On madness and beauty of harmonic minor

Are we going to talk about them dissonances? Yes, of course, we are! I was focusing on left hand patterns during the last weeks and kind put my scale studies on power-saving mode (i. e. 20 minutes of relatively mindless recap in all keys in the beginning of the practice section as opposed to 2 hours of focused dissection in each key 😄). But I am planning to add some of harmonic and melodic minor exercises back in my routine as soon as I have a good grasp on the new left hand stuff. Can’t lose the momentum right now!

So, the harmonic minor modes. People tend to view them as harsh or dissonant or exotic or — insert your own word choice for “too f’d up to practice“. I view them as composer modes. My point being, they are so colourful that whenever you start practicing them and running them around the cycle of 4ths or circle of 5ths, you eventually end up composing a new piece. Yes, the natural 7th may sound creepy, and minor-major 7th chords are weird, but as soon as the natural 7th resolves to the root and minor-major chord steps back to reveal subtle clean minor, it suddenly clicks in your head and you see the beauty of it. To put it in a more entertaining way: the synthetic minor modes are so fucked up that their non-fucked up parts shine thousand times brighter as they would in a more balanced situation. Think of them as a completely drugged out actor who is somehow still capable to deliver the best Hamlet monologue ever — and then immediately pass out in the dressing room. Not that I’m saying that psychostimulants are a good thing, I’m just saying that Harmonic minor could be an entry poi— Okay, you got the idea, right? 🤓

I’m going to stop talking now and share a couple of scale exercises that might help you see the beauty of it more clearly by reducing the role of dissonances. No, I’m not going to make any more analogies that involve substances of abuse.

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Yeah, this is a normal (considering you follow this blog for some time, haha!) scale dissection over moving degrees, but in this case, due to the choice of note grouping and arpeggiation in the left hand, it really starts to sound interesting. There are only two notes sounding together at the same time, therefore — less mud, therefore — more fun practicing!

What I’m doing here is just running up the scale in a weird pattern: 4 notes up, then 2 down, then again 4 up starting where I left off (see my marks on the sheet). After reaching the V7 chord, I start descending in the same fashion, but in reverse.

If this exercise looks too confusing (especially after my explanation), here’s another one — it’s much more straightforward and lightweight but does pretty much the same job.

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i∆7 — V7 is one of the signature progressions of the Harmonic minor, so it makes sense to practice the scale over it. But practicing the scale in linear scalar motion is boring, so why not break it in 3rds and make your brain feel slightly confused for the next couple of hours? 😄

That’s it for today, I hope it was not too heady and I also attribute all swearing in this post to the dissonant quality of the scale in question. Practice hard, see you next time! 🤙🏻

How to practice basic sh*t and sound fancy while doing it

Got an intense workout for you today! In case you’re still struggling with inversions — maybe they’re something you’ve brushed over earlier and now it seems almost embarrassing to go back and invest time in such a BASIC thing that, obviously, every two-year-old can play without a second thought (right?). I mean, that’s my case. I’ve always been too cool for triad inversions, that’s why I still mess them up in the middle of the piece and that’s why I’ve come up with this workout that would hopefully also help other people who are in the similar awkward situation. Want to practice basic shit and sound cool? Here’s the way.

Before I proceed to the sheet music — just a side note: this is, in fact, the third workout in the series that I started last year, so feel free to check the previous variations (they might sound a bit less fancy, but should be easier to play):

Inversions & Extensions I
Inversions & Extensions II

Now on to the new one:

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Here I’m combining two technical skills to take the dull, mechanistic element from the seemingly boring routine and make it sound musical and actually make practice enjoyable. That’s the goal of this blog, in case you didn’t know! 😄 In this exercise, the right hand plays moving inversions of the major triads: root — 1st — 2nd — root again, while the left plays the melodic pattern consisting of diatonic intervals. I’ve chosen major 3rds, 6ths, 7ths as the “colour” tones and added my favourite extension: the 10th (the 3rd octave up, in other words) that is known to instantly make everything sexy and jazzy. Just playing this figure over moving inversions already sounds like music, and not like aimless inversion drill.

What’s next?

