How church pianists can adjust to new church music (Part 2)

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Last week, I gave a foundational principle about playing modern church music (sometimes called praise and worship or CCM). The principle was this:

The first thing you need to learn is how to play the right chords at the right time.

Let’s say that you have to make a choice. You get to a spot in the song where you have to choose between the right notes and the right time. Which should you choose? The answer is the right time. Playing in time is more important than playing accurate chords. I know that is counterintuitive to many of you but you have to understand that rhythm trumps everything else in that style. I am not saying that harmony is not important; I am just saying that when playing with a band, things just will not work if you are lagging behind the beat.

The whole point of that last post was to give you a way to get to the point where you are playing the right notes at the right time. The result is not fancy but the important thing about it is that it will not get in the way of everyone else in your group/band.

I want to talk fills with you today for a few minutes. Fills are musical flourishes that need to occur in places where the melody is static (or nonexistent). Typically, you need fills between phrases and maybe between verses but you also need little mini-fills within the phrase in places where the melody is static for a few beats.

I have probably showed this before but here is an excerpt from my Accompanying course that demonstrates fills in their simplest form:

You guys know that that the circled notes are fills. They basically fill up a bit of space while the vocalists are static (staying on the same note). Do you have to fill up that space? Of course not but in general, that is what we do as musicians. In fact, every single musician reading this probably does this kind of thing instinctively.

Between phrases, the fills are usually longer and possibly more complex. For example, here is an example of a fill at the end of a phrase while waiting for the next phrase:

The truth of course is that there are an infinite number of fill patterns you can use that range from very simple (such as these two examples) to very complex. I could play fills all day but I am not sure it would do you much good. If I were teaching you fills, I would just give you a melody line, show you where I want a fill and tell you to come up with ten possibilities a day. You simply determine the chord under the fill, determine how many beats the fill has to be and then come up with ideas. In the above example, the fill is 3 beats on top of an Eb chord.

Now, let’s talk about how this works in a church band. We are going to build on last week’s exercise by adding fills. Step one is getting to the point where you can play the right chords at the right time in a very basic pattern. Step two is identifying specific places where you are going to add fills. I recommend no more than a half dozen in the song to start.

Let’s take last week’s example. I have circled a few fill opportunities in this line from Amazing Grace:

The first two spots are short fill opportunities within the phrase and the last one is a slightly longer fill at the end of a.phrase. The goal is to play this line with the simple pattern except for places that need to be filled. In those spots, try some fill ideas and see what you like.

I want to say one more thing about fills. In real life (in a band situation), typically you don’t want every instrument doing fills on a random “whatever feels good” basis. Optimally, the fills are planned and divided among the instruments ahead of time. If you are a pianist, you should mark the spots where the fill is assigned to you. Note I said “optimally.” In the studio, that is the way it typically works but I realize that in church, there may not be a chance ahead of time to figure out who is responsible for each fill. In that situation, you just have to listen to see what the other musicians are doing and try to complement rather than overstep.

I have a few more posts on this topic so stay tuned.

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