|for praise bands....
posted February 1, 2009
|So What key is this thing in, anyway?
Every once in a while a little accident
happens. The band lines up, the drummer counts off, and --blam!
That first chord is really awful. Turns out, some of us have a
different version of the piece than others. Usually one in a
different key. At my old church we didn't always notice this
right away, which was good clean comedy for a few minutes. These
days, having experienced this many times, I am usually on the
lookout for this, particularly if there are additional chords
scratched in pencil over the ones in print. I'll lean over to
the guitarist and whisper "what key are we doing this in?"
Fortunately our band has several outstanding musicians so we can
get over these difficulties easily. But as you may be aware,
being able to play well is no guarantee that you know what you
are doing and can communicate that with other musicians. So how
do you answer a question that seems as simple as 'what key are
It would be easy enough if everybody could tell from the chords
on the page what key they were in, or if it said so at the top.
It doesn't, and many people don't know how to find it. The first
chord on the page is not necessarily the key of the piece, even
though people often think so. And if you have some people in
your band who know how this works and some people who don't, it
takes even longer to get everybody on the same page.
In this article I'm just going to give you a brief definition of
key, tell you why it matters, and then give you a simple trick
so you can take the clues on the page and get the key right.
Then I'll tell you what makes the trick work. Ready?
A Key is a system of organization. It is named for the
a web of relationships. The note E is the focus of the key of E. In a
way, the key of E is about the note E. All the harmonic patterns
point in that direction, and traditionally, that is where we
have to be to feel settled and at home musically. Now I could
write a dissertation about all this but for today I'll just give
you a recipe which is just about guaranteed to work and we can
|Take a lead sheet. Take any lead sheet. Look at it. Don't tell
me what it is..... I'm going to tell you how to find what key it
Now the way to figure this out is to look for the major chords
on your page. I will boldly predict there will be three of
them--three different ones, that is. For instance, you might
have a sheet with the major chords G, C and
D. The other chords
will all be minor chords (with an 'm' after them). Now if for some reason this is not the
case We'll have to skip this little demo and go into the special
exceptions article I'm saving for later! But don't worry, this
will work at least 99% of the time.
Right. Now, I will further predict that two of those three
chords will be next to each other in the alphabet, like C and D.
(Also note that G and A count because the musical alphabet wraps
around at that point.) Eliminate those two chords.
So what are you left with? The key of the piece.
In my little example, that would be G.
The reason this works is that in any major key there are three
chords that are major. All the rest have 31 save February--wait,
that's something else. All the rest are minor chords or are
diminished. And those major chords are always built on the the
first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale (that's just the way
major systems work). Thus, in the key of
C the chords would be C MAJOR, d minor, e minor, F MAJOR, G
MAJOR, a minor, b diminished.
That's why the one off by itself must be the key of the piece.
Niggling exceptions corner:
Now this won't work if your piece is in a minor key. There are
so few of these in contemporary praise literature that it hardly
seems worth bringing it up. If your piece is obviously in a
minor key, than after you've performed my little trick ,
instead of finding the key of the piece you will have found
a thing called the relative major
Now You'll simply need to add one more step, which is to go back two letters in the alphabet to find the
minor key (our little example from the above box, which was in G would be in e minor
after this additional step). If
there is a chord on the page with that name, followed by 'minor'
(and there had better be several of them!) you'll want to
include the sharp or flat in its name as part of the key (in
other words, let's say e-flat minor, even though our example is
really in just plain e minor; now there's a key I'll bet you
don't want to play in!)
there are more than three major keys on the page the piece is
either modal (I'll discuss that some other time) or it changes keys in
the middle of the piece (which will be obvious if halfway
through the piece there are
suddenly three different major chords that didn't show up at all
in the first part of the piece).
Have I covered everything?
posted Feb. 19, 2009
'My Very First Praise Band Keyboard Lesson'
This article will be helpful if you've
never played keyboard for a praise band in your life and you
either have practically no musical training whatsoever or you
can play up a musical storm as long as the music is written down
but haven't got a foggy clue when it comes to making stuff up
from a lead sheet. I'm not normally given to gimmicks and
shortcuts but I can guarantee that in just a few minutes you
will be able to play whole songs with the band just by reading
this short article (and possibly
the last one I wrote).
The reason this will work is that chords have gotten so complex
during the last century that we've practically arrived at a
situation where you can get anything to go with anything.
Christian praise music exploits that situation by keeping the
melody static while introducing a repetitive chord pattern
behind it--this is sort of like keeping the actors in one place
and moving the scenery.
This means you won't have to make many adjustments. If you don't
know anything about chords or chord patterns you can literally
get through many songs by switching your keyboard to some organ
sound and staying on one note the entire time.
Now, some of us would find that extraordinarily boring, but
you've got to start somewhere. Besides, there are a lot of us
that relish that kind of simplicity.
In any case, here's my trick/gimmick for the day: find the
dominant and stick your finger there.
This obviously rests on your ability to figure out what the
'dominant' is. That would require you to do two things. The
first is to figure out what key the piece is in, which was the
article. The second is to find the fifth note up from the
note of the key, counting the keynote as one. In other words,
suppose your piece turns out to be in A major. Stick your thumb
on A. If you position your fingers so you have one on each white
key, your pinkie will wind up on E, the fifth note of that
scale. E is your dominant. You can basically camp out on E for
five minutes and not hurt anybody.
Some other examples: if the keynote is C, the dominant is G. If
the keynote is G, the dominant is D. get it?
This is hardly the musical equivalent of rocket science and the
reason it works is because if I take a simple chord pattern, my
ear will now interpret the dominant note in one of three
categories, all of which are acceptable to the modern ear. Let'
s try one.
