Tips for the Church Pianist: Part 2 – The How-To’s of Functional Improvisation

This is the second post in a mini-series on practical tips for the church pianist.  Many of these notes were taken during a seminar with John Martin at the Grace Music Collective hosted by Grace Baptist Church and are shared with permission.

Piano Keys

In the previous post, I discussed the heart of the church musician and the importance of keeping the role of a pianist in perspective.  But once we have the right view of our role and the right heart of service, how do we practically apply that?  The piano is probably the most versatile instrument in the band.  We have the power to completely obliterate the band, but we must control ourselves and our instrument and determine the best ways we can contribute to congregational worship.

John shared that there are various areas we should consider and gave us suggestions of tools in each area we can use in any song.  These areas include:

  • Functional improvisation
  • Determining priorities
  • Rhythm
  • Dynamics
  • Melodic Fills
  • Harmonic Fills

Today I’d like to break down the concept of Functional Improvisation.

Embellish the Chord Structure

One of the key things we are able to contribute to the band is color.  Rather than

Embellishing the Chord Structure Excerpt from "All I Have Is Christ"
Embellishing the Chord Structure Excerpt from “All I Have Is Christ”

playing a simple triad, we can embellish the chord structure with additional “colors” such as a second, suspension, seventh, ninth, fourth, or sixth.  Modern worship music rarely uses the third of the chord today and you’ll need to be able to fit in with that sound and with what the rest of the band is playing.  An excellent example of this is in the song “All I have Is Christ” by Jordan Kauflin.

To practice this, John recommended picking one of these colors (such as adding a second) and playing through an entire song with that color.  While it might not sound great all the time, you’ll be able to hear what works and what doesn’t.  It will also help you build the muscle memory to be able to play this pattern quickly when needed.

Accent the Melody or Rhythm

This could be seen as noodling with the melody or adding some syncopation to the rhythm.  It could also be some textural elements or repeated patterns that helps reinforce the words.  A great example of accenting the melody is in “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” by Matt Redman.   You can clearly hear snippets of the melody in the piano part, but the pianist is not playing the melody the entire time.

Create Anticipation

Creating Anticipation

You can create anticipations with suspensions using the fourth or seventh.   If this suspension is not written in the chord chart, you should only use it if you are playing by yourself as you may clash with what the band is doing.  Suspensions are especially useful when you add them to a repeated chord you are vamping on for a while.  Practice using suspensions to lead from one chord to another on your chord sheet.   Especially practice using suspensions when you are playing in an inversion as I find this is a bit harder to do quickly if you haven’t practiced it.

Employ Specific Tonal Colors to Support the Setting

A great example of this is in the song “In Christ Alone” by Keith and Kristyn Getty, we read the verse:

There in the ground His body lay,

Light of the world by darkness slain;

Then bursting forth in glorious day,

Up from the grave He rose again!

If you listen to Keith Getty playing in the video “Live at the Gospel Coalition”, you’ll notice that he starts with simple chords down lower – perhaps symbolizing Christ’s body lying in the ground.  When they reach the words “Then bursting forth in glorious day”, however, Keith uses rhythm to create a driving feel and gradually works his voicing higher.

Another example is the song “Cannons” by Phil Wickham.  In this version, you’ll hear a lighter and thinner color as the lyrics talk about the clouds, skies, universe, galaxies, and Milky Way.

These are some helpful tools that will help you be more effective as a church pianist.  Next in this series, I hope to cover some important voicing considerations.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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