Churches often have orchestral or single melody instruments like violin, sax and flute in worship teams. Most players like to read from the music and tend to play the melody line. Here Tim Martin (pictured above with the musicians from our upcoming orchestral instruments DVD) advises on playing in a more improvised style.
The majority of single melody instrumentalists have been classically trained. This means that they read music really well but often struggle to play in a more fluid improvised style. In contemporary worship settings, the lead vocalist and congregation are singing the melody line so it makes sense for instruments such as brass, strings and woodwind to play either a harmony line or something more improvised such as a melodic “fill”.
While harmony lines can be useful it is often more effective to play in the gaps between words – a fill. This brings the first challenge of playing melody instruments in a worship band – you will never play all the time. In an orchestra you don’t get to decide when to play and when to stay silent – the composer or arranger has already made this decision for you. Even in this environment most instruments don’t play all the time. They come in and drop out to achieve the tone colour which is required at any given moment. In a worship band the soloist will need to decide where and when to play. Try to look for the places where there is a gap in the vocal line or a sustained note. These are the best places to add something to the music. Remember that in a lot of music ‘less is more’ – play too little rather than too much.
The next thing to get to grips with is using chords as a basis for playing. Most instrumentalists will have spent hours practicing arpeggios. Knowing these shapes will enable even the least confident improviser to start having a go. For example the notes of a C major arpeggio will always fit with a chord of C. The notes of D minor arpeggio will always fit with a chord of Dm and so on…
Whenever you play any of the notes of the chord written in the music they will fit. You can play chord notes going up (ascending) or going down (descending). They don’t even have to be the next note in the arpeggio—you could miss one out. Here are some chord notes you could use over a C major chord:
Using chord notes is good but it will always sound a little clichéd on its own because you don’t introduce the tension of clashing notes into the music. The next step on from chord notes is to use the notes of the scale in between them. These added in between notes are called passing notes. Again they can be ascending or descending. The passing notes in the example below are larger than the chord notes. Again these would fit with a C major chord:
The last melodic feature you can use for fills is the auxiliary note. An auxiliary note is a note above or below a chord note. This is similar to a passing note but instead of going up (or down) to the next chord note you return to the one you’ve just played. The examples below would fit with a C major chord again:
The best way of using these techniques is to combine them. Chord notes with a leap followed by passing notes or auxiliary notes are very effective. Too many passing notes just become like scale practice so try combining leaps to chord notes and a few auxiliary notes. Just remember always to use the notes in the ‘home key’ of the song rather than those in each individual scale.
Hopefully these ideas will help you to understand how to begin improvising but it’s worth saying that nothing gets better without practice! Try to find some time in rehearsals to have a go at making up fills and experiment with how to combine the ideas above. Most of us are ‘closet improvisers’ – we can come up with ideas in our head but we can’t transfer them to our instruments. The easiest way to creative and effective improvisation is to get these ideas out of our heads. Try singing a fill and then finding the notes one by one until you can play the phrase you’ve just imagined. Good luck!