How to Play Stride Piano in 5 Easy Steps
While not associated with any popular piano player in particular, stride piano has techniques that is heavily used by many different styles of playing. In simple terms, the stride piano has the right hand playing the melody and the left hand jumping up and down the lower octaves alternating between a bass note and a chord an octave or higher.
Stride piano techniques can be heavily seen in ragtime melodies as well as many other jazzy and bluesy styles where the right hand is the main melody. It is meant as a way to enhance the right-hand melody and create a metronome to keep those popular improvisations in time and bring them back to the music when done.
The particular left-hand technique of jumping up and down the piano and hitting the right notes can be extremely difficult to master, however with the right exercises, techniques, and determination, any player can know how to play stride piano.
Stride Piano Definition
Stride piano has its roots in American ragtime and is considered a jazz style of piano playing. Developed by a group of black jazz pianists, it was meant to be a swanky, playful, and slightly aggressive solo piano style. This is why the left hand gives the “oompah” beat and jumps around the piano more often.
The music of stride is made of more complex harmonies than ragtime and contains more sites of improvisation. The blues elements tend to be more complicated than that of ragtime or other jazz styles of playing piano. The freely swinging rhythm was created to be strong enough that it could entertain a large gathering of people with a single piano player.
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Stride Piano Style
The 4 characteristics that create the stride piano are:
1) The jumping left hand
2) The four-beat pulse
Let’s go into each of these in depth.
1) The Jumping Left Hand
The origin of the term “stride”, the jumping left-hand strides all over the keyboard to create the stride piano playing ability. It jumps up and down octaves to create the bass and metronome within the style. This is what leaves the right hand free to improvise and fly up and down the keys as the player sees fit.
The jumping lefthand is also quite common in ragtime piano playing, tying stride back to its roots. It is a strong characteristic of these two styles and is consistent throughout the music itself, really not changing much through pieces.
2) The Four-Beat Pulse
If you have played piano before you are most likely familiar with the four-beat pulse. As most beginner piano songs are written in 4/4 meaning 4 beats in a measure and the quarter note gets one beat. It is highly probable that you have internalized the four-beat pulse found in so many of your songs.
However, stride piano specifically puts this unintentionally internalized pulse into the left-hand notes and rhythm with its alternating chords and bass notes. By explicitly creating this four-beat pulse within the music, the right hand is also explicitly steadied throughout its syncopated rhythms and improvisational fills.
The left hand provides the bass and the beat while the right hand provides the interesting melodies and fanciful improvisations. The stride piano playing technique does not require any rhythmic or other accompaniment. It was developed to be a one-person show on one piano in order to entertain people. Thus, the stride technique is almost exclusively used in solo piano acts.
Improvisation is the biggest part of stride that sets it apart from its roots of ragtime. Where ragtime has most of its music composed and played with ornamentations and flourishes, stride piano has unwritten improvisation much of the time.
Through the other three characteristics of stride piano, it can be easy to see how this style is literally built for amazing and innovative improvisations. The steady beat of the left hand plus the performance flourish of jumping up and down the board creates the best visual and musical basis for improvisation to rile the crowd up.
Stride Piano Technique
Now that you know the background and basis of what makes stride piano sound they way it does, it’s time to start learning yourself to play stride piano!
There are a few basic stride piano techniques to start practicing that can get you sounding like a pro quick.
Step 1: Learn the Melody
Stride piano is a very hands-on learning style. Rather than simply find separated techniques to apply to a song, stride is best learned through playing songs and applying techniques to those practices. First, it is important to learn the right-hand melody.
The right-hand melody is what keeps the audience’s attention. In reality it’s best to learn the right-hand melody alone before putting in the left-hand chords and jumps. As students start out learning the stride piano technique, it can be helpful to memorize the right-hand melody before moving on to learn the left hand.
By memorizing the melody this not only sets students up for the ability to devote all their attention to landing those left-hand jumps, but also creates a great basis for when they begin to add improvisation. Despite, the heavy emphasis on improvisation in stride piano, the melody still should be used as a guide in terms of key signature and relative feel. Hence, those students that learn the written melody as best they can have a better chance of being successful at stride piano.
Step 2: Review the Chords
After learning the melody, it’s time to jump to start the learnings of the left hand. In stride piano, the left hand provides the base to hold up the melody in the right hand. This means that it mainly consists of chords and bass notes.
It’s easiest to learn new styles (and really any new skill on piano) by breaking it down into smaller pieces. For the left hand begin with the chords. The chords will be associated with the right hand, meaning for the most part they match up with certain notes. For example, if the right hand is playing a D, the left hand chord could be a tonic D root chord.
Especially for stride piano it is also important to become familiar with you 7th chords as those are quite common in the jazzy styles. All that really means is instead of playing an octave chord with the same note on top and bottom, drop the top not down a step and play the 7th note of the scale. This is what creates that bluesy, jazzy feel to stride piano.
After reviewing the basic chords the left hand will be playing, don’t forget to block the whole four-note-chord, including the previous base note. This is a practice technique called blocking where the separated notes are played together. It will help with the next step of beginning the legendary stride technique to know how far the notes are and the geography of what the left hand will be doing.
Step 3: Stride the Left Hand
As mentioned many times previously, the jumping left hand is arguably the most important part of stride piano playing, even helping to name it. So it’s important that when practicing this part of the stride technique you master it as best you can.
