Category - Methods for Worship Playing

NEW Christmas Piano Solo: “Once in Royal David’s City”

As Christmas carols go, this one usually doesn’t appear on the top ten list. It is beautiful and poignant, nonetheless. The carol was first published in 1848 by Cecil Humphrey in Hymns for Little Children. A year later, the English organist Henry John Gauntlett set it to music. Humphrey also penned the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.

The stately tune and nativity poem holds a treasured memory for me. Our high school concert choir sang all four verses in unison every year as a we processed with lit candles into our annual Christmas concert.

Fast forward to 2017. Most Sundays, fellow musician and worship director and I “jam” on a hymn tune during communion. He’s on guitar (or electric guitar) and singing while I’m at the piano. Eventually our meditative improvisation is followed by the congregation singing a of couple verses.

Once he chooses a tune, he or I come up with a chord chart featuring anything but the standard chord progression. We both have a passion for colorful harmonies! When he recently suggested “Once in Royal David’s City,” I accepted the challenge and fell into this chord progression sprinkled with a bluesy interlude which lends itself well to improvisation.

It got me thinking what it must have been like for Joseph pulling a donkey transporting his very pregnant and most likely uncomfortable wife away from home to “David’s city.” Could the obedient and hopeful couple carrying the light of the world or “royal cargo” have felt a little blue? Thus the subtitle “The Royal Blues.”

It’s my hope that you, like me, treasure the words and tune of “Once in Royal David’s City” and in addition, accept the invitation to step out and enjoy the freedom of playing beyond the page. The score indicates a repeat between measures 74-77. This is your window to ad lib and play the blues as many times as you wish!

In the video (click here) below you’ll hear what I do with these measures. Feel free to do less or more.

If you are uncertain where to begin, experiment with any of the pitches of the blues scale notated in the score in any order and within any rhythm. Use notes from the melody, borrow my ideas and expand upon your own and see your gift of creativity blossom.

Both the single use and studio license are on sale NOW.

Get the STUDIO LICENSE here.


Merry Christmas!


NEW! “Now Thank We All Our God” Piano Solo Arrangement

Now thank we all our God,
With heart and hands and voices
who wondrous things has done,
in whom His world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

A minister named Martin Rinckart wrote the words to this hymn in 1636. He and his family lived during the horrors of the Thirty Years War and suffered from famine and disease as refugees. With the tragic events that have occurred over this past year, the words from someone of the past afflicted with the same pain many are experiencing now, connect us to the past and give us hope for the future.

As a child, I attended church with my mom and dad and sister every Thanksgiving morning. Mom would pop a stuffed turkey in the oven and off we’d go. Along with We Gather Together and Come, Ye Thankful People Come, Now Thank We All Our God was sure to be sung—all three verses. The organist would pull out all the stops on the last verse. As a church organist myself, I now enjoy “adding the kitchen sink” on the last verse to power up this magnificent hymn of thankfulness and hope.

The “Norman Rockwell” memories of a joyful Thanksgiving morning service with a pipe organ and a roasting turkey awaiting our family’s arrival back home are precious. As shocking world events continue to rock the security we hold so dear, it’s when Rinckart’s profound poetry (translated by Catherine Winkworth) and Johann Cruger’s majestic hymn tune, Nun Dunket, become even more profound.

With these thoughts and memories in mind, I was inspired to move this favorite hymn tune from the organ to the piano and create my own version with a 21st-century twist.

The syncopated rhythms, fresh chords and returning interlude make it a prime prelude choice for welcoming worshippers as well as a possible postlude for ushering congregants out the door with grateful hearts.

Both the single use and studio license are ON SALE. Get them just in time so you can play it at your Thanksgiving service or ANY time it’s appropriate to give thanks.


Single Use License

Studio License

Don’t forget to register for Monday’s 88 Creative Keys webinar!

Among many other things, learn how to inspire your students to create their own 21st-century twist on Baroque Classics.

Follow THIS link.


Essentials for the Worship Team Pianist

Equipping a student with reading and memorizing skills may develop a capable pianist but, nowadays those limited skills aren’t going to cut it. Most pianists are or will be called upon to play beyond the score and read chord charts and play with bands or worship teams. Preparing for this position requires good ears, knowledge of chords and a willingness to collaborate.


