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Basic Piano Music Improvisation Technique for Hymns

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Music improvisation is kind of like losing weight. You see other people successfully doing it but you can never really get it down quite right. I admire those great pianists who can turn an ordinary, boring hymn into a complicated prelude. I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that. I figure, anyone can learn how to play precisely what is printed on a music score. But not everybody can add embellishments and grandeur to a plain piece. When people want me to play a hymn, often they also add, “Can you make it sound cool too?” They just don’t know how much I long to make it sound “cool.”

improv_church.jpgWhen I ask these accomplished accompanists the secret to their talent, they usually tell me, “I don’t know how to explain it. It just happens.” It seems that learning how to improvise is something that just gradually occurs little by little until one day you play something and you realize what you played is not what is on the music score. I wish somebody could actually think, pinpoint, and explain what happens when they improvise and share that knowledge to thirsty musicians like myself.

Luckily, I once had a piano teacher who was close to that point. She accompanied her church every week with grandiose, glorious, complicated fluff all from just reading off the church hymnbook. There is one secret that she taught me that made a world of difference in the hymns I play for my church. I like to call it the “left chord inversion sequence.”

Chord Inversion Sequence

This technique usually works well on most “non-soft” hymns with a 4/4 or 3/4 time signature, which is the majority. With the right hand, you can play exactly what is on the treble cleft. You can even play the plain, one-note melody. It’s the left hand that makes the difference in this technique.

Left Hand

  1. Beat One – Play the tonic of the chord. This is usually the lowest note you see on the music for beat one. For example, if the base clef has D and A, chances are that it is a D major chord. So, you play a low D on this beat.
  2. Beat Two – Continue by actually playing the chord. In the previous example, switch from playing just D to moving up an octave and playing D, F#, and A as one solid triad together.
  3. Beat Three – Invert the chord. On beat two, we played the basic D chord. Now play the first inversion, which is F#, A, and D.
  4. Beat Four – Invert the chord again to the second inversion. This time, you would play A, D, and F#.

Usually, this works on measures where the chord stays the same. If you have a C chord, an F chord, and a G chord all in the same measure, skip this technique on that particular part.

You’ll hear that this schematic makes a huge difference in the song. It adds depth in beat one and movement in the subsequent beats. If you have any questions or comments about this technique, please add them below. Or, if you have any improvisation tips, I would love to hear them. Sometimes, when I try to improvise at church, I’m drawing blank. It would really help to add some variety.

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Posted on Monday, June 25th, 2007

9 Responses to “Basic Piano Music Improvisation Technique for Hymns”

  1. mogulemon Says:

    do u have friendster account? i think we both crazy about piano.. please be my friend in friendster. use my mail to add me. thx.

  2. Says:

    Good Tip!

    You might try a fake book for that type of stuff (if you haven’t already). My teacher made me get a book titled, appropriately, “How to Play From A Fake Book”. Once you can play from a fake book, or lead sheets, you can do the same stuff with a normal hymn book, etc.

  3. Tunococ Says:

    This is a good start. Once you master this, you might wanna try broken chords played in eighth notes or triplets. For more modern tone, you can try to repeat bass notes right before (say 1/2 beat before) the chord changes too. This is the easiest way I can think of right now.

    And if you get bored with these patterns, try to look for other patterns in other songs. Listen to the effects of different accompaniments used in other songs and try to adapt them to the songs you’re playing. One example that I like is Chopin’s Barcarolle.

    By the way, I don’t actually agree with “anyone can learn how to play precisely what is printed on a music score”. I think learning a song means understanding the storyline encrypted as notes. It’s like reading a novel. You don’t recite it, you understand the story.

  4. Jen Says:

    Great job describing the LH pattern in 3/4 or 4/4/.
    Another pattern to try when the same chord lasts for 4 beats:
    Beat one: Low Bass Note (root of chord)
    Beat two: 2nd inversion of root chord
    Beat three: 5th of root as low bass note
    Beat three: repeat beat 2 chord (same notes)

    This is called an alternating bass chord pattern, which works well for mundane bass line!

    I will keep checking your sight. Thanks for taking time to share what you’ve learned.

  5. Matt Says:

    I like so totally agree with you, but I think the important thing to remember is that the ability to improvise doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Sometimes it takes quite a while for a pianist to realize that he or she has the ability to improvise. Believe me it’s there… you just need do discover how to exploit it.

    It’s more a matter of playing forever till you are exhausted and then some… With time the ability that you didn’t know you had will make itself known.

    Remember the secret to improvisation is experimentation. Take one song. (you say: ‘just one song?’) Yes! Just one song. Sit down and play it slowly until you are familiar with it, and then experiment. Of course, you hit a wrong note. So start over and try another in it’s place. THAT’S THE SECRET!

  6. Amy Says:

    To give this same technique a bigger sound, do the same thing you have described, only play the tonic as an octave, as low on the keyboard as you can go, then play the inversions in subsequent higher octaves. If you aren’t very proficient on the keyboard, this might require a little practice, but it sounds quite impressive.

  7. mayowataiwo Says:

    please i want note text book, please i will greatful for that, if you can do that for me.

    thanks yours faithfully

    mayowa taiwo

  8. mayowataiwo Says:

    please i want not text book, that i can use to play hymn book, i will be greatful for that, if you can do that for me.

    thanks yours faithfuly

    mayowa taiwo

  9. Learning to play guitar Says:

    What’s up, I log on to your blog daily. Your writing style is awesome,
    keep doing what you’re doing!

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