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What happened to that skill and is it something you would like to use in church but don’t know how since most modern worship songs give you at best a chord chart when you were taught to play using a full music score.
There are thousands of lapsed piano players out there who took classical lessons as children and are great at Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata but feel rather out of their depth when faced with Here I am to Worship. Now this is ironic when you consider how easy it is to play so many of today’s contemporary worship songs – they are a lot less challenging than most of that music you learnt to perfection as a child. The role of the keyboard has evolved pretty rapidly over recent years.
Traditionally the organist or piano player was the only musician. They played all the bass, tenor, alto and soprano notes and most of them were adept at reading a musical score. Since the 1960s, however, the guitar has come to dominate so much of our worship music and many more contemporary instruments have also come to the fore. With lead vocalists and the congregation taking the soprano line, backing vocalists the harmonies and bass players picking up the men’s parts, its easy to see why the organ/piano might have fallen out of favour. With so many other people and instruments doing the job that the pianist used to do, its just overkill to have the piano doing it all.
So what should we piano players do in response? Learn to play guitar? Not at all – the keyboard still has a vital role to play and the good news is that we don’t have to be as skilled as previously to sound good. So what’s the secret? Well if you are handed a chord sheet without the musical score you simply use your knowledge of scales to work out what to play. If you see the chord of C, you play a C triad – C, E and G. We’d suggest you play this with your right hand and a C in the bass with your left (you can play two Cs as an octave in the bass if you’re feeling confident).
C is your root note, the E is a third above that and the G is a fifth above that. You follow the same pattern for any major scale so if you see a D, you play a D, F# and A). With minor scales (for instance if you see Cm) all you do is lower the third by a semitone so Cm is C, Eb and G. Dm is D, F and A. There are a few other common chords – like sus or 7th chords but using a basic triad instead is fine for getting started.
The first job of a good keyboard player is to learn all their major and minor chords so that they are natural and easy to play. Once you’ve learnt these you can start using different “voicings” to make your playing a lot smoother. To play a different voicing with your right hand you may play the third note with your thumb, the fifth with finger three and the third with your little finger – they can be in any order. Your aim here is to minimise movement across the keyboard as you move from one chord to another. If your knowledge of scales isn’t so great that so for some trickier keys you can’t remember exactly which notes form the root, third and fifth here is a little cheat to help you. Let’s take G major. Put your thumb on the G note and count in semitones up the keyboard. G# is 2, A is 2, Bb is 3 and B is 4. The fourth semitone up from the root is your third in the chord. Now let’s find the fifth. Count up from the B. C is 1, C# is 2 and D is 3. Your fifth note in the chord is D. This simple pattern of counting semitones up from the root works for any major scale. With minor scales you count three semitones from the root to find the third and four semitones from that to find the fifth.
So for now what you are able to do is find the right notes to play. While you gain in confidence just play along with some worship CDs simply holding down the chord at the beginning of each bar or whenever it changes – it will probably sound better with a string or soft pad sound and remember to use a sustain pedal – in fact with many songs you could play like this in a live band situation and not disgrace yourself at all! Next is to add some rhythm – that’s a whole new lesson and not one we have room for today. One word of caution – if you see a chord with a slash sign in it you need to play a different note in the bass with your left hand. B/F# literally means B triad over F#. So with your right you play a B triad which is B, D# and F#, and with your left hand you play an F#.
Now you may have noticed that with chord-based playing we minimise any keyboard playing of the melody line – its not normally needed with singers and congregation covering it and often instruments like flutes and violins covering that too. Sometimes it can be helpful – that’s where your ability to go back to the musical score and play a melody line on top of these chords will come in. There are plenty of other interesting things you can do – such as using what we call auxiliary and passing notes. It takes a bit of practice to get used to playing with chords but believe me, if you persevere you will never want to go back – and your band will be really pleased to have a more contemporary feel to the keyboard.
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