Stretching a Lead Sheet

By Bradley Sowash

(Originally written for Clavier Companion Magazine.)

So your students can play the melody and chords in a lead sheet (if not, see Steps to Learning a Lead Sheet)…now what? Played at a medium tempo, this classic tune lasts about 30 seconds.

twinkle lead sheet

Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong
Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong

How could this be stretched it into a complete performance? For inspiration, we can turn to legendary trumpet man and singer, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. When asked about his ability to spin seemingly effortless variations on every tune he played, he explained, *The first chorus [refrain] I plays the melody. The second chorus I plays the melody round the melody [embellishes], and the third chorus I routines [improvises]. Although he doesn’t mention it here, Armstrong typically ended his renditions by returning to the melody in some enhanced fashion.

Here then, is Satchmo’s “road map” through a tune adapted to the L-E-A-D acronym.

L-E-A-D Form
1. Lay it Out – play the melody with chords
2. Embellish the melody – make a variation that is still recognizable
3. Add a solo – Improvise on the chord progression
4. Dress it up – Enhance the melody

Since we covered the first and second approaches in Steps to Learning a Lead Sheet, lets consider the third chorus now. One easy way to improvise is to play only the notes in the harmonies (chord tones). This is a great trick to add to your student’s “bag” because it can be used with almost any type of music.

Improvising with Chord Tones
Prepare by playing the tune’s harmonic progression as block chords in both hands.

twinkle chord tone improv1

Next, hover the right hand fingers over these same chords but only play individual notes. Here’s one possibility.

twinkle chord tone improv2

• Some students may benefit by pre-planning a few rhythms with which to explore chord tones.
• It’s not necessary to play all of the chord tones on each triad. For instance, measure above uses only two of the available notes for each chord.

End with a Bang
Following Armstrong’s extended form, finish the tune by restating the melody with enhancements of your choice. These can include things like a key change, adding embellishments, or a more elaborate accompaniment. Here’s one possibility that uses all three:

twinkle chord tone improv3

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey.


Bradley Sowash


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