• Tia Brown

5 Ways to Improve Your Piano Skills

Updated: May 18

I've met many piano players who are unsatisfied with their piano skills. While it's understandable and even healthy to want to get better, sometimes it can be discouraging.

I hope these tips will help get you out of that rut and make you feel more empowered to keep doing what you love!


There are a few quick fixes to this problem! You may not need to take a ton of classes. Here are the top 5 ways piano players can improve in just a few short hours. It doesn't take long before I can get their enthusiasm back again! This has worked for many people! Why not give it a shot?


I go into a few of these things in more detail in my other article, 5 Simple Ways to Play More than Just a Chord.


Let's do this.


1. Scales


Scales can help train your fingers to have the flexibility, technique, and endurance you will need to play more effectively. There are many piano exercises that also do this, but the unique thing about scales is that the more familiar you are with them the better you can understand music. That's two birds with one stone!


Get your own FREE Scales Cheat Sheet at my store!


A scale is a very specific pattern of notes in-between an octave. In case you're wondering, that pattern is a whole step, whole step, half step, whole, whole, whole, half. With that, technically you can figure out every single scale in every single key on your own. Or you can just download the printable version here. Whatever works.


When your worship leader says, "We're playing in the key of A," that means that the notes and chords used in the song are bound to follow the specific scale of A. All of the basic chords and melody you will be using are found within the scale of A (there will always be exceptions but this is the case in general).


A scale: A B C# D E F# G# A

A chord: A C# E

D chord: D F# A

E chord: E G# B

F# minor: F# A C#


And so on...


See? Every single chord can be found within the A scale. You will also find that the melody usually dances within the A scale notes as well.


This is why knowing the scale is extremely helpful! Now all the chord sheets they throw at you during worship practice will start to make more sense! It won't matter what melody they ask you to play, how many times they change the key, you'll be able to adjust in no time flat.


2. Roman Numeral System


When I was first introduced to this system, I was a little skeptical. But it didn't take long before I fell in love!


Download my FREE printable "All Chord Sets in All Keys." It will walk you through learning the Roman Numeral System in more detail.


Here's how it works:


Take each note in a scale: C D E F G A B

Then turn it into numbers: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Which are written down in the Roman numeral form: I ii iii IV V vi vii


Each number represents a chord. Notice some are capitalized and some a lower-case?

That's on purpose. The capital ones are major chords and the lower case are minor chords.

I IV and V would be the C F and G chords in the key of C.


Or, if you're playing in the key of A, then the chords would be A D and E.


This system is being used in many worship teams today, for several reasons:


1) It improves communication within the team. There's much less room for confusion over what chord comes next or what pattern to play

2) The Worship Leader can decide to change keys without disrupting the whole team or needing to print out another set of chord sheets

3) It allows much more freedom to use improvisation in the middle of a church service

4) The patterns are simpler and easier to memorize, so some worship teams are able to do away with chord sheets and music stands altogether!


An additional benefit I've found is that it changes my mindset. I used to be stressed over what chord to hit next, transposing correctly, or learning the fancy chords correctly. The Roman numeral system helped me mentally break the song into easy patterns instead of an overwhelming series of notes to memorize. Suddenly I realized that I could use the rules and the "alphabet" (scales) of music to express myself in any way I wanted to.

In a language, the alphabet and grammar are not there to tell you what to say, but to release freedom to say anything. It is the same with music.


3. Pedal


Please don't overlook the pedal! It doesn't matter how well you play, you will still sound like an amateur. If you refresh the pedal too early or too late, you will get that "hiccup" or "pocket of air" between your chords.


Slow-motion: your hands are pressing the chord... your hands lift up and hover in the air... your hands press down on a new chord.


Keep holding down the pedal while your hands are in the air. That is what the pedal is for: it keeps the music going even after you're not playing anything. It makes it sound like you're still pressing down the chord.


At the exact moment that your hand presses down on a new chord, then refresh the pedal (release the pedal and press down again very fast). That way the pedal "forgets" the old chord you played and is now using the new chord.


Please take the time to learn how to refresh the pedal. If not it will blast every chord you ever played all at the same time.


4. Less is More


Playing as Part of a Team


I'll admit, for the longest time I didn't like it when people told me this. I hated being told to just play a chord and nothing else, while the rest of the worship band always had the solos and fancy instructions. I'm a classically trained protege. Why am I not allowed to go beyond very basic playing? Why can everyone else worship God with the best of their skill and not me?


Firstly, Dear Younger Me, a worship team needs balance. If everyone plays their "best" all at the same time, it will sound muddy and awful. It's not just you that has to sacrifice some impressive moves. For you to be able to play anything at all, someone else has to give up that part to allow room for you.


The bass player handles the deep bass notes. The drummer controls the rhythm. Often times the guitar leads with melody. Your job is usually to pull it all together by playing the foundation chords. You're the glue that blends all the little pieces together. No other instrument can play just the foundational chords better than the piano can (mostly because the piano can sustain notes like no other instrument).


