Thoughts about learning to play better

Over the past four weeks, I have been covering modulations, an starting next week, I am going to start covering chord progressions.  Today, I want to take a breather and just talk about a few things that art important to me. I read something this week written by a very confident musician, and it made me cringe.  He basically said that the best Christian musicians play classical music and the bad musicians play church music. I cringed not only because he was showing his own ignorance but also because he was sharing a common misconception about what a good musician is.

How did we ever get to the point where we believe that the best musicians are the ones who can most accurately play somebody else’s music?  The fact is that many musicians that would be considered excellent at playing classical music have poor ears, little working knowledge of theory, little ability to improvise, and little musical creativity.

If you want to experience good musicians, listen to some of the great jazz pianists of the last century.  They played music every bit as technically difficult as most classical music and often improvised it on the spot.  Many of
them started as classical pianists but used it only as a foundation for the amazing things they later learned how to

There is a reason why most jazz pianists play classical music well but few classical pianists can play jazz.
The biggest differences you will often see between excellent jazz pianists and excellent classical pianists are these:  first, jazz pianists have superior ear abilities and secondly, they have a working knowledge of music theory.  Yes, there are exceptions–I am speaking in generalities.

I am not hinting that we need jazz music in the church.  What I would say is that church musicians need the same skills that jazz musicians have–ear skills and a working understanding of theory.  I would also say that most
classically trained church pianists have woefully incomplete training in these two areas, and that includes those
with college degrees in music performance.

By the way, let me elaborate on what I mean by the phrase “working understanding of theory.”  I am referring to
an understanding of theory at a level that can be actually applied when playing.  For example, it is one thing to know what a subdominant chord is.  It is another to know when to use them in your own music.  A college music theory class will teach you the theory, but that is just the first step toward a working knowledge of theory.

The same is true for ear training.  A year of ear training classes is probably not enough. The good news is that there are more efficient ways to train your ear anyway.  I am actually light years away from where I want to be in this area, and I want to share a resource that I use to improve my ear.  It is software called EarMaster Pro and you can research it and download a free trial at  It will help you train your ear to identify intervals, chords, chord progressions, and more.  If you decide to buy it, it is only $70 or so.  I think it is a great value.

By the way, it also has a rhythm component that will help you learn to play rhythms more precisely.  Church music is getting more rhythmically complex, and if you are like me, you may need to grow in that area.

I have told my story before in these lessons to demonstrate that you do not need a music degree to learn how to be a good church pianist.  In my opinion, you only need some talent and a passion to learn.  With current technology, we have unprecedented access to information, and if you have a great teacher, you can learn
practically everything outside of college that you would learn in college.  You simply have to want to.

I have known many great musicians (with more talent than me) over my life, and when I talk to them today, I always ask if they are taking lessons or continuing to learn in other ways.  Almost always, I am saddened to learn that they did not continue their music education past college.  I find that sad because I think you can learn a lot more after college–in fact, college should be nothing more than the beginning of your musical education.

So, here is what I am trying to say.  Making learning a priority.  Don’t believe that your best days are behind you or that will probably turn out to be the case.  Believe that you can be a better musician next year and much better in ten years and that will probably come true too.

One other thing.  I am trying to cover some fairly advanced topics in these lessons and not everyone learns well in this kind of format.  If you are struggling to learn here, consider getting a teacher.  Get the best possible teacher
that you can find and afford, and get one that understands the kinds of concepts I have been discussing.  I drive 30 miles to downtown Atlanta every other week for a lesson and it is time and money well spent.