Tips for smooth transitions between songs

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One of the current trends in church involves how congregational music is selected and executed. In the past, a congregation might just sing a diverse group of stand alone hymns. Today, churches choose songs to support an overall theme and package the songs together into melodies.

I like the trend, but it does put a bit more pressure on musicians. It forces them to come up with the transitions between songs. In many church, that transition falls on the pianist.

Those kinds of transitions are just part of the utility work that we do. We will never win awards for transitions. Most people will never notice them unless they go wrong. That does not mean they are not important though. They are actually ultra-important.

They are also tricky. They involve modulations, tempo changes, time signature changes, and style changes. It is also hard to time them especially if the worship leader talks during the transition. And on top of that, they are very often unrehearsed.

Basically, transitions turn pianists into composers, even if the composition is only ten seconds long. Because it is often impossible to predict exactly how long they will be, transitions force pianists to be improvisors too. When you look at what is really going on, it is no surprise that many pianists have a hard time with them. If that is you, don’t feel bad. Most church pianists are right there with you.

Let’s talk about some things that you can do to make your transitions better.

1) Think ahead about what has to change to get into the new song. Know what the new key is and the approximate new tempo. Make sure you know the new time signature and whether any stylistic changes have to occur too. Don’t let yourself be surprised by that stuff.

2) Make sure you have the modulation thing down. We could talk a lot about modulations. In fact, I have a course on modulations that is two hours long, but the truth is that when doing these transitions, you don’t have to make modulations fancy. You really can just play ii – V7 – I in the new key and you will be good to go. Take the pressure off yourself and make those modulations easy. Save the fancy modulations for your arrangements and original writing.

3) Do all the transition stuff early. If you expect to need 10 seconds of transition music, don’t wait 8 seconds before starting to change time signatures, key signatures, etc. Ideally, you will do it very early in the transition. You don’t want to spring that stuff on everyone in the bar before they are supposed to start singing. You want them to start feeling the new song with plenty of time to spare.

Here is a quick example of what I mean. If I am switching songs and the time signature is changing, I don’t even wait for the first song to end. I start the new time signature on the last bar of the old song. That puts the entire transition into the new time signature.

4) Learn simple filibuster patterns. If you don’t know how long a transition is, the best thing to do is to get the actual work out of the way as quickly as possible and just play a simple pattern that fits the new song while waiting for the worship leader to begin. The simplest filibuster pattern is just playing a I chord on quarter notes. That will work for a few bars, especially if you get just a bit of rhythm into it. If you need more than that, you can alternate between I and IV/I practically forever. If that gets old, play a longer chord progression such as I – vi – ii – V – I.

5) Train your worship leader to recognize a “start” cue. Congregational music is not art music. Don’t make it complicated; just make it work. That is why at the end of a lot of transitions, I play the same chord: a suspended dominant (often referred to as IV/V). The suspended dominant is a chord that screams “I am ready to start.” It is not the only start cue I could use but I like to make things as simple as possible. I feed that cue to the worship leader and he knows I am in a place where it is easy to start. Another thing I do is accent the cue chord or maybe chords right in front of the cue.

6) Be prepared in case the worship leader misses your cue or you misjudge your length. That happens. When it does, you have to know how to go back to your cue. For example, if you cue with a suspended dominant and worship leader does not start, you are usually going to have to resolve to I and find a way back to the cue chord again. That is usually quite easy to do and no one will ever know that you were not on the same page.

The truth is that transitions are difficult for pianists who are not experienced in improvisation. Hopefully these tips will help you though. Let me know if you have more to add.