If you're busy playing Bach with your own set of rhythm and melody, you'll confuse the rest of the team and you will be taking over their parts. The result is nothing short of chaos.


Don't have a team?


Now, if you are the only instrument on stage, then you are the band. You get to play everything--the rhythm, melody, fancy moves, bass. It is a very tough job because people are relying on you to lead them with your playing. They listen to the worship leader's voice too, but you play a very vital part in leading. Ask your leadership and congregation how to best serve them in this area. The church I led worship at preferred that I emphasize simple rhythm and melody. Every place is different.


Writing a Story with Your Music


Whether you're alone or in a team, it's always a good idea to start off as simple as possible. Don't lay out all your cards on the table right off the bat. If you do, then when the moment builds and passion rises, you won't have anywhere to go. Your entire song will end up being one long, boring flatline.

The real secret to dynamics (unfolding a story with music) is recognizing the power of simplicity.

It's called contrast. Darker shadows emphasizing the light. A single rose will get lost in a bouquet of tulips, but if you surround it with the smaller, contrasting Baby's Breathe then it stands out.


5. Piano vs. Guitar


A huge lightbulb went off when I finally realized why some church songs were easier to play than others.


Have you noticed this? Two simple songs, both in 4/4. You're not playing anything fancy, just a chord, a bass, and a 4/4 rhythm. One sounds full and flows from one chord to the next, while the other sounds empty. Like you're missing something. You can't quite figure out what.


Example: Shout to the Lord vs. Heart of Worship.

Or As the Dear vs. How Great is Our God.

Or He Knows My Name vs. Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone).


The first one you can get away with a simple chord and rhythm, but the other one sounds strangely empty. What gives?!


The answer is simple: one was written on a piano, the other with a guitar.


The frustrating part is that, more often than not, the song is guitar-based. Only old "outdated" songs are written for the piano nowadays.


The guitar tends to have a slightly different style of chord layout. It also carries with it that charming complex rhythm. Guitar players, understandably, write music that is easy to play for them on guitar. The same is true with piano players.


History Behind the Music Wars


The piano and the organ used as the lead instruments during church services. That was back when complicated skill and art were common, and everyone had a piano player available.


Today, however, very skilled piano players are not as common and accessible as they used to. Many other things about the way we worship in the church, and even our views of God Himself, have changed along with it.


Back in the days of hymns, not everyone had access to the Bible. The only time they had to be with God was once a week in church services. To last them the rest of the week, complicated hymns were written and sung over and over again so that the people would memorize them and sing them at home. Scripture truths were woven into the hymns so that those without Bibles could still remember the truth.


Complicated art and music were a daily part of life. The grand organ or piano music was also accompanied by an expensive church building, religious tapestries, and strict traditional services. The whole point was to make the experience memorable throughout the week. Some people live many miles away from the church building.


Other smaller towns did not even have a minister available so some Pastors would travel. Those places he visited probably hadn't had a Bible or a real church service for months!

But at least they had the hymns memorized.


In that church culture, most people did not think God wanted a close relationship with them. They would worship God from a distance and emphasize reverence, tradition, and obedience.


Needless to say, eventually a generation of children and teens arose that rejected this "boring distant relationship" routine. The nation needed revival among their young children very badly.


So some people put up special church services to attract the younger generation. They wrote new simple songs that were easier for the kids to sing. They replaced the piano with a band of instruments that the kids were used to--similar to the secular concerts the kid's regularly attended. They simplified many of the church traditions. They taught that God was near to each one of them and wanted a close, personal relationship. The lyrics of their songs reflected this belief.


Many Christians at that time thought the whole thing was foolish and not-of-God. But you know what? God DID bring massive revival to the younger generation!


It was during this revival that songs such as "Change My Heart O God" were born. The simple, intimate style of music contrasted greatly with the former complex traditional hymn. The two cultures have often been at odds with each other even to this day.


And so that is how the guitar came to replace the piano as the most common lead instrument.


What now?


Firstly, keep in mind that there is a vast difference between your piano and the guitar. As long as you are aware of it, you can be ready to adjust accordingly. If there are even any resentments or arguments going on at your church, learning the history behind this decade-long debate will help a lot.


Secondly, listen very closely to the lead guitar and play a rhythm that matches his. After I finally figured this out, I never had a complaint about my playing again! I learned how to sound just like a guitar with my piano, allowing me the freedom to effortlessly tackle everyday songs without clashing with the lead guitar.


Here's a video tutorial for playing that "guitar rhythm" I use:




Recap

  1. Practice and memorize scales

  2. Use the Roman Numeral system

  3. Refresh your pedal correctly

  4. Less is More

  5. Learn How to play well alongside the guitar


Have fun! Anything to add? I'd love to hear your thoughts! Do you think the age of complicated art and music will return one day?

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