5 tips for keyboard players leading worship as a solo musician
Flying solo – keys players
Previously we began to consider what differences there are in leading worship either on your own or with one instrument. As well as considering the importance of rehearsal and real practice (even if only one person is involved), we considered some of the techniques that guitarists might want to use in order to keep the music moving. This time we’re going to have a look at some tips and techniques for keyboard players when they’re the only instrumentalist.
The importance of rehearsal – even for the solo player
Rehearsal is, again, very important. If we’re going to improve our ability in any sphere we do so mainly through trying out different methods and by repetition. It is only in fairly unpressurised time on our own that we are able to do this. I would encourage you so seek out this time as there are really no short cuts.
The unique challenges facing keys players – you’re not a guitarist so don’t play like one
There are many churches where the only instrument is a keyboard or piano and I’ve often heard complaints that much of our contemporary repertoire is difficult for the lone keyboardist. This is partially true but can certainly be overcome. The main issue confronting pianists over guitarists is that their instrument is not quite as intrinsically percussive. The plucking (strumming) of guitar strings more easily gives a strong rhythmic drive than the hitting of piano strings with soft hammers. The natural rhythms of the two instruments are also different. With many songs being written on guitar it is only natural that they will be slightly easier to reproduce on that instrument.
Having said this, I believe that we often struggle to play songs on the piano or keyboard simply because we try to reproduce what an acoustic guitar might play – this generally isn’t a successful technique. In order to have drive (particularly in faster songs) we need to play very rhythmically but this doesn’t necessarily mean playing a lot. I find that one of the most successful techniques for me is to base most of my rhythm around quarter notes. I will frequently play only quarter notes (or longer) with my right hand. Played in time these can often interact well with syncopated rhythms in the melody.
Beware the left hand
My rule of thumb for left hand playing, even when playing solo, is to keep things simple. Mark the chords with the appropriate note in the left hand – don’t be tempted to play too much. Certainly don’t play the eighth notes which are often written in sheet music – these don’t work particularly well on the piano. If a little more rhythmic drive is needed be sparing in what you add. Adding in the final 8th note of the bar with the left hand (often an octave above the bottom note) can add a surprising amount. The best way to hear this is to try it out. Pick a song that you find difficult to drive along and then simply play the chords on the beat (1/4 notes) in your right hand. Play the left hand only on beat 1 or where the chords change and then add that final 8th note if it’s needed – I find it remarkable how often this makes songs playable.
Don’t be tempted to play the melody
One thing which is vital in this is never to play the melody – leave this to the vocals. If you are singing whilst playing it can be important to practice the rhythmic separation of voice and hands. It is very easy to be drawn into playing the chord as we sing a note but it’s vital to get out of this habit. Again, practice is the key. Practice slowly and you’ll soon get used to keeping your playing and singing totally separate.
Play less. Play more quietly.
Finally, if we’re playing on our own we need to consider dynamics. It’s amazing how often we begin by playing far too many notes too loudly. One of the best ways to overcome this is to practice playing absolutely as little as we can (often three or four notes in a chord and only when the chords change). So long as a strong vocal lead is given you can carry a song by playing remarkably little – try it! Doing this gives you somewhere to go and can help to alleviate the feeling of having no way to drive the song more. This is something you may want to note down on and chord charts or music as I find my default setting is to play too much! As a song develops you can broaden the range in which you play together with adding more ¼ notes to really change the dynamic. Work on playing simply and rhythmically and it’s amazing how good things can sound.
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