How to Become a Better Keyboard Improviser

Here are fourteen principles for becoming a better keyboard improviser in a worship setting. For more complete musical instruction with notated musical examples illustrating the points, visit www.worshipinfo.com.

  1. Achieve contrast by knowing the power centers of your keyboard. The middle of the keyboard is the area for warmth and blending. The outer octaves (high and low) are excellent for projecting power. The upper octaves cut through musical textures, whereas the lower octaves resonate and rumble.
  2. Take note of what falls easily for your hand and sounds good. When improvising there is so much to occupy your mind (especially if you also lead with your voice) that efficiency is important. Your goal is to achieve the maximum amount of effect with the least amount of effort.
  3. Restructure what is on the hymn page. Play the melody with a four-note chord in your right hand sometimes, and the bass with octaves. Become adept at both wide and close spacing.
  4. Play the melody as much as your people need it—and no more. If the tune is unfamiliar, by all means bring out the melody—even play double octaves! But if your worship leader sings reasonably well and the tune is familiar to everyone, why play it? Doing so can divert your energy from doing the more important things—helping people sing, building momentum, creating the right aura and character for the piece—in short, orchestrating the sound so that the meaning of the piece is brought out vividly.
  5. Search hymns for interesting inner parts. Try playing the tenor or alto part as your melody line. This practice will keep you from slavishly playing the melody and help you develop an eye for stimulating lines.
  6. People often sing better with some empty space. Experiment with playing chords only on the strong beats. Or play notes only on accentuated syllables or on the key words. When the texture is less cluttered and people can hear themselves singing, they often feel more responsible.
  7. The faster the tempo and the quicker the melody, the more notes you should consider deleting from the melody in your right hand. If there are several melody notes per chord change, consider omitting some melody notes.
  8. Employ the cartwheel effect. Let one hand be active while the other remains inactive. This results in less clutter and allows you to concentrate on one hand. And it helps you avoid errors.
  9. Mix octaves and chords. If you are playing four-note chords with octaves in your right hand and you want to play all of the melody notes when the tune moves quickly, mix octaves with chords in your right hand.
  10. Reduce! Develop the capacity to scan music harmonically and rapidly simplify (in your mind) what is happening. This skill is especially useful when you’re soloing or improvising in an ensemble. When you’re preparing chord charts for guitarists you’ll need it too—guitarists need slower chord changes than you’ll find in most hymnals. Playing fewer notes but placing them expertly will sharpen the music contour and result in much better singing.
  11. Work out ten variations on a single piece instead of one or two variations on ten pieces. Why? Developing ten variations forces you to think, stretch, and vary material.
  12. Limit yourself to improvising in one key at first. Once you develop the ability to think quickly in one key, then learn another (one key at a time).
  13. Do your practicing and experimentation at home. Your public work reflects your overall improvisational level achieved in private.
  14. Get a few techniques down so well you can play them without error in a couple of pieces you use frequently at your church. Practice in a concentrated fashion—don’t improvise aimlessly. Work on part of a piece—learn a specific progression or rhythm and then revisit the material until it is internalized. Limit yourself to specific pieces, keys, phrases, and styles. If you were practicing a notated piece, for example, you wouldn’t bounce around from one piece to the other before studying individual passages carefully. The same principle holds for improvisation.

Barry Liesch is a professor of music at Biola University, La Mirada, California, and author of The New Worship, Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001). He is a member of the Evangelical Free Church.