A E F#m D
The piece is in A major (but you knew that, right?) The first
chord of the pattern consists of three notes, A C# and E. Since
the note E is part of the chord, it harmonizes nicely.
The next chord is the dominant chord, and E is the fundamental
note of the chord. So obviously an E is going to work here too.
So far we've had two of the three most basic chords in music,
and the dominant note belongs to both of them.
So far, Mozart would have approved. But an F#m chord has these
notes: F# A and C#. No E.
No problem. What the last century did for us was to add notes
above the standard three and make them so common that our ear
doesn't even consider that even vaguely unusual anymore. Let's
just call this thing an F#m 7. Now it includes the note E. And
it sounds fine.
Guess what? The D chord gets to be a D 9. That means D F# A C#
and E. So your E works there, too.
All we're doing is working with extended chords. The number
after the chord is the number above the foundation note of the
chord. A standard three-note chord consists of notes 1-3-5
(C-E-G, for instance). If you add the 7th note (B), or the 7th
and 9th (B and D), or the 7th, 9th and 11th (B D and F), you
have a more complex chord. The last one to be added gets its
number placed next the the letter of the chord. The rest are
assumed. All you are doing is extending the chord by adding
notes a third higher (by skipping a note and then adding the
next one to the chain of every-other-notes below it)
Now there may be some situations where the note E doesn't seem
all that welcome. Chances are pretty good, though, that in the
chord before the clash, and the chord after the clash, the E
does work as part of the chord. That means that we are just
passing through from one pleasing sound to the next, and this
passing clash is just that--passing. And the ear won't be
bothered, because, in context, it works fine.
So these three things remain: notes that are part of simple
chords, notes that are part of extended chords (real and
imagined!--in other words, sometimes we are making extended
chords out of basic chords when we hang out on that single note,
which won't get in anybody's way), and notes that are part of passing dissonances
(harmonic clashes). And they all work. And the upshot is, you
don't have to work as hard as your musical ancestors to get
posted April 3, 2009
Making a lead sheet..some observations
If you are a
musician trained to read music, then what I'm about to say will
not seem strange to you at all. If you play everything by ear,
or only play in church praise bands, you might find this a
Most lead sheets for praise band have practically no musical
information on them.
As a pianist who plays a good deal of written down music, I
always found it a little difficult and not just a little funny
when the song leader would pass out lead sheets to a song I'd
never seen or heard before and then cheerfully call out, "ok,
piano intro!" That meant I had to start the piece solo with no
idea about how it should go, other than what the chords were.
The reason that problem wouldn't confront most praise band
players is that they've heard all the songs on the radio a bunch
of times so they already know how their favorite artist plays
the song. This includes information like tempo (the speed of the
song), beats per measure (most of these pieces are in 4 but you
never know), and, I don't know, melody?
The first two of these could be on the page without much
trouble. All you'd need to do is include a couple of lines at
the top of the page, beneath the title like so:
Title of song
name of composer
tempo: pretty doggone fast
I think that if you think there is a chance that you are not
going to be in the same room with somebody who plays your song
it isn't a bad idea to have a few general hints about how it
should go written on the page. But that's just me.
Of course, these days, with Youtube and any number of easy ways
to record and distribute your music, it is probably more natural
simply to make a copy of your song available to anybody who
might play it and they can figure the thing out by listening to
it. Popular music is still pretty much an oral culture, meaning
people spread information by word of mouth, or by MP3 file,
writing down as little as possible. Since a lot of band members
don't read music anyway, putting symbols on the page they can't
figure out isn't helpful. This is an important thing to
remember, but it does not mean there aren't useful musical
symbols that can't be used whenever you can to make things
clear. The ones below require no musical training to understand,
just a basic sense of rhythm.
eliminating rhythmic guesswork--using slashes
You can often guess how many beats a chord is going to last
before it changes, but sometimes you can't, like in the
introduction where there are no words, and in consequence, you
just wind up with a line like this:
G Am C D
Does each chord last four beats, or two? Are they even all the
Occasionally I'll see slashes on the page, one for each beat,
after each chord symbol. This seems like a good idea. I don't
know who came up with it but send them my regards:
G/// //// Am/// C/// D///
In this case, the G represents the first beat, and the three
slashes after it add up to four. This is probably one full
measure, and since I wanted the chord to last another full
measure of four beats I add four more slashes, with space in
between the groups so it is easy for your eyeball to see the
more eliminating rhythmic
Most Christian praise band music is organized into regular 4-bar
phrases. Try counting the beats next time during a song. The
phrases are always the same size. Occasionally, an artist on a
recording will add a beat or two to the end of a phrase, but our
band usually cuts those off so that we have complete
predictability when it comes to the rhythms of the song.
Lead sheets could easily mirror this predictability, but they
often don't. Instead, chords that belong to one phrase wind up
on a different line than the rest of them. Sometimes the chord
is way off in outer space:
This is my song about Jesus
C7 F Am
This is my song
Since most songs have an even number of chords in each pattern,
it is a bit odd to have three chords on one line and one chord
on the next. Probably the Am is at the start of the third
measure of the phrase and the word 'this' comes in a bit late. I
would put the chord at the beginning of the line and indent the
This is my song about Jesus
This is my song
Personally, I would rather see each chord only one time, rather
than placing it at the end of a line and then repeating it at
the beginning of the next. I can remember which chord I'm
playing for two seconds. Putting the chord in two places makes
it harder to tell which chord is at the beginning of the next
four bar pattern:
Jesus is a really cool dude
A B C#m
The Bible says so like it should
If the downbeat of that next measure is on the word 'Bible' and
the word 'the' comes ahead of it, then simply eliminate the
first B chord (we'll assume we're still playing it until the
chord changes to the A):
Jesus is a really cool dude
A B C#m
The Bible says so like it should
This way, we can tell where the downbeats are without any actual
notation (probably). What I'm suggesting here is that any
information that is not completely necessary (like repeated
chords) not be on the page at all, and the information that
is be presented in a way that tells you the maximum stuff
you can know about it. Using this logic, you can not only make a
good guess about the rhythmic organization of the song, but the
singers can tell whether the lyrics line up with the downbeats
or come ahead or behind them, not only whether they are ahead of
the chord changes (besides, they don't care whether they come
after or before the chord changes, but knowing whether they come
ahead or behind the important downbeats surely helps!)
