We are joined by Ruth Power of Piano Picnic, home of high quality online training courses for pianists. However, this is not our usual kind of interview episode. We’ve invited Ruth to talk about something very specific: lead sheets.
Ruth brings a fun energy and creativity to the teaching process, and her material is always really cool and interesting. When we heard she was releasing a new course called Lovin’ Leadsheets we knew had to bring her back on the show!
If you’ve never used lead sheets – or you’re already a lead sheet ninja – you’re going to love the nifty ideas and insights Ruth shares about her new course.
Watch the episode:
Links and Resources
- Lovin’ Leadsheets
- Piano Picnic
- Making Music Learning a Picnic, with Ruth Power
- About Playing From a Lead Sheet
- Musicality means… Playing from a Lead Sheet
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Ruth: Hi, I’m Ruth Power, creator of Lovin’ Leadsheets from Piano Picnic and you are listening to Musicality Now.
Christopher: Hi, my name is Christopher Sutton. I’m the founder and director of Musical U. And welcome to Musicality Now. Today I’m joined on the show by Ruth Power of Piano Picnic, but it’s actually not our usual kind of interview episode. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ruth on the show last year and I’ve invited her back now to talk about something very specific, which is leadsheets. Ruth’s actually a member of the Musical U team and she’s our resident pro for piano, and she also has her own project, Piano Picnic, which provides fantastic online training courses for pianists.
Christopher: And what I’ve always loved about Ruth’s work is that she brings really fun energy and creativity to the teaching process, and so her material is always really cool and interesting. So when she mentioned recently that she was putting together a new course all about leadsheets, called Lovin’ Leadsheets, I knew we had to bring her back on the show to share some of how she’s teaching leadsheets, and any kind of nuggets or insights she could share with our audience.
Christopher: So in case anyone hasn’t seen Ruth’s prior interview on the show, and we will link that up in the show notes for this episode, Ruth, if you wouldn’t mind, just say a quick hello and give people the kind of nutshell bio background of who Ruth Power is, where Piano Picnic came from, and what you do over there.
Ruth: Okay, so I’m Ruth Power, as you said. Thank you for the intro. I have been working mostly in music publishing for about 11, 12 years. I started off doing a online piano course called Rocket Piano, which taught 90,000 people, I think, to learn piano for another company. And then I worked as an editor for a sheet music publisher over in the UK, doing sheet music and methods for them. And then I moved back to New Zealand and decided to start my own company, which is Piano Picnic. And in that I teach people all those creative skills that are really my passion, creative skills like learning by ear, playing from a leadsheet, improvising, all those sort of fun, creative things that you don’t normally get taught in traditional lessons.
Christopher: Terrific. And we’ve said leadsheet a few times now between us and I’m sure there are at least maybe 10% of our audience who are like what? What is a leadsheet? And there’s probably another 50% who are, “Leadsheets. I’ve heard of them. I don’t really know what they are. I’m not sure this episode has anything for me.” So maybe we can just start off by talking a bit about what is a leadsheet, why it matters, why it’s useful to musicians, what kind of musicians it’s useful to and all that good stuff.
Ruth: Yeah. Well leadsheets, I mean to be honest, I spent years learning the traditional method of playing piano and all that sort of exams and that sort of thing, and I didn’t know what leadsheets were for ages either, and I wouldn’t blame anyone, particularly pianists, because the thing with leadsheet is they are something that is sort of handed and used with guitarists a lot. So guitarists, if you play guitar, you’re probably familiar with what that does a bit more, whereas pianists, we tend to get chucked in the deep end and get taught to read notation, standard notation, and all those dots on the page in order to learn a song.
Ruth: And if you’ve ever seen … I think one of the first things that got me thinking about this idea of playing from a leadsheet, without knowing what it was called, was when I was going to church as a child, well as a teenager, and the church keyboardists would be playing these amazing arrangements of the church songs, but they would never turn the page. I’d be like how are they playing all this? Normally when you’re playing a whole song as a pianist, you’re turning the page five or six times get through a whole song, but these sorts of pianists, keyboardists are never turning the page. It’s just one sheet, and that’s what a leadsheet is, normally one page and it has three main elements on it, and that includes the melody, which is standard notation, and the chords, chord symbols, and then the lyrics. Just those three things.
