PIANO IMPROVISATION COURSES
Here are some good piano improvisation courses designed for the church pianist. Several of the courses listed below will cost you over $100 which is a great value for what you get! However, for half that cost and less time invested, you can get Hymnprovisation and learn how to be a proficient, confident accompanist, being able to effectively apply improvisational techniques. You will learn tricks and tips and all the things I had to learn the hard way over 20+ years, that will dramatically improve your playing! That being said, I recommend any of these resources to someone looking to learn to make their hymn-playing more dynamic.
HYMNPROVISATION: THE BOOK
BY CHRIS DORTIGNAC | $50 (INCLUDES SHIPPING)
Equivalent of 80-100 Piano improvisation lessons.
Written in plain English for the lay person to understand.
Walks you through everything from how to apply scales and chords, as well as substitutions, left and right hand techniques, what to do in emergencies, 6 ways to transpose easily, and a whole lot more!
Spiral-bound so you can work through it at the piano.
No DVD to supplement.
Greg Howlett $119-139
Greg is an fantastic teacher, with top-notch video to go along with the lessons.
Many other lesson courses are also available through his website.
Excellent material for any pianist!
Usable for nearly any type of church music.
Sitting through video sessions for 7 hrs.
Greg’s playing style is more solo or background music than evangelistic or congregational accompaniment (this could be PRO or CON. NOTE: I base this off of his recordings and the arrangements I have played of his).
GOSPEL PIANO TECHNIQUES
Rudy Atwood Book $40 DVD $40 ($80) or $9/mo or $99/yr on Embassy Media w/out book
Good foundational theories on accompaniment for Evangelistic Hymn-playing, by “The Dean of Gospel Pianists.”
Video shows keyboard and music at the same time which is helpful.
I learned a lot from this series many years ago.
Teaches how to expand to using the whole keyboard.
Written by an excellent congregational accompanist.
Filmed many years ago and somewhat dated.
Tells exactly how to play a given song rather than challenging you to get creative.
Many who learn this style get stuck in it (You don’t have to though)!
Majesty Music Apprx $37/level (not including shipping). 3 books for each level, 3 levels ($120+)
This is a very thorough series. If you love studying, get these books!
Each level has a book of “applied arrangements” where they have applied the theories taught.
Excellent for beginners. Each level contains a workbook, Preludes and Congregational Accompaniments, and Solos of Meditation and Worship, which are essentially the techniques discussed in the workbook written out for you.
It is easy to get stuck playing the music they provide rather than creating your own.
More details than necessary in my opinion.
Written from a more technical and classical standpoint.
Uses a lot of technical terms.
More or less tells you the formulas for improvising instead of simply presenting ideas for your creativity to run with.
Not Spiral Bound. Books have hard time staying open on piano.
Praise Hymn (written by Joe Swaim and Flora Jean Garlock) $20/book. There are 4 books.
Excellent supplemental arrangements are available, which clearly show application of improvisational theory.
Spiral bound books
4 levels at $20 ea.
It is unclear online exactly what is included in each level.
FREE SHEET MUSIC: SONGS, HYMNS AND SPIRITUAL SONGS FOR WORSHIP
This melody was written while meditating on the words of this beautiful, often overlooked hymn text. The original melody from the classical piece, Finlandia, by Jean Sibelius, is the quiet hymn tune after the loud Brass and Tympanic climax just before it. I found the hymn tune distracting because of the down-beat before each phrase that few people played or sang right, and also because it reminded me so much of the classical piece that I had never digested the incredible message of the text! Right before I wrote this, I had just suffered a painful loss and was sitting at the piano praying and playing somewhat absentmindedly. I got to this song, and while I read and meditated on the words with new meaning, my fingers were playing this melody. I didn’t think about it; I was thinking about the words and it just came to me. I hope you find it a blessing as I did.
This is a re-write of Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. I took this one to the Pine Lake Music Composer’s Symposium and it was very well received. I have made a few changes as recommended by the professionals there, and have written a text for it based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, titled, Hallelujah, Christ is Risen!