By the way, if you really think it will help to re-state the
chord, like if it carries over into the beginning of the next
section, and you think bandmembers will be confused as to what
chord to play, I'd put it in parenthesis. I tried this for a
lead sheet I did for the band a few months ago, and it was much
Jesus makes me feel so good
G D Em D
and you know that's why I think that he's a very cool dude
A - men! A - men!
(D) em D em
Most praise music is very predictable and the harmonic patterns
pretty simple. Cluttering up a lead sheet with confusing or
unnecessary information (or leaving out information that could
really help) is a real shame. Sometimes I spend half the song
trying to figure out where the chords go, and even though I
guess right most of the time, that doesn't really seem to be the
point of being in a praise band. If it is simple, let
your lead sheet reflect that, and let your players get to the
heart of the song's construction right away rather than having
to search for it. If it is simple, keep it that way. We
can talk about real musical complications later!
What does a keyboardist do in a praise band?
I just received a question from someone who has been asked to
play keyboard in a praise band. Basically she is wondering how to to do
Now playing in a band well, like
anything else, will take plenty of time and effort. If you are
like me, you like the idea that no matter what you may already
know there is considerably more to learn, that the journey is
long, and that you need to set goals, apply yourself, be ready
to learn and experiment, and keep going even when discouraged.
On the other hand, Church is something that
doesnít encourage patience. Sunday comes every week, ready or
not, and the congregation expects its leaders to magically know
everything, it seems, without giving much time to training them,
particularly in music. I imagine they want to leave that to the
My questioner was having trouble finding
useful information for keyboard players about what to do in a
praise band elsewhere on the internet and thought maybe I could
answer the question. The internet is a big place; probably
somebody else has taken up this question in depth, but I
sympathize with her not being able to find it. Anyhow, I like
being able to share what I know, and being who I am, my first
reaction is to plan a series of articles that will gradually get
one up to a fairly high level of proficiency.
This will probably take me some time, and,
like I said before, in church, there isnít any. Besides, we have
to start somewhere. So before we take up the larger questions of
how to read a lead sheet or how to improvise, let me simply
address her most basic question:
what exactly does a keyboard player
do in a praise band,
The first thing I would do is to take a
look at the other players (this is good for social and spiritual
reasons as well!). Our band has a bass player, a drummer, and an
acoustic and electric guitarist in addition to the keyboard
So what are
they there for?
Drums are obviously a rhythmic instrument.
They basically drive the band. Our drummer usually sets the
tempo for each piece by counting and clicking (with his sticks)
at the start of each piece (1! 2! 3! 4!) and, because he is a
good drummer, you can tell when a new section of the piece is
about to begin by the relative fanciness of his drum fill. The
end of the piece is usually obvious, too, because of the way he
fills in the measure with a little drum virtuousity. Even the
breaks (moments where we are all silent for a few measures while
the singers go on without us) are obvious because of the way he
accents them with his drums. This gives us all a feeling of
security. Iím glad weíve got a drummer like himóIíve been in
bands where every measure sounded like every other measure
because all the drummer could do was keep time and it
contributed to the sense of confusion (ďwhere are we?Ē),
especially because we kept changing the orders of the verses and
choruses around every week and werenít always good at keeping
The bass playerís role is also obvious. He
is there to play the bottom note of each chord, the bass. Most
bands read from sheets of lyrics with chord symbols above (Ďlead
sheetsí), which is usually just the name of the chord in capital
letters. If the chord says ďFĒ then F is the root of the chord,
or the foundation note. The bass playerís job is simply to play
an F. He can add fills if he likes, or jazz up his role a bit,
but he is basically there to, literally, play the bass. If the F
on the page has a slash after it, say F/A, then the person who
wrote the piece, or at least the lead sheet, still wants an F
chord, but with an A in the bass. Technically, the bass player
is the only person in the band who needs to worry about what is
written after the slash, although more advanced keyboard and
guitar players will notice it as well.
Speaking of advanced (electric) guitar players, our
band has one, although at its most basic, the guitar is a chordal instrument. It can pick, too, and do sparse broken chord
patterns, but usually guitarists strum full chords. Ours adds
fills and does solos between verses and things. Our acoustic
(guitar) player fulfills mainly the same role, but without the solos.
So why raise the question of what the
keyboard does and then start by discussing everybody else? Well,
for one thing, you learn what you donít have to do in a band. If
you have been playing piano by yourself for a lot of years and
suddenly join a band, you may find it disorienting to realize
that many of your traditional roles are taken by other people.
On the other hand, if you have just been thrown into this
situation, with little experience, it may be liberating to
realize you donít have to do everything by yourself.
Since the drums are handling the rhythm, a
keyboard player doesnít have to. If you are playing a keyboard,
as opposed to a piano, this means that you can simply sustain
chords. I was being a bit facetious in my
first keyboard lesson,
but it only takes a bit more sophistication to play chords in a
stylistically pleasing manner on a keyboard with a band. And
sometimes even I do exactly that and no more.
Therefore, if you see a full measure of
music (or several words) with the chord C overtop, you can
simply play a C chord and hold it down until it is time for the
next chord. It is not necessary to repeat it, or try to be
rhythmically inventive with it; the drummer is making clear
where the beats fall. If you were playing by yourself, that
would be your job, now it isnít. You CAN be rhythmically
assertive, but you donít have to be.