Ruth: And by that sort of minimized amount of information, it means that we can get the idea of a song really quickly and then use our own musicianship and our own knowledge of rhythms and riffs to be able to fill in the gaps really, and make our own cool arrangement of the song.
Christopher: Got you. It’s really interesting that it was the kind of one-pager aspect of it that drew your attention at first. I think it was similar for me in that as a teenage guitar player, I’d be looking in the sheet music shop at all of these things, and it was a thick book that had an album of Radiohead songs, and then a book that wasn’t much thicker that promised it had 300 songs, and you can’t help but wonder how do they better to cram 300 songs into that same kind of size book. And it’s because each one just took up a page. And I know that, for me, at the time, there were two things really. One was that a lot of those seemed to be jazz books. There was a jazz Real Book. That’s one of the classic books of leadsheets, right.
Christopher: And the other aspect was I’d flick through the books and I’d be like okay, I could sing that. I can see that for a vocalist, it’s got everything I need, but I don’t think I could play one of these just from the one page version. And so I think it’s awesome that you’ve put together a course specifically to help with this because I think it’s something that is just kind of a big question mark for a lot of musicians, and it’s the kind of thing where we often talk about it at Musical U because it’s the thing where you see someone do it and it just kind of seems magical because clearly their brain is operating in a way that you’re not quite sure is part of your own skillset. So maybe we can talk about if you were to crack open one of these books, where each song just took up a page, how do you possibly get from that very minimal, skeletal definition of the song to something that sounds like real music?
Ruth: Yeah. Well there’s a few little things that you need to work on in order to interpret those three elements and expand it into something bigger and cooler. And I think firstly I just want to say as well that there is the simple way of learning from a leadsheet, and that’s literally just to play the melody as it’s written and just play a chord, and that’s it.
Ruth: And that’s fine if you just want to just play a simple version of the song, but the reason that I’m so excited about teaching creative ways of interpreting leadsheets and making it into a bigger arrangement is that it’s often funner to put our own spin on songs, and also when we hear a cover song by another artist covering a song, or someone doing their own version of a song, we’re always way more impressed when it’s a bit different. I find that I’m never that impressed when someone has just played a song exactly as the original, because you’re like why don’t I just listen to the original song. So it’s kind of putting your own spin on it that makes it more interesting, and funner to play, and better to listen to as well.
Ruth: So with interpreting that leadsheet, the place we start from, and what I teach in the Lovin’ Leadsheets course, is to have a very specific process to go through. And I teach a five step process, and each process is broken down into sort of small steps within each step. The first step that we do is to look at the … Well, the first thing you want to do is look at the start of the score, that staff that’s got all the notes on it, and you’ll look at the time signature and the key signature, make sure you know the sort of rules of the song. And then you’re going to the … part of that first step is to look at the melody and start figuring the melody out. And I have a little trick, a shortcut with playing the melody as well, that I’m going to share a little bit later.
Ruth: The second step we’re going to do is to play the bass notes. We’re going to figure out what bass notes we’re going to be playing with our left hand. Then we’re going to build in the chords into it by blocking them out. And then from there you’re trying to get your hands together. You’re trying to find a rhythm that’s going to suit the song, and obviously the rhythm of the chords and the bass lines that we’re going to play are something that’s coming completely from us because that’s not written into the leadsheet at all. So already we’re starting to pull things from our experience of playing other songs, and songs maybe we’ve heard before where we’ve picked up a riff that we thought was cool and then we start to build this library of riffs that we can then pull out things in order to play different songs. And then we put it all together into something that sounds cohesive. So that’s, in a nutshell, the whole process of learning from a leadsheet.
Christopher: Got you. And is this something where people would kind of do just step one of that with 10 songs for a month and then they start moving on to step two? Or is it kind of steps one through five for a single song and then move on to another song? What would you recommend for people?
Ruth: Well, so I like to get people learning just one song. So in the course we do, it’s the same thing that I did with the Songs by Ear course, you learn step-by-step one whole song by ear throughout the course, and then once you’ve gone through that whole process, then I go, “Here’s a bunch of other songs for you to learn by ear.” It’s the same thing with the Lovin’ Leadsheets. Actually going through the course material, we do it with one leadsheet. Two, actually. We go through two leadsheets through the whole process of the course, but the thing is when you come to actually practicing this process on your own, after you’ve learned it in the course, it’s actually best to try and spend as little time on one song as you possibly can.
