How to play string reductions

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I am in the middle of the series of how pianists can adapt to new more contemporary music in church and I want to take a small and very relevant detour today and discuss string reductions. The reason string reductions are relevant is because very very often, today’s church pianists are asked to play them in a band setting.

Let’s talk first about what a string reduction is. A typical orchestra has several dozen string players (lots of violins and considerably less violas, cellos and basses). You need that many players to get a full, lush sound. As you can imagine, this is a challenge for most churches. I would suspect that the average church can scrounge up no more than a few string players. In fact, the vast majority of churches would not even be able to get one player on each string instrument.

That is where string reductions come in. A string reduction is simply a combination of all the string parts onto a piano score. Typically, the parts have to be simplified a bit when that happens which is why the term “reduction” is used. However, they usually don’t have to be simplified much and assuming that the samples (sounds produced by the keyboard or connected software) are good, you can get the full sound of an orchestra just by playing a string reduction.

Very few if any pianists like playing string reductions. They tend to be simplistic without much going on and feel sort of like something a young student might play. For sure they go against the normal pianist thinking that the more notes you play and the faster you play them the better.

The bottom line is that if you are asked to play string reductions, you just have to accept the mundane nature of the job and realize that you are filling a big hole in the sound and contributing to the greater good. You are going to get no opportunities to show off and no one is going to throw many accolades your way. That is just fine. Most of your fellow musicians playing other instruments will be in exactly the same boat. (Does anyone ever notice the trombone player?)

You might be tempted to make the reduction more fancy. Don’t. It won’t work because of the nature of how string samples work. Most string samples are “slow,” meaning you don’t get an instant response when you press a key. If you try to play a fast line, you will be through it while the keyboard is still processing one of the first notes you played. If you happen to get a fast string patch that sounds good, you can be more intricate but don’t expect the typical string patches on a normal keyboard to work well.

If you are not given a written out string reduction but are asked to play strings, pretend like you are playing an organ and sustain notes as long as possible. In other words, if you have a bar of a C chord, play a C chord on beat 1 and just hold it all the way through the bar. You can perhaps build a simple line using one voice but probably just with quarter notes. If you try to get faster than quarter notes, you will need a fast string patch. Here are some simple examples of bars containing C chords.

I would advise you to spend some time with the string patch you will be using and figure out what it will do and not do. Really, everything I have written can be adjusted one way or the other depending on what you have to work with. In general, I would definitely recommend that you work with the fastest patch you have. Fast string patches keep pianists playing reductions a bit more sane. 🙂