Big Ideas For Small Hands: How To Write a Full Sounding Piano Arrangement

Let’s take the lovely ballad Skylark (by Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael), and learn how to enhance a ballad’s melody with beautiful chords and a foundational bass line. In this video observe how I took a chart from an old fakebook and updated some chords more to my liking, a process called reharmonization:

The music I used during the above tutorial was this messy looking chart:

It’s probably something only its creator could decipher, right? A few of my YouTube subscribers & students wanted me to share the written music with them, so I reverted to a technique I normally do when I wish to add my own chords to a desired tune – I write out just the melody, with no other chords to distract me, and start afresh:

Now if you weren’t familiar with this tune, judging by the key signature Skylark could either be in the key of C minor or Eb major, but since I knew in my head how the tune was supposed to sound I went with the latter key of Eb, figured out the tune’s skeleton structure (bare bones chords that give Skylark its characteristic sound). Next step was to add pleasing passing chords between the essential ones, keeping in mind how the melody might affect each chord’s quality (ma7, mi7, or chords with altered notes?) etc., while at the same time creating a strong bass line to move the harmony along from the bottom roots to the top melody note:

 

The final step is perhaps the most challenging – how to figure out the inner voice movement (inside moving notes in between the melody and the bass), all the while using good sounding voicings, divided up between the fingers which are full in tone, yet also playable by small hands! I enjoy using the Bud Powell Shell in my left hand for chords within a certain range. On ballads I intersperse LH shells with rolled or broken 10ths, mixed with single note left hand lines or the occasional low bass note for richness and variety! (You can find in depth demonstrations of these techniques in my book The Aspiring Jazz Pianist plus several video tutorials https://www.youtube.com/c/DebbieDenke

It helps with expression to hear the lyrics of a song, even when playing instrumentally.  There’s a part where the lyrics “crazy as a loon” pop up, can you guess where? Great American Songbook composers and lyricists work hand in hand to bring out the best in a tune. In the video below I’m playing the above written out arrangement, plus a few ‘birdcall trills’ to top off this 2 handed piano arrangement of the beautiful Skylark:

 

 

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