A 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.
- Play the melody line with the right hand as written. Simple enough.
- 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.
- 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.
- Play the chords and the melody with both hands.
- 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.