Making the boring more interesting

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I was playing for the choir the other day, and while the music was high quality, I noticed a lot of bars in the piano part that looked something like this:
Sort of marginal, isn’t it? Even great choral music is often very weak in the piano part for any number of reasons.  My theory is that choral arrangers are 1) focused mostly on the choral writing and 2) not necessarily strong pianists.

Let’s talk about how you can make this kind of writing better on the fly.  You can do all kinds of things with the example above.  You are limited only by the size of your musical vocabulary.

I have learned over the years that great improvisational pianists do not necessarily improvise in the way you might think.  What they do actually do is pick and choose items from their musical vocabulary to fit different situations.  Great improvisers have huge vocabularies of different musical ideas and they know how to use them well.

Some of you may be looking at the example above without any idea of how to change it to make it better.  That brings up the subject of this post.  How do you expand your vocabulary?

Getting started is sort of like starting a heavy ball rolling down the hill.  You may spend a lot of time up front without any measurable progress, but as it goes, it gets easier and easier.  You just have to force yourself to start working on it even though it may feel fruitless for a while.

What you want to do is just start coming up with patterns and ideas that you can do to this one bar.  As you can imagine, the possibilities are infinite, even while staying with the overall feel of the song (which you obviously need to do).

There are many concepts that you can use when you elaborate or improvise on this bar.  I want to talk about three of them:
* Using more notes (rather than just the notes in the triad).
* Rhythm
* Texture

Using more notes
Make sure you understand the parameters first.  This is very simply a bar of G minor in the key of F.  What you play needs to feel like a G minor chord.  Obviously, chord substitutions are probably out of bounds since you can’t conflict with the choral parts.

So, now that you know it is G minor in the key of F, what notes are available to you to play?  As you might guess, I would immediately change the chord to Gmin7 rather than just the minor triad.  That means your ideas can incorporate these notes: G, Bb, D and F. 

That being said, you can actually use any note in the key of F.  Improvising pianists would probably say it in a more technical way like “playing Dorian over a minor 7th” but that is what they mean.  Every note that is naturally in the key is almost certainly fair game.  (There is an exception that might occur if a choir part is singing something unique like maybe F#.)

Now that you know the pool of notes at your disposal (F, G, A, Bb, C, D, and E), find patterns to utilize some of these notes when you play this bar.  As you come up with patterns they will become part of your vocabulary that you can use anytime you come across a similar situation.

Here are some simple examples that demonstrate this.


Don’t go crazy in terms of rhythm, but you don’t have to be boring either.  If you play a run in your right hand, don’t always start it on a downbeat.  Don’t play the entire run with notes of the same duration.  Use accents to change how the music feels too.

In very traditional churches, rhythm is way underutilized.  Explore ways to get away from the extreme rhythmic simplicity that you are probably used to.

Here are examples:

By texture, I am referring to the density of the notes you end up playing.  For example, you might choose to play a single line, open sixths, or octaves in your right hand.  Or, you might choose to play four 16th notes rather than two 8th notes.  Here are some examples of that concept:

Sit down for a few minutes a day and come up with ideas for your music vocabulary by focusing on these three areas.  Then as you play, pull from your vocabulary.  The ideas you come up with for this bar of G minor can be used (sometimes with slight modifications) practically anywhere you want in the rest of your music.  The idea you use any one bar can be easily connected to the idea you are going to use in the next bar. 

Here is an example of something I am arranging that uses this concept of connecting ideas.  I am connecting runs that each work on top of the chord I am playing in my left hand.  Each small run leads into the next one.  The harmony is a bit more advanced but the concept is exactly the same. 

That is the process that improvisational pianists use. They string together ideas from their vocabulary in ways that are cohesive and musical.  So, start working on your vocabulary today!