Learning modes: Yes, There’s an easier way to get started!

A lot of pianists become a little overwhelmed when it comes to “modal” playing, or improvising using modes. It’s actually easier than trying to navigate through a series of complex chord changes, but at first it doesn’t seem that way.

First of all, there are the Greek names: “Mixolydian,” “Locrian,” etc. Not a good way to begin learning them!

Here’s a better way to get started:

Let’s say you’re improvising on an Fm7 chord. What’s a scale (mode) you already know? Well, open any music theory book and the first minor scale you’ll learn in the natural minor scale. So start by using that: F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb.

Sounds good, right? Now, after a while, change the Db to a D natural. This forms an F Dorian mode, but don’t think too much about the name yet. Simply keep improvising with the F minor scale, sometimes using the Db and sometimes the D natural. Hear how this slight difference makes a huge difference in the overall sound.

Isn’t that an easier way to “dive in” and get some experience play with modes, before you buckle down and memorize all 7 fancy names and practice them in all 12 keys? It’s a lot more fun too!

Here’s a video of me playing “Afro Blue,” the 2nd song in my Journey Through The Real Book series.
Ron Drotos plays Afro Blue

Check out how I do exactly as I described above with the Db and D natural. Try it yourself!

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