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.