Since the bass player is playing the bass,
you donít have to do that, either. You donít necessarily have to
be IN the bass, either! A pianist who has been playing for years
with both hands may find it astonishing that suddenly they can
get by with only one. But if you are learning to play from a
lead sheet or improvise for the first time, simplifying your
approach will help to learn the new methods. You CAN play the
same notes as the bass player, but I usually try not to Ďdoubleí
what other people are playing because it sounds better not to.
You may be starting to wonder what there is
left (besides sustaining chords) for the keyboardist to do. If the bass player handles the
bass, and the guitarist handles the chords, and the drummer gets
the rhythmic action, whatís left? Well, the melody of the song
is, of course, but thatís what the singers are for. If youíve
been playing sheet music of your favorite popular songs, chances
are the melody is included with the piano part. I leave that out
when Iím playing with a singer, on the theory that they can hold
their own without having the piano plunking out their notes. If
it turns out they canít, Iím always there to strategically play
a few notes, or several, or all of them as the situation
requires. But I donít think it sounds good when instruments
double the singers. They have their own function.
If you have other instrumentalists, (say, a
flute player) they, too, will be playing melodies of one sort or
other. Ours usually plays with us on introductions and
interludes, but not during the times when the singers are
So what do you have to do? It may be a bit humbling to
realize: practically nothing. Although from a spiritual standpoint it may be healthy to know
that your church will not fall apart if you are not there, THE church will go on
without you as well, and, well, the Divine order wonít be too seriously mangled
because you didnít say the right thing at the right time to the right person
(although events may be altered a bit). Similarly, if you get lost during a song
or get your fingers twisted up, the band can probably keep going, and you can
take a breath and find your place again.
It is often important for us to realize what all we do not
have to do (or even should do), and it is also important to take into account
the roles, duties, and characters or everyone else. But before I send you away
thinking you have nothing to do, I should state that actually there are many
roles that a keyboard can fill within the context of a praise band, roles that
Iíll have to save for my next post. They range from the extremely simple to the
very complicated, as the ability of the player and the situation of the song
But in the meantime, we've found a place to
start. Sustaining chords is actually something which is unique
to a keyboard. The other instruments can't do it. And it often
fills out the sound rather nicely. And although I personally get
bored doing only this, it is a good place to begin, particularly
as we begin to discuss reading a leadsheet and improvising, two
things that I am presuming are fairly new to you.
posted June 7, 2010
I have a strange way of doing things sometimes: someone
asked me what a keyboard has to do in a praise band, and in my
last post I basically said, well, nothing really. This is not
the kind of answer you want to give if you are trying to stand
up for the importance of something. Remind yourself not to
invite me to speak at your next rally for funding of the arts!
But the method behind this insanity was this: many people
who are trained as musicians come at praise bands from the
standpoint of one who has been playing written music all their
lives. The way we relate to music is to play all the notes on the
page. Except that in the world of praise bands, there usually
aren't any. Hence the problem. And in order to solve it it seems
to me that the best way to do it is to pull down the old
building and put up a new one. Hence in the first article we
basically stripped away all the old orders of notes, and now we
are going to replace it with some new ones.
The email I received from the person asking me the question
suggested she was trying to work from solo piano sheet music
versions of the praise band songs and somehow get them to work
in a praise band situation. Basically, though, what you end up
doing is having to create your own arrangement on the spot,
using some of the notes provided and discarding others, adding
some new ones, etc. I do that occasionally, but it is a
pretty advanced activity, and it already assumes you have a more
complex relationship with notes on a page than 'I see, I play.'
So rather than approach things that way, I think it would be
much easier to get rid of the written solo versions altogether
and learn to use the same music (or lack thereof) the rest of
the band is using. What I mean is that you might as well learn
to improvise from a lead sheet.
The thought of doing this scares the socks off some people,
so I hasten to add that what follows will, from a technical
standpoint, be mind numbingly simple. In other words, if you
have several years of piano training, you'll be able to play
these notes in your sleep in the dark backwards. This is to
compensate for the fact that I'm asking you to try a completely
new way of musical thinking. Try to exercise the same amount of
patience with yourself, and ask the rest of the band to extend
the same courtesy. It may take a few months before you even
begin to sound like your old self with all the technical bells
and whistles, only then you will be pulling them out of your
head on your own initiative rather than doing exactly what a page
of music told you to, no more, no less.
Think about it for a minute: we relate to the English
language in three ways. We read it, we write it, we speak it. If
we could only read what other people had written we would be
pretty limited in our ability to communicate. Yet that is
actually what is happening to people who don't engage music
creatively. They can only give speeches written by others.
Improvising is like speaking music. When you have a conversation
you are creating verbal communication on the spot, pulling out
words you know and putting them in orders that you know work in
order to convey what you want to say. And you do it every day
without thinking it is a huge deal. You are improvising.
Let's get started. The first thing you want to get used to
doing is playing chords on demand when the lead sheet says to
play them. Borrow some lead sheets from your band, or you can
get them online from several places . If you have an
electronic keyboard you can set it to some kind of organ sound, and
you will have something nobody else in the band has--a
sustaining instrument. Guitars, basses, drums: all their sound
starts to decay as soon as they make it (piano, too). But not a
sustained synthesizer sound. It has its own unique contribution
to make to a band's sound. Often you'll hear such a sound in the
background of a song, playing what are effectively whole notes
and half note chords. If you've never done this before or are
just not used to it, this is a good place to start.