Ruth: Really. I sort of encourage people to go through the steps. Once you’ve gone through it, play the song maybe two or three times to sort of reward yourself for having learned it from the leadsheet, and then move on. Screw up that leadsheet, chuck it away. You don’t need it anymore. Move onto the next one because the thing is is what we want to be practicing is the process, and getting better at that process so that one day someone can put a leadsheet in front of you and you know that process so well that you can just… then be playing something rather than getting bogged down with one song at a time or trying to perfect one single song. So I always encourage people, even though the course is one or two songs to learn the process, when you’re practicing the process you’ve got to move on quickly.
Christopher: That is such a great tip and it reminds me, the thing that really helped me with sight reading on piano was, I can’t even remember what put it in my head, but I just got the thick English Hymnal book, which anyone who’s sung in a choir in the UK would know. It’s this green covered, thick book, and I had a four part harmony book and I was just like I am going to sight read every C major hymn in this book. And not trying to perfect them, not really playing through them more than once, but I just went through and played everything in C major. And by the end of it I was like oh, I can sight read any of these hymns in C major now.
Christopher: And I think it’s such an important thing because otherwise we kind of get, by default, into that mode of I’m learning a song, therefore I will practice until I can play each bit of it perfectly. And I think it’s so smart to take that same approach of just I’m going to work through this once and move on to another one, because that’s going to get you the quickest results.
Ruth: Yeah. I mean sometimes, if there’s a song that’s your favorite that you’ve been dying to learn for ages and you’re like, “Finally, I can learn it from a leadsheet, but Ruth tells me that I have to throw it away,” then you can work on your favorite song, that’s fine. But in terms of getting better, yeah, it’s just practicing the process rather than a particular song.
Christopher: Yeah. And I don’t know if this is something else you cover in the course, but I was thinking of leadsheets over Christmas because it’s been quite awhile since I played anything from a leadsheet on piano, but my sister-in-law wanted to play some duets from her Christmas piano book, and my sight reading, despite what I just said, is not that hot on piano. I’m not going to play full two-part arrangement from scratch just sight reading a nicely arranged Christmas hymn or song, but there were chord symbols written in the sheet music and so I could absolutely sit down and play through the melody and the chord symbols, because to me I could just kind of see that as being a leadsheet. And I think that’s something that is a really helpful thing to know is that this can help you, whether or not you’re literally looking at a leadsheet, once you’re into that frame of mind of oh, I just need the melody and then I can figure out something to do with the chords. That actually pays off in all kinds of ways, right?
Ruth: Yeah. And the thing that I love about it, I think, is that with that skill of being able to interpret it as well, it means that you, if you’re sight reading, for some reason, notation, like you were, that if you have those chord symbols you can just sort of read a little bit and if you get stuck you can just go back to the chord symbols. And if you’ve already played a little bit of the song, you’ve already got an idea of the type of thing you’re going to fill in those chords with. And it’s again coming back to having some riffs sort of in the back of your mind so that when you get to that point you can go, “I’m just going to play this rhythm. I’ll just play the chords and just get through the song.”
Christopher: Absolutely. So we talked through the five step process you’re teaching in the course. I see you have a keyboard behind you. I wonder if we could just kind of illustrate that for people, what each of those steps would sound like, so that they have a sense of building it up from scratch.
Ruth: So the first step that we’re going to do, if we have a leadsheet like this, Amazing Grace, for instance, the first thing we’re going to do is, especially while we’re learning this process, you want to make sure that you are choosing a leadsheet of a song that you already know. And the reason for this is, what I’m about to tell you, and that is to do as the melody. So the first step in playing from a leadsheet is to look at the set of rules that we had on the left hand side. So we’ve got, on this particular example, it just didn’t have a key signature. So that’s telling us that it haven’t got any sharps or flats to worry about, and it’s telling us that it’s in three four, so that’s something to keep in the back of our mind. We’re going to be roughly counting three beats per bar.
