I want to speak to you keyboard players and ask you an important question: Do you know what your left hand is doing? This is particularly relevant when you and I are playing acoustic piano sounds.
I want to speak specifically about something I’ve heard AND played more times than I can count. Something like this portion of “Revelation Song”: Do you see it? The left hand is playing a 1-5-1 in every measure. While our right hand is happily laying down some melodic ideas or holding a chord, the left hand consistently strikes the root of the chord on the downbeat, jumps up to the 5th of the chord and then up to the octave of the root of the chord. Measure after measure.
If I was sitting next to you, you’d hear me saying, “Don’t do that!”
Why? Because there are literally millions of possibilities of what we can play with our left hands other than relentless repeating that same 1-5-1 figure. I’m definitely not suggesting that you never play anything repetitive in your piano parts. Notice that measures 1 and 3 in the right hand of the above example are repetitious, each containing steady quarter notes with a similar melodic movement on the top notes. But that pesky left hand keeps playing 1-5-1. Arggh.
So, as your friend and brother in Christ, and as a keyboard player who can easily slip into this auto-pilot left hand activity, I want to challenge you (and myself) to be more creative with your left hand. Several of my recent articles here were part of my “Go Figure” series. They devoted much of their time to right hand activity. Don’t neglect your left hand, though.
My first suggestion to you is to remember an acronym that I find helpful: PTC. It stands for Play The Changes. It reminds me that when I’m not sure what else to play I can simply play the changes, the chords of the song. So, for my left hand in the above section, I could just play the root of each chord. Once! Whole note! No 1-5-1 movement. Like this:
Some of you may be thinking that either of the examples I’ve shown wouldn’t work well on a worship team with a bass player. You’re right. My intent here is to show something you might do in one of those moments you and I encounter often when we’re asked to play solo piano for a prayer time or ministry moment. If a bass player is involved I’m careful to avoid much activity in my left hand. Let the bass player own that frequency range for the most part.
So, your mission, should you decide to accept it, and mine too, is to be present as a keyboard player. Present in the sense that you’re always thinking about what you’re playing. Think about how you can introduce variety into what you’re contributing throughout a song. If I want to do a bit more than the whole notes shown above I could create a bit of movement. I’ll still avoid the 1-5-1 movement, though, perhaps this:
Beyond thinking about activity in either of your hands, always remember that one of the most important tasks of every instrumentalist on a worship team or any musical ensemble is to think about what vocalists are doing. Not whether the vocalists spaced out texting on their phones during rehearsals, but what activity their melodies present. That vocal activity must always factor in to what you and all of your fellow musicians play. So, here’s a further evolution of my 4 bar phrase along with the vocal melody. Notice where I adapt the right hand’s activity. I’m now out of the way of the vocal, not competing with it.
So, think about what your hands are doing. Is there something one of them shouldn’t be doing? Left hand playing a monotonous, repetitive figure? Right hand competing with the vocal melody? Psalm 33:18 says “…the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love”. What a blessing it is to know that! Let your eyes (and ears) stay alert to what you’re playing. I know it will lead to great results.