How to deal with mad accidentals in harmonic minor modes

Harmonic minor is a bitch. Well, what I wanted to say is that it’s tricky in terms of getting fluent in it and not messing it up when you improvise. That raised 7th degree is super dissonant, it almost gives a feeling of a “wrong note” in a lot of contexts, so in order to get it properly wrong, you need to make sure your fingers remember what it is. The problem with accidentals in Hm is that the standard formulas for flats and sharps do not work, and “4 flats” does not automatically mean “Bb, Eb, Ab, Db”, as it would in any major mode. So you really need to get quick at figuring out what the 7th is and then raising it half step — or just get comfortable with all the accidentals in each key. Sounds like a lot of boring math, but I actually came up with a fun exercise that makes it sound super fancy and can turn your next practice session into a — you guessed it — extremely entertaining pastime.

The idea is simple: one of your hands only plays scale degrees with accidentals, the other one only plays naturals — in any octave, in any combination, harmonically or melodically. That’s it! You do it for one measure, and then you change hands. If the left was playing only altered degrees, it has to switch to naturals, the right then will switch to accidentals. For the next measure, you change the key (like, go around the cycle of 4ths maybe?). Here’s an example of Bb harmonic minor going into F harmonic minor going into Eb harmonic minor:

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And here’s how it sounds:

 

It might start sounding a bit like shit once you get to the keys with a lot of accidentals (like Eb here), but in this case, you can just turn off the restrictions and use all notes in both hands.

Oh, and yes — try in any major mode or blues scale to experience the instant gratification of not having to think about the raised 7th 😆

Till later—

Practice session: harmonic minor and rootless broken 10ths

Scale studies

  • All Hm1 scales

Left hand

  • Broken 10ths recap: Dorian DNA (i7 — IV) in all keys
  • Descending motion focus: rootless broken 10ths
  • Having some classical time: all minor 7th arpeggios in descending motion

What do I mean by “rootless broken 10ths”? 🥴

These are normal broken 10ths with some diatonic line (going from Cm to Fm):

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Here, I’ve just replaced 1s (C) with the 9ths (D) to get a super sexy sound of a 9th played below. Give it a try (and ignore the second measure):

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Session timing: 1h 45m

Practice session: permutations and more Gershwin studies

Scale studies

  • All Lydian scales
  • All Ionian scales
  • Scale dissection: Ab Lydian over Ab∆7 moving arpeggios in groups of two
  • Scale dissection: F# Dorian over F#m7 moving arpeggios in groups of three
  • Scale dissection #2: F# Dorian in groups of three over F#m7 regrouped arpeggios
  • Scale dissection #3: F# Dorian in groups of three over all F#m7 inversions in 1-3-5-7 permutations (several slow passes, but couldn’t really play it fluently)

Left hand

  • Gershwin reversed stride bass (#14 from Jazz Piano: The Left Hand)
    • Original chord progression (dominant descent over the cycle of 4ths from F#, in fact 🤓)
    • Minor variation
      • Only reversed stride in 3-7 → R | 7-10 → R pattern
      • Reversed stride + broken 10ths + block triads up the octave (sounds super dope 🔥)
  • Descending 10ths in a free jam: focus on 10-5 movement

Improvisation

  • Major blues scale around the cycle (quick recap)

Session timing: 2h 30m

Observations

Variations are great! It definitely is much more inspiring an empowering than simply learning the piece from sheet music and finally reading it without any errors. Understanding the logic behind the particular composition and the techniques that are used in it — and then being able to freely play your variation of it in which one can still recognise the original — this is extremely satisfying.

Scale practice routine that’s as fun as drugs are bad

I promised to come back with more non-boring scale practice routine ideas, so here they are. I think I made it clear enough in this blog that I hate doing mechanical exercises and thoughtlessly practicing patterns. That’s not very helpful in a real-life situation (still, knowing fingering is important!) Anyway, here’s what I do when I want to learn the scale and be able to use it and also enjoy the sound of my exercise.

I call it scale dissection. You literally take the scale and divide it into small diatonic lines and then snort them in one after another (I swear I tried to come up with the better analogy). It could be something as easy as 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-1, or more sophisticated as b7-1, 1-b3, 5-1, 1-5-10 — you name it. Bottom line, it has to consist of scale tones. To keep left hand busy, you can choose something not very brain-processing-heavy, like a common pattern (see previous post) or — in this case — arpeggiated inversions. This would also improve hand independence. Playing dissected scale and arpeggiated inversion in the adjacent octaves is recommended for the maximum level of brain fuck.

Just like doing an ollie 360 on a skateboard, trying the whole thing unprepared might result in injuries, therefore it might be helpful to approach in three stages:

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I’m making a one measure pause after each bit to buy me some time and figure out the notes and fingering. Next, making sure I can play arpeggios steadily enough to not to care too much about the right hand:

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And, finally, the full version:

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And that’s just one scale! You can do the same in C minor now:

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And the beauty of this routine is that you don’t have to play the same stuff in all keys. If you feel like it, you can dissect C minor in a completely different way — and then practice switching to in from F minor pattern seamlessly! Sounds like another 2 hours of work right?

Also, all arpeggiated inversions could be replaced with chord permutations (like, 1-3-5-7 or 3-7-5-1, etc.), which can then also be inverted. And what about blues and bebop scales? What about bloody Vagadhisvari scale? You get the idea. Have fun—

Piano practice (1h 45m)

Scale studies

  • All Lydian scales
  • All Ionian scales
  • C, F, Bb Lydian in grand form
  • All Lydian scales over moving Lydian DNA
  • Dissecting Phrygian scales over arpeggiated inversions (E, A, D, G) — sheet music link coming soon

Jazz voicings + left hand

  • iim9 — V13 — I∆9 | iiø — V7b9 — im9 (format 2) from Jazz Piano Voicings (C thru F#). Left hand:
    • Blocks
    • 10ths + octave blocks + b7-1-5 run on iiø

Improvisation

  • Minor blues scale — quick recap in all keys