Ruth: Now we’re going to forget about that because we’re actually going to take a shortcut version to the melody. And by that, what we’re doing is we’re looking at score to see what notes it’s telling us to play. So whether you read notation or not, in my course, Lovin’ Leadsheets, I do go through some basic notation reading, so you’re not going to get left behind if you’re not sure about that, but basically all the notes are set on a space or a line, and they go up the alphabet, A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Or downwards they can go A, G, F, E, D, C. And so we can go up or down the staff and count either up the alphabet, or if down, down the alphabet, right. That’s really notation in a nutshell. So we’re going to look at these notes here and they’ll tell us what keys we’re going to play. So I can see Amazing Grace, just that first line, G, C, E, C, E, D, B, A, G.
Ruth: So that tells us what notes. Now the other information that’s in these notes is the type of note here and whether they’ve got beams or not, and that sort of thing, tells us what the rhythm is, what the duration of each note is. And that’s the part that I want you to throw away because if you know the song, and you’ve picked a song that you know and are familiar with, and can probably hum the melody, or sing the melody to yourself, then you don’t need to worry so much about these rhythms because you kind of just know it inherently. This is when you’re going to sit back and just sort of trust yourself that you already know the rhythm. So I can sing amazing grace, how sweet the sound. Right. So I kind of already inherently know the rhythm. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to lock my fingers in to what I would sing, and I’m going to line up each melody note with the syllable that is above. So I’ve got amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
Ruth: So we can kind of get through that by matching up the melody notes with the symbols that come underneath them, and it should be matched up if it’s a published leadsheet. Then we don’t have to worry so much about counting, and on beats, and off beats, and all that sort of business. So that’s the first step is doing the melody. I’m not going to run through every single little thing, but that was just one hint that I wanted to let you know about.
Ruth: Now the second step is we’re going to add bass notes. Okay, so I’m just doing the first line as an example. The next step is we’re going to block out our chords, just separately. Okay. So we’re just going to block out those chords separately. Now I’m breezing through this really fast. You can do this a lot slower. In the course we go through this in a lot more detail. So when we’ve got the melody, we’ve got the bass notes, and we’ve got the chords, then we are going to try and put those two things together.
Ruth: Now there’s all sorts of other details, like how to interpret chord symbols, why we would want to do the bassline as well as chords, there’s a reason for that that I go through in the course, but that’s the most basic way that you can play this leadsheet. Now when you start to learn about rhythms and you start to learn about riffs, then you have some little tricks up your sleeve to be able to do more with the song and make it more interesting, like we were talking about. So this is basically what I might do to this song with the riffs that I’ve learnt over the years. I would probably interpret it something like this.
Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you. I felt really guilty because I recorded an episode once upon a time called About Leadsheets, and this would be in the first 50 episodes or so of the podcast, when it was all audio only, and I talked through some of what we’ve discussed today, but there were no audio demonstrations because I didn’t have a keyboard, I didn’t have a good instrument at hand, and I was just like I’ll just talk. It’s fine. But this is obviously so much better, if someone’s wondering how you go from that very skeletal representation of a song to something that sounds like you just played where no-one listening would really know you weren’t reading full left hand, right hand notated sheet music for Amazing Grace. I think that’s a really great illustration. Thank you.
Christopher: So you’ve put together this whole fantastic course to help people go from kind of zero to hero in terms of leadsheets. Could you explain a little bit more? I know some in our audience don’t play piano and so everything we’ve just shared is super useful to them just to take into the world of leadsheets, but obviously if they are a pianist, or want to become a pianist, your course in particular will be of great interest. So can you just explain what’s provided and who it’s for? Is there anyone that’s course is not a good fit forward? Do they already need to read notation? Who’s the course right for?
Ruth: Yeah. Well as I did with my previous course, Songs by Ear, I sort of get into it and then realize that I don’t want to leave anyone behind. It’s the sort of idea that I have that I think everyone should be able to play piano creatively and feel like they’re building those skills to be a natural pianist, and I don’t like to leave anyone out so I generally do provide everything from a total basic level. So as I said, there’s a little bit in the course, just a sort of crash course on reading notation in case you have never read standard notation before.
