Ask the Expert – Advice for playing syncopated worship songs

Ask the Expert – Advice for playing syncopated worship songs

How to play syncopated songs on the keyboard

David Aldrich emails with an issue that lots of worship keyboards players wrestle with:

As a keyboard player, I really struggle with playing syncopated worship songs. Playing on the off-beat just doesn’t come naturally to me. Do you have any tips on how to do this?

Andy replies:

Playing syncopated rhythms and singing is a bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. The key is to do both together very slowly and work on getting the notes right before you try and build up any pace. If you want to work on the individual elements before putting them together that’s ok but it’s the very practice of playing both simultaneously that will help you build up the neurological connections that will enable you to do both without thinking about it.

I teach a concept to my students called speed learning which argues that if you play something wrong more that twice in a row your brain and muscle memory has learnt that as ‘right’. So then it takes you 10 times as long to undo the wrong bits. So stage 1 is to start as slowly as you need to and get the notes right. Don’t worry about the timing initially – that’s the next step. Once you’ve got that, play and sing slowly, making sure you get all the parts right at the same pace for the entire song. Don’t speed up or slow down and if there is a tricky part then just keep looping that area until it becomes comfortable.

Then increase the speed as and when you are able. Playing to a metronome well really help in this area.

Lastly try to avoid playing anything live that you can’t master with ease in a practice time. If you really have to play that song try and find practical ways around it like simplifying the groove, getting someone else to play while you sing or just playing keyboards with the right and hand letting the other instruments take control of the rhythm – if they can.

Do you remember learning to drive and wondering how on earth you would ever get the combination of steering, gears and pedals all at the same time? And then at some point, it all suddenly comes together? It’s pretty much the same with singing and playing. This isn’t an easy thing and some musicians have found great ways of working around it and making that become part of their style. Listen to some Bryan Adams songs. He’s a master at singing and playing together but he seems to have crafted a way of doing it where he only plays the complex stuff in the gaps when he’s not singing or visa versa.

So unfortunately the short answer is again practice, practice, practice.

We actually do a bit of that in the Intermediate Worship Keyboards DVD course. In the lesson where we learn to play the Matt Redman song ‘Let Everything the has Breath’ we tackle that exact issue and give you a specific part to practice with quite a tricky syncopated groove.