This is basically what a line of lyrics looks like
And most of the time the chords aren't really that hard
what you'll be doing is this: if you see a C, play one of
For a G, play one of these:
and so on. What follows is a chart of all the major and
minor chords (in their most basic presentation) in the known universe, for reference:
That may seem like a lot of chords, and, frankly, you
probably won't use them all. Depending on the ability of the
other members of your band (and whether they can play in 'hard'
keys) you might never use the chords I've placed on the bottom
line of each section, which is why I put them there.
The other thing to remember, if you are not able to play all of
these chords just off the top of your head, is that it would be
more useful to get to know these chords by playing an actual
praise song. Find something simple, with a grand total of about
four different chords in it (which shouldn't be too hard), and
learn to play it, a line at a time, by playing the chords as
printed above whenever you see its symbol above the words on the
Eventually that won't seem like a big deal at all, but if you
are not used to doing it, be patient.
Technically, of course, it's pretty rudimentary. But the fun/trouble begins when
you have to be able to get to the next chord on demand and on
time. Here, though, the music itself will help us enormously.
Many praise pieces consist of patterns of three or four chords
which repeat in the same order throughout a section or for the
entire piece ("Invitation Fountain" only has two, a G and a C,
and goes on for 6 minutes!). Since repetition greatly aids
learning, practicing a pattern of repeated chords will help you
to soon be able to get through an entire piece this way. When
you can do this (with a metronome, perhaps?) try practicing
along with a recording. Then, when you are ready, sit in with
the band. Realize you are limiting yourself to simple, basic
triads for the first week until you get used to the idea. Then
you can start trying variations on this idea:
1-play the chords in different octaves (for instance, a
string of chords in a lower register, and then one in a higher
register). This is a pretty simple transition to make, but it
takes you one step farther from playing notes you see; first you
are playing without music, then you are playing those 'unseen'
chords in different octaves.
2-try leaving out a note from a chord. If it's a C-chord,
just play E and G, or E and C. Or just E. Or just G. See how
many variations you can come up with.
3-try inverting the chord. If you've never done this
before, it will take some time. Instead of playing, from bottom
to top, C-E-G, trying putting the C on top. Play E-G-C:
This step is actually very important in creating smoother
patterns from chord to chord (and there's less jumping around).
In a later post we'll discuss this in more detail.
Keep in mind that gaining fluency in these skills will
probably take a couple of months of sustained effort. So far
we've limited ourselves to simple chords, which will not make
your playing sound all that exciting. And there are hundreds
more things we could do. But in the meantime, you will already
be a valuable member of your band, getting used to the songs
they play and the way they play them. And you'll be building a
foundation for more exciting (and difficult) things to come.
posted September 1, 2010
This summer I've been writing a series of articles about what a
keyboard player does in a praise band, or how to play keyboards
in a praise band. The initial question was posed to me by
someone (via email) who wants to play in her church praise band,
but apparently is used to playing written notes. So, although my
first article only partially answered the question (basically by
determining what a keyboard player is not required to
do), I took a little detour into the world of improvisation
because, unless your band is a lot smaller than mine, and your
musicians have their parts all written out for them (which seems
like it would be highly unusual if your bandmates are guitarists
and drummers with an interest in the popular side of music),
your music will not be written down at all, and you will almost
be forced to improvise. And, although written sheet music
versions of most of these songs exist, the sheet music version
will probably cause all kinds of problems when trying to play
along with the band.
Depending on your previous musical experiences, this may seem
like a seismic shift. A lot of people who play written music
have a very strong phobia about the idea of playing without
notes which have been predetermined. Written notes provide,
among other things, a recipe you can follow and be reasonably
assured of getting the right result. I understand that. But, for
various reasons, I decided, if you are going to be in a praise
band, it is better to
learn the language of the praise band
literature. Some of the musicians in the bands I've been in
don't know how to read music, some of the ones who do aren't
fluent in it, and anyway, the way this kind of music is put
together lends itself more easily to a chordal outline, rather
than filling in all the details. It is simpler that way--unless
you play keyboards (or classical guitar) and you have an
education that included, maybe exclusively, learning to read
notes. This actually will put you in the minority in this
'culture,' and it may be sort of annoying that a skill you
worked on tirelessly for many years is of little or no use. But
the majority of people who volunteer for their church's band
find it much easier to play songs that don't ask a lot of
training from them--just listen to the song on the radio, and
play what you hear. If you are the drummer, all you have to do
is remember the approximate speed of the piece. The guitarist
has to know a handful of chords (ours knows a lot more,
thankfully). And the bass player literally plays the note name
he sees on the page, only instead of a blob with a stick through
it all he sees is a capital
letter: D. So he plays 'D.' Can you make a system that is more
volunteer (and amateur) friendly?
The irony is that more trained musicians have a harder time with
this system than their far less musically-involved peers. And
all because of this 'improvisation' thing.
Improvisation is such a grand name. And it sounds like it
requires some creativity. But, frankly, when the guitarist in
your band sees a D on the page, chances are he merely strums a D
chord, in the same position he always strums it. I've already
mentioned the bass player. The truth is, your typical
church/volunteer type praise band member is following a recipe
just as much as you were when you read notes on a page, only
these notes are written differently. And there is no reason,
when you think about it, that somebody who has had years of
training in doing things the hard way (following written notes
on a staff) can't do something that other folks can do who have
had fewer or no lessons. It just requires a shift in thinking.
Eventually, one hopes that a person who is even minimally
inclined will be able to do what the joy of improvisation really
allows, which is to make choices, and engage with the musical
noises around him or her to make music that is unique to the
player, the occasion, and the moment. But it should be noted
that while contemporary Christian praise band culture is a
largely non-written culture, it is not necessarily a creative
(or inventive) one. If you see a D on the page, you need to be
able to play a D chord. That's not hard, although it may take a
few weeks to get used to.
