The piano is known as the “King of the Instruments” because its range goes from the lowest note that you can play on a double-bassoon to the highest note that you can play on a piccolo.
Traditional and modern worship services alike use a keyboard. That keyboard may be attached to a pipe organ or a MacBook Pro but it is being used weekly in worship. The piano is quite possibly the most versatile of instruments. It’s the quickest instrument I know of to help vocalists find their parts. It’s one of the few instruments that begins on stage for high intensity sections and remains through quiet invitation. All this being said, the keyboard player needs to be adept at his or her craft.
The purpose of this article is for the modern keyboard player who tends to use more than one keyboard tone at a time. This includes mixing piano with a pad. If you solely play a piano on stage you can still use some of these techniques, but your role may be more or less important based upon your church’s style of music. For instance, if your church is more traditional in nature then the piano or the organ is probably the main instrument. You have the duty of plucking out the melody along with the chords. This is an important use of the piano but it is not the topic of this discussion.
The keyboard (or the position in the band known as keys) has developed tremendously over the last few decades. The job used to call for someone with piano chops. Someone who excelled early on in their piano lessons. Finger dexterity and a great ear made for the best pianist. Now great knowledge of sample layering and working to stay musically relevant are the modern keyboard player’s job. Below are five important things to employ as a keyboard player today.
Blending sounds: Keyboards today come with factory sound banks and the ability to hook into a computer. In doing so the sound bank is as versatile as your CPU space and wallet can provide. Every keyboardist should take it on themselves to at least have a working knowledge of the basics of modern keyboards. You should know how to blend a piano sound on top of a pad sound. Learn the difference between a Wurlitzer and a Rhodes. You should know what a Leslie speaker is and why you would turn it on and off when playing organ. Being adept as a piano player is simply not enough these days. You have to know some of the digital realm as well.
When getting down to the brass tax of keyboard playing the concept of less is more is crucial. The quote at the top of this article says this well. The piano in a single instrument has the lowest and highest notes of any instrument. That means there are quite a few notes in between. It is easy to get far too busy far too fast. You can fix this by being intential about what you plan to play for a service. Determine what space the guitar player will fill. If you begin a song perhaps you should lighten up your playing once the band is in. Fifth chords are the worship pianists’ best friend. Play the keyboard like it is a member of the band, not a solo instrument.
Most worship services have a moment where the keyboard is using a pad sound to fill space. This could be to transition a song or set a mood for prayer. Learn how to do this well. The key is to fill the music space without bringing the attention away from what is being spoken. I usually play low to mid-range fifth chords staying with 1, 2m and 4 chords. These are pleasing on the ears and don’t interrupt. 5 chords create anticipation and 6m chords tend to be dark. Be sure not to move chords transiently. Rather, move slowly and intentionally. Listen to the one who is praying or speaking. Try to match their cadence and tone.
While performing worship songs, do your best to build your chord triads with the melody on top or prominently placed. Unless intentionally not doing so, placing the melody note on top will help make your chord match with the song being played. It is important to know all inversions of all chords being played. If you routinely play root position you are missing out on 2/3 of what the piano chords can do for you. Grow as a musician as soon as possible.
Reference what other keyboard players are releasing right now. Youtube has thousands of hours of tutorials that teach how to combine sounds to make a “signature sound”. Don’t be content to do what you’ve always done. You may not agree with the latest synth sound being put on projects right now but you should still know how to do recreate one. Again, you don’t have to use it, but you should discover how it is being done and see how you can emulate the sound without being a derivative work.
I’m impressed with how younger and younger musicians are using technology. What used to cost two or three thousand dollars from a professional keyboard can now be done with a free iPad app. We need to embrace what is next so that we be ready for the future. The keyboard is here to stay so use it appropriately.
How do you or your keyboard player use technologies in your playing? Are there some on your team who need to reference the less is more technique? Is there a training regiment in place to teach combining sounds and how to use them in worship? I would love to hear how you are using the keyboard in your church! Comment or private message…