Five Steps to Play A Lead Sheet

Posted by Piano Teacher on 2/25/2014 to Learn To Play Piano

piano lead sheetA piano student asked, "Why are there letters over the melody line?"

As a classically trained pianist, I ignored those letters for many years. I could play the music without having to pay attention to them. I knew chords and arpeggios if they were written out, but struggled if they were not.

But when I started to play in a worship band, I had to learn read and play them. The music was only a melody line with chords written above it. I had to learn to improvise using a lead sheet.

What do you play in the left hand when nothing is written out? That’s when you pay attention to the letters over the melody line. Those letters indicate the chords to be played by the left hand.

Here are five steps to play from a lead sheet.

When learning anything new on piano, it is easier to break it down into right hand and left hand.

  1. Play the melody line with the right hand as written. Simple enough.
  2. Survey the lead sheet, playing the basic chords with the left hand in the most comfortable or familiar inversion. For example, a C chord is C-E-G. If playing the G interferes with the right hand melody, play the G is below middle C. The inversion of that chord is G-C-E.
  3. Notice what other chords are used and where the chords changes occur. Figure them out and practice the left hand separately. If there is a notation of G/D it means to play a G chord with a D as the foundational bass note.
  4. Play the chords and the melody with both hands.
  5. Add different rhythms in the broken chords or arpeggios to add interest to the piece. As you gain confidence in reading the chord notation and playing the chords, you can change the chord structures around.

This is how to use the popular “fake books” that only have the melody and chords.

At first it is confusing to read the left hand chords over the melody line, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

I struggled to learn this technique at first. I wanted all the notes written out for both hands. As I’ve grown proficient in seeing how the chords fit with the melody line, I now relax and play with ease from a lead sheet, combining the classical training with improvisation.

