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I think we can handle the pluralism, and we can handle the conflict, and we can handle the complexity, and we can handle all of those things, and I don't think that driving them away in some sort of pious fury is any kind of an answer.
--Gary Ross, Director of "Pleasantville" (DVD commentary)
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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 we in?'

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 center of 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 start there.

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 is in.

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 key. 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!)

If 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 point of my last 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 acceptable harmony.
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 little surprising:

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
meter: 4/4

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 same length?

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 pattern.

more eliminating rhythmic guesswork--
organizing the phrase

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 words:

This is my song about Jesus
C7                             F                    

         This is my song
Am                    G

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          B   

      The Bible says so like it should
B            A                 B           C#m          B

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          B   

 The Bible says so like it should
        A                 B           C#m          B

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 appreciated.

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
              C                        G/B                   am                   D

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!

posted May 5, 2010

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 it.

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 schools.

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, anyway?

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 player.

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 track!

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 singing.

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 dictates.

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.


Improvisation 101
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.

   C                             G                 F              G
This is basically what a line of lyrics looks like

        C                            G                                F          G
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 these:

C major triad

For a G, play one of these:

G major triad

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:

major chords:

chart of all 12 major triads


minor chords:

chart of all 12 minor chords


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 lead sheet. 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:

C major triad in 1st inversion

or G-C-E:

C major triad in 2nd inversion

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.

Improvisation 102
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):

broken chord patterns

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:

melodies with passing tones

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?

Improvisation 103
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 Improvisation 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 from there.

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 think about 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...


G-C-D chord progression using root position triads


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 inversion:'


C major chord in 2nd inversion


Now, continue on to the D chord, also in second inversion:


D major chord in 2nd inversion


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 inversion:


GCD chord progression using inversions


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.


another way to go from G to C to D using inversions


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.

Improvisation 104
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):

C chords in various positions

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 different instruments.

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:

G chord in 'choral' position

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):

A short melodic pattern in the key of D

or this:

another short melodic pattern in the key of D

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 here.

For lead sheet purposes, there is really only one simple rule.

1--don't mix sharps and flats. If you know what 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 anything critical?

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 piece.

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 enthusiast.

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.