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2 minutes reading time (368 words)

Stretching a Lead Sheet

So, your students can play the melody and chords in a lead sheet...now what?

Played at a medium tempo, this classic tune lasts about thirty seconds:

How could this be stretched it into a complete performance? For inspiration, we can turn to legendary trumpet man and singer, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. When asked about his ability to spin seemingly effortless variations on every tune he played, he explained, "The first chorus [refrain] I plays the melody. The second chorus I plays the melody round the melody [embellishes], and the third chorus I routines [improvises]." 1 Although he doesn't mention it here, Armstrong typically ended his renditions by returning to the melody in some enhanced fashion.

Here, then, is Satchmo's "road map" through a tune.

Since we covered the first and second approaches above in the last column, let's consider the third chorus now. One easy way to improvise is to play only the notes in the harmonies (chord tones). This is a great trick to add to your student's "bag" because it can be used with almost any type of music.

Improvising with chord tones

Prepare by playing the tune's harmonic progression as block chords in both hands.

Next, hover the right hand fingers over these same chords but only play individual notes. Here's one possibility:

Tips: Some students may benefit by pre-planning a few rhythms with which to explore chord tones. It's not necessary to play all of the chord tones on each triad. For instance, measure 4 in the example below uses only two of the available notes for each chord.

End with a bang

Following Armstrong's extended form, finish the tune by restating the melody with enhancements of your choice. These can include things such as a key change, adding embellishments, or a more elaborate accompaniment. Here's one possibility that uses all three:

Until next time, enjoy your creative mu-sic-making journey.

1. Armstrong appears to have stated several ver-sions of this quote in different contexts. One of them appears in Thomas Brother's book, Louis Armstrong's New Orleans (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 292). Another is in Bix: Man and Legend (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, p. 192).

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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