Key pointers for Keys playing

Welcome! If you are reading this, you probably have an interest in playing piano, want to play keys in a worship team, or want to improve your skills. Playing keys in a worship team is a very different discipline to playing piano in a service or accompanying and requires a different set of skills. In this article, we will cover some of the main factors of keys playing, compare the differences between this skill and playing piano, and look at some good ways to advance your keys playing in a worship team.


Finding my place

When you are playing solo piano, your playing has to cover the rhythmic, harmonic, and lead basis throughout the song. When you are playing in a worship team, much of this will be covered by other instruments. For example, rhythmic groove is covered by drums, bass and guitar, harmonic interest by acoustic guitar and BV vocals, and lead by lead vocals and electric guitar. If all these components are covered, where do the keys fit in? The best solution is simple but difficult…listen. Listen for “gaps” in the music, listen for when the music needs drive into a new section, listen for opportunities to create a thicker texture of sound, adjusting timbre to sections in the song. When you begin to tune in to the sound around you, over time, you will find the spaces. If you continually play with the same players, you will begin to notice how each musician plays and will learn to respond musically within the group. Obviously, this type of playing is much less scripted and more organic – each song could require a different type of playing, but overtime, your musicianship will be heightened and you will become a much more effective keys player. However, this is certainly not a rule that will work in all circumstances. Your playing must be adaptable.


Be adaptable

Having found your musical place in the team and where you can add value, you now have to be adaptable. Learn to adapt your playing to different settings. For example, where the rhythmic interest needs to come from the piano as there is no kit player, or perhaps your acoustic guitar playing is missing and you need to provide much more harmonic presence. Perhaps the style of song lends much better to instrument lead coming from the piano than the guitar. In all these examples, learning how to adapt your playing to the needs of the team and the needs of the song will enhance your overall playing.

Practical Example 1

Playing more than what is on the page


If you are used to accompanying congregational singing or playing on your own then you will understand that the piano needs to provide both rhythmic and harmonic interest as mentioned previously. When you come to playing in a team, these aspects can often be transferred across to a worship team setting and you begin to overplay. The overall sound will become busy, musical roles in the team become blurred, and the overall sound is compromised. There are some simple solutions to this and sometimes you only need to point them out to hear improvements. Here are some prevention points for overplaying:


•  Kill the octaves. Don’t forget, you have a bass player, so don’t pinch his notes. Remove the lower octave you play in your left hand and let the bass player create the groove.

•  Much of the groove will come from the drums and acoustic guitar. When they are going “full throttle,” don’t join them. Instead, find a way to compliment what they are doing rather than get in the way. 

•  Don’t play the tune. The tune is for the vocals so don’t play the whole tune with your right hand pinky finger! Instead, find the interesting motifs in the melody and feature in your playing. A repetition of a motif in right hand octaves can create an effective sound and can help reinforce the melody.


What sound?

If you are used to playing with just a piano sound then being thrown into a world where key players have 1000’s of varieties of sound can be quite daunting. Don’t panic! Here’s some help. If you are a beginner then perhaps start introducing a new sound combined with the piano sound; a soft pad under a piano sound is a good starting point. You will hear the new sound of a pad creating texture whilst still having the familiarity of the piano sound. I encourage you to experiment at home with sounds; listen to the original song and try to recreate them or find suitable options. Try these sounds in rehearsal and ask people for feedback. Remember, your playing will have to adapt and respond depending on the sound. For example, if you are using a long, wide pad sound then playing repeated eighth notes or changing harmony quickly will just create a mixed and muddy sound. 


If you are unsure of where to find sounds, here are some possibilities:

1.  Many electric pianos or keyboards have some options of sounds built in – try these and note the useable ones. 


2.  Purchase sounds – there are some small companies that recreate sounds used in worship songs. You can download these for a small fee and play through your sound system using appropriate software.


3.  Create your own – some more advance keyboards such a Nords allow you to adjust many parameters of their sounds on the keyboard and then save them. Experiment with different effects and see if these could work in your team.

Practical Example 2

Using suspensions

Playing the sound

Here are some suggestions on creating a contemporary sound using harmony:


•  Freedom. When you accompany in the traditional form, you will most likely play exactly what is notated on the score. In a contemporary set up, the form is much looser with sometimes just chords given. Develop your understanding of chords and voicings so they become second nature to you in order for your playing to be most effective. 


•  Don’t resolve. We are taught in harmony lessons about how suspension leads to resolution (i.e. 4-3 suspension). Whilst this is true in other styles, in worship music, this isn’t always the case. Try not to resolve, especially when you get to a ‘5’ (dominant) chord. Now try going one step further by playing both the suspension and resolution together! For example, in the key of D and on chord 5 (A) play A,D and C# together in the right hand. Get used to this sound and now try playing this in all harmonic keys. 


•  Hold on. Try finding a note that works well for a complete verse or chorus and hold it in octaves. A little like an inverted pedal, the note will glue the harmony together and provide a consistent sound. Here’s an example:


In the key of A, hold the note E throughout:


Chord                                            A           E            D           F#m


Relation of note E to chord             fifth        root     seventh     second


See in the table above how the relationship between the chord and the note changes but the sound still works. Experiment and see what you can hear working or not working as well. Remember, don’t think of harmony as right or wrong notes but rather strong or weak choices.


•  Keep it simple. Try playing a simple rhythmic feature that can be repeated in various parts of the song. A rhythmic pulse of quarter notes could work well in a “square” 4/4 meter song. It would provide enough interest for the listener and player without getting in the way of the drums or the guitar rhythmic patterns.




Nik King

Assisstant Director Music and Creative Arts

United Kingdom and Rebulic of Ireland Territory

Practical Example 3

Using inverted pedal or common tone