How church pianists can adjust to new church music (Part 3)

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Read previous installments:
Part 1
Part 2
Reading String Reductions (A related detour)

Sorry for the delay in getting back to this topic. Let me give you a quick few bits of news before we dive in.

  1. I am announcing the 2017 Arrangement Contest winner on Wednesday 11/22. Look for it by the end of the day.
  2. I am still currently giving away a free signed copy of Christmas Improvisations every day between now and Thanksgiving on my Facebook page. By the way, I had to reorder books from Lorenz this week and I bought all they had left (they were down to less than 50 copies). I assume they can/will print more but am not sure how that works or the timeline. Also, I am honored that this book won Editor’s Choice at J.W. Pepper (the largest sheet music retailer/distributor in the world).

OK, let’s get back to the topic at hand. In part 1, we discussed the need to simply play the right chords at the right time. In part 2, we talked about fills and in part 2a, we talked about how to play string reductions.

Today, I want to talk about playing the roots of chords. This is a huge adjustment for most church pianists because playing roots has always been a big part of our approach. Most of us were taught that on downbeats and other strong beats we should play a root (or inversion) with the pinkie of our left hand to create a foundation for the harmony that the church would sing. For example, in typical stride piano in 4/4 time, we usually played an octave based on the root (or third) on beats 1 and 3.

When playing in a contemporary setting, that approach is less attractive and undesirable. In fact, it may get you dirty looks from the group you are playing with. Here’s why: there will probably be a bass guitar in your group and his primary job will be to play those roots. If you get in his way, he won’t like it. That is especially true if you pick a different bass note than he wants to play. I will talk more about that in a second.

As a brief detour, you may be starting to see why bringing your normal church piano style into a contemporary setting causes friction and I am not referring to friction between notes. A traditional church pianist does not mean any harm; she is just doing what she knows how to do. However, the stride style covers harmony including roots, melody, and rhythm –or in other words, everything. In a contemporary music group, the other players see that as basically the equivalent of a ball hog in a pickup basketball game.

Frankly, both sides need to bring grace to the table and try to understand each other. If I were a traditional church pianist walking into that situation, I think the first thing I would do would be to have a talk with the group and explain that I have a lot to learn and I am not intentionally trying to take over their jobs. On the other hand, if I was a bass guitarist, I would try to remember that the pianist needs some time to adjust to the new style. There is no reason why motives have to be judged because it is not about motives at all.

OK, so back to the issue of playing roots. It is easier said than done to stop playing roots. I get that. It is about muscle memory and getting so good at a style that you can do it automatically. Removing roots feels like a huge departure from normal. However, if you put in the work to get to that point, the sound will be better and so will your relationship with the bass player.

I want to explain why the sound will be better. From a technical standpoint, a bass player has more options than you might guess. They don’t just pick the obvious root all of the time. Sometimes they pick inversions just like you do and sometimes, they might choose more surprising options like tritone substitutions. If you play what you usually play, you will absolutely not always pick what your bass player picks and because close intervals do not work down low, you will have obvious conflicts down there. It is guaranteed. For that reason alone, it is good to stay out of his way.

Now, how do you stop playing roots? Let me give you a deceptively easy answer to that. This is not the most elegant approach but it works; even professionals do it. Stick with your stride but simply cut out the low octave/interval on strong beats. Let me demonstrate.

Don’t do this:

Do this instead:

Not so hard when you think about it this way is it? Yes it will feel strange at first. However, listen not just to yourself but the entire group. You will hear the bass player happily filling in that gap where you are no longer playing those low octaves.

And that is it for today.