In a few weeks I’ll be taking a Sunday off from my full-time worship director position in Seattle. I’m building the worship team in advance so I can be confident things will go well when I’m away. Among the many talented volunteer musicians at my church who I hope to schedule is a classically-trained pianist who plays beautifully. She plays beautifully when she’s able to read sheet music, that is. She would be at a loss if asked to create a piano part from a chord chart, and would be a little uncomfortable playing with a rhythm section. This is no reflection on her talent. It’s just because her experience has primarily been as the single accompanying instrument, playing from sheet music.

So, I’ll be providing her sheet music for the songs the church will sing that Sunday, with detailed piano parts written out for every song. Though many of you may not read music or, if you’re a reader, may not read it very often on your current worship team, there are a few things about piano sheet music that should impact what you play from a chord chart.

One significant thing is melody. Whereas many piano transcriptions include the vocal melody in the piano part, it’s practically unheard of, when playing modern worship songs, for a piano or keyboard part to play along with the melody that’s being sung. Playing the melody is common when playing hymns in a traditional setting, but not in modern worship. So, if you’re playing the vocal melody in your worship team part, avoid doing that.

Instead, let your part be responsive. Respond to vocal phrases with melodic activity of your own. Don’t play melodically significant material during those phrases. Usually, when a vocal phrase ends, there will be a few beats until the next phrase begins. Consider letting those be the spots where you create melodic material.

Speaking of melody, are there significant instrumental hooks heard at the start of the arrangement? Something like this:

Do these hooks recur when the first verse or chorus ends? Piano sheet music will likely write out those hooks. On your worship team, don’t be a hook hogger. If the melodic figure is best played by a guitar, let them cover it.

Agree, as a team, who will play instrumental hooks. Listen to the team around you. You’re part of a team, so be careful to only take your part of the arrangement.

Agree, as a team, who will play instrumental hooks. Listen to the team around you. You’re part of a team, so be careful to only take your part of the arrangement.

Another thing you’ll notice about piano sheet music compared to modern keyboard parts, is that the sheet music will often try to reduce the full activity of a rhythm section down to something that a one pianist could play. Drum activity, guitar hooks, and keyboard lines could all be included in the music. Are you playing in a band? Don’t try to do everything. Do you have a bass player? Avoid playing the bottom notes of chords in your chart. Let your sound person deal with one instrument covering those low frequencies. If you do play them while the bass player is too, the result can be a muddy mess.

Lots of keyboard players tend to mostly play in the middle register of their instrument. The parts they create there may be just what the arrangement calls for at the time, but don’t forget that your piano or keyboard has a broader range than you utilize. Browse a piece of sheet music and it’s likely that you’ll notes above and below the staff.

There’s no rule that says you should spend any time outside the middle register of your instrument, but remember that you’re part of a team. If everyone on the team is playing parts that are heard in that middle register, the resulting sound can be thick, muddy, and cluttered. Consider that the vocals on your team tend to land in that same frequency range.

One of the fantastic things that modern pad sounds lend to a worship song’s arrangement is high frequencies and pitches that the rest of the team is likely not playing. Don’t limit your contribution to the arrangement to just piano sounds. Explore the pad sounds at your disposal. Learn how faders on your instrument can bring in changes of timbre and texture, adding high “shimmer” at times, and taking it away other times.

In a sense, you and your entire worship team are creating an arrangement of your song every time you play it. Just as a piano arranger is intentional when choosing how many or how few notes to write out for a pianist, you should be intentional about what you play, where you play it on your instrument, and how busy or simple that part is. And don’t think that you’re the only instrumentalist who needs to think this way. If every player on your team is thinking about the issues I’ve touched on here, the result can be an instrumental texture that supports the vocals well and encourages the people gathered to add their voices to the sound of worship.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, valuable advice, but in our church there are more women than men in the congregation and in our band most of the vocalists are female. Thus in not-so-well known songs the men can be uncertain about where their vocal line is going. On keyboard, therefore, I tend to emphasise the melodyif I can in the middle range to help the men along. Open to ideas about this.

  2. Some great advice here thank you. Varying sounds, texture, range are all good things to do. But also, varying volume and adding accents can make a big difference too – e.g. playing a high register with a piano sound may be very effective (and still be heard) when it is done softly.

  3. That has been very helpful. I could never understand why the keyboard manuscript rarely incorporated the tune.

    However, there are 1000’s of Church services throughout the world where you are fortunate to have even one musician. In our case, we have pianists and a guitar, and the guitarist also plays the trumpet. No electric mixing.

    So it is very helpful to have music available which includes the tune.

    Thank you. Norma McIver

  4. In our context, the congregation and the worship team relies heavily on the keyboard to provide the melody … especially in the first verse and chorus, and most definitely the bridge. I am trying to build up the confidence of our vocal leaders, and train our congregation to follow them. It’s a long process i’m finding.
    I find if i don’t play the melody our vocalists get lost, and it turns into a bit of a worship mess 🙁

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