I would like to know if there is a reasonable and useful practise strategy to learn how to accompany on the piano with just lead sheets with chord symbols?

The ability to comp chords "live" along with other musicians whilst paying attention to the extensions is extremely difficult for me and if I could hear from anyone who has managed to master this and has some exercises would be great.

To give an example: I play in a Big Band with a rhythm section and 15 others. The brass instruments have set lines to learn, but the piano is mostly comping with open parts for improvisation. The scores are pretty minimal but contain lots of room for interpretation. I would like to be able to use more voicings than those suggested in the scores, but I don't want to go home and study which voices would fit the tune best, because that is taking the musicianship away. I really would like be able to have the voicings already in my toolbox and be able to rattle then out when and as I feel the need. That is what I would like to achieve, but can´t see a strategy. The repertoire is mosly swing and bebop classics - Ellington, Count Basie, Niel Hefti - some Mingus and Bird too.

  • It'll help to know what stage you're at, what songs you have in mind, what oter players are involved, etc.
    – Tim
    Sep 4, 2019 at 15:02
  • Please give examples, what would you like to do. Can you do it slowly like 1/10x speed? Is it about recognizing extra tensions in chords played by others by ear, or just reading and playing what it says on the lead sheet? Or do you want to add your own extra tensions or altered notes? A few examples? Sep 4, 2019 at 16:14

4 Answers 4


As said in the other answer, studying the chart at home is a good start.

If possible, take the whole orch., so you can play what others play at the comp. times. Your piano chart should (in a big band orch) show the complete chords - so at least you'll know what extensions and alterations are needed each bar. Check the bass parts. Often they'll be roots and 5ths, so for your voicings, they don't need doubling by piano. Unless you want to!

You can go one of two ways - and all stops in between! Full blooded whole chords, or bare minimalistic playing - Duke-like if you want. If there's little else happening, all the notes from each chord can be played, and the voicings will need disecting in your private practice time. There are so many, it'll keep you occupied for ever!

Or - the barest of note clusters. 3s and 7s are often employed here. They work well on piano (and guitar), with little stabs that fit in with the drum pattern and/or the bass/guitar. Again, check what could be played before the full rehearsals, so it's not treading on the horn players' toes.

Sometimes, with that big band music, a gentle wash under the rest of the band works, and once again, try out different voicings, from thick to thin, at home.

I like big band arrangements such as you quote, as there's lots of scope for the piano/keyboard player in comp. sections, and what gets played doesn't have to be (and usually won't be by me!) played the same every time.

A final point. If there's a guitarist in that band, be well aware of what he's doing.(And vice versa!). Could be he's got a comp. part at the same time. Need to work as a team, not two individuals. Obviously, drums and bass are also part of the rhythm section - but neither plays chords. So, work with guitar, possibly both comping together, but better to decide where each of you is, otherwise it can become a messy battle.

So, it's not all homework by yourself, although you should find yourself doing a fair bit of breaking the pieces down to their bare bones.

  • Nice addition! I agree 100%.
    – WillRoss1
    Sep 7, 2019 at 22:44

I don't want to go home and study which voices would fit the tune best, because that is taking the musicianship away

This is exactly what you need to do. Honestly, this is probably going to be one of the most effective things you can do. It does not take away musicianship, it builds upon it. Musicianship is not the ability to pull stuff out of thin air, it is the ability to effectively use prior experience. You are not just making random new stuff up, you are taking things you've already analyzed and researched and studied (a lot!) and putting it together in new ways.

So take it home, analyze it, study it, internalize it and find the voices that work best. Then (and only then) find some ways you can add some color and variety. Over time you will see more things that you've already studied before and your analysis will become easier and faster until you can sit down and figure out the piece in a single pass. The next thing you know, you'll be able to pick up a piece you've never seen before and instantly come up with several different ways you could go about playing it.

  • 1
    Note: This means that by doing this, you will be able to eventually do it in real time. Practicing at home is how one learns to improvise voicings.
    – user45266
    Sep 5, 2019 at 17:18
  • Point taken, but at home with only your part of the orchs, you haven't really got enough sonic information to work out voicings. The horns at some (or most) stages, are playing ensemble, so you need to be able to listen to what's going on there in order to complement their playing.
    – Tim
    Sep 7, 2019 at 13:36

There’s no other way around it. Get your foundation set up right.


“Learn the formulas” is what a great teacher once told me. Learn the common formulas for voicings in all 12 keys. They are the tools in your tool belt. Commit them to memory, make them a part of you. They should be under your fingers without having to think about them anymore. You’ll then be prepared to use them with tunes, not in real time at first. It will take some practice of picking a random song, and slowly but surely getting used to using them in “real slow time”, then gradually you get better at that until you can use them in real time. I used to spend time with the real book just picking songs, trying to play through them once out of time and just making choices without looking back, then go to the next tune. You’ll get it! I would also transcribe and analyze pianists comping tunes too, to see what they did. That added to my vocabulary a lot.

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