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I'm a pianist for a contemporary church also. I've been playing for my church for 30 years but I'm trying to improve my playing. My problem is that I really don't know that much about music theory and I tend to either get bored or confused by typical music instruction. It seems like it's either far below what I'm already playing by ear, or it's way above my head. I can read treble clef pretty good and some of my playing is with Fake Music (Melody line + base chord, which I normally play octaves and step up and down towards the oncoming chords as I'm playing.

What I really would like to play is black music. I'm white and my church is mixed. We have both genres of music in our assembly. I've just not been "successful" at playing for all genres. I grew up on country & pop music, so all my BEST attempts to play the chords and have the jive sounds of black gospel comes off sounding sort of Rock-ish.

I've also got a big problem with the "upbeat". My whole mind and body almost has seizures trying to go "upbeat" versus DOWNBEAT!

Recently we've had a keyboardist coming to church periodically. He plays keyboard while I play piano. I don't play at all when he plays the black style, because the two styles don't harmonize at all together and I can't seem to find anything to play "with" that style.

The songs they sing are "Never would have made it"; "Sometimes you have to encourage yourself", "Be blessed my brother", "Nothing else matters", and so forth.

Do you have any advice to help me?

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    The notion that there is "black" or "white" music or styles of playing is a crass, undeveloped one. If you mean Gospel, then say "Gospel", if you mean "improvisation", then say "improvisation". I think your real problem is that you don't know what to call things - if you aren't able to accurately describe exactly what about your playing style you'd like to improve, it is difficult to help. Simply asking "How do I play Black style?" doesn't mean anything. Why don't you try going and talking to and learning from the musicians you'd like to play like? – jjmusicnotes Apr 23 '15 at 7:01
  • I've cleaned up the comments here. Comments are not for back-and-forth discussion, and particularly not when they deviate so far from the musical issues at hand. – Matthew Read May 20 '15 at 19:06
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It's always good to have the rhythmic feel of a piece/style in your bones as (or even before) you try to learn it. If you're really not familiar with the style, play the music around the house, and dance to it - or at least practice clapping on the 2 and the 4! Think of the music swinging to and fro, with the 1 on the "left", 2 on the "right", 3 on the left, 4 on the right - and try clapping when you're "on the right". And of course, once you've got that down, sing along!

In some cases, you might find that pieces are in time signatures that you're not used to - I think that some gospel is in 6/8, for example.

As for getting the chords right - I would suggest getting some scores that accurately transcribe the kind of things you're trying to play, OR as jjmusicnotes says, if it's all done improvisationally, just talking to, watching and learning from the other organist. Maybe you could try doing some duets, with one of you doing the bassline and chords, and the other doing the melody line?

  • Isn't there a component to the gospel and soul feel that is playing behind the beat rather than ahead or on top of it? – Todd Wilcox Apr 23 '15 at 20:37
  • @ToddWilcox it's certainly laid back if anything, but if starting off, hopefully you can't be blamed for playing on the beat. Mostly I tend to associate these styles with a steady beat that gives the vocal a lot of space for flexible timing (I guess being a bit laid back helps there too), though I'm not so sure how relevant that is when singing as a congregation ... – topo morto Apr 23 '15 at 22:16
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I like Topo Morto's answer, but here's what I'd like to add:

To learn to feel and play any new style of music, the best thing you can do is listen. That is, after all, almost certainly how you first became familiar with what you're already used to.

Try to find CDs or records (if that's what you're into) of or purchase digital copies online of albums or songs that are representative of the new style you are trying to learn. Since you already have specific songs in mind, that should be fairly easy. Then, listen to them. A lot. Try dancing to them, singing along, tapping your foot, maybe even playing along --whatever feels good! Since it sounds like you've become quite proficient just by teaching yourself by ear, you should begin to pick up the feel and then eventually, the new style will feel nearly as natural as those of your earliest childhood.

Of course, I am a strong proponent of standard notation and chord (more specifically, lead sheet) symbols. I highly recommend that you either find an engaging private instructor (perhaps someone from your church, who you could meet informally with and have jam sessions with) or a good "Piano for Dummies", etc book (it's a brand; I'm not saying that you are dumb) and just skip to the stuff you don't know. Even a rudimentary understanding of some form of written notation will go a long way.

However, I won't push it. You seem to be doing fine without notation (being able to play well by ear is certainly a gift!), or at least content enough with where you are in your playing to do without it.

And one last tip, from musician to musician: The best way to find motivation is to really single out what you want to change, whether it's not being able to play with the other pianist, or not being able to play a certain song at a certain tempo or dynamic, and then ask yourself: "How badly do I want this fixed/improved? And what am I willing to do to make that happen?" And then, of course, the next step is doing it.

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