Last week, I wrote about the use of the stride style in church. On Facebook, it turned out to be a very controversial subject because some people chose to focus on a few historical elements I mentioned rather than my main points. I could get pulled off on that rabbit trail defending my assertions but I don’t see the point. I still don’t think there is anything really to debate because the history on the subject is pretty clear and I would rather focus on things that matter anyway.
One of the things I mentioned last week was that while stride works well in congregational accompaniment, it can sound very bad when playing soft songs. I have heard a lot of pianists pounding their way through “Softly and Tenderly” and it is not a pretty thing.
So I want to talk about how you can modify stride to make it more appropriate for soft songs. I am going to use the song “Just As I Am” as an example.
By the way, if you want this music, you can get it here: Just As I Am
Now, let’s talk about what is going on here. First of all, is this stride at all? My answer would be yes though it is heavily modified. Check out example B above and you will see the classic stride pattern with a low interval on the down beat and chords in the middle of the piano on beats 2 and 3.
I will readily admit I am doing a lot of chord substitutions here that some of you will not have the liberty to do. I usually play songs like this by myself in church and we don’t sing parts really (the congregation is reading words from a screen rather than a hymnal). For those reasons, I can do a lot of chord substitutions. But even if your situation is different and you can’t change the harmony, all of the concepts in this example still apply.
So what am I doing to soften my stride? I would say there are four specific things here that I encourage you to do:
1) Ditch the heavy 4-note groupings in the right hand.
When learning this style, pianists are taught to play all three notes in the triad in the right hand and double the melody (four notes total). While that sounds good sometimes, you need to start ditching those notes to play a softer style.
I play lots of open intervals (5ths and 6ths) as you see in example A above. The easiest way to create those intervals is to play the triad inversion you would normally play but leave out the middle note. I also do some octaves based on the melody note but only include one note in the middle rather than two. (See examples D and F.)
2) Don’t play octaves in the left hand. Play other intervals instead.
If you look carefully, you will note that I never play an octave in the left hand in this example. That is intentional. I like 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, 9ths and 10ths but not octaves. (See examples D and E.) This will help your sound tremendously because when you play intervals other than octaves, you are covering more of the chord with the left hand. That in turn allows you to play LESS with the right hand and opens up its voicing more.
3) When you play the left hand chords on off beats, play fewer notes there too.
Typically, when pianists come up the keyboard with the left hand to play those off beat chords, they play full triads. You don’t have to do that. You can play intervals in those spots as well. (See examples D and F.)
4) Break up the chords in the left hand with arpeggios, etc.
You might notice that I do a lot of little things to avoid playing all the notes in big chords at once. For example, in example A, I add the middle note to that left hand voicing a half beat later than the other notes.
It is generally considered a no-no to play arpeggios in congregational accompaniment but I do it a lot. (See example C.) I would not say to do it all the time and I would not say to do it in big songs, but it is fine here.
There is one other thing I would say that I can’t exactly demonstrate with printed music.: your touch is important too. Don’t play heavy; be gentle.
That is about it. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.