight Reader program (still unreleased) to generate melodies using the appropriate key signature each day. This has always been one of my sight reading weaknesses: confidence within any key signature. On the days I did the most sight reading, I got to the point where that key signature felt as natural as C major. I was no longer thinking that each F on the staff needs to be played as an F#, for example. I just played it without thinking.
I want each of these thirteen key signatures to hold a special and equally important spot in my brain. It's like the Crayola 64-crayon set. I could identify every one of those colors when I was a kid, not by qualifying one as a modification of others, but instant, individual recognition. That's how I want to know each of these key signatures.
My first round through these key signatures lasted from June 6 to June 18. I randomly chose the order so I wouldn't get used to any pattern of changing keys (C, F#, G, D, Db, Eb, E, B, F, Bb, A, Ab, Gb). I marked each of them on my calendar before I started. At the end of each successful day, I declared on my Twitter account, "Today I became one with the key of X major." If you were following and confused, scratch your head no more. I plan to do it again, starting today, so watch out.