Stride piano is a popular style of piano playing in which the left hand acts as a complete rhythm section. Sometimes described as an "oom-pah" style of playing, stride piano requires that the left hand play the role of timekeeper, bass player, and chordal accompaniment all at once. This is an understandably advanced concept to master, but we can learn to play an easy stride piano style and work our way up to a more challenging and technically demanding level of stride piano playing. In this article we'll look at three ways to practice stride piano playing that will increase in terms of complexity, ultimately helping us to master this essential style of piano accompaniment.
One of the things that makes stride piano challenging is the fact that the left hand is constantly in motion, often times switching hand positions very quickly in order to create that "oom-pah" sound. In this level we're going to focus on a much easier version of stride that allows us to stay in a comfortable, easy hand position yet still create that "oom-pah" accompaniment pattern.
We'll start with the first 4 measures of the jazz classic "It's Only a Paper Moon":
If we start to dissect the specifics of stride playing one of the things we notice is that at the start of each new chord we're going to play the root - nothing else. Knowing that goes a long way in understanding the stride pattern as we can now fill in half of the stride left-hand part:
Next, we'll turn our attention to the second beat of each chord (wherever we see rests in the bass clef in the example above). On these beats (beats 2 and 4) we will play chord tones to help flesh out the sound of each chord. Doing so gives us something that looks like this:
As you can probably see, the left-hand part is really quite simple now that we understand how it's being created. The left hand, at this Phase 1 level, is basically playing chord shells that are broken into two parts - root, then chord tones.
This next level is a little more challenging but will help you to create an awesome sound in jazz piano - the sound of left hand 10ths! It also gets you moving your left hand just slightly so that you get accustomed to the feeling of constant motion in the left hand.
By playing 10ths in your left hand you are forced to play the root of the chord and then move your hand slightly in order to accommodate the next two notes. This might be quite challenging at first, so start by practicing the left hand by itself at a very slow tempo. As you improve, try playing one measure at a time with the left hand. It's important to master this level before going on to Phase 3, which is covered in Part 2 of this article. Happy practicing!