Playing from charts, part 1: Introduction and stylistic function

A Dorico Review
July 25, 2018
Playing from charts, part 2: Basic chord voicing
August 8, 2018
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Playing from charts, part 1: Introduction and stylistic function

I believe there continues to be a need for a systematized approach to teaching pianists how to play from charts. By “charts,” I mean both chord charts (lyrics and chords only) and lead sheets (single-staff scores with melody, lyrics, chords, and sometimes thematic melodic lines for instruments to play).

There are already resources out there. I produced a 25-video tutorial series a few years ago. There’s also Bob Kauflin’s excellent book on the subject, which I recommend. And there’s much more. But working with students over the past several years makes me think another resource is needed, in the form of blog posts. These posts are primarily intended for my students, but I hope they’ll be helpful to others as well.

Some prefatory remarks:

  1. Caveat emptor! I’ll do my best to organize my thoughts, but this is a difficult subject to systematize. I have no grand plans for a large project, but I will try to cover concepts as I work on them with my students. Follow along at your own peril and don’t expect a tightly conceived book format.
  2. Nobody likes being told what they can and can’t do. There’ll be plenty of that here. I’ll do my best to convey principles as descriptive and not prescriptive, but they’ll probably come out sounding like rules most of the time.
  3. The point here is to develop a skill, not just understand an idea. So I’ll be including practice suggestions for the benefit of my students and anyone else who’s interested.
  4. This is designed for the songs our church sings, in the style we sing them, in a rhythm band context. The principles are fairly universal, but your mileage may vary.

If you want to subscribe to future posts on this subject, you can sign up using your email address and select the category “Educational Resources.”

Well, then. Onward!

Big categories of function

It can’t be repeated enough that the piano here has three functions, in no particular order:

  1. rhythmic
  2. harmonic
  3. melodic

I say “no particular order” because the piano’s function depends very much on context: namely, the song and the instrumentation. Here are some examples:

  • Piano only, traditional style. Strong melodic and harmonic function. Steady rhythm is always present, of course, but it’s not the primary function. Rhythm here is flexible. The most challenging style, I think.
  • Piano only, contemporary ballad. The only scenario in which all three elements are strongly present. Rich harmonic support, strong melodic support to provide thematic continuity, and a gentle but precise, constant rhythmic underpinning. Even though all three functions are there, this is not a demanding style to play, because there’s not typically a lot of movement.
  • Piano only, contemporary upbeat. Primarily a rhythmic function. Harmonies don’t have to be full and thick (probably shouldn’t be). Melody lines are less important too. Right hand picks up guitar-like rhythmic patterns, but typically doesn’t shift around much.
  • Piano with acoustic guitar. Rhythmic function greatly diminished. Spread the hands to avoid saturating the guitar’s middle register. Left hand becomes like a bass guitar, usually one note at a time, and a focus on good voice-leading to establish harmonic inversions. Right hand prefers open chords (open fourths or fifths), occasional fills, and melodic motives to provide continuity.
  • Piano with bass guitar and acoustic guitar. Right hand keeps same function as above, but left hand should consider rootless voicings. (I’ll talk about this in a later post. Sounds exotic, but basically just play the chord without the root, or at least without a big heavy bass sound.)
  • Piano with full rhythm band. Emphasis on fills, occasionally some sparkly color (but not overdone). Play much less, sometimes even resting for a measure or two, or playing whole notes. Piano can actually return to the middle register, since the acoustic guitar is probably not dominating the mix. Primary function in middle register is to fill in the harmonies, but if piano is locked in with guitar and drums, can provide rhythmic drive as well. If another instrument has the melody lead, don’t encroach on them unless you’ve planned a “dialogue” between the instruments.
  • Piano with rhythm band and orchestra/choir. Stay out of the bass, and don’t be overly rhythmic. Usually a thick chordal or melodic function, with hands doubling, generally above middle C.

The examples above aren’t exhaustive, but the point is that context matters. If you keep the three functions in your mind at all times, you’ll be better able to make tasteful decisions about which roles are important for you, which are secondary, and which are totally unimportant.

The next subject I’ll tackle will be basic principles of voicing chords. Stay tuned! …haha.


Part 2: Basic Chord Voicings