Once you've mastered those basics, though, there are many things
you can do that will make this a rewarding experience. I
mentioned the last time that there were other ways to play a D
(or any other) chord: playing in different octaves, leaving
notes out, moving the notes around (inversions). I'll add a
couple more you can experiment with as you progress toward
making a vital contribution to the band.
One is breaking up the chord and playing its members separately
(as a guitarist does when he picks rather than strums a chord):
There are several ways to do this, as the above examples show.
Eventually, your hands will start following their instinct and
choose a pattern almost automatically, but you can start the
process by intentionally choosing one or two and sprinkling them
liberally throughout a piece as you play.
The other is to play from one member of the chord to the other,
passing through a note which does not belong to the chord:
This kind of melodic idea will give you a lot to build on later.
In fact, both these ideas are small, but powerful, like a seed
that grows into to mighty tree. Now, where are those birds?
posted October 21, 2010
I started this series of posts with the
overwhelming thought that the concept of playing without notes
in front of a person is just too crazy for many people to
seriously consider. There are the ones who do this all the time,
for whom it just seems natural, but between those who play this
way and those who donít there seems to be a huge chasm, a
barrier that many people are unwilling to even try to cross;
maybe they are just afraid they canít possibly do it.
So I thought the way to begin would be to
make things as simple as possible. How many situations in life
allow a person, after maybe five minutes of learning, to go out
and do something? And yet, if youíve chosen a simple song with
about three chords (say itís just G C and D over and over) you
can learn to play them the way I showed you in
101, above, and, without learning a thing more, sit in with the
band, and contribute to the sound. Whatís more, by telling you
what notes to play when you see a G above the lyrics, Iíve
eliminated the huge number of choices you face when the lead
sheet tells you what chord to play but doesnít tell you how to
play it. That kind of decision making is at the root of a lot of
fear of improvisation. What do I do? Says the beginner. Do this,
I say back. No decisions involved.
But at some point you are probably going to
get bored just playing these basic, root position chords (thatís
the technical name for them) over and over, which is why we
started experimenting with alternate ways to play them.
Ironically, just when you thought things were going to get more
complex, they got simpler. Youíve got three notes to play in
this chord, I said, now letís only play two. Or one. Try
different combinations. Learn by doing it.
These things may still seem pretty simple,
but they are really pretty far-reaching ideas; everything builds
You may have noticed, though, when you
played chords like the ones in our 101 lesson (in root position), as simple as it was to
them, physically playing them on the other hand was less simple. There was a bit of jumping involved, which made the
transition from one chord to the next not sound so smooth, nor
was it so easy to get to the next one on time.
Today, we are going to try to eliminate those problems. (Next time, weíll see
about world peace.)
Letís take probably the simplest chord
progression in the book. G-C-D. Simple, and yet...
Notice a jump between the G and C chords?
The way to get rid of that jump is to play an inversion
of one of the chords. Now it will obviously help to know what an
inversion is (a chord whose notes are positioned in a different
order--a C major chord read bottom to top would be CEG in root
position, EGC in 1st inversion, and GCE in
2nd inversion) and to be able to play them quickly and
easily. If you donít know this, it is worth taking the time and
trouble to learn. Below is a chart of all those chords from
Improvisation 101 (including the hard ones) showing the two
other possible ways notes can be positioned and still be
three-note chords in closed position (all three notes are as
close together as possible, not spread out over a couple of
octaves, for instance, or skipping one of the notes and placing
it higher or lower):
In first inversion, the note the chord is built on has been
moved from the bottom to the top of the chord (for example, "C"
is now at the top rather than the bottom, of the C chord)
In second inversion, the note which gives
the chord its name is in the middle of the chord.
click here for a PDF file listing all the
major and minor chords in both 1st and 2nd inversions
If you can play through
the contents of this chart without looking at it, you are ready to
do the sort of thing described below:
Play the G chord, as above. Now, instead of moving to the
C chord in Ďroot positioní as you did before, play it in 'second
Now, continue on to the D chord, also in
Notice that between the first two chords in
our new progression (going from the G chord to the C chord),
the bottom note (the G) stayed the same, and the top two only moved up
one. This makes for a very smooth progression. Once you get used
to doing it, you will also realize that, far from having to make
deep mental calculations on the run every time you want to do
this, your hands will start searching out these inversions for
you. Some hints:
--One or two of the notes wonít change from
one chord to the next; the other(s) will only move by step.
You can also learn the above example as a
memorized formula. Youíll be using it often enough! But that
isn't the only way you can move fluidly from G to C to D.
Another way is to start on a first-inversion G chord and
move to C in root position. Then you can go to the D chord in
root position, or you can go down to the D chord in 2nd
You can start with the G in root position,
move the outside notes down to a 1st inversion C
major chord, and then continue down to a root position D chord,
or go up to the D chord in 1st inversion.
If you canít get to all of those notes on
the fly, remember the trick from Improvisation 102 and leave out
a note or two from one of the chords. When you are playing with
other instrumentalists you donít need to play all of the notes
of a chord. (playing single notes D-D-E works with this
progression, or B-C-D, or any number of others). If you panic, a
single note is often all you need to get through a progression,
so don't worry about it too much. Just use your ears.
