How to Learn Gospel Improvising: Hymns

This section is a follow-on to the more basic section of how to learn to play gospel piano.

Many people that play hymns would like to be able to play "MORE" than what is written in the hymn book. I am very grateful for my parents' investment in my life: my mother taught me piano for a number of years, and later they provided a number of years of piano lessons (studying gospel hymn arranging with a Christian teacher). When I sit down to play a hymn, I don't play the four notes that are written in the hymn book. In fact, for me to play the exact four notes that are written in the hymn book would be harder than playing the octaves, chords, runs, and arpeggios that I play. And I'm not even an accomplished hymn improviser!

My goal on this page is to share with you some of the resources that will enable you to teach yourself how to improvise hymns. It is not necessary for you to learn from a piano teacher.

It is very important that you have a good, solid, understanding of theory to be able to improvise hymns. The reason: as you start learning to improvise hymns you'll find out everything is built on the chord for each note. When I play a hymn, I look at the melody note (that's the only note I really need), but keep an eye on the rest of the notes for that beat so I can be aware of the chord. The chord tells me what octave or chord to play in my left hand, as well as what notes to fill in with the right hand. If I'm playing a run, the current chord tells me my starting note and the upcoming chord tells me the ending note. If I'm playing an arpeggio, the chord tells me what notes to play. At the end of this page I write how I learned to sight-read chords out of the hymnal.

Gospel Hymn Improvising: Resources
  1. If one continues through the David Carr Glover series, level 7 and 8 are titled "Advanced Hymn Playing" and cover some improvisation techniques. If you are already working through the Church Musician Series, it would be good to complete levels 7 and 8.
  2. I learned via the Rudy Atwood series. The books are now out of print, but occasionally are available used. The series is titled "Gospel Piano Techniques with Rudy Atwood" - there is also a "volume II". The books came with a VHS video tape. Each chapter would discuss a new technique and show how the technique fit into a hymn. Then, several additional hymns are recommended. It's key that a person understands theory, because fitting the improvisations into regular hymns (in a hymnbook) requires the theory. In fact, I believe the key to learning any improvisation is the applying of the new concepts to plain hymns (whereas it is easy to simply play the example songs as written in the course book).
  3. I have a copy of the Mary Jo Moore piano course as well. I really like her large "Concert Hymn Book" - which is basically a large book full of already-improved hymns. It always harder to take someone else's "performance piece" and dissect it to learn what was done (and then apply it to a plain hymn), but her book is fantastic for doing just that. The book can actually be used with congregational singing. Mary Jo Moore also has a full series of books that is designed to teach improvising. For learning the piano, I don't think her series is as good as the David Carr Glover "Church Musician" series because she progresses very fast. However, once someone has learned the basics and is ready to learn improvising, they would be ready to start through her series as a supplement to their regular series. I didn't see her "concert hymnbook" listed on her web site, but I did see the instructional series. Perhaps if you e-mailed her it might still be available.
  4. At a homeschool conference I bought the Hymnproviser series - by Shelly Hamilton (Ron Hamilton aka Patch the Pirate's - wife). The course looks to be a good series that teach improvising - and the skill level starts out around Alfred's Level 3, or Church Musician Level 2 (about the skill level required to play hymns out of a hymn book). There are three levels, and each level has three books (a Text/Workbook, a Preludes and Congregational Accompaniment book, and a Solos of Meditation and Worship book). I only purchased the Text/Workbooks as they contain the teaching. To buy them online:
    1. Majesty Music is the publisher and sells them:
    2. I noticed that Asaph Music has them:
    3. Your local music store may be able to order them in (Hymnproviser Series; by Shelly Hamilton and Ruth Coleman, Majesty Music).
  5. It's hard to find sites that do not link to other places on the web (especially via Google ads). At this point we only have one site that we can link to:
    • Greg Howlett's free Christian Piano Lessons
      • I'm not good at describing piano improvising styles. To me, Greg's style of improvising is a little less evangelistic gospel and a bit of a more modern solo-style (but, he is hoping to add more lessons focused on accompanying a congregation and improvising/arranging gospel style over time). He has some very good resources in his free Piano Lesson section.

If you are setting about to learn to improvise, I would encourage you to keep these keys in mind:

  1. It's important to understand theory. To effectively improvise, you'll need to be able to "sight-read" chords in a hymnbook (i.e. figure out the chords while simply looking at the music in a hymnbook). The best way to learn to sight-read chords is to write in the chords to several hymns (and then learn to play them) each week. Preferably, a basic improvisation of the song (playing an octave for the melody in the right hand with the chord notes filled in, and playing a low octave in the left hand on beat 1 that is the root of the chord, and then the following beats of the measure bringing your left hand up and playing three-note chords closer to middle C). By writing in the chords and practicing several songs like this each week, you'll soon find you don't need to bother writing in the chords.
    1. Some hymn books now include the chords along with the music. While this can be very helpful, a lot of times the official chord may be somewhat complex, like a G9/B chord, when all you really need to play is a G chord.
  2. Learning to improvise is easier for some - and harder for others. No matter which category you are in, focus on "learning". It's easy to simply play the example songs in the books, but the real learning occurs when you sit down with a regular hymnal and APPLY the teaching to your own song. You'll progress and learn much quicker by putting forth the effort to apply each new technique to several plain hymns. ANY time you learn a new concept or see a sample lesson, make sure you apply it to a few other songs.
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