Using that left hand

If you are looking for simple things you can do to help your style, your left hand is a good place to start.  Let’s talk about why that is true for a second and then I will give you something specific to work on.

There are at least two major reasons why the left hand is generally allowed to get away with murder.  First and most obvious, most people are right handed.  The second reason is also fairly obvious when you think about it.  Because of the nature of low sounds, what you might play in the right hand does not work in the lower registers.  Intervals have to be wider and things tend to get muddy in a hurry.  As a result, pianists tend to simplify what they play down low.

In addition to these two reasons, popular music both inside and outside the church tends to put a lot of emphasis on the right hand while letting the left hand slide.  It is very common to see pianists play big chords in the right hand while only a single note or an octave in the left hand.  If you a typical church pianist, that is how you were probably taught. 

There is a time for playing octaves in the left hand, but in general, you should avoid that practice.  The major problem with playing octaves in the left hand is an uneven distribution of the harmony across the keyboard.  Assuming you are playing 4-note chords (for the most part, you probably should be), playing left-handed octaves assures that you will have one out of 4 notes in the left hand and the other 3 in the right hand.  That is no law against it of course, but your sound will suffer.

Here is an example of what I mean.  Here is a G minor chord played in a few different ways.

The first bar contains the voicing that many church pianists have been taught.  There is nothing wrong with it I suppose if you need a big sound.  But there are better alternatives.

In the second bar, note that we have introduced a fourth note (the 7th) into the chord.  This additional note helps the sound in itself, but it also replaces one of the three G’s played in the first bar.  However, the weakness of this voicing is it is making the right hand do all the work (playing 3 notes of the chord against only 1 in the left hand).

The last bar demonstrates a better voicing.  Note that we are playing a 4-note chord again, but we have divided the notes of the chord between the left and right hands.

Of course, there is nothing magical about which hands themselves play the notes.  The reason the sound is improved is because the notes are spread out further on the keyboard rather than bunched up together within an octave as you see in the first two bars.

The moral of the story is this. Look for ways to play intervals other than octaves in your left hand.  The most common interval you can play will be the 7th as you see above.  You simply play the root and 7th of the chord.

That being said, many other intervals work well.  If you can play a tenth, you should play them often.  You can play root and 3 a tenth apart or 3 and 5 a tenth apart.

You can also play sixths–3 with 1 and also 5 with 3.  And you can play 5ths if you don’t play them too low–1 and 5.

All of these intervals help redistribute the notes of the chord better on the keyboard.  Like many other things we have discussed, the difference is subtle but important.