I saw the words to this in a Hymnnal and didn’t know there was already a melody, so I wrote this one. I later found there had been a melody already written but it wasn't very exciting. I love the concept of this beautiful poem written by Fanny Crosby and have attempted to write a melody that supports the lyrics.
- Jesus, Lover Of My Soul
- More Like The Master
- I Lay My Sins On Jesus
PIANISTS, ARRANGERS, AUTHORS & COMPOSERS
www.greghowlett.com | Excellent lessons at a bargain price! Greg has great material-much of it is free, and you can purchase his entire Church Pianist’s Package for only $139.00! I have watched several of his videos and interviews, and learned quite a bit from Greg. I personally have a bit of a different style and different approach to hymn-playing, but that doesn’t stop me from recommending the excellent videos on techniques that Greg has created. Purchases completed through this link help to support this website.
www.koertsmusic.com | James Koerts is a favorite of mine when it comes to vocal accompaniments. Simple, beautiful and supportive are words that describe his arrangements. Sign up at Koertsmusic.com and receive free arrangements! Check out his blog too! He has a lot of great stuff there for church pianists.
www.fayelopez.com | Probably my favorite current arranger of piano music! Excellent, accessible arrangements that are not difficult to understand, and sound beautiful! Faye arranges for every level from beginner to advanced and also writes sacred music which you can find in some modern hymnals.
www.Churchworksmedia.org | Here you can find original works by Chris Anderson, and Greg Habegger, as well as a growing list of new authors and composers. The music on this site is available for free for use in corporate worship.
www.robertsterlingmusic.com | One of the instructors at the Pine Lake Music Composer’s Symposium in Atlanta. Robert is one of those guys who you may not know by name, but have probably heard his songs. His compositions are, from what I have seen, excellent. They are crafted with care, and with quality. You may have heard his arrangement of Jesus Paid it All.
NWmusicservices.com | Pianist and Graduate of Crown College, in TN. Resides in the great Northwestern part of the USA, and has a blog with some excellent information.
Harmannymusic.com | Church music minister with a heart for helping church musicians. Plays organ. Some arrangements available on his website.
Evangelisticpiano.com | A college student (piano) who has found a number of excellent resources available.
Church Music Institute.org | These guys definitely tend more toward traditional liturgical services. Geared toward worship leaders of all disciplines.
Finale | THE notation software. This is the industry standard notating software for composers, arrangers and musicians. It is the most powerful software on the market for writing music. As such, it does have a learning curve, and frankly, I found it easier to use on Macintosh than on a machine using Windows. I use this software when I am writing or arranging printed music. You can download a free version called, Finale Notepad, which is limited, and really nearly 100% different than the full version, but it does work in a pinch if you need something for free. If you want more than the free version offers, there is also Finale Songwriter, which gives all the basic needs without the advanced capabilities. If you are in school, (even homeschool) or a church musician, you can often get the Academic/Theological version, which has everything, but is at a discounted price.
Classic Pianos | Portland, Oregon. If you are looking to buy, play, or rent a Mason and Hamlin piano, talk to the people at Classic Pianos. They have a large selection of all the finest brands, new and used. They are a Yamaha and a Mason and Hamlin dealer. You can also find Steinway, Bosendorfer, Schimmel and other fine pianos there.
Steinway Gallery | Spokane, WA If you are in the market for a Steinway, go to the Steinway Gallery in Spokane, WA. Joyce and Ryan are the nicest folks ever, and have a great selection of Steinway, Boston, and Essex pianos. They often host free concerts and recitals for the community in their recital hall.
JW Pepper | Delivering music since 1876. JW Pepper ® is your sheet music store for band, orchestra and choral music, piano sheet music, worship songs, songbooks and more! I have done business with these guys for many years and have never been disappointed in the service. They issue an extensive catalog of church music every year and have online examples of most of their offerings.
SheetMusicPlus.com | World’s largest inventory of sheet music. Discounts available. Check our blog from time to time for sales. Clicking this banner or using this search box will help to support the ongoing ministry of this website.
Seriously though, while I am not an expert in strings, it is my understanding that stringed instruments, with the exception of guitars, are so different one to another, that it is very hard to recommend a particular brand. Also, the bow is going to affect everything as well. I have heard from an excellent violinist and teacher that the Beijing Conservatory is putting out some fine instruments which, with a little adjustment, can be a rather decent value.
I picked up a violin at a yard sale for $85 once. It had no name inside, but was valued at between $1600-$1800. It all depends on so many factors that it is hard to say a specific brand is better than another.
It is not uncommon for the bow alone to cost thousands of dollars, although there are very good ones for much less.
Guitars Acoustic | Martin (D28), Taylor, Takamine, Gibson, Breedlove, Alvarez.
Guitars Acoustic Classical | Jose Ramirez, Cordoba, La Patrie, Yamaha CG192S
Again, though, as with any instrument, but especially strings, it is going to be a little different with each instrument.
Trumpets | Bach (Stradivarius), Schilke, Kanstul, Yamaha. These are some of the top brands for Trumpets. For students, I recommend Yamaha to start with.
Trombones | Antoine Courtois, S.E. Shires, Bach (Stradivarius), Kanstul, Yamaha.
Euphoniums | Mirafone, Yamaha
French Horns | Alexander, Paxman, Hans Hoyer, Schmid, C.G. Conn (6D, or 8D), Yamaha also makes a pretty good quality horn.
Tubas | Adams, Mirafone, Meinl Weston, Yamaha, Kanstul
Flute/Piccolo | Armstrong, Haynes, Muramatsu, Pearl, Powell, Yamaha, Gemeinhardt.
Clarinet | Selmer Paris, Patricola Model CL7, Selmer, Buffet Crampon (R-13), Buffet Crampon (E-11), Yamaha.
Oboe | Fox, Yamaha, Buffet, F. Loree (or their student line, Cabart), or MCW Oboes–all are highly reputable. Higher level would be Rigoutat, Howarth, and Fossati`s.
Bassoon | Fox, Yamaha, Schrieber.
Timpani (Kettle Drums) and Snares | Adams, Yamaha, Ludwig (Lower end)
Cymbals | Zildjian
Bells and other percussion | Majestic, Tama, Musser, Schulmerich Handbells and Chimes
As far as acoustic pianos, there are only a few pianos I will recommend to people and I have to say right out front, that while Steinway makes a very high-quality piano, it is not my favorite to play, although, I’m more than happy to get to play a well-maintained Steinway D any day! From both a musical and technical standpoint, I’d prefer to own a restored Mason and Hamlin up to 1930, or one built after 1995. From the mid ’30s up to the 80s’ they were a garbage-quality imprint manufactured by Aeolian. These are not the Mason and Hamlin I am speaking of!
I know all you Steinway people would probably hang me for saying that I prefer Mason and Hamlin, but ever since the first time I played a Mason and Hamlin, I thought it sounded a bit like a small orchestra! I didn’t know this then but I wasn’t alone in this opinion. Most of the Steinway pianos I have played, with the exception of maybe two or three, had a much heavier touch and a darker sound which I don’t personally prefer. That being said, if you want quality at top price, and status as a “somebody” you may want to purchase a Steinway. It is a very high-quality, excellent piano.
Until you’ve played one, you can’t truly appreciate all that goes into them, but they have been accurately described as “A Small Orchestra," “The Stradivarius of pianos” and “An incredible work of art," among many other glowing accolades.
There is an incredible depth to the bass, a crisp, almost bell-like top end, and perfect center. No matter what kind of music you play, a Mason and Hamlin will be your best choice.
M&H are the most expensive pianos to build, as they have unique features which no other manufacturer has implemented, including their famous, patented Tension Resonator, which serves to retain the crown of the soundboard for the life of the piano. No other piano has this, and many older pianos have flattened soundboards that make them not worth restoring. Mason and Hamlin continues to pave the way in piano technology, making the greatest strides in over 300 years of piano building. They have learned how to do what others have claimed impossible, and they continue to forge ahead making new discoveries.
Henry Mason was a pianist, and his brother, William, was one of America’s foremost classical pianists and composers. Their father was the famous composer and educator Lowell Mason, a visionary who was the first to bring music into the public schools of America. He was also known throughout the world as a composer and publisher of hymns, and is often called the “father of American church music.” Henry Mason shared his father’s lifelong dedication to music.
Emmons Hamlin was not a musician, but instead a brilliant mechanic and inventor. Together this team hired brilliant designers who contributed much to the piano industry.
Before Steinway came to America, one could find a Mason and Hamlin grand piano on the concert stage. Unfortunately, around the time of WWII, Mason and Hamlin, along with nearly every other American piano brand, were swallowed up by the conglomerate known as Aeolian corp. From then on until the mid 1990’s they got a bad rap due to the poor quality standards of Aeolian.
In 1995, Gary and Kirk Burkett, of Pianodisk, purchased Mason and Hamlin, and are doing an excellent job restoring to their original standards. Even beyond that, they have made some incredibly gutsy moves partnering with Wessel, Nickel, and Gross, manufacturers of composite action parts, that are pushing the envelope of piano design. Mason and Hamlin is once again being revered and praised for their incredible sound, fantastic touch, high quality, and beautiful, impeccable craftsmanship.
I have personally met and played hymns with the owners of Mason and Hamlin (One of which has gone to be with the LORD now) and not only did their humility impress me, but also their ingenuity and the achievements in advancing the design of 300 years of piano building. No other piano has the ability to retain the crown of the soundboard so well. No other piano is manufactured with such cutting-edge parts! No other piano I have ever played had the beauty, power and yet, sweetness, which is a trademark of the Mason and Hamlin. For these reasons, I recommend them.
You might also really appreciate their mission statement:
“At PianoDisc (Mason and Hamlin’s parent Co.*) we are committed to leading our industry by serving our customers, our dealers, our employees, and our vendors all over the world. Our servant hood is manifested through superior products, excellent service and honest communication. There is no better example of the servant leader than the Lord Jesus Christ. Our business is dedicated to Him, and we have dedicated ourselves to modeling His example- with His help and to the best of our ability.”
*Parentheses added for clarity.
I personally hope someday I can own one of these. If I could afford it I would get the model BB. which, although the same size, I prefer over a Steinway B! Apparently, I am not alone in this opinion!
In case you just HAVE to have a Steinway, please go talk to the people at the Spokane Steinway Gallery. They are the absolute nicest folks you will meet and they want to help you buy your own Steinway.
If you can’t afford a Mason and Hamlin BB, or a Steinway B, or you or your church are looking for a piano that is more affordable, I recommend you take a hard look at Yamaha pianos such as the Yamaha P2 studio piano, the U series uprights, and the C, CX, or G series grands. They also have the higher end CF or SX series acoustic pianos. While I cannot currently recommend any of the newer acoustic models without inspection because I have found them to be inferior in general, they do make an excellent non-acoustic, the NU-1 which is essentially a keyboard that has real weighted keys and upright piano action in it utilizing the samples of their $200,000 CFX series concert grand. It is simply an incredible sound and touch you won’t believe coming from a non-acoustic instrument.
Although I learned on a Clavinova, I do not recommend electronic keyboards with the exception of some of the Yamaha instruments like the NU-1, which you absolutely should play. This is hands-down, the absolute best non-acoustic piano I’ve seen yet. If you need a more portable keyboard, I personally own and recommend a Yamaha P series such as the P-95 or P125.
If looking for a Yamaha In the Northwestern United States, I will recommend that you purchase from my friend Alan, at Tri-City Music. Tell him I sent you.
The quality of nearly every Yamaha is really quite good, and probably the best of all Asian built pianos, though it shouldn’t really ever be compared with Steinway or Mason and Hamlin, just like you wouldn’t compare a Toyota Camry with a Maserati.
Just so you know, I don’t receive a penny from any dealers or manufacturers except Sheetmusic Plus, but I recommend these folks to you because they are the best bang for your buck.