From the emails I receive, it looks like the biggest stumbling block to playing jazz piano is the whole subject of modes. People get stuck at: 1. What exactly are modes? 2. When are modes used? 3. What modes to use for each chord? and 4. How to use modes to improvise fluently.
Modes are such an important part of improvising jazz solos, and because aspiring players don’t understand them in a musical way, many people spend years (and decades) wondering “how do I get better?” The modes end up slowing them down, because they have to think too much about each chord/scale relationship.
If you ever feel this way, it’s not your fault; it’s the way modes are usually presented.
The first stumbling block is that the entire system of modes is usually explained in theoretical way first, and this isn’t the way jazz musicians actually understand modes as they improvise.
For example, nobody goes to the IV chord while playing a Blues in C and thinks: “OK… F is the 5th scale degree in the key of Bb major so since I’m on the IV chord in the key of C, and it’s a dominant 7th chord, I’ll use the Bb major scale which contains two flats, Bb and Eb, but I’ll start the scale on the F.”
But this convoluted way of thinking, however, is exactly the way modes are usually presented. Yes, it’s all true, but it’s true in the same way as “OK… When I see my friend today, I’ll begin the conversation by using a pronoun, which I’ll then follow with a noun and an active verb which relates to the previously spoken pronoun, and then, after a good conjunction, I’ll end with an adverb.”
Whew! Nobody can think that fast while speaking and luckily we don‘t have to. In the same way, there’s an easier, practical way to learn and use modes.
In fact, you’ve been using modes your whole musical life. You used them in the first piano piece you ever learned, and in that Bach “Minuet” you played in recital. You used them on that rock ballad your high school garage band jammed on, and each time you play the melody of a jazz standard.
I’m reminded of an old TV commercial that takes place in a beauty salon. The beautician tells a client about a liquid dish soap that will make her hands soft. When the woman asks which soap it is, the beautician utters the then-famous phrase, “You’re soaking in it!” (The woman looks down and realizes that her hand was indeed soaking in a bowl of the dish detergent.)
So… getting back to modes: “You’re soaking in it!”
You already know what modes are, but you know intuitively. Your next step is to learn them practically and to use the necessary music theory you need in order to achieve this in a “real world” way, so you can improvise on jazz tunes better and with more ease. A lot more ease.
The second big stumbling block to learning modes in a practical way is that it’s almost impossible to learn to use them fluently from a textbook. The textbooks themselves aren’t the problem. The problem is that they don’t lead you step-by-step through the process of understanding and actually using modes in your playing.
They can’t do this because they’re textbooks. They can’t hear you improvise with, say, an F Phrygian mode and point out that you’re avoiding the Gb, which is the “harmonic color” of that particular mode. They can’t know when you’re ready to apply your new understanding of the Mixolydian mode to “Take The ‘A’ Train” and at the same time explain why you can also raise the 4th scale degree when soloing over the D7 chord because it’s implied by the melody.
One of my favorite roles as a piano teacher is taking someone through the process of understanding modes in this practical, highly-musical way, and to hear them finally “get it,” sometimes after decades of unsuccessful attempts.
This is why I’ve decided to offer a 10-week Skype Intensive called “Mastering The Modes.” To help you learn, understand, and apply the modes to your improvising and favorite jazz standards. To get you over the huge learning curve that the traditional way of studying modes presents, and to hear you begin to “get it.” Because after this, you’ll always have it!
With Mastering The Modes, you and I will meet via Skype (or Zoom if you prefer) for Ten 30-minute sessions, one per week for 10 weeks. In each session, I’ll lead you step-by-step through the process of understanding and applying modes to your improvisations. Each lesson will build upon the concepts you’ve already learned, and you’ll get PDFs with practice assignments to help you assimilate the concepts. The cost is $300 for the entire 10 weeks.
10 lessons is enough to give you a good, practical understanding of how modes work in a relevant, musical way that you can use when improvising on actual tunes.
If you’re interested in working with me to learn modes in this way and get over the learning curve once and for all, simply reply to this email and we’ll set up a lesson schedule that works for us both.
This is the kind of piano teaching that excites me the most, and if you’d like to understand how to use modes in your playing, I’m looking forward to helping you get over the initial learning curve once and for all!
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration