Thursday, June 2, 2016

Help for the Church Pianist: Chord Charts

Today's post is the first in a new series here on Collaborations. "Help for the Church Pianist" will explore various aspects of the pianist's role and challenges in the modern congregation. Special attention will be given to pianists with little or no collegiate training who are serving congregations that use blended and/or contemporary worship music. To begin, let's look at one of the most common problems for the modern church pianist.


Every church pianist faces this most challenging situation at some point. Rehearsal is only a few hours away and you receive a new song to learn. The only problem is that you are not given a score to read; instead, in your hand is the dreaded chord chart!


Chord charts and lead sheets are very similar, so the terms are often used interchangeably. The distinction between the two is that a lead sheet will include a single line of music (melody line) printed with accompanying chords. Chord charts simply have the lyrics with chord symbols floating over them. (And we hope that the included chord symbols are actually correct!)


How does the pianist approach these uninformative pieces of paper that we need to use to create a satisfying accompaniment? Here is my process.


  1. Learn the melody. Whether dealing with a chord chart or a lead sheet, begin the process by listening to a recording. Pay special attention to the tempo and overall style. At this point, weed out all of the extra runs fluff the singer may have added on the recording and learn the melody as simply as possible. After all, that is the melody that the congregation will most likely sing. Once you have the melody in your ear, begin to pick it out on the piano. If you prefer relying on notation instead of memory, this would be the time to write out the melody on staff paper. It might be time consuming now, but it will be incredibly beneficial later!
  2. Determine the key. Before beginning to work out the accompaniment, make sure you know what key the song is going to be performed in. Start by establishing the key used on the lead sheet/chord chart. The key signature, chord structure, and melodic line can all be used to come to a final answer. However, accept the fact that many of today's contemporary artists perform music in keys much too high for use in most church settings. If your worship leader provided you with a chord chart, it is probable that your worship team is guitar driven and you will be expected to transpose on the spot. One clear way to know if the chart will be played in a different key is to watch out for "capo" markings......they are normally found at the top of the chord chart and will read something like "Capo 2." (If you're not familiar with how a capo works, talk to any guitarist around for a quick tutorial.)
  3. Block chords under the melody. Now that you know the key, you can begin to put chords under the melody line. Keep everything simple right now. Root position chords will help you make sure that the chord progressions make sense. If you run into chord symbols that look like F/A or Eb/F, simply play the chord listed above the slash (or those before the slash) at this point in root position. As you play, listen for chords that are unexpected; you will want to highlight these in your final performance. Also make note of any chords that are difficult for you to spell. You'll need to be very familiar with all chord spellings in the next step.
  4. Try to play the melody with some harmonic support in the right hand alone. I know this sounds tedious, but it will make the transition to your final arrangement much easier. I promise! Play the melody in the upper voice of the right hand and add as much harmonic color as you can by adding the other notes of the chord below. This step of the process builds fluidity in your playing, forces your right hand to use various inversions of the chord, and ensures that you can provide melodic support at any time that the congregation seems to struggle during the learning process.
  5. Add octaves in left hand. Now that you have harmonic structure in the right hand, you can fill things out by adding octaves in the left hand. In most cases, you just need to play the root of the chord.  In other words, if G is printed above the lyrics, play two G's in the left hand. (If you want to add more richness to the sound, experiment with adding the fifth of the chord in the middle of the open octave.) The exception comes when you see chords that include slashes -- like F/A or Eb/F. These types of notations indicate chord inversions or pedal tones in the harmonic progression. The note listed after the slash should be the bottom pitch of the chord you play -- the lowest note in the left hand. So when you see F/A, the easiest solution is to play an F triad in the right hand (using the right hand inversion you decided on when playing the melody and harmony with that hand alone) and an A octave in the left hand. Does it make a difference in the sound? Most definitely! Taking the time to include these inverted chords will make the bass line of your accompaniment move smoothly and help the listener anticipate the harmonic progression of the song.
  6. Lastly, add embellishments. I'll talk more about embellishing in a future post. For now, just understand that this is your opportunity to add things to make the sound more exciting while still supporting the melodic line. Consider including scales and arpeggios to anticipate a vocal entrance. Is there a long sustained note at the end of the phrase? This is the perfect place to add a short counter-melody (as long as it works within the framework of the basic chord.) You can also embellish the left hand to help propel the rhythm. You can often find inspiration for a rhythmic embellishment by thinking about the bass guitar's approach to the song. In a slower song, arpeggios in the left hand can provide a simple accompaniment to a melody that is largely slow and static.
As you can see, chord charts and lead sheets provide the pianist with only the basic information about the song. It can be overwhelming and frightening to have so little direction. It can also be very freeing and give you license to make the arrangement your own. Take a chance, try something new, and see what happens. You might discover that you enjoy working from chord charts after all!