Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Contemporary Christian piano playing for classically trained keyboardists

The transition from solo pianist to playing in a band takes some effort – most of it mental, because the situation isn’t about chops.  It’s about playing a completely different role than we are used to.  With completely different music.

The good news: adapting the skill set is easy once you adjust to having band members and learn the piano’s role within this kind of music (plus getting over the initial shock of seeing letters instead of notes).  

The Keyboardists’ Role within the band
You are going from being ‘it’ to being one of many - leave some room for the other band members to play their role. Specifically, adapt to:
  • Bass player - your left hand performs a very similar function, so play less in the left hand in order to give them room to do their job  
  • Drummer - the drummer often picks up the busy rhythms on the high-hat, kick and snare.  Get used to ‘locking in’ with the drummer
  • Guitarist – Be careful about playing in the same range as the lead guitarist – adapt to what they’re playing: combine rhythms, you play low, they play high, you play chords, they play lead  
  • Keys player 2– with two keys, usually one plays on a lighter/synth patch (texture), and one is on a heavier/piano patch (harmony and rhythm)
  • Worship Leader - always have a visual on the leader. Signals and communication can be quick and unexpected– be ready to jump ANYWHERE in the song.

All this taken into account – now you can focus on: 

The Keyboardist's Role within the music
Because much of the rhythmic, melodic and bass line responsibility has been lifted off your shoulders, you now may play less than you are used to, and in a narrower range on the keyboard.  Previously, your keyboard had 88 keys; now you mainly live in the g2-g4 section of the keyboard.  One of the hardest thing for beginners to do is embrace simplicity - simple chords, simple rhythms and lots of repetition.

Simple Rhythms
Less is more in this situation.  Besides straight quarter notes, here are the two most commonly used comping rhythms in Contemporary Christian playing.  Embrace them:

Simple Chords
Again, this is mostly chord-based playing (often with the above rhythms).  You will almost never play the melody.  For this type of music, pianists use a lot of open 5th, sus2 and sus4 chords.  Focus on minimizing movement across the keyboard as you go from one chord to another (AKA smooth voice leading).  I like to think of it in terms of anchoring a thumb or pinkie.  For example, here's Chris Tomlin's "How Great is Our God".  The first 3 chords can be comped with the exact same notes in the RH (and incidentally, when repeated, gets you through most of the song)

Here is another example: Jennie Riddle's Revelation Song - again, see how you link one chord to the next with the closest voicing (and notice the added sus2s, the rhythmic simplicity).  Learning all of the inversions of the basic triads will help.

That's the basics: simple and repetitive playing, and be mindful of the rest of the band.  The quickest way to pick up the rest of the contemporary Christian musical conventions -i.e. going to higher parts of the keyboard during 'high points' in the music, using rhythms to increase the 'build' to a certain point in the song, etc - is by listening.  

Some online resources:
Worshiptraining.com has a lot of tutorials for keyboardists, covering specific songs from people like Kari Jobe, Lincoln Brewster, Reuben Morgan, etc


Just for kicks, here are links to some of my transcriptions.  For the most part, these songs were unavailable on normal sheet music websites, so I created my own music on Finale.  Enjoy!! :

Avalon's We Will Stand
Hillsong's I Will Never Be 
Juanita Bynum's God Is Here
Selah's It is Well With My Soul
Women of Faith's Come Thou Fount
Women of Faith's Revelation Song

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