Praise Keyboarding for Classical Pianists
At the request of a musician friend (hi Madeline!) I’m posting these notes taken at the Mission!Worship conference at Eastbourne, UK last fall. The workshop was given on November 4, 2006 by Stuart Townend, one of the UK’s best worship-song and hymn writers. A link to his blog can be found below.
There are four things to consider: Style, building blocks of contemporary playing, being flexible, and playing by ear. (These will be detailed in the following three topics.)
Classical training hasn’t really helped! The big thing is to become a team player. Keyboard players are used to playing alone. What the keyboard can do alone is “enough” — that is, you can play an entire piece solo and it will sound fine. And as an accompanist you use broken chords, etc to create a full sound. In a praise band situation, “enough” + “more” (instruments) = “too much”.
The guitar player will carry the rhythm — no need for the keyboard to do the same — be less rhythm-oriented. Highlight little bits; move the chord up so you’re not in the same octave as the guitar (becomes too muddy). Keyboard players have the most notes to choose from so we need to be the most flexible.
The praise band’s bass player can only play low notes. Stay above the bass with the left hand. When there is no bass player, think and play like a bass player with your left hand.Listen to a lot of music and listen for what the keyboard does. Instrumentalists – who will take the fills, that is, fill in gaps between lines or verses? Give one to the flute, one to the keyboard, etc.
(2) Appreciate the style
The majority of worship songs are written by people who don’t necessarily read music. Songwriters don’t hear it the same way keyboardists do. We’ve learned arpeggio-driven [harmonies] but these are a little “busy” and don’t have a contemporary “feel”.
The rhythm drives the song — emphasize beats 2 & 4, not 1 & 3 — even on some ballads. Example: “King of Angels” — use single notes in the left hand and chords in the right hand. Vocals are syncopated against the accompaniment. Think: “what would drums do?” The left hand can follow the kick-drum (bass drum); the right hand can follow the snare. (This is as you’re learning it — then build some variety to avoid sounding wooden.)
Ballads – might emphasize the 3rd beat but de-emphasize the 1st beat to keep with the style. To give the contemporary flavor, ask: where does the off-beat come? How can I emphasize it with the right hand? Let the left hand be similar to the bass drum.
(3) What notes to play?
Chords are the foundation of contemporary playing and improvisation. Don’t play the tune; let the singers and solo instruments take the melody, especially on songs they know. Playing the melody ties you in. Use it first time in rehearsal only, maybe. Learn the melody with voices, work with the singers, maybe teach them the tune, but don’t play most songs with melody in the right hand.
Use a solo instrument like flute if you like. Have a good understanding of what is possible and what is not. Learn independence of vocal rhythms and hand rhythms.
Contemporary songbooks are guides — don’t play what’s written in performance. The arrangements are to help introduce the song. Use the chords written above.
Work with familiar songs to start with. Play the chords in the right hand and bass note in the left hand. Learn the chord inversions and make transitions smooth; share notes within chord progressions as much as possible (that is, use the same notes when the chord changes whenever possible).
Chord relationships: learn to play these by ear (I – IV – V – I progressions etc). Write out your favorite songs in chord numbers, then play in another key. Get into other keys… train your ears…Learning to play from a classical standpoint was too much a visual experience and not enough an aural experience.
When using string sounds on the keyboard, think like a string player. On intros, keep a steady rhythm; optionally use a slight rise in dynamics before the vocals come in (as a cue).