posted November 21, 2010
There are quite a few things one can do
with sustaining sounds. They can range from the
simple single note drone, to two or three note chords
(in various octaves), as in
improvisation 101, or they can
encompass full, rich sounds. There are hundreds of ways to play
a chord. Taking the notes C, E, and G, and arranging them
throughout the keyboard, we can arrive at these combinations
(and there are many, many more):
keep in mind that any of these could also
be arpeggiated (i.e.., broken up, and the notes played one at a
time, starting from the bottom (usually)); if you are using a piano sound
(or an actual piano) rather than an electronic keyboard, you
would probably be better served to keep more rhythmic activity
in your playing generally, since the sounds do not last very
long, and they begin to decay immediately. If you are both an
organist and a pianist, you may have noted the
differences between the way composers write for the two very
Of course, any of these patterns also give
you more to learn. If you want to play every chord of a given
song using any of the above eight examples, you have some applying to
do. Rather than make charts for every one of them, I'm going to
let you find them on your own (which ought to make them stick
better since you have to earn it!). Keep in mind that the difficulty
of doing this will go down exponentially after you have played
through the chord changes a few hundred times, and most praise
songs are perfect for doing just that. For instance, you could
try the first example above using this chord pattern:
C G F G and,
after your band has rehearsed the song that keeps to these same
four chords repeated again and again for four minutes a few
times, you'll be quite good at it. But for starters, you have to
figure out how to translate any example I give you in one
harmony to any other. The way to do that is to note the
relationship between the two chords. G is five notes up from C
(counting the first note). The remaining notes in any layout
will be, too. So, if you wanted to take the first measure in the
example I just gave you, which is a variety of C chord, and do
the same thing on a G chord, you would have to move every note
up a fifth. Probably by keeping your hands in the same basic
shape you can even 'guess' at it without having to think too
hard. But the way to do it in your head would be to take every
note up a fifth from where it was before (ie., up 5 notes if the
first note counts as one; up four more notes. If you're
wondering why I do it this way it is because music theorists do
it the same way, with what they call 'intervals'--the distance
between two notes). The result of this little computation (or
guess!) should be:
There, I just let you cheat. Getting from G
to F should be really easy, since you are only going down one
note, and heading back to G is simply doing it in reverse. Its
important to remember, if you are trying something new, that you
are trying to acquire facility with a pattern of chords, which
usually means three or four in a row, and about one line of
lyrics. Once they repeat (ad naseum) the job of adapting
something new is basically over. In other words, divide and
conquer. Don't let that entire page of words and chord symbols
taunt you with the idea that this is going to be impossible.
Learn to work on one line at a time !
This is probably a good time to get our
ears involved in all of this. If you are still unnerved at the
idea of improvising, you are probably glad to take a formulaic
approach. I give you an idea, and, with a little homework, you
can apply it to an entire song without having to really think up
something new on the spot. But it is time to stress the role of
the ear in all of this. When you arrive at the point where you
are not spending all of your time worrying about getting your
fingers to their assignments on time (which may be pretty soon
if you are playing fairly simple arrangements of chords or
drones) you can begin listening to the results and reacting to
them accordingly. Does what you are playing sound pleasing? So
pleasing that you bliss out for a moment and forget to change to
the next chord when its time to do it? Does it still sound ok?
Then stay there! Do you know why? No? Fair enough. Play it
anyway. Sometimes mistakes can teach you a lot if you let them.
If you are too busy trying to be correct all the time you won't
listen to the results of your experiment and you won't learn
anything I haven't explicitly written. And that's too bad
because I can't possibly cover everything. (I wish St. Paul had
written that somewhere.)
I know quite a bit about music theory. I've
taught it at the college level (I have a doctorate in music) and
I use this knowledge constructive to analyze and discuss many
things I find in some pretty complex music. (I even threw a
brief 'theory-based' explanation for why an apparent wrong note
actually works with a chord in that
first keyboard lesson above)
But as an improviser I think it helps sometimes to let go of
that and let your fingers do a little running. Knowing why
things work is fascinating and helpful, but often we can't
figure those things out on the fly, and it just slows us down to
try, particularly if music theory is not second nature to us.
I'm the last person to knock music theory, but I don't want to
use it to handcuff you. If you don't know why it sounds good,
but it sounds good, go for it.
Now some of us are not used to using our
ears or our minds when it comes to music, having been fed all
the notes and not encouraged to wonder why they were on the
page, nor did we develop the ability to both play and listen to
what we were playing. In which case, it will help to make what
you do as simple as possible so that you can spend your time
listening to it. The band will keep going.
Last week in church I spent a certain amount of time
just playing single notes on a sustained sound. Rather than
finding the roots of the chords (though you can do that) or one
of the other two members of the chords (though that would work
too) I wandered by step up and down the scale. Since chords are
based on every other note of the scale, many chord changes work
by using the notes that did not belong to the previous chord
(not always, but often). So if the first chord of the
progression was a D chord, and you start with a D, you can often
get through a four chord progression by doing something like
this (both examples assume we're in the key of D major):
It's surprising how often this works.
Thinking melodically is good way to get your improvisation to
stop sounding jerky; nothing could be smoother than an ascending
or descending pattern. The catch is that you need to know what
key the piece is in, and you need to know your scales (key of
D=use of D major scale). Any chord-by-chord explanation I could
offer for why it works would seem complicated to one not
well-versed in theory (and would also require me to furnish a specific chord
progression, which the above does not!). Meanwhile, if you are listening to what you are
playing, you will be able to detect quickly whether what you are
playing fits the chord or not. If it doesn't, move up a note or
down a note until it does. You will have just created a small
moment of tension in the music. This is not something to worry
about; it is quite good, in fact. More about that later.
Meanwhile, I'll just leave you with what I said to someone who
once asked me why I never missed notes when I made things up. It
isn't that, I assured her. It is simply that, whenever I do hit
a note that doesn't fit with its surroundings, I make it become
something that does, which makes it sound like I meant it all
along. Musicians who improvise frequently often find that when
they give themselves permission to think in music, they
occasionally think themselves into a corner. And then they have
to employ a 'nice save.' I read recently that pianist Keith
Jarrett said something very similar to someone who asked that
same question of him. So I figure I'm in good company.
Making a Lead Sheet: More Observations
posted May 7, 2011
Seriously, this will take five minutes, tops.
If you are making a lead sheet, it helps to
be able to spell. I don't mean the lyrics, although every so
often we come across some misspelled words which completely
change the meaning of the song (not to mention the doctrine) and
send the band into gales of laughter, I mean the music itself.