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Yeah! I took the whole thing and played it around the cycle of 4ths (here I randomly start on E major and go to D major for demonstration purposes; you can go all the way from C if you wish). The main enrichment here is that instead of one diatonic pattern (10-3-6-7), I’m playing two, emphasising the 7ths and the 6ths. It introduces some diversity (right when you need it) and is actually so fun to play that you would be willing to cycle it all day! Take a listen:

 

There are, of course, countless ways to embellish and extend this routine, but I’ll just briefly cover one more:

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What should you do when adding major 10ths does not make your line any sexier? That’s right: add more major 10ths in bass! Here, I am not changing the right hand pattern, but rather employing a new device in the left hand to make the overall sound less monotone and piano practice-y. It works! Here’s an audio fragment:

 

Okay, that’s it for today, I hope it was helpful! Feel free to comment and add your suggestions or share practice tips. I’m also trying to make the posts a little more— er— clickable, shall I say? — by adding the audio clips of the passages that I list here, so you could get an idea of what’s going on right away, before even trying it at the keyboard. Let me know if it’s helpful. And — harmonise ’till it hurts! 🤙🏻

Modal scales: aim not to become fluent, but rather a native

In the previous post I’ve shared another non-boring way to fall in love with a scale that might sound intimidating, dissonant or uncommon (or is labelled by people as such). Like a Locrian modal scale. Recently I’ve been doing some recap and used this approach with Mixolydian mode. And it turns out it works beautifully there as well!

As always, the point of doing these studies for me is to really internalise the hallmark mood of a particular mode. Major and minor (both harmonic and natural) are almost like the kids you grew up with, right? You can finish most typical runs and progression before they end. The major scale is so predictable you’re getting nauseous halfway around the circle of 5ths. But whenever you switch to the modal world, be it major mode or harmonic minor mode, or a melodic minor mode, or some exotic non-heptatonic thing, it immediately starts to feel “unfinished”. Like, why does the Lydian mode sound as if it were questioning something? Who’s Phrygian angry at? And why does Mixolydian suddenly feel annoyingly round and overly clean, like a badly photoshopped fashion model?

So, this feeling of “wrongness” and peculiarity — as opposed to instinctive nature and obviousness that you have with major and minor — apparently originates from the fact that you might not have had a chance to hang out with those modalities and make friends with them. It’s somewhat reminiscent of foreign language phonetics that sound funny — but a little more subtle. Well, there’s a way to alleviate this problem and learn to accept modal scales as they are — by dissecting them!

Here’s the same approach that I used to tame Locrian mode — applied for Mixo (you can find the detailed description in the previous post):

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Starting with simple arpeggiated modal 7th chords.

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Moving on and adding the Mixolydian scale (F in this case) dissected in groups of 3, ascending and then descending over the moving arpeggios, thus producing the unique blend that gives you a much fuller impression of the mode compared to just bluntly rolling up and down the scale.

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And finally adding the octave jumps to challenge the right hand and add even more definition and depth to the picture. That’s it! Gotta keep it short, as I’ve probably already been dragging on this topic a little bit too long. Make sure to check out other dissection posts, and tune in back later for the new (hint: left hand) stuff!

 

Finger independence routine as a composition tool

Hand independence is one of those technical things that I unconsciously put off for as long as I can, trying to justify it by telling myself that it’s not as important and that I’d be better off focusing on theory or learning pieces, plus it’s just plain boring and frustrating, so why start it anyway. And it’s all right until I sit down to record another piece and realise that I need 20 exhausting takes to lay down a fairly simple part because I just can’t reconcile left hand bass pattern with the melody that my right hand plays. Furthermore, because of the lack of focused work on independence, my fingers tend to avoid complex patterns and I often end up with similarly sounding, repeating melodic landscapes. So yeah, dedicated hand independence workout is important because it improves composition.

But instead of reaching for a Czerny book and embarking on a 10-year nightmare of finger exercises, I decided to make use of some jazz voicings and — as always — come up with a routine that would be fun and musical. So I could actually compose stuff in the process.

Here’s what I started with:

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As you can see, the right hand simply plays notes from the shell voicing of a major 7th chord (7-3-5 in this case), while the left hand walks up and down the major 7th arpeggio (in full 1-3-5-7 form). Just breaking a shell chord voicing into individual tones already creates a pleasant-sounding line! What is the obvious next step to sex it up?

