My 18-month F# experiment

I got to the point where if I spent 5 minutes playing the sax, I’d be in so much pain in my hands, elbows and shoulders that I couldn’t pick up my horn for a few days. I knew that I had to stop to allow myself to heal, because I really suffering. I bought a Roland Aerophone Pro AE-30 in May of 2022. It allowed me to play with sax sounds, with sax fingering and sax-like breath control.

Over the course of a couple months, I felt bold enough to perform with it, and I started to leave the sax behind. I don’t know exactly when, but about a year and a half ago, I decided to play everything in F#. My Aerophone can be transposed to any key, so I would transpose the instrument so that no matter what we were playing in our 250-song repertoire, I was playing in F#.

Now I don’t think of note-names when I play. I think only of scale degree. I’ve been training in IFR since January of 2020. So by playing only in one key, my 1 never changes. The pitches I’m playing and playing to are changing, but my fingering for the scale never changes.

This allows me to think and process music solely in tonal numbers. It also means that the outside notes are also unchanging. If I want to do a #5 or a b3, it’s always in the same place. This has freed me from having to think about keys, scales, or most of music theory, and has allowed me to just open my ears and hear myself and partner play.

Yes, when a song modulates, I have to think about the new key, and be certain to finger it correctly. But I’ve spent several years ingraining all 12 keys into my muscle memory with something I call my 5-2-1 exercise, where I go through 36 scales (2-, 5D & 1) consecutively. So I can quickly orient myself to the fingering of another key. I don’t even think about major and minor, because I can hear where the tonal center is. I’m just moving around on my instrument, always knowing where on the tonal map that I am.

After a year and a half, I’ve decided to go through all the IFR backing tracks, one after another without transposing–so I’m playing in concert key for all tracks. I found that I am still thinking in tonal numbers regardless of the key, and can easily hear the tonal center and improvise freely regardless of the concert key I’m playing in.

I don’t think I’d have this ability to hear the number of note, or to hear the tonal center in progressions had I not limited myself to the fingering of only one major scale.

A 2 sounds like a 2 regardless of harmonic background. It doesn’t matter if the 2 is C# in B or is D in C. It has a feel to it, and I feel that as a sensation that pulls my fingers one way or another, to execute the phrase that is in my head. I really don’t have to think much about it. I might think, ‘I want to do a blue note’ or “#5” because I want a little color or variation. I might think ‘go to the top’ or the bottom. But I never think in terms of note names, only numbers.

So I think my experiment has been successful, and has expanded my skill as a musician. I’m so grateful for IFR and for all that @ImproviseForReal David Reed and @MireiaClua give and teach.


That’s quite a journey. I’m encouraged by the story, and that IFR has been brought you so far.

I’m unfamiliar with the instrument, so a quick look on YouTube. So, it’s a digital instrument, do you use any of the many synth sounds?

You say you always play in F#, so would this relate to the figuring used on a conventional instrument? ie you are figuring notes (including outside notes) from the key of F#, but digitally transposing to another key if necessary. If you are playing with a guitar playing a 1 chord of D major, you will switch a button and your F# figuring will play a D note.

If I got it right, it’s a great way to play, you can keep thinking in numbers and really immerse your thinking in the tonal map. Pretty cool stuff, thanks for sharing your story.

Hi Woody,
I was very interested to read about your journey. .

I’ve seen that on youtube videos. I have no aspirations to play a wind instrument, but if I did I think that would be top of my list. :smiley:

Pretty much any electronic keyboard could be used with the same idea, i.e. using transposition to turn the usual C position into whatever matches the key of the song, thus always having the white keys as 1 2 34 5 6 7, with the black keys as the sharpes & flats. :slight_smile:

I could even do a similar thing with my Line6 Variax guitar - but there seems little point with a P4 tuned guitar since the P4 gives me consistent patterns all over the neck (albeit with varying distances between frets).

Your story is a great “worked experiment” for demonstrating how the IFR tonal numbers system for building a feel for the relationships betwen notes really works. :smiley:

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Hi David,

Thanks for taking the time to read it :slight_smile:

Pretty much any electronic keyboard could be used with the same idea,


Your story is a great “worked experiment” for demonstrating how the IFR tonal numbers system for building a feel for the relationships betwen notes really works. :smiley:

It has been a true game changer. This approach has made the numbers so clear to me, that I now can just pick up my instrument and not transpose and then play in whatever key in concert key, and still hold onto the tonal map.

I have decided to start working with my sax teacher again. It’s been two years. I’m going to post about it in “Share your practicing!”

Great chatting with you again, @DavidW !

Yes, @mem that’s how it would work. So my 1 is always F#, but the instrument will play the root of whatever the key is. I play soft instruments that reside on my iPad. I have each song in our repertoire set up as a separate file that contains the soft instrument I’m playing (Saxophone, Cello, Trumpet) as well as the transposition value to make F# = 1. So all I have to do is open the song on my iPad and all the settings are there. I also have a backing track my wife and I created that has one track for vocal and one for guitar. This way I can practice the songs in our repertoire with the instrument I’ll be performing with.

I don’t use synth sounds. I use very realistic modeled sounds called SWAM instruments. I have saxophones, clarinets, trumpets, strings, and more–all very, very realistic.

Thanks so much for reading it, and for your kind words!

@woodyhaiken Did you know that Irving Berlin only ever ‘played’ in F# (a thing I knew but only just remembered)?

@DavidW That is a cool fact! I didn’t know!