If you've got somebody in your band with
musical training, they may be frustrated by a lead sheet in
which G-flats are labeled as f-sharps when they shouldn't be,
and so on. I know for some of you this doesn't seem like a big
deal, and I'm not trying to be a snob about it, but it can
actually be confusing--or annoying-- for people who understand the logic behind
rules like this. You may have heard that f-sharp and g-flat are
the same note on the keyboard, and they are. But f-sharp and
g-flat are not really the same thing any more than you could
actually spell the word 'spell' lots of other ways and it would
not be correct. Like with a silent gh in the middle, or
only one L or something. I mean, it works, doesn't it? speghl, I
mean. Looks funny, but if you sound it out, it should work. Why
be a killjoy and insist on everybody doing it with double Ls?
Kills creativity, right? (even if it takes a bit longer to
figure out every time) As Paul said (the saint, not the
Beatle) "brothers, I don't want you to be ignorant about
anything," so what follows is a very short musical spelling
guide. If you want a longer, more involved discussion about this
topic, you can go
For lead sheet purposes, there is really
only one simple rule.
1--don't mix sharps and flats. If you know
key your piece is in, you simply adopt one or the other,
based on the way that key is written. If the key has the word
"flat" after it, you are dealing with flats. For example, in the
key of Eb (E-Flat), use Bb chords, not A#
chords. Even if you'd rather call it A# because you like sharps
better. Or, if you are in E major, and you'd rather call a C# a
Db. It luks weard, trusd mee.
So, then, these keys: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb,
all use nothing but flats. The one extra thing to remember is
that F is also a flat key.
Anything else, C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#
are keys that use sharps. So, for instance, If you are in C#, use G# chords, not Ab chords.
In the world of written music things are a
little more complicated. I was going to start out with three
simple rules, then decided for our present purposes they aren't
really necessary. There are reasons for this, but you don't
really need to know that, either. Just follow the rule above,
and virtually all the time (I can't think of an exception) you
will look to a trained musician like you know what you are
doing. I realize many of us wouldn't notice either way, but
then, that isn't really a good excuse.
Praise band lead sheet writing is relatively simple.
There really isn't any reason you can't take the time to spell
correctly. I'm just saying.
The Ultimate Lead Sheet
posted November 17, 2011
Doug and I are in quest of the "ultimate lead sheet." By that I
mean, what is the best possible way to take all the "stuff" that
goes on a page for your praiseband to read and make it easy to
read and understand, easy to figure out, without leaving out
For our drummer, Gavin, large words are important. He's also a
lead singer, so he needs to be able to see the lyrics, which
mean they need to be big. I mean, really big. I mean really,
really, really hugely enormously retirement community
trifocally godzilla size....just kidding, Gav. The guy can see fine. It's just
that the music stand is about three feet in front of him (past
the drums), so letters an eighth of an inch high aren't going to
do it. And I imagine that's kind of important for the other
singers as well. They don't need chords on their sheets, they
need words--alone. Which is probably their idea of the perfect
lead sheet. One without all the unnecessary musical clutter and
highly visible words.
The down side to that is that you'd have to have two versions of
every lead sheet, which clutters up the library. So it probably
won't happen anytime soon. What about the rest of us?
Well, besides some basic information about the key, tempo and
meter, which never appear on lead sheets, I like to see the
chords arranged in basic groups. Usually, a song consists of a
pattern of three or four chords repeated over and over. I'd like
it to be obvious which four (or three). Put them all on the same
line. Adjust the lyrics if necessary. Of course, it never hurts
to actually place the chord changes over the words on which the
chords change, but a lot of lead sheet writers/copiers aren't so
careful. Usually the chord changes are predictable and you can
guess. Then there is the court of appeals which is listening to
a recording. We keep one handy whenever we're working on a new
I'd also like to see some extra space between the verse and the
chorus and the bridge (or the channel or the pre-chorus or
whatever funky thing they're calling it), just the same way I
put space between paragraphs so your eyes don't glaze over
reading this. Aren't I a nice guy?
Gavin's come up with a good way to do lead sheets. The songs he
writes usually have large lyrics on the left side of the page.
The chord pattern for the verse is listed one time (ie, "GABC")
off to the right. The same thing is true for the chorus. If it
is a repeated progression, you just cycle around the series of
chords you see until that part of the song is over. It allows
the words to be big, the chords to be big, and makes things look
less cluttered. It doesn't tell us how fast the changes are, but
then, neither do most other lead sheets, and we've got the
composer in the room. Gavin thinks like a bass player, so
sometimes the chord symbols are really about what's in the bass
(for example, a G chord with a B in the bass-- a G/B, in other
words-- is written as "B". I imagine most bass players would
prefer things this way, but that would require a third kind of
lead sheet. You can see why, when a chord shows up on a lead
sheet as a G#dim7/D. Turns out it's really a D chord. You never
know when you get your stuff off the internet. It might be done
by somebody who really knows what they are doing, or it could be
a 13-year old excitedly commenting "This is my very first lead
sheet." Doug, our electric guitar player, and administrative
director, who gets our sheets together (sorry), decided he'd
take a pass on that real-life example by our 13-year old
Things really get fun when the song is eight minutes long and
repeats the various parts in combination over and over. The
right-hand margin of the page usually gets festooned with
penciled notes "VCVCCBVCCCCBVVCCC" (verse, chorus, verse,
chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus--you get
the idea). We try to keep our lead sheets from being more than
two pages long, which can be a conflicting demand in some
extreme cases. Usually by the time we've played the song 85
times we don't really need the sheets anyhow, but then we're
bored. There are ways to deal with that, too, but some things
need to stay in Vegas--er, church.