My good friend Josh Johnson is a powerhouse of energy and ideas on the horn, and I’d like to steal his latest project to write a few lines about: transposition. Horn players have to be able to transpose, no way around that. As with multiple tonguing, we usually start late. Publishers have made things tougher by transposing everything in to F. Junior high or high school players seldom even run into parts for Eb horn anymore. Youth orchestra librarians compound the crime by ordering transposed parts. So players often enter college with little or no transposition experience. Too bad – there is no reason that players could not begin learning transposition early on, especially E and Eb horn. Transposition is like learning a new language – more mental than physical – and we have to learn a lot of them (the most I ever encountered in one piece, I believe, was a Verdi opera: 14 different keys, which is really interesting when you consider that there are only 12 chromatic keys. It was 14 because there some duplicates, i.e. the same key in both alto and basso versions).
Josh Johnson recently related that he spent some hours with a trumpet player playing duets, so that he had to transpose horn in Bb (unless the trumpet player switched to a C trumpet at any point). Josh reports that, as you might expect, as time went on, it got easier and easier, so that after several hours his Bb transposition (knowing him he probably did both alto and basso) got very fluent.
There it is: for the easiest way to work on otherwise tough mental slog, work with a friend. Then it becomes more of a game, a lark, and not so much a torture. It’s just what you would/should do if you wanted to acquire fluency in a foreign language – French, Russian, Mandarin… Transposing duets is a bit like sitting down in a sidewalk café and ordering a cup of coffee. And doing it again. And again. And again. You may stammer and stumble at first: “Um, uh, coffee… me… please…now.” But after a couple of hours, you will have no trouble tossing off “I’d like to order a triple-shot Grande soy three-pump hazelnut dry latte. And would you be so good as to bring me a gâteau mille-feuille as well. Thank you, you’re so kind” – without hesitation or accent, and it was fun, not work, getting there.
So: have a transpositional tête-à-tête with any other non-F instrument and start speaking transposition.
PS: Not as much fun, but another idea for practice: since transposition is a mental process, you can transpose anywhere without the instrument. If you commute on the bus or train or get stuck in any kind of lines, you can take out a score and practice it all in your head. Just don’t try it when you are the driver.