<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=170342517119698&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

Playing In All 12 keys: The Wisdom of Charlie Banacos (Part 1)

Eric Ostling

April 19, 2016

Share it!

Charlie Banacos was a true music guru. He taught piano, composition, and improvisation in Greater Boston's north shore for almost 50 years until his death in 2009, reaching thousands of musicians all over the world. 

Famous Berklee College of Music graduates like saxophonist Michael Brecker, pianist Danilo Perez, guitarist Mike Stern, got on a 2-year waiting list to get to study with him. Charlie was a pioneer in offering correspondence lessons to students across the country long before the days of Youtube or Skype lesson online. So I do not have his whole story, not even close. Check out his website and other resources online, and talk to others instructors on the Real School staff who studied with him as I did.


Charlie certainly wasn't the first teacher to get students to play in all 12 keys. But he was the one to show me how magical, powerful, and FUN-damental it was, and how anyone could start doing it. That's why today I teach all of my students using it as soon as they can, regardless of their level. It is the ultimate ear training tool, which is the secret to great musicianship at all levels.

Charlie_Banacos_happens_to_be_one_of_the_finest_jazz_and_harmony_1.pngStarting can be easy enough; just don't bite off more than you can chew. Take baby steps. Take a simple melody, a single chord, or a snippet like Do-Re-Mi (1-2-3) from a major scale. Play it, and go up a key, say chromatically – first in C, then in C#, in D etc, through all 12 keys. Then come back down through them all.

Or, go right to the full version of Charlie's method (this dissertation by Lefteris Kordis is an excellent resource) using the famous chord progression known as the Cycle of 4ths. Take your musical idea, find it, and play it in the following progression of keys:

C  F  Bb  Eb  Ab  Db(C#)  Gb(F#)  B  E  A  D  G  (C) (more on this cycle in Part II)


Yes, it can be tricky, especially at first.  But, like riding a bicycle, if you keep at it, at a certain point something will take over. You'll be amazed at how smooth and powerful it can feel, like moving in a different plane. As Charlie used to say, watch the notes as they go by, “like you're driving by the planets”.

Have fun and, as Charlie always used to say in parting (about those horrible threatening practicing demons facing you) – “Kill! Kill!”

Eric Ostling is a piano instructor at the Real School of Music Burlington location. Learn more about Eric here.