What are the main issues for a keyboard player to be aware of when playing in a worship band?
Firstly, there’s the whole question of sounds – most modern keyboards can create hundreds of sounds of every imaginable type, but you need to be thinking about what will work in your band setting. A good starting point would often be an acoustic piano sound as it has a proven track record of fitting well with other instruments.
Secondly, if you’re used to playing piano by yourself you may be used to playing bass notes, chords, tune, embellishments all at the same time! However with the band, you need to play less because much of that stuff is already being covered by the other instruments. Avoid getting in the way of the bass player with your left hand, and if you are going that low, make sure you’re playing the same notes as the bass guitar, preferably with the same rhythm so there are no muddy clashes.
Avoid playing the tune, as there are vocalists and a congregation already doing that and it can become ‘melodic overkill’. With extra embellishments in the right hand, try to confine them to the gaps between vocal lines, and leave some space for other instruments such as the electric guitar who may also be filling.
Can't I just use the written piano arrangements in the songbooks?
Strange as it may sound, the scored songbook arrangements aren't really meant to be played! They have the tune at the top (useful for the vocalists but not a great idea for keyboard players as we've already said), then basic rhythm and chords which can give some useful clues about how the song should sound. However, they tend to be very limited and won't for example give different parts for first and second verses. That's a problem if you're trying to develop a sense of dynamic progression through the song. Also they take no account of adapting what you're playing to fit round the other musicians. A much more flexible approach is to work with the chords which give you the option of creating your own parts to fit the song, the current dynamic and the overall band sound.
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Any tips for when I'm playing chords?
The piano is great for adding ‘body’ to the band sound by playing the chords. A good starting point is often a simple rhythmic vamp in the middle octave. Try playing each chord once per beat (think verse of 'Hey Jude'). Then add more notes to the chords and try using higher right hand and lower left hand in bigger sections such as choruses. Using chord extensions which are not necessarily on the chart or being played by the other musicians can add harmonic richness to the sound. E.g. try playing Em7 or even Em9 when you just see Em on the chart – this can make for a fuller, pleasing sound without clashing. Similarly, adding a '2' to most major chords (e.g. the note 'D' with a C major chord) will usually do no harm at all and just thicken the sound in a pleasing way.
Okay that’s piano, what about the other 255 sounds on my keyboard?
Worship times often benefit from a warm pad or strings sound that can be layered behind or instead of a piano sound to give a ‘backdrop’ to the song without adding lots of rhythm. Electric piano can make an mellower alternative to piano, and Hammond organ can make a rockier song ‘fatter’ without being too busy. Synth leads can be useful to add a featured melodic element; especially to intros and turnarounds. Other weird and wonderful synth noises may be appropriate to feature at particular moments but are usually best used sparingly.