A Transposition Practice Plan

This summer I wrote a post called “Three Things You Should Practice Every Day,” and the three techniques I included were lip trills, stopped horn, and multiple tonguing.  Thinking back on that post, I really should have included transposition as well since, like the three techniques above, it really is something you want to be totally secure on in your playing. Besides, it’s just a part of good overall musicianship. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked to read a church hymn in C, or to read a trombone part in a brass ensemble.  Not to mention that it will also help you in reading orchestral scores.  The real key to getting comfortable in transpositions is to simply practice them regularly.  I recommend using a fairly simple exercise or etude, like No. 1 (excerpt shown below) from Giuseppe Concone’s Lyrical Studies, transcribed by John F. Sawyer (The Brass Press/Editions Bim, 1972/1999).

You don’t have to use the entire exercise – rather you should choose something that you can easily manage playing in a couple of different transpositions every day.  As you become more proficient, change exercises, or include more of your present exercise.  I also recommend using a simple chart like the one shown below to make sure that you cover all of the possible transpositions over a period of a week or so.

This chart includes two transpositions for each day of the week, one high and one low.  For some of the more unusual keys, you may want to shorten your present exercise to just a few lines or so, while for the more common keys you can play for longer periods and practice sight-reading in those keys.  If the alto transpositions go too high, switch to basso for those measures and then continue in alto once the range returns to normal. Feel free to change around the order as you wish – the point is to put in a few minutes everyday so that when you see those transpositions they become more or less automatic.  If you aren’t sure about how to transpose some of these keys, check out this excellent reference and educational game by Ricardo Matosinhos.

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When learning transpositions it might be an idea to prioritise the ones which occur more frequently. In terms of the traditional classical and early romantic orchestral repertoire, that means starting with E, Eb, D, C and Bb basso. Then G, A and Bb alto, which are relatively rare among the romantics but more common in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

Ab alto and basso and Db are relatively rare except in Italian opera. B basso is also rare, except for the famous solo in the slow movement of Brahms 2. I think the only other occasion I’ve come across B basso is a short passage in Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony.

In terms of practice to get transposition secure, I recommend that what is needed is to practice transposed sight-reading. That helps you with two skills at once – transposition and sight-reading. Both are useful and necessary, and both are sadly under-practiced by many people.

Hi Jonathan,

I agree – one should be completely secure with the more common transpositions first, before branching out into more remote keys. Do you prefer the interval method, clef method, or a mixture of both?

I learned using a variant of the interval method. So many notes up or down, and then change the key signature. So horn in Eb is one note down and add 2 flats to the key signature. B basso is 2 lines down and sharpen almost everything in sight.

But I’m not dogmatic about it. For a player whose musical education has involved reading other clefs, the clef method may work better. What matters is that the transposition is secure, not the thought process which gets you from here to there.

For the easier transpositions, it has got to the point for me where it is just an alternative set of fingerings I slip into, and I don’t have to think all that hard about the note translations.

Dearest Horn Players,
I am the publisher with the newest edition of the Concone Lyrical Studies book. Yet I know that Sawyer’s edition is the most well-known book in the market – we at the Classical Music Preservation Society are attempting to do a better job at this. The last treatment of the lyrical studies was examined in 1972 by Sawyer, and we have re-done the REAL Concone exercises. The differences are astounding! Please look for this book just now hot off the press with the original scores Lessons 1-25 at Giuseppe Concone’s Lyrical Studies for Horn: First Part {Lessons 1-25} in your search box – now available on Amazon.com from my store at davebooks3 – thanks so much – the Last Part {Lessons 26-50} (yes, 50 not 32!) will be ready later this summer.
-Dave

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[…] Transposition: This is another skill that it’s better to work on sooner rather than later.  There are a number of practical reasons to learn transposition, but the bottom line is that you have to know how to transpose to be a horn player.  If you’re a music education student you still need to know how to transpose.  Don’t just take my word for it – check out this great post by Bruce Hembd at Horn Matters.  Not sure where to start and feeling a little overwhelmed about transposition?  It’s ok, and you are not alone.  Start slowly, and practice transposing a little bit every day, perhaps using a practice plan like this one. […]

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