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Wally Stroble
Date: 2/26/2014
Iplay from fake books a lot and an explanation of slash chords should include what to do when the letter is not part of the chord. Thanks
Date: 2/26/2014
I have been playing this way for more than 30 years. But not in the manner the writer has explained. As you may realise, many "piano vocal" arrangements are written with the acoustic guitar to be the lead instrument in a band. (I also play guitar.) And sometimes you'll get a lead sheet with just words and chords, so to best play the piece you should be able to play all or part of the melody, particularly if the singers are not strong. That probably means listening to a recording several times or more to internalise it. (It also helps if you have good relative pitch because your team may need to modulate up or down -- changing the key -- depending on the vocal range of the lead singer(s). I know I have written many lead sheets over the years and sometimes in two or three keys depending on which leader will be leading the singing that week. (And then there's the consideration of keeping the vocal range "congregationally friendly" which may mean that certain lead singers should NOT lead certain songs -- the melody range most comfortable for congregations is from A4 to D5 (The A note below middle C to the D note above the C above middle C.) On many worship teams I was on, I played the part of the bass and the lead instrument with acoustic guitarists providing the rhythmic basis. So what I do is different than what the writer above explained. How I play with a band using lead sheets is by using the basis chords as a notation of the bass line, and play it singly or doubly depending on the dynamics needed for a particular part of the song. (And providing the song has been recorded, I also listen to the recordings for clues.) For Wally's question, the slash chords are where you are playing a different bass note than the chord. For example, F/A is an F chord over an A in the bass note. For the chording, I actually listen to the recording, sometimes I will play an alternate melody, accent notes or a harmony, using the chording below the top notes. Other times I will play the melody, especially if the melody line is difficult, new or the lead worship singer(s) are not strong on it. Sometimes I will pick up on the electric/lead guitar part and have played that (since the bands I was in generally did not have a lead guitarist most weeks). (For example, on the David Crowder version of "How He Loves," which was written by John Mark McMillan, there is a strong lead guitar line throughout much of the song which is what I normally play.) Sometimes a song's bass pattern is much more complicated than the chord pattern, listening to the recording helps. One instance that comes to mind is the Chris Tomlin recording of Indescribable, a song written by Laura Story. The bass line is much more complex than the progression but it's fairly easy to pick up if you listen. There's also a clear piano part in that song, which leads off the song and most verses, as well as being the outtro. As a part of a worship (or any) band you need to consider the other instruments when deciding where on the keyboard to play. For example, if your band has no bassist, you play the bass line, sometimes doubled, and you may play the fifth or third of the chord alternating with the root note on alternate beats. You may walk down or up on the bass note to the next root note. Remember also, that the two rhythmic instruments are the drum and the if your band has no drummer then you're also setting the beat (unless your acoustic guitarist has the lead -- and in that situation you need to pay attention to his/her strumming beat). Don't forget your tempo and try not to speed up or slow down when the dynamics of the song change (ie, get louder, softer). ESPECIALLY if you, on the keyboard, are keeping the beat. Presuming you have at least one acoustic guitarist, you need to back off playing in the C4 area (middle C) because you're invading their acoustic space. You should play an octave above if possible, especially if you have a strong guitarist playing. Otherwise your sound is muddy. One other thing about using lead sheets...WRITE NOTES about what you want to play where and when on the sheet. Otherwise, between your practice, band rehearsal and the service (or performance) you'll forget what the part is you intended to play!
Date: 2/26/2014
Wally, sometimes the bass line is actually NOT part of the chord, you'll see this in blues and jazz a lot. Sometimes it is part of a walkdown/walkup bass line (if the notation is very explicit/detailed) Other times the bass is intentionally discordant from the chord. For example, on Billy Joel's song, "New York State of Mind," the outtro has a C/D and then ends with a D/C. Listen and you'll hear!
Date: 2/26/2014
Hello Yong: The purpose of this letter is because I receive your email with question. If I read the lead sheet. My answer is yes. I read lead sheet perfectly. I play piano in a band in my church. They used the lead sheet. I learn how to read the lead sheet. I have a fakebook I play many classical music that include Lead sheets is play chords and notes at the same time. Thank you Brunilda
Yoke Wong
Date: 2/26/2014
Thank you Heather for the great comment and insight on playing with a band and listening for clues! Much appreciated!
Date: 2/28/2014
I believe I that The Lead music is interesting , Although I play by air sometimes , my problem is not using my time to study consistently I,e the timing which I can handle a little better , The chords I need more. practice, and I like to handle the music sheets better, but I am awaiting my Piano which I believe will come early part of next year , when that happens I will be pleased , right now the key board is what I am using . But it is not what I want . thanks to you ms Wong. For encouraging me to fulfill my tasks , I certainly will not let you down , as I am still eager to get it done ..,,,,Thanks again .
Lydia Lin
Date: 3/1/2014
Thanks for the link. These are good tips, so are your piano instructions. I'm having fun improvising on the piano many of my favorite songs. However, I've come to appreciate even more the classical piano arrangements. With improvisation, one must be careful not to put in too many notes but to leave some "breathing space" for the piece. Another thing to pay attention to is the judicious use of the sustain pedal. Keeping it down too long will cause the tones to run together and add a "hum" to the melody. :)
Homer Alcon
Date: 3/3/2014
I've been a pianist (church) for more than 20 years. I've made my own lead sheets ever since. My piano teacher one time showed me a thick booklet with lead sheets. At that time he didn't know what its called. Now I'm so happy that there's actually a term to refer to it! Thank you! By the way, there are 2 types of lead sheets that I make. One in the key I hear the song and another in the key of "C". The one in the key of "C" I've always referred to as "Abstracts". From the abstract, I accompany the worship team or any singer by transposing it impromptu. Transposing from "C" is quite easy. Thanks again for the learning!
Date: 3/6/2014
Hello Yoke: I practice piano every day for 15 to 20 minutes and today I was practicing the most beautiful music Swan lake I can play the Melody and the Harmony. I feel very happy because at last I reach my goal to coordinate both hands I play in church with the whole bands of musician. I can play notes and chords. I finished the piece of Swan Lake. Brunilda Davila

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