10 Tips For Playing The Keyboard in Worship

The Sofa is pleased to share this guest blog from Kate from Londonwithatoddler.com. Kate describes herself as a “mother, writer, thinker. Granted, the kind of things I think about are along the lines of “What’s that smell?” or “Where can I buy chocolate around here?”, so maybe not that much of a thinker.  But I am definitely the first two”. Here she’s sharing her top ten tips for playing the keyboard in worship in Church.

Ten Tips for Playing the Keyboard in Worship

Like the church, the worship band is a body. And if the worship leader is the head, then the keyboard player is the liver – solid, always there and not really noticed until it goes wrong. But there is a lot of joy to be had sitting at the back, playing along, occasionally slipping the melody from “Let it Go” into poignant moments. And with our Ten Tips for Keyboard Players, we’re going to teach you how to be the best liver you can possibly be.

1. Know your place

As I might have mentioned, keyboard players are a bit of a supporting role, in secular bands as well as worship bands. For every Jean Michel Jarre, there’s a dozen session musicians. Bands may recruit a keyboard player for their tours, but they never make it onto the album cover.

In worship, the keyboard is normally there to add weight to choruses, support the rhythm and fill in gaps where the worship leader gets confused. You’re never the centre of attention, but that’s the heart of worship isn’t it? Banish all thoughts of being the next Timmy Jupp and concentrate on building a beautiful sound.

2. Know when to play and when not to

And on that note (pun intended), one of the first skills you learn is when not to play.  There’s a famous video of “Oceans” by Hillsong, where the drummer goes a little crazy on the drum fills, stamping all over the mellow and stripped-back vibe the singer was trying to create. Don’t be that guy. Worship songs often start with just guitar and vocals and you might come in on the repeat of the first verse, or the first chorus, or even the second verse. Obviously take your cue from the worship leader but also try and feel how the song is going – if you’re heading towards a quiet bridge, drop out and come back as it builds up again. It takes a bit of time to get used to when to play and when not to, and you might still get it wrong. But it’s a skill worth practising.

3. Learn to transpose

One of your chief bugbears will be people who only play the guitar. They change key by just slapping on a capo and assume everyone else can do the same. Have you ever put a capo on a keyboard? It just kinda rattles and doesn’t do anything useful. There’s often a “transpose” button that does the job of changing key, but if you don’t have a screen these can be fraught with danger. How many keys did we move up? And how many do we need to move down for the next song? I’m playing a G but it doesn’t sound like a G…what is going on?

A more durable life skill is to get familiar with the different keys and learn to transpose. Most worship songs need the same 5 chords to play, so there aren’t that many chord groups to learn. But just knowing that going up a tone from C gives you a chord group of D/F#m/G/A/Bm instead of C/Em/F/G/Am prepares you for those “I’m sticking a capo on it” moments. And one fret on a guitar = one semitone. But you hope your worship leader would at least mouth “Bb” at you in that way that they do as you’re starting the song. It all helps.

4. Don’t get too enthusiastic

A simple one next. No matter how much you’re building the song, and how much passion you put into your playing, don’t ever play so hard that the keyboard stand collapses. It kills the mood. Trust me on this one.

5. Know how to improvise

Easier said than done, but improvising is a really useful thing to be able to do in worship. If it all takes a bit of a free-singing turn, you can pretty much go nuts (now is the time to prophetically play “Let it Go” over the congregation. You never know – it might really speak to someone). The easiest way is just to play around the notes of the chords – some arpeggios here, a little flowery bit there  – rather than attempting a melody. Practise at home until you get confident, so that when the worship leader breaks a string and looks round at you in panic, you’ll be able to smoothly take over.

6. Chords are your Friend

Related to that point – you’ll find that a lot of worship playing is more about playing chords than picking out the melody of the song. Of course, it’s different if you’re the only musician – then you might want to play the melody and the chords, for a fuller sound (especially if you don’t like singing!). But in a band, there’s a lot going on so it’s best to play chords, with both hands. It might sound boring, but it gives you a good basis for improvising and makes it way easier to play by ear (assuming you can hear yourself…I never can…so I use chord sheets, or scribbled chords on the back of a receipt if the worship leader’s left the music at home. Another advantage of playing chords = your music is the same as a guitarist’s).

7. Mind out for the demo button

Oh, you think it can never happen to you, do you? You think you’ll never lean over to adjust your music and your wrist will lightly brush the button that sends a wave of “Venus” across the congregation? Well, it happened to Martin Smith…

8. Take your cues from the Drummer

I know, I know… I barely even acknowledge the drummer, but he does come in useful sometimes. If you’re unsure of what kinda level you should be playing at, listen to the drums – if they’re using those bamboo stick things, it’s a good bet that you should be pretty soft as well, or not even playing at all (see point 2). If the rhythm is more driving, you can mimic that with the way you play chords. And when they do a massive drum fill that goes on for ten minutes, rebuke them. Publicly, if possible.

9. Learn the hand signals

Tricky one this, as every worship leader has their own hand signals but it’s good to have some kind of understanding about what your worship leader is trying to tell you. An upward motion means “Play Louder”, a circular one means “Keep Going” and them falling to the floor means they’ve been slain in the Spirit, in which case you should both “Play Louder” and “Keep Going” until you see that universal signal from the meeting leader that means “Stop” (it’s a tapping of the watch, in case you aren’t familiar with it). Also learn your own sign language, for informing confused Visuals people what the next song is. “Open the Eyes of my Heart” is particularly satisfying to mime.

 10. Learn to play the guitar

After all these tips, this seems like a bit of a defeatist one. Ah, just give up and learn the guitar…stardom awaits! But that’s not why I say it. More than a basic knowledge of guitar chords means you can play from watching the shape of the worship leader’s hand. You’d be amazed how often that skill comes in useful…

 

And now you’re set! Go and be free to worship like David did, only with a few more clothes on..

Heres that Martin Smith moment…

2 Replies to “10 Tips For Playing The Keyboard in Worship”

  1. Am I allowed to disagree on point 1. with you there? The role of keyboard/ piano player used to be no 1, just like secular music ( church is following the secular world and in many other ways too), the guitar has take that front / lead job. How, because they use several guitars to do it, a lead, rhythm, acoustic and a bass, just to replaced what some of the keyboard can do. The keyboard can do loads more than that and play a click track for them to stay in time too, lol.This will change back again, as all fads do, and it is important that all band members remember that they are not there for themselves nor there forever. But you are right know your place, and don’t try to compete with the Hendrix want to be’s on stage at church, they will pass away, or grow up.

    1. Biggest load of trash I have heard in my life!
      The main point of having worship is to express the body of Christ’s love for their saviour, in song. I’m sick and tired of wannabe musicians drowning out the singers with an unrecognisable din. I agree that musicians are there to accompany the singers, period!

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