Taking the Lead:
Tackling Lead Sheets at the Piano
I remember the first time someone put a lead sheet in front of me and asked me to play for their vocal solo. I had absolutely no clue what to do and I was so overwhelmed. Even though I had taken piano and theory lessons my entire life, none of that training prepared me for what was placed in front of me. All of my training emphasized learning to play every note, dynamic, phrase, or correct fingering as it appeared on the page. So how was I expected to make music from a piece of paper which contained so little musical information?
You may have similar feelings when beginning to learn to read lead sheets or chord charts. You may feel like you face an impossible task, or you may feel like your musical vocabulary is limited, but it really is exactly the opposite. Now when I play worship songs, I prefer a lead sheet to anything else. Once you get the hang of it, it feels very freeing and you can start to really be creative. You aren’t bound to every little detail of a piece of music. Truly, understanding lead sheets and chord charts is a skill. Just like any other skill, it requires effort and practice in order to improve.
Here are some general tips that really helped me overcome my debilitating fear of lead sheet reading and make some big improvements.
Your Ear is Your Best Friend
Once I heard the song, I understood the song. This is especially true if you are just working from a chord chart (no notated melody line). You need to have a musical understanding of how the harmonies change and when they change. I printed off some chord charts of songs I liked and began listening and following along. This doesn’t mean that your interpretation of the song is bound to what you hear. It just means that you have a good idea of the song as a whole (melody, rhythm, harmony). Take the time to develop your ear through ear training exercises. As your ear improves, you will get much faster at reading and you will notice a big change in your musical development.
Develop Your Music Theory and Harmony Skills
Unfortunately, there is no escaping this one! You need to understand how chords are formed, how musical sentences are structured, and know what notes are within what chords. Start looking for patterns and repetition (it happens more than you think!). Try to analyze what you see in front of you away from the keyboard, then come back to the piano and see if your knowledge helps your hands find their way faster and more efficiently.
There are plenty of resources online that will help you expand your knowledge of theory and harmony, so I won’t really go into that in this article. Spend time understanding chord formations, chord symbols, and slash chords.
Let’s get into some more specific application tips.
If you are a beginner, start by figuring out the melody in your right hand. You can either use a lead sheet or you can do it by ear if you are just using a chord chart. Once you feel you have grasped the melody, start adding the root of the chord in the left hand (essentially just playing one note in each hand).
Once you feel confident that you understand the melody and root of each chord, take it one step further by playing chords in your right hand in root position along with the root of each chord in the left hand. You can play the chords held/sustained or repeated. Really try to feel the rhythm and pay attention to when the chords change. It will sound “blocked” because you are only playing root position chords in your right hand, but essentially you are now reading from a lead sheet!
The goal is to branch out from the blocked feeling and being bound to root position chords. We can do this by understanding the relationship from one chord to the next, which we often refer to as voice leading. Try to make the chord changes seamless in your right hand by looking for common tones (notes that remain the same from one chord to the next) or by experimenting with inversions. We want to avoid jumping around the keyboard so try to find inversions that allow the chord changes to be as close as possible. Let’s take a simple progression from a C chord to an F chord, as an example. In root position, there is a huge jump from the C chord in root position to the F chord in root position. However, if we play our C chord in 2nd inversion and the F chord in 1st inversion in our right hand, the transition between the chords is seamless. The left hand generally always plays the root of the chord, unless a slash chord is suggested.
When you get to this point, this is where you can have the most fun. This is where you get to truly express yourself musically. Experiment with different rhythms or repeated rhythmic patterns, either in the left hand or with your right hand chords. Try playing broken chords instead of blocked. Experiment with different registers of the piano based on the style or mood of the song. You are only bound to playing the correct chords in the right style. Beyond that, you can decide what other elements you incorporate into your playing. No two players will play a song the exact same way and I think that is what makes lead sheet playing special.
When we start as beginning pianists, we often learn that the right hand is the most important because it contains the melody. As soloists, we strive to balance melody and harmony between our two hands. And while it is true that the right hand is important, when it comes to playing from lead sheets, I don’t think it is the most important hand.
Unfortunately, it becomes the hand to which we pay the most attention simply because we still need to make sure we are playing the right chords. As you develop, try to draw your ear to what your left hand is doing. As an accompanist, I was always taught to favour my left hand over my right hand because it provides a solid foundation for a song and it allows the melody and harmony to sit on top of it. In lead sheet playing, it’s the same. The rhythm, the groove and the foundation of the harmony all come from the left hand. As well, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the drive and energy of a song comes from guitar and drums. The piano has an important place within that groove and can really add another layer to a solid baseline. In addition, your ear can start to predict how the harmony changes in a song if you start tuning in to what is happening down in the bass end. I encourage you to spend time listening to what your left hand is doing and give it equal importance.
Every group you play with will operate differently depending on the strengths and weaknesses that each person brings to the table. The greatest strength that you as a musician can bring to a group is your ability to adapt easily depending on what the group needs musically. Maybe the singer isn’t overly confident and requires some support from the piano with the melodic line. Even the most beginner player can support them by playing the melody in the right hand and playing chords (blocked or broken) in the left hand. If you are a bit more advanced, you can work the melody into the top voice of your right hand and still be able to play some of the chord in the other part of the hand or even between both hands. Maybe you don’t have drums on a Sunday and one of the songs is driving and upbeat. Your left hand can provide a rhythmic energy if you use it the right way. Try not to just learn a song one way. Practice it with multiple versions and be ready to pull out whatever version will work best based on what the song needs. Don’t just be a one trick pony!
It’s been several years since the first time a lead sheet was placed in front of me at the piano. I can honestly say I have learned to love playing this way. It allows me to be creative and it just gives me so much more freedom at the keyboard. Put in the hard work away from the piano by learning how to read chords, understanding how to formulate chords in the hand, and practice reading and deciphering chord charts and lead sheets quickly and efficiently. These tools will help you become more successful and I bet you will start to really enjoy this method of playing. Most of all, don’t give up. God has given you a talent and He wants you to use it to glorify Him.