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Simple Contra Dance Piano: Interesting Left Hand

June 8th, 2011
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There are a lot of people (fiddle, flute, mandolin, ...) in the band playing up high where you play chords, but you're usually the only one in the bass range. So you want to focus on playing a really good left hand, and the right hand deserves less of your attention. The left hand approach I described before of playing the bass note of the relevant chord on each down beat does work, but it's not so much fun to dance to. A simple thing you can do to make it more interesting is to alternate the 1st and the 5th.

How do you figure out what the fifth is? If you look at the chord chart, you can see that all the chords, major and minor, have a consistent number of keys (counting both white and black keys) between the lowest note of the chord (the 1st) and the highest (the 5th). They're always the same distance apart. This consistent distance on the keyboard corresponds to a consistent distance in sound, an interval. Try playing some fifths with your right hand. They should sound nice. If you move the higher note up or down one key, you'll get intervals that sound much less nice. It's good to know what that sounds like, in case you do it by accident later.

If I'm trying to alternate the 1st and the 5th for a G chord, I think about the G chord (or look at my right hand) and see that the low note is a G and the high note is a D. So I play G D G D. Thinking about a C chord I would have C G C G. And for a D chord, D A D A. Try this for some other chords, major or minor, it doesn't matter.

You can play the 5th either above or below the 1st. With the 5th above, D A D A would sound like this and with the 5th below it would sound like this. Either is good, and which to play mostly depends on how low you want to sound. If you're playing a lowish G then alternating the 5th below will sound weird while the 5th above will sound better.

Lets try this with some chords: G C D G. For the Gs I played the 5th above, for the C and D I played the 5th below. This keeps the bass in the somewhat narrow range in which it sounds most natural to me.

Another thing you can do is when going into a new chord you can play the note immediately below that chord. So to go into a D chord you could play a Db note. So to play those same chords (G C D G) you'd have G B C Db D Gb G G, and with chords we're starting to sound like something.

Many piano players will play a lot of octaves with their left hand. That is, playing say G and the G one lower at the same time. You stretch your hand wide and hope you have a big enough one to reach. (Don't worry if you can't: many good piano players have hands too small for octaves.) The goal is to give the bass more power, especially on dinky pianos. The tradeoff is that when you play an octave your hand has the dexterity of a single finger. To change to a different note, you need to move the whole left hand the whole way, and you need to place both the thumb and pinky just right at the same time. Because we have other options for making the bass louder (eq, mic placement, keyboard settings, playing quieter with the right hand) I don't think this is worth it.

Play around with different left hand patterns; do what sounds nice. Get your right hand to automatic so you can try new things with your left on the fly without planning them first.

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