Using Modal Interchange to Compose Chord Progressions

I recently came across this excellent introduction to using parallel modes to select different chord possibilities in an original chord progression. The production and explanation of the techniques is very well done.

Although it might seem that this technique is primarily geared towards the jazz composer, “classical” composers who want to explore tonal harmonies but move outside common practice harmonic language will find some interesting sounds to explore with this technique. Pop or rock songwriters might find an unexpected chord borrowed from parallel modes a great way to explore a harmonic “hook” in their tune. Improvisers will want to study the basic advice on how to select melody notes over a chord progression like this.

This can also become a standalone composition exercise. Just like performers will practice etudes and other exercises that aren’t intended to be performed for an audience, composers can get a lot of value from doing short composition projects that force you to be creative within the constraints of a box. Try taking a very basic diatonic chord progression of 4-8 measures and reharmonizing it musing modal interchange, then write a melody or improvise over it. Exploring different sounds like this increases your compositional pallet, even if the specific short composition never gets expanded into something you want performed.

Not Yet – Practicing to Improve

Here is another TED talk, this time by Carol Dweck.

Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet? A great introduction to this influential field.

Dweck discusses research looking at how different students react to challenge. When given tasks that were just slightly too difficult for them to do, some students reacted positively to the challenge, while others had more negative reactions. Students who have the “growth mindset” understand that they have a chance to learn. They may not be able to perform that task, but they understand that it’s only temporary. Not yet.

Teachers can help encourage the growth mindset. Dweck advises encouragement through praise and to reward the process of learning in addition to performing well. Help them to understand that when the move out of their comfort zone is a good path to learning and getting better.

While the research Dweck cites are mainly geared towards younger students, I think that the growth mindset is the proper attitude for even adult music students. It’s challenging even for older students to want to spend time out of their comfort zone. This ties in nicely with last week’s post from another TED talk about practicing.

As a teacher, there are two big takeaways I get from Dweck’s video. First, there’s the advice she offers to how to encourage a growth mindset in your students, but there’s also a deeper pedagogy lesson in there too. Changing up your approach to teaching, particularly if you feel it’s already successful, is hard. You have to move outside your comfort zone in order to become a better teacher.

My challenge to students this week is to explore practicing out of your comfort level. Don’t simply practice things you can already do well. Teachers have a similar challenge. Find a new bit of pedagogy and find ways to use it in your teaching, even if you don’t find it particularly relevant to that situation. Explore with your students the difference it makes in their results and mindset.

How To Get Better Through Practice

Here is an interesting TED talk by Eduardo Briceño with some good advice for how to structure your practice time.

One of the things I find so interesting about this talk is how it deemphasizes spending time in the “performance zone” and recommends that we spend more time in the “learning zone.” This is opposite of what mainstream brass pedagogy tends to recommend, which is largely based on using imagery and imitation and a musical approach to technique development.

When we’re in the “performance zone” we are consciously trying to avoid mistakes. We’re focused on expressive playing. Contrast this to the “learning zone,” where we are focused on how to improve, practicing specific activities that target those areas for improvement, and spending time on things that we can’t do yet. I recently heard a saying the jugglers use, “If you’re not dropping you’re not learning.” For musicians, we can say that if you’re not making clams in the practice room you’re not improving.

It can be a blow to our ego to practice this way. Fun practice sessions are ones where we feel successful. There is a tendency for us to spend more time practicing things we already do well and less on things that need improvement.

It should go without saying that balance is the key. I’ve mentioned before here some of the great books that trombonist Hal Crook has written on practicing jazz improvisation. His practice recommendation always includes that after spending the bulk of your practice time working on letting the spirit and mood of the music direct your improvisations, rather than the specific exercises you just got finished practicing. Crook sometimes refers to this as the “Ready, Aim, Fire!” approach, as opposed to the approach where you simply jam and hope for the best, “Ready, Fire, Aim.”

While the exact ratio between learning zone and practice zone is going to be different for everyone, my challenge to everyone this week is to closely examine your practice time and increase your amount of “learning zone” to “performance zone.” Try it out and then let us know what you find. Did you improve more over time than you typically feel? Did you find practice time less enjoyable? What did you learn about how to practice?