Left Hand Workout
By Tony DeSare
Fri, 28 Jun 2013

As jazz pianists we often learn a multitude of right-hand licks and scales for soloing, but we don’t spend enough time developing our left hand. Since I sing and often support my vocals with solo piano, I’ve spent a lot of time practicing left-hand devices that offer musical intrigue while helping to deliver my vocal more effectively. Developing a strong left hand is great for building hand independence, not to mention entertaining crowds. In this lesson, I’ll be using short excerpts from the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” to demonstrate useful left-hand devices. The song’s harmonic movement is based on the circle of fifths and is a perfect vehicle for learning to play in many keys. Try playing the patterns in the left hand while playing different rhythms with the right hand. Start by playing quarter notes with the right hand, and then move on to eighth notes, triplets and other rhythms. 



1. Left Like James Booker


In Ex. 1a, I’ve outlined the basic chords and melody for the eight bars of the B section of “Autumn Leaves” in the key of Ab. (Ab might seem strange for this song, but I find that the notes fall under the fingers well, especially at fast tempos).

Ex. 1b imparts a different flavor to the same melody, employing a left-hand Afro-Cuban rhythm similar to what famed New Orleans pianist James Booker might have used. This syncopated rhythm outlines the chord triads and can help you achieve greater independence between the right and left hands.

2. Driving Left Hand


Ex. 2a illustrates the basic melody for the opening eight bars.  

Ex. 2b is an elaboration on the rhythm we established in Ex. 1b, and a modified version of another pattern James Booker often played. Notice how the fifth and sixth notes of the pattern are broken up instead of striking the third and seventh degrees of the chord at the same time. This allows for smoother transitions between chords, and also lets you play the pattern at much faster tempos. In this context, the left hand pattern takes on an almost classical feel while it simultaneously “holds down the fort,” allowing the right hand to serve functions like outlining the melody, soloing, or adding flourishes that accent the driving left-hand rhythms.

3. Double-Time Stride


Ex. 3 uses the harmonic footprint of the opening to create a double-time stride pattern for the left hand. Notice how the bass line is often moving in thirds rather than fifths. This was inspired by Oscar Peterson’s solo piano work from the 1970s. His ability to play stride piano extremely fast always amazed me. The best way to play in that style is to make the movement of the left hand as efficient as possible. 

4. Double-Time Boogie a la Oscar


Ex. 4 illustrates a standard boogie-woogie pattern, but with the tempo doubled and played “straight” in the style of Oscar Peterson. This is a really fun device for creating excitement live. Feel free to experiment with your own runs in the right hand—the important thing is to keep that left hand solid and rocking!

Solo from “A Lot To Say”


My upcoming album was recorded entirely on a Yamaha C3 piano, multi-tracked to sound like a full band. I plucked the strings, hit the body with marimba mallets, and muted the strings to approximate each instrument I was trying to emulate. Here’s the piano solo from my original song “A Lot To Say.” The focus here is on the left hand, which is a funky, bluesy bass line with a third/seventh pattern alternating on top. Try practicing the left hand first and then see if you can add in the melody.

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