Use iReal Pro to Circle the Keys in Fives


As a pianist, there's no way around technical exercises if you want to train fingers in the way they should go. Building patterns in the hands will build a strong player, reader and improviser. There's no better way to work around these technical challenges than by circling the circle of keys. The theory-packed ring breathes life into and logically connects to just about every aspect of music theory.

Start with Five-Finger Patterns

This post is specifically dedicated to how I boost student knowledge and playing of five-finger patterns traveling around the circle of keys. It makes sense to begin with five-finger patterns as they easily fit under the hand. From beginners to advanced, I believe it is essential for all levels of students to know these pentascales as they are the building blocks for understanding chords, scales, modes, and more. I use the phrase “five-finger pattern” because it relates to students’ five fingers faster than the term "penta scale."Also it is SO similar to another term I use a great deal—pentatonic—and I don’t want students to get confused.

Circle of Keys Drills (1) copy

Find a Groove with iReal Pro

As players work to build a steady pulse, it seems fitting to establish that habit from the beginning with any drill or exercise, not just repertoire. Bradley Sowash introduced me to this idea and how to create backing tracks for exercises and tunes using the app called iReal Pro.

In the video below, you'll see Ella playing her five-finger patterns around the circle keeping time with the iReal Pro backing track playing a particular pattern. FYI: My iPad is hooked to the Clavinova with an RCA cable to amplify the iPad speakers.

Here's the PDF of my chord chart for the exercise.

All my students memorize the rhythm and melody of the pattern singing this phrase:

Mommy made me eat my M&Ms. Yum, yum!

No, I didn't make it up. A long time ago, I played that pattern and a student declared: "hey, we sing that melody in choir for warm-ups!" and sang along as I played. The lyrics have stuck with me and my students ever since. When students learn about minor, I encourage them to think of something they don't like to eat for the lyrics. For example:

Mommy made me eat my broccoli. Yuck, yuck!

This doesn't always work because MANY students like broccoli--good for them! If this is the case, be ready to brainstorm new menu items. Here are a few that work: vitamins, scrambled eggs, mac and cheese, and brussel sprouts.

Build Technique

As students work their way around the circle, this is a great time to IMG_0768check hand position and build technical skills on each pattern by playing:

  • both hands piano or forte
  • both hands staccato or legato
  • both hands crescendo followed by diminuendo
  • one hand staccato and the other legato
  • one hand piano and the other forte
  • with straight 8th notes
  • with swinging 8th notes (watch Sara Campbell's student swing along with this exercise here.)

Be Creative

Traveling around the circles in fives can be used in a private lesson or in a group setting. Make sure to repurpose the drill with some improvisation! 

Suggestion #1

  • Ask students to form a line at the piano. Or, you and your student could do this activity atIMG_0770 a private lesson.
  • Student or teacher improvises a question phrase within the first measure of the C five-finger pattern ending on anything but C.
  • Student must improvise an answer phrase in the C five-finger pattern ending back on C, the home tone.
  • Both improvisers only have one measure—four beats—to complete this task and then must move to the next five-finger pattern in the circle and repeat the improv on the next five-finger pattern.
  • Tip: You may need to slow the tempo down on the iReal Pro chart.

Suggestion #2

  • Ask students to improvise within the two bars of a five-finger pattern.
  • If ideas are needed to spur improvisation, spin for a rhythm using a cuisine name on a Decide Now wheel. Learn more about this app that allows you to create your own spinning wheels here.
  • Tip: Follow this link to get your free PDF of  50 more ways to use Decide Now that keeps lessons fresh with a slice of randomness.

Suggestion #3IMG_0769

  • Ask students to spin the Decide Now wheel to determine a five-finger pattern.
  • Ask students to jam within that pattern playing along with the app MusiClock—another favorite app that provides upbeat and trendy backing tracks for major, minor, blues, bebop and pentatonic scales. Even though the students are only playing the first five notes of the major scale, it's good for them to see the entire scale and what is to come in the near future!

Want More?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of how I'm using iReal pro and other apps and resources to teach the circle of keys, technique and a steady pulse. In fact, there was SO much material for this blog it became overwhelming. After talking with Bradley Sowash who uses iReal Pro ALL the time, we decided that it would be best to share our ideas in a webinar slated to be scheduled SOON!

The webinar will include:

  • The BEST way to create your own lead sheets in iReal Pro.
  • A bunch more ideas of how to use iReal Pro.
  • Grand staff notation of drills to play around the circle of keys using iReal Pro.
  • Numerous resources and apps I'm using to reinforce the circle of keys off the bench.
  • Bradley Sowash--a pioneer of iReal Pro-- will show you TONS of ways he uses the app and exercises that will enhance you and your students' technical skills. Then he'll go the next step and demonstrate how these fundamentals are the foundation for developing red-hot improvisational skills and that of your students.
  • Yes, there will be handouts and time for questions!

Details coming soon about the webinar. The good news: all those who register for our 88 Creative Keys Improvisation Workshop before May 1st can attend the webinar for free!

Register for 88 Creative Keys Keyboard Improvisation Workshops

Bradley Sowash and I are pleased to announce that we will be holding our fourth annual 88 Creative Keys Keyboard Improvisation Workshop in Denver, July 2-13, 2016. Our special guest will be Debra Perez. You will NOT want to miss this. Registration opens March 1st. Follow this link for all the details.

Stay Up to Date

Sign up for any or all of my free resources here and you'll automatically receive my monthly newsletter. The next newsletter will include

  • when the webinar will be held
  • how to register for the webinar
  • how to register for the 2016 88 Creative Keys Improvisation Workshop
  • a link to the chord chart I made in iReal Pro.

The nuts and bolts of improvisation copy