"My Students Hate the Modes"

At the end of a workshop I gave on the subject of improvising with modes, a piano teacher came up to me and said something shocking. She said (and I quote her accurately because I asked her to repeat what she said into my voice recorder): “Around here, modes are only taught as an academic exercise for a theory exam. They are called the “church modes”—something done a long time ago, and maybe only on Sundays. There is no sound attached to them. It’s just an exercise that you do entirely on paper, attaching names to seemingly random patterns of tones and semitones. When my students do play the patterns of tones and semitones on the piano, they sound ugly. There is no beauty. There is no music. Every student says to me, ‘Why do we have to do this?’ My students all hate the modes.”

My central goal as a music educator is to awaken a lifelong love of music. Experiences such as this keep me up at night, writing essays such as this one!

I was so taken aback by this teacher’s comment that I made no reply. As I sit here now, I want to say to this teacher: You obviously care about your students and your craft. So, if you are teaching your students to hate something, why do you keep teaching that way? What is worse than cultivating hate? And what is better than cultivating love? Why not create powerful and striking music with the modes and replace hate with love, and ugliness with beauty?

I love those dear modes (such exotic tonal worlds!), and I have spent so many wonderful hours in their company. Why are people being taught to hate them? What for? I just don’t get it. It makes absolutely no sense to me.

blogForrest Kinney