Astounding. Astounding how many choices we have these days. Hundreds of streaming channels on our laptops, smart phones, and tablets. Millions of results from any Google search we do. More new worship songs every week. More keyboard sounds available to us. More technological marvels to increase our productivity. More. More. More.
A voice inside me says “Simplify”. I’m asking myself what’s essential.
A voice inside me says “Simplify”. I’m asking myself what’s essential. Maybe you are too. In relation to the music that you and I make, I’ve arrived at a simple list of three questions that seem to be enough. Enough to influence what I bring to each song I might play in a worship time. Enough to keep me engaged rather than falling into the “Here’s what I always play on this song” trance. Three questions: What? When? Where?
What sound will you choose? Your keyboard or computer probably has many options. Consider a different pad sound, a piano sound with more reverb, a slightly dstorted electric piano sound.
What note values will you play? Are guitars and the drummer playing lots of activity? Create a part that doesn’t compete with them.
What melodic significance will your part have? You must support the song’s melody and stay out of the way of appropriate melodic activity other team members might be playing. If a guitarist is adding a melodic fragment between vocal phrases, you shouldn’t. Too many melodies make a mess.
What essential parts must you present? There may be a melodic hook in the intro of the song covered by keyboard, a particular piano pattern that anchors the verse well, or a bell sound added in the bridge.
What preparation do you need to do to play the part confidently and accurately?
When will you play? You should ask yourself if your instrument is needed in the intro. Really.
When the verse arrives will you drop out? An important element in an effective song arrangement is the way instruments are added and taken out. You don’t have to play all the time. Neither does any other instrument on the team. Really.
When does a hook played by keyboard in the intro recur? As that section approaches, think ahead. We keyboard players often make mistakes when we don’t prepare ourselves physically for a new section. If you’re heading to a different register of the keyboard to play a hook, let your elbow lead. This will help you be ready for the new hand position needed.
When the chorus comes, will I change my activity? Great arrangements feature changes of musical momentum between sections. Changing your activity to quarter notes after playing half notes in the verse can give the chorus significance.
When do you build dynamically? Sometimes arrangements build into a chorus and then suddenly drop to a much softer dynamic. Be ready for that moment. Consider creating one of those moments. Just be sure your whole team is thinking the same way. Winking emoji.
When does your part evolve? Staying in the same register of the keyboard, playing the same rhythmic activity or the same droning notes with a pad sound is not helping propel the arrangement of the song. Listen to the vocals, listen to the rest of the team and consider if your part is making an essential contribution or if it’s becoming tedious.
Listen to the vocals, listen to the rest of the team and consider if your part is making an essential contribution or if it’s becoming tedious.
Where on the keyboard will you play? Pretty obvious point here, but you and I have lots of choices about where on our instrument to play. If I’m playing an acoustic piano sound, one of my favorite registers is around middle C. Warm. Rich. Expressive. But it’s also the area where the vocal melodies often lie. This means I have to accompany well, always letting the vocal be the focus. Stay out of its way. No one enjoys hearing two people talk at once. Be a good listener.
Where would a change of register be effective? The piano hook in “Cornerstone” is played in a high register. When the verse begins, chords are played by the piano in the middle register. Contrasts created between sections. Contrasts created between melodic activity and chordal comping.
By now you get the idea. Stay engaged as you’re playing. Encourage the rest of your team to as well. This goes for your vocalists, too. Question what vocals should be. Lead vocal only? 2 part harmony? Prime unison? 3 part harmony? Inverted harmonies? Keep exploring new technology. Keep adding to your palette of available sounds. But as you incorporate any new element to your toolkit, don’t forget that asking yourself these three questions is essential to using your musical tools effectively.