Ruth: But it’s for anyone that either wants a quicker method to learn songs, but not just a quicker method because if we just wanted a quicker method to learn songs then we would just go on YouTube and watch tutorials with those raining down notes things that some people do, but it’s a quicker method that is also working on your musicianship. That’s the difference. And obviously if you’re a member of Musical U, you already know the importance of working on your musicianship and learning more and more so that you can just create amazing music. And that comes from growing knowledge over the course of your whole life. And playing from a leadsheet is, in some ways, a shortcut and other ways, it depends, what you put into it is what you get out of it I guess. So I’m giving people the tools to be able to put in more, to play from a leadsheet, so that it’s not just quick, but it’s actually a way of playing something creative that you can feel really proud of.
Ruth: Who it’s not for, I suppose people who would rather the play a song exactly as it’s been composed because if you want to play a song note for note exactly then the best method for that is definitely reading from sheet music. But in saying that, I did work in publishing for many years and I also know that very rarely is the sheet music an actual, accurate transcription. So even then, sometimes you’re better actually to build your own ear skills so that you can figure out exactly what the exact notes of a song is. But for learning something quickly, making your own interpretation, leading sheets is definitely where it’s at.
Christopher: And I mentioned jazz along the way, and we just use the example of Amazing Grace obviously, what genres does this apply to? Where can you get leadsheets and for what kinds of music?
Ruth: Yeah. Leadsheets, I mean they exist for all types of genres. It obviously sort of started with jazz and jazz musicians wanting a shorthand for rolling up to a studio, or rolling up to a gig and being able to play songs quickly for a paid gig, but it really has become something that you can find leadsheets for any genre, and the skills that you learn in this course, there are specific rhythms, and there are specific ideas for riffing that are probably best in certain genres. There’s definitely riffs that are more jazzy, and riffs that are more poppy, and more sort of new age classical ideas, but those can always be used in different genres, and it’s really a skill that you can apply to whichever genre. And I’m a massive believer in, even if you are real specific about wanting to learn a certain genre, you still need those basic musicianship skills to be able to apply in a specialized area. I would never recommend people just learn a specific genre of music straight off the bat.
Christopher: Fantastic. And one final question, when you were demonstrating there, step five with rhythm and arranging in your own way, you said, “I’m going to draw on my back catalog of riffs,” and you just mentioned riffs again. Is that something you cover in the course or is that kind of a special extra step that people would bring in from their own experience?
Ruth: I do go into it a little bit in the course, but it’s definitely more about the process of leadsheets. I do cover sort of how you might, at certain points, for instance with bringing your hands together and adding the rhythm, I do give some ideas for how you might start to practice that sort of thing, but in terms of an exhaustive riff library, I do actually have another little module that I’ve put together that’s more of the classical, and pop, and jazz riffs that I was just mentioning. That’s also available in my members area as well, if people do the leadsheet course and want to go on from there and do some more riffing, that is there, yeah.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I was so keen to have you on the show because if you go out there to try and learn about leadsheets, like I did once back in the day, what you tend to get is just the kind of literal what is a leadsheet? Okay, it’s melody plus chords, and then you’re kind of left to your own devices to turn that into music.
Christopher: And as you touched on there, obviously everything we do at Musical U is trying to build the inner skills that help you do that in a compelling way that feels natural, but at the same time it’s super valuable to have someone just lay out very clearly here’s the process, here’s the step-by-step, here’s kind of the structure that goes into playing from a leadsheet and give you the opportunity to then go out and do that with dozens of songs, and build up your own riff library, and get a sense of what it means to create your own arrangement on the fly. So fantastic concept for a course, and I know that, as with all your stuff, it’s going to be extremely high quality and you’ll provide great student support. So I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is a pianist or wants to be.
Christopher: I’ve realized we have done the terrible thing of getting people excited about something and then not telling them where to get it. So we better make sure we give them the web address. Where can they go to get a copy of Lovin’ Leadsheets?
Ruth: Yeah, well you can go to pianopicnic.com/lovin-leadsheets. And that’s lovin’ without the G, because it’s cool. And it’s an online course, it’s all fully online, and you can also do it through an app, and in your own time at your own pace. It’s wonderful. So basically what I’m doing is the first module, which includes the intro and the whole first step of melody, learning the melody. That’s available right now for just a $1 trial, which is pretty amazing. And then the rest of the course is actually going to be coming out in February. So that’s something to look forward to.
Christopher: Absolutely. Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Ruth, for coming on the show today. We’ll have a link to the course and Piano Picnic in the show notes for this episode, as well as your past interview on the show. Thank you so much again.
Ruth: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been fun.