That’s Easy For You To Play

Ever heard the expression, “That’s easy for you to say”? I’m going to adapt it here for us keyboard players and let it read, “That’s easy for you to play”. I want to relate the expression to something you and I each face from time to time in our musical development: the challenge of playing something that’s beyond our current ability.

Today in my work at The King’s University/Gateway Church I was observing a student ensemble rehearsal, and the piano player was doing something interesting. Each time the chords in the song changed she’d lift her hand up and move several keys away to whatever the next chord was. For each new position, the root of the chord was in the thumb of her right hand. She was playing in the key of D, and the chords were D G Bm A. Here are examples of the right hand voicings she’d play:

Chord                      Voicing
D                      D          F#        A
G                      G          B          D
Bm                   B          D          F#
A                      A          C#        E

Strictly speaking, there was nothing wrong with what she was playing. The notes of the chords were all correct. She was just neglecting to do what more experienced keyboard players will do, use efficient voice leading.

Efficient voice leading is seen when you choose to move the shortest distance possible to the notes of the next chord you play. Applying the concepts of efficient voice leading, here’s an alternative way the chords above could be voiced:

Chord                      Voicing
D                      D          F#        A
G                      B          D          G
Bm                   B          D          F#
A                      A          C#        E

Play these 2 different sets of voicings for these 4 chords and you’ll hear the difference efficient voice leading makes when connecting your chords. Pay attention to what the highest note in each voice is doing. Where the first set of voicings featured many leaps in this note from chord to chord, the second set of voicings moves only to neighboring pitches.

This type of voice leading may be second nature to some of you, but because it’s so foundational to modern keyboard playing, I’m going to take this concept a bit further for those not yet voicing their chords this way.

The concept of efficient voice leading is maximized if you do something modeled in just about every worship recording being released today, the use of common tones. A common tone is a note shared between two chords. In the example below I’ll use several common tones:

Chord                      Voicing
D                      F#        A          D
G                      G          B          D
Bm                   F#        B          D
A                      E          A          C#

Notice that now only one pitch changes in the highest note of the chord, moving from D to C# when the A chord is played. If you choose to play the A chord as an Aadd4 instead, watch what happens:

Chord                      Voicing
D                      F#        A          D
G                      G          B          D
Bm                   F#        B          D
A                      A          C#        D

A further evolution of these voicings changes our simple D G Bm A progression using what I call “color chords” common to modern worship song arrangements.

Chord                      Voicing
D                      D          F#        A
G2                    D          G          A
Bm7                 D          F#        A
Add4                C#        D          A

Note that in the above example when voicing the Bm7 I didn’t include the B in the voicing. That’s because you would be playing that note with your left hand, or the bass player would be covering that note. The important thing is preserving the common tone on top of all your voicings.

To quote my title, would it be easy for you to play voicings like the ones I’ve described above in any song you play? If so, good for you. If not, spend some time practicing this and other common chord progressions in the keys you most often use within your worship sets. Try playing these voicings using a variety of keyboard sounds like grand piano, electric piano, and pads. If you’re new to pad playing, you will discover that voicing your chords with a common tone as the highest note in your pad part will give your pad parts a sound like what you hear on current recordings. Apply yourself to this approach to voicing your chords and soon you’ll find that you’ve moved beyond what had been challenging and you can then move ahead to your next musical challenge.

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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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