Playing complicated music without much practice

In August, we recorded a song I wrote called “This God Alone” in the live taping. The lyricist wants the music for a concert she is doing so I promised her I would write out the piano part (all the other parts are already written out).

I finally got around to it yesterday. As I was writing, I found myself thinking more than once that on paper, it looks a lot harder to play than it actually is.  To be honest, on paper, it looks like a beast–very rhythmic with some difficult runs.

As arrangers, I think many of us fall into the trap of thinking our music is easier than it really is. I have talked about that before; we instinctively arrange for our own strengths. But what is easy for us is hard for other people. The opposite is true too. When I pick up some arrangement books, they look very difficult to me even though the arranger can probably play those songs in her sleep.

In fact, I get annoyed if my church is doing a choir piece and the piano music is harder than I think it needs to be. In general, I don’t think church pianists should have to spend a lot of time practicing choir stuff. There is an art to writing music that sounds interesting but is not difficult to play.

So the fact that my piano part for “This God Alone” is difficult does not mean I am a great pianist or arranger. If anything, it reflects poorly on me as an arranger, at least in the context of arranging stuff that other people will play.

On the other hand, church pianists need to be able to look at music that seems hard and know how to simplify it. Here is an example of a few bars from “This God Alone”.  The time signature is 6/8.


That first line looks complicated, especially when you consider the speed (dotted qtr = 70). To put that in perspective, it means the pianist is playing that run at 7 notes per second. There is not much time to read and not much time to think.

This run is easy for me, but only because I wrote it and it is my style. If I got this music and someone had written something even a little different there, I can assure you I would struggle trying to play as written at tempo with no practice.

So what do you do? First of all, remember that you are not obligated to play what is written there. You just aren’t. All you probably need to get right is the tempo, the harmony and the “feel.”

The first thing you need to do is identify the chords. I have written them in for you here. They are a little strange because this the middle of a long modulation. If you want to ditch the run entirely and just play the chords in simple patterns like you see on the second line, that is your prerogative.

Let’s say that you want to play a run there though. If that is the case, you are not obligated to play the exact run I have written. Look at that run for a second. The key signature is Eb and you will note that the only accidental used is Db. That should tip you off that the run is based on an Ab scale (which contains those four flats).

By the way, it makes sense that we are playing a run based on the Ab scale because of the underlying chords. The first three chords are the ii – V – I of the key of Ab. The next chord (DbM7) belongs to the key as well; it is the IV chord (which is always a major 7th).

If you did not understand that last paragraph, don’t worry because that is not the point. The point is that you can play any pattern that feels good to you as long as it is based on the Ab scale. In fact, you can just play the scale itself if you want to. This run is actually pretty close to a descending Ab scale.

I talk a lot about theory here on this blog because theory is the key to understanding how to read complex music like this in real time without practice. Rather than spending a lot of time learning the exact notes I have written, you just have to understand what is going on from a theory perspective. If you do, things get much easier.