- Transposing. Transferring songs into different keys is an essential skill for all musicians - except perhaps drummers and kazoo players. You don't really know a song unless you can play it in any key. Well, maybe that's not quite fair. Let me put it another way. You may think you know a song thoroughly, but until you can play it in any key you haven't yet grasped its internal constitution, its immutable melodic code. This is one of the main reasons why the number method is so valuable. Understanding this "internal constitution" - which consists of numbers, not notes - is the key (pun intended) to efficient, on-demand transposition.
- Finding the Key. It happens all the time. Someone begins a song, whether instrumentally or a cappella, and you haven't a clue what key they're in. Don't panic - it's easy to find. Quietly play a few notes, listening for whether they "fit," either melodically or harmonically. Once you've found a note that fits, locate one or two others to help you piece together the scale. (You don't have to piece together the entire scale, because you should have the all the major scales memorized, or at least the scales for the 6 most common keys: C, D, G, F, Bb, and Eb. All you need to do is identify enough notes to determine which key the song is in.) With practice this technique will come easy and natural.
- Teamwork. Playing well with other musicians takes good communication and practice. It's important to be clear about who is "leading" a song, because this can lead to confusion if left ambiguous. Also, it helps to know whether you are playing ornamental or structural piano. Here's how to tell the difference: if the piano is "holding up" the song, it's structural piano. You're in the lead, and you're responsible for keeping the song moving along, which usually means you will have to carry the chording and rhythm strongly with your left hand. If there is another instrument such as a guitar "holding up" the song, this frees you up to be creative and make your playing more open and less dogmatic.
- Transitions.It's common to insert a 4-5 turnaround between verses, by which I mean a 4-chord and then a 5-chord. (In G, that would be C and then D.) This really depends on the song, however. For many hymns, you will often be better off just counting the appropriate number of beats and then starting right into the next verse. Use your imagination. The important thing is that everyone knows when they ought to start singing. For modulating, (changing keys,) play the 5-chord of the key you're modulating to, in order to transition. (Sometimes, you can just move abruptly into the new key, but it depends on the song.)
- Rounds. Playing rounds can be confusing because the melody is in two places at once. Often the simplest thing is to play whichever melody you find most comfortable, or if this is too difficult, to just play the chord progression and forget the melody altogether. Always remember that it is not the job of the pianist to have to play the melody all the time. In fact, constantly playing melody can be monotonous and distracting.
- A Cappella. Instrumental accompaniment is usually a welcome support for group singing, but sometimes some simple a cappella can provide a powerful interlude of undistracted worship. Don't be afraid to leave off the keys every now and then and enjoy the simplicity of silence.
A Few Notes on Style
- Be Relaxed. When playing piano, it's important to be (or appear) as relaxed as possible. Of course, difficult songs challenge all of us, so don't be ashamed of needing to concentrate now and then. Just remember that generally your audience is only as relaxed as you are.
- Leave Space. Some pianists feel like they have to fill every square inch of auditory real estate with harmonies and runs and trills and other activity. This is not true. Space is your friend: you want your playing to breathe, not bloviate. Leaving deliberate space adds drama and demonstrates that you are in control.
- Use the Pedal. I tend to use the pedal liberally, which keeps the sound present and full while freeing up my fingers for the next chord or phrase. For everyday worship, the pedal is your best friend, but be cautious about over-using the pedal when playing more intricate pieces, as it will tend to muddy the sound.
- Use Grace Notes. One of the most effective ways to make your playing sound more colorful and "expensive," is to offset notes from each other instead of playing them all simultaneously. There are several ways of doing this. When playing single-note melodies, use grace notes liberally. A grace note is an adjacent note that is "crushed" into the main note quickly and gracefully just before the main note is played. When playing harmonies, offset the timing of the two notes ever so slightly, so they just barely "twinkle" against each other. You'll be amazed what a difference this makes when you learn to do it.
- Play like you mean it. E. B. White's English teacher Will Strunk once said "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!" Piano should be approached with the same abandon. It's not surgery. Play within your ability, but don't be timid about it. For the gift of life and the joy of music, play like you mean it.
Image courtesy of lawrencewoof.com