When I came back to piano teaching in earnest several years ago, I learned about the types of skills progressive teachers teach their students. One of them is lead sheets, sometimes called fake sheets. It’s certainly nothing that I studied with any teacher privately or in college. However, I did remember having to “fake” my way through playing from them as the unwilling jazz-band pianist.
In July 2020, just last month, I became the pianist for my church’s praise band, which plays Christian Contemporary Music. All of the piano scores are lead sheets, not fully-composed music. The notation is pretty basic for the most part. But it does take practice and experience to become skilled at this type of playing. I’m decent but nothing spectacular at this point!
Predecessor of the Lead Sheet
Very simply, a lead sheet has a melody with chord symbols, instead of a fully-notated piece of music. This is quite a bizarre concept for many classically-trained pianists, since we’re used to playing from fully realized scores. However, lead sheets have some connection to the types of minimally composed music harpsichordists and organists faced mainly in the Baroque period, but appeared as late as Mozart operas. The harpsichord, along with a cello-like instrument called the viola de gamba, provided a bass line and harmonic support to a soloist. That soloist might be a singer or instrumentalist. The harpsichodist and gamba player would be what you’d call the back up band.
Figured bass accompaniments from the Baroque aren’t exactly notated the same way as modern lead sheets. However, the concept is the same. For the composer, writing in this style was a time saver. However, the shorthand technique developed to provide the harpsichordist some freedom to arrange the accompaniment according to his own style and the needs of the soloist. Today, many of those parts are available fully written out, because many of us never learn those skills. I encountered them in a keyboard harmony class, which I didn’t appreciate at the time. It was a requirement for all pianists and organists at The Juilliard School.
How A Lead Sheet Is Used
There are really several basic components that can be expressed by a pianist in a praise band, depending upon the needs of the group. Our group currently has no percussion, so providing some type of driving rhythm can be helpful to the group. Although there is no printed bass line, providing an improvised bass line can also help if there is no base guitar playing to define that.
Even though there is a melody printed, it’s more for the lead singer to sing and not for the pianist to play. If the lead singer needs some support with her vocal line, she may ask you to play it. That’s fine at rehearsal, but it’s not really great to be doubling the singer with a piano melody line. There’s much more chord playing and even improvising of some counter melodies with the right hand that can provide more variety to the music.
Watch Me in Action!
I’ll update this article with links to the songs that we play at tonight’s service. We’re adding a new Wednesday evening service, starting tonight, as an online event. We cannot do our in-person pre-Covid activities, so this provides a substitute. If you want to watch the service live, you can go to the First Methodist Facebook page just before 6:30 pm to snag the broadcast link.