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One Two Training

Outside Of C

...and left hand keyboard techniques

Article from One Two Testing, November 1985

shape up those left hand keyboard licks

RAVEL WROTE a piano concerto for the left hand. It was written especially for a virtuoso who'd lost an arm in the war, but to hear it you wouldn't know that two hands were not in use. Remarkable. But what of your left-hand technique?

Problems can be of two kinds: what to play and how to co-ordinate with the right hand. This article will help on the first count. Practice is the only answer to the second.

Perhaps more than any other factor, the left hand's contribution to a piece does most to establish a style. Compare stride piano: the left hand alternates between bass note and chord with a "locked hands" style, where the left hand ghosts the highest melody note at a lower octave. More of this later.

It is not unusual for the novice to start by using the left merely to provide root notes for the right-hand chords (and possibly to inject some rhythm). And many present day keyboards do little to encourage much more. A four-octave keyboard allows very little space between the hands; four-voice polyphony further limits chord voicing (meaning placement of notes); lack of touch sensitivity and balance lead to the right hand being drowned by anything adventurous in the left.

At an early stage you need to make a policy decision concerning the instrumental lineup with which you are comfortable. Solo keyboardists are a rare breed and accompanists don't have it any easier in trying to master an art that goes far beyond technique.

Actually, modern left-hand styles have developed from the rigid time-keeping of stride and harmonically limited 'shell' systems of the bebop era. In this transition, the time-keeping has been handed over to the bass and drums, and the sounding of root notes has also become the responsibility of the bass player. The first problem with this when you're practising alone is that you have to learn how to hear the bass note in your head. So this is probably a good time to drop in the old chestnut about harmony being horizontal as well as vertical: in other words, you don't have to play every note in a chord at once, just fit them in over a bar or two.

Although it might thicken up the sound of a riff to double it with the bass player, he/she probably won't thank you because you're crowding in on their ground. Also, when you stop doubling, the bass is going to sound thin by comparison. Better to play nothing than muddle someone else's line.

As a first goal, it's good to be able to play all your favourite right-hand chords with the left. Although MIDI is great for layering sounds, a co-operative left hand is much cheaper.

On a single keyboard it's sensible to centre the left-hand chords around middle C. Any lower and they'll sound muddy; any higher and they'll sound thin.

There is a further concept called "voice-leading" which governs the smooth transition of one chord to another, range and motion between chords being kept to a minimum by crafty selection of component notes and inversions. Although it's quite permissible to omit the root note of a chord, the third must always be present to give a major or minor tonality. The seventh is also present in all voicings bar the major shape where it is replaced by the sixth. (The shells of the bebop era were simply intervals of thirds, sevenths and tenths.)

Incidentally, the tenth is a very useful left-hand device for a variety of styles but requires a very large span. Such sparse accompaniment was fine for horn-like right-hand soloing but was a barrier to exploring the orchestral possibilities of the keyboard. Modern voicings add the ninth to all chord types and extend the dominant seventh chord to a thirteenth. These distillations of the idiom are so generally applicable that the only danger is in their over use.

Because of the need to cram these four-part chords into a small section of the keyboard, two basic shapes result — one with the third and one with the seventh (sixth) as the lowest note. For the major chords there are the arrangements 3, 5, 6, 9 and 6, 9, 3, 5. For those who prefer music to bingo this gives A, C, D, G for F6 (add 9) and F, Bb, C, Eb for Ab 6 (add 9). Note that middle C falls inside each chord shape. If the F example was constructed from the second form, ie D, G, A, C, then it would be too low in register to be heard clearly. You will find that in some keys, the chords fall on the borderline between configurations and your ear will have to decide what's best.

MAJOR Ab 6(add9)/F6(add9)

The dominant seventh chords comprise the third, seventh, ninth and thirteenth, again in two basic shapes: 3, 13, 7, 9 and 7, 9, 3, 13. For example, G, C, Db, F for Eb thirteenth, and Ab, C, D, G for Bb thirteenth. Note again how that middle C crops up as near to the centre as you can get.

DOMINANT Bb 13/Eb 13

Minor chords are built from the third, fifth, seventh and ninth, as ever in two permutations — 3, 5, 7, 9 and 7, 9, 3, 5. For example, F, A, C, E for D minor 9 and G, B, C, E for A minor 9. Surprise, surprise, look how they're clustered around middle C. If you'd like to think of a complex chord as a simple chord with a complex relationship to a bass note, then you might like to think of these as major seventh chords played a minor third higher than the new root bass note.


The half-diminished chord is made simply by flattening the fifth of the minor shape described above, and the diminished chord is produced in the same way by flattening both the fifth and seventh.

In five paragraphs I've summarised 120 chords. That's two inversions for each of the five basic types of chord, in each of the twelve chromatic keys. None of them contains the root notes. This week's practical: advertise for a bass player.


Cm7(+5), C bass

A chord built from two fourths rather than the more usual thirds. Commonly adjudged by all right-thinking outside-of-c-men as being "open and powerful", like some mouths we could mention.

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Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Nov 1985

One Two Training

Feature by Andy Honeybone

Previous article in this issue:

> Lungs And Tongues

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> When Is A Computer

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