Yes:

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Add broken 10ths in the left hand. Alternating 10-5-1-5-10 pattern and walking ∆7 arpeggios with LH against the same line with RH already sounds super jazzy and very rich. Just in case — I’m going around the cycle of 4ths here (C∆ → F∆ → etc.) and playing corresponding 7-3-5 shells with my right hand.

Next step — try a more sophisticated intervallic pattern. I love 6ths, James Jamerson loves 6ths, why not take them?

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First, isolate them and practice over descending and ascending arpeggio to let the right hand get used to the new pattern, and then — combine all left hand and right hand lines in one workout:

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Here C∆ 7-3-5 figure is played over broken 10ths, and then in the next bar, the 6-5-3-7 pattern in F major is played over F∆ arpeggio. Obviously, you can continue on and go around the cycle of 4ths / circle of 5ths or a modal II—V—I.

Finally, here’s an example of a real world application of the all aforementioned techniques. I took the first couple of bars of Always on My Mind by Brenda Lee (D | A | B- | D) and just improvised on them playing mostly 1-5-10, 1-5-1′ pattern with the left hand and different intervallic patterns with the right (mostly focusing on melodically played 7-3-5 shell). Check it out, I’m using colours now! Does it make notes on the staff look less (more?) annoying? 🤓

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And here’s what it sounds like:

 

Hope you find it helpful! Till later—

Practice session: Locrian dissection and more

Scale studies

Improv

  • Always on my mind
    • Shells
    • 10ths
    • Free improv

Observations

When playing from the chord chart, there is always a temptation to look on it even after you already know the progression by heart. It could be helpful to try and memorise the chords in the process of improvising to be able to look away from the chart and concentrate on introducing new left hand patterns and right hand runs.

Reversed stride bass in the context of satisfaction

Okay, first post after a two-week vacation! The best advice I could give to my two-week-younger self? Don’t ever take a goddam break from posting! I should’ve known this trap already, and yet I fell into it just like that. Anyway, on the plus side, I have tons of new sheet music and practice routine ideas waiting in the pipeline now, so expect high activity in the nearest future 👌🏻

Alright, today I wanted to talk about another left hand pattern that is worth exploring after you’ve mastered the broken 10ths and the excitement of mixing them with other diatonic intervallic patterns has started to wane. Reversed stride bass! I found it in the wonderful book Jazz Piano: The Left Hand by Roberto Scivales (which I highly recommend to everyone), got blown away by it and then amended it in order to use it in my own routine.

Reversed stride bass is — well, stride bass played backwards 🤓 Instead of hitting the root in the low register and then following up with a block triad or shell octave or two above, you do the exact opposite. Here’s the exercise that I used to practice this movement:

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The right hand here plays rootless voicings with minimal movement voice-leading pattern (7-3-5 → 3-7-9) around the cycle of 4ths. The left hand plays chord shells one octave lower and roots two octaves lower. You may also add root — 5th — root octave up movement to complement the rhythmic figure, but it’s more of an ornament.

You can absolutely play block chords in place of shells with the left hand, but, to my taste, doubling roots just sound too muddy. As always, after cycling that thing, take it to your favourite modal progressions & songs.

Reverse stride may sound a bit weird on its own, so, in order to add some FAT and intensity, you can actually combine it with broken 10ths (1-5-10) and block triads! It might be a bit tricky to get used to, but super fun to practice. Check this out:

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Same routine (cycling → modal DNAs → songs).

Just for the hell of it, here’s the (slightly oddly voiced) ii—V—I—IV improv that makes extensive use of the above pattern:

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I’m definitely not done practicing it yet, so it most likely is going to be one of my priorities in the next sessions. There aren’t too many things as satisfying as hitting the low A after a rather watery sounding 7th chord shell played over another shell, both of which are trying their best to avoid the root 😄 Till later—

Back from vacation!

Alright fellas, it’s been a long vacation — not exactly as productive as I planned it, quite procrastination-filled, I would say rather (although I did practice as normal) — so, now it’s time to go back to theory! Got some exciting stuff prepared, more details soon! I’ll be updating the practice log as well, so make sure to use your time machines and read posts from the past 😄 Till later!