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Play from Lead Sheets and Expand your Musical Ability

By In Uncategorized On January 3, 2018


Street bands often play from lead sheets. So do jazz combos and pickup bands. The players use their experience along with the lead sheet to figure out what notes and rhythms to play. Playing from lead sheets will expand your experience and your musical ability.

Music is the sound you send to the listeners’ ears, not what’s on the page. There are lots of ways to write music down. Lead sheets give us freedom with just enough constraint.

What are lead sheets? They’re not the kind of sheets I should have used when exposed to A-bomb tests in my early childhood. Lead rhymes with “reed” instead of “head.”

Lead sheets are completely opposite from the concert band parts we usually play. They lead us through the music, without constraining us to play only one part. Typically, a lead sheet shows the melody, the chords and the overall structure of the piece.

The concert band part just tells you what your instrument should play. That’s all. It doesn’t tell you the melody or the harmony. It doesn’t tell you where your part fits into the whole.

The lead sheet gives the melody, the musical form and the harmony (chords).  That’s all. It doesn’t tell you which instruments play when. It gives you the whole picture and leaves you to invent your part.

Try playing from a lead sheet with your band. The bass instruments should play roots of the chords, maybe alternating with fifths. The first trumpets and first clarinets will probably play the melody. The other instruments will fit into the chords as they can, maybe with the rhythm of the melody or maybe with new rhythms.

Fitting into the chords might seem daunting, but it’s really not hard. The chord symbol will tell you the root of the chord, like C or G. If that’s the only character in the chord symbol, you’re playing a major chord, so play either the root, third or fifth. So a chord named C will have notes of C, E, G.  If lower case “m” appears as in Cm, you’ll be playing a minor chord, so play Eb instead of E. Sometimes the lead sheet will write that chord with a minus sign instead of m, so you’ll see C-. You still play Eb.

You might see more complicated chord symbols, but you’ll usually be OK playing the root and either the major or minor third. Take your time figuring out the other elements of chord symbols and use them as you can. Sometimes you can even play notes outside the chord to move between chords. Listen carefully and soon you’ll learn what works.

It might sound like noise at first, but as your band gains experience it will sound inspired. You’ll probably have better results with a smaller group, so try it first when you have a low turnout at rehearsal.

Here’s a lead sheet to get you started. It’s the most important 12 bars in music.

Contributed by Michael Foster, NHIMA Board of Directors

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