Permission Granted, part 1

Over the summer I’ve been involved as rehearsal pianist and keys player for Gateway Church’s production of “Fiddler On The Roof” here in Dallas. Besides the thrill of being part of the live orchestra used for the performances, learning the songs was an enlightening experience. Most of the songs you and I play as worship musicians involve a limited number of chords, usually the 1-4-5-6 in the key, But Fiddler’s score has a harmonic vocabulary that is richly varied and full of surprises. And more accidentals per page than many pieces I’ve ever read incidentally.

And I’m sharing this because…

In most of the keyboard clinics I teach around the country I distribute a Permission Slip. It says, “I do not have to play a worship song the way it was recorded. I can create my own arrangement.” Then I have attendees sign and date the form. That said, I’m asking myself whether any of the rich harmonies of Fiddler could make their way into my playing of a worship song.

Disclaimer time: If you and your worship team routinely recreate the instrumentation, chords, and roadmap of a worship song’s recording, that’s great. Feel free to flip the page and read the next great article here. But for those of you who are ready to make some harmonic excursions, let’s go.

Because of space limitations here, I’m going for the main point. Most of Fiddler’s songs are in minor keys. Many of the harmonic surprises there involve the 5 chord supporting that minor key. So, if I want to see what surprises I can introduce into a worship song, I should look for a song that’s based in a minor key. “Anchor” comes to mind. Love that song. If you’re playing the song in G, the verse is built around E minor. Just before the verse begins you’re playing a C chord.

Think of that E minor as the 1 chord. What’s the 5 chord of E minor? B maj. How’s a B major chord spelled? B D# F#. Following the Fiddler model, we might consider playing a B chord before the E minor chord. There’s a problem with that. Look at the melody. It includes two G’s. Sing that melody over a B chord and you probably won’t like the result. The F# of the B chord clashes significantly with the G natural of the melody. Quite dissonant. There’s a way, though, to support that G in the melody with a beautiful chord. And it gives us a chance to utilize some Fiddler harmonies.

Specifically, we can create an augmented 5 chord. To augment is to make larger, enlarge in size, number, strength, or extent. When you augment a chord, you raise its 5th. Yikes. Lots of theory here I know. Hang in there. The 5th of the B chord is F#. Augment the F#, by raising it a half step, and what does it become? It becomes a G. You purists are right to say that it’s an F double sharp. G is the enharmonic equivalent of F double sharp. Relax.

The benefit of that previous paragraph is that by augmenting the B triad the G in the melody is now part of the chord.

If that theory conversation was a bit daunting for you, exhale and find a keyboard to play this short transcription of a possible piano part for this progression.

I get it. Hillsong didn’t use the B augmented chord in their arrangement. Some heads might turn on your worship team if you were to use it. But I hope you’ll give it a chance. Perhaps you’ll be using the music of “Anchor” for a prayer time when you’re playing solo piano. Perhaps there’s a classical guitarist on your team and you’re featuring him or her for an intro or interlude for the song. These augmented triads are beautiful on the classical guitar. Beautiful, to my ear at least, played by any ensemble.

My experience has shown that whether based on a Broadway musical or a current pop song, harmonic surprises like this can cause a section’s lyric to seem fresh again, impactful in a new way, and that sounds like a desirable result as we present our songs to our congregations. Try this with your team. Try this on your own. You have permission. You might love the result.

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Director of Worship Studies at King's University/Gateway Church in Dallas, TX. Masters in Piano performance, songwriter, clinician with Yamaha and Paul Baloche.

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