After you’ve blocked the full four-note-chords, jumping can begin. The left hand will jump from the root of the chord, the tonic note, to the rest of the higher notes in the chord. If this is a hard skill for you to learn there is a great technique to try and teach the left hand geography.
A practice technique called “ghost playing” or “aiming” the left hand will help strengthen that brain to finger connection of knowing where to go and what notes to play when the left hand jumps. Strongly play the bass note of the chord and then as fast as possible jump that left hand up to the next chord that’s supposed to be played, BUT DON’T PLAY IT.
Take a look, where did your hand land? Are you lined up to the right notes? Which fingers are supposed to push down? Once you are sure that you are about to play the right chord go ahead and play! Do this over and over again always trying to increase your speed and accuracy until eventually the gap between the bass note and the chord sound is almost non-existent.
If the chords are really giving the student some trouble and they just can’t seem to get it right they may consider using guide tones while they continue to strengthen their technique. Guides tones are a great way to simplify chords while still getting to the meat of the sound.
Additionally guide tones can help enhance the voice leading with the stride of the left hand. By only playing two of the notes of the chord, they can become closer in sound. Here is an example:
Notice that the Gm7 and C7 chords in measure 3 are only one notes away from each other. First, this can help to ease the jumps necessary from bass to chord as the left hand did a very similar jump in the Gm7 chord before the C7 chord. Second, it can help with voice leading, or when all of the chords are close to each other on the board. Voice leading helps to create a connected sound between chords to make the music more melodic and coherent.
Step 4: Hands Together
The next step in learning how to play stride piano is to put those two hands together and get the base of the song down. The is probably the hardest and yet easiest step in learning stride piano. Learning to play the melodic right hand with the bass and metronomic left hand can be difficult. This may be the first time that players experience two different feels in their hands.
However, you’ve already been practicing both hands and should have them down enough to combine. There’s nothing new to learn.
Combining the fast-paced right hands into the timing of the left hand is hard within any style of piano playing, but especially in stride. However, it is super important for the melody and the timing to be internalized within the player. This is because when they go off and begin embellishments and improvisations, they must also be able to return to the base of the melody.
Step 5: Embellish the right-hand
Right hand embellishments are not the same thing as improvisation. Rather, they are inserted by a player to fill gaps and make the melody a bit more interesting to play and to listen to. There are two common embellishments that almost any stride player uses, and these are also quite commonly used in non-stride piano playing as well.
The turns in piano playing can be seen in stride but are also common in classical piano playing as well. They are pretty self-explanatory being that players insert some extra notes that “turn around” before playing a melody note. Here is an example:
Turns are very easy to execute as long as a player understands the basic fundamentals of which way to move. Even then, the direction of movement can be deciphered quite easily. If the melody notes are going down, then the turn starts up and moves down. If the melody is going up, then the turn starts down and moves up.
To execute a turn the first note will be in the opposite direction of the melody’s direction with the second note being in the same direction. It is quite similar to a trill that can be found in other piano styles meant to embellish the melody.
It is also important to understand WHEN to put in a turn, or any embellishment in general. A general rule of thumb is in the gaps of the melody. So taking the example above, the turn comes during the quarter note rather than the 8th notes. Typically any note that is a beat or longer can be a place to input an embellishment.
As we’ve mentioned throughout this article, the thing that sets stride apart from it’s root of ragtime, is the encouragement of improvisation. The stride compositions are really just a vague guide of what the melody of a song could be. They lay out the base of the song and is something to always return back to.
However, improvisation can be a difficult thing to learn and master, especially since many styles have their own nuances to add in. In reality almost any flair or embellishment is considered improvisation because it is not written in the music. So, if you have already mastered the simple turns you are on your way!
There are a few important things to remember when improvising. The first thing is that it is beneficial to remain within the written key of the melody. It can be a bit disconcerting when an pianist is improvising in a minor key when the song was written in major. This is not to say that it’s impossible, however it can be difficult and create an unwanted dissonance.
The second thing to remember with improvising is that as long as you stay relatively within time, it’s all up to your imagination. This is definitely an easier tactic to remember when playing stride piano because of the defined four-beat pulse within the left hand. It can set the metronome for players to use within their improvisation and eventually bring them back to the melody.
One of the best ways to learn how to improvise for newer players is to listen to others. By listening to others improvise, students can get a sense of what types of improvisations are normally used within stride piano playing and techniques that create the best sound. Before beginning to develop their own improvisational methods, it’s great to use others as a basis.
No music is created alone, it’s a collaborative industry and musicians build off of each other. Improvisations all have influences and role models that they take after during their playing and development. It’s ok to be a newer player and take an improvisation from someone else. Eventually you can gain confidence and begin to embellish on their own improvisations to develop your own style and improvisations.
Stride can be a difficult style of piano to learn. The hands don’t always seem to go together and the improvisational aspects can be hard to master. It doesn’t help that most of the time the best way to learn stride is simply listen to pros and learn the songs one at a time. There are a few techniques to practice, but not many that can be practiced alone. They need to be applied to songs.
That being said, it is not impossible and stride is quite a fun style to learn and execute. It encourages a player’s creativity and stylistic showings unlike many other styles of piano. Once you know how to play stride piano, it isn’t hard to improve and master it to sound like a pro.
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