Drew Collins

In our next 88 Creative Keys Webinar, we (Bradley Sowash and me, Leila Viss) are excited to have Drew Collins join us. He’s spent over twenty years leading worship and training worship leaders and musicians. This past summer, I invited Drew to a worship team workshop for my students and found Drew’s ideas so worthwhile that we decided to feature him in our next webinar: “Essentials for the Worship Team Pianist.”


Drew sharing words of wisdom at my summer studio workshop.

Drew Collins has spent twenty years leading worship and training worship leaders and musicians. He earned his B.A. in Music from the University of Northern Colorado and his M.A. in Ministry Leadership from Crown College. A singer, songwriter, and liturgist, he lives with his wife and daughter in Denver, CO. I have the pleasure of being on staff  with Drew at South Suburban Christian Church, in Littleton, Colorado.

In the first portion of the webinar, Drew and I will discuss:

  • The three roles of a worship team pianist.
  • The latest tech tools used by most worship teams.
  • Tips on how to build required skills.
  • What worship leaders expect of a pianist.
  • Common mistakes pianists make when playing with a band.
  • Characteristics of a strong worship team pianist.
  • Some tricks of the trade.

Bradley Sowash

In the next portion, Bradley will cover:

  • What to play when unrehearsed background music is needed.
  • Heighten your awareness of thinking and playing in musical layers.
  • Tips for pianists about feeling the groove in a band.
  • Improvising and/or arranging a traditional hymn for contemporary worship.

Don’t miss this workshop! Even if your students don’t play in a worship band, with this webinar you’ll be able to coach those who may wish to play in a “garage band.” You’ll find all the ideas we feature in the webinar will crossover to any band experience. Your students will thank you. Bonus: it may give you the skills you need to play in a band yourself!




8 Things you WON’T Find at 88 Creative Keys Keyboard Improvisation Workshop

Where do you turn when you know there’s music beyond the page but you can’t grasp it?

How do you find your creative voice when it’s been under lock and key of the printed page?

What method works for developing your students’ improvisation skills or that of your own?

Who offers something that allows hands-on experience to test and improve creative skills in a safe environment?


Leila and Bradley

If you’ve been asking these questions–like I did for years–88 Creative Keys Keyboard Improvisation Workshop has the answers to them all.

How can I (Leila) be so sure? Because for four years, I, along with my colleague and improvisation specialist Bradley Sowash, have made it our priority to develop workshops and webinars that spark, develop and nurture creativity at the keys.

This summer’s workshop is no different. Since our website offers all the details here, I’d rather not regurgitate the facts. I’d like to point out some things that WILL NOT BE at this summer’s 88 Creative Keys Improvisation Workshop so you can see why you’ll want to make attending our workshop a priority.

#1: Print Music

No other events or conferences focus exclusively on keyboard improvisation. At 88 Creative Keys, we are on a mission to help read-only pianists and teachers build creative confidence and learn to play without written music. It’s a radical idea in the piano world and it’s working.

Eye players read music. Ear players improvise. Both skills are essential for playing today’s music. At 88 Creative Keys, we believe in comprehensive musicianship that balances the reading eye with the listening ear. Since most pianists already learn to read in private lessons, at 88 Creative Keys workshops, we focus exclusively on helping student pianists and teachers learn to improvise beyond the page. You may see some lead sheets, though.

#2: Big Crowds

At 88 Creative Keys workshops, student pianists and teachers learn to balance traditional The nuts and bolts of improvisation copyreading skills with improvisation in an upbeat, supportive and intimate atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable exploring new concepts. You will not get lost in the crowd. There will be nowhere to hide as we eat and play together ALL day long!

#3: Long Lectures

There are no, boring (oops) speeches here! There’s just no time. Sitting at a keyboard or moving off the bench you will immerse yourself in

  • engaging presentations
  • advanced teaching technology
  • hands-on instruction because of the keyboard and practice rooms
  • large and small piano ensembles
  • fun activities to reinforce concepts and creativity
  • optional private lessons.

#4: Judgment

As you unlock your creative voice, it can be unnerving and challenging. In the music world, we are often–perhaps always–judged on our ability. If you’ve never improvised before or have but feel your skills are rusty or need improvement, 88 Creative Keys is the perfect place for you because it is a judge-free zone! We hold no expectations, we just want to walk alongside you wherever you may be on your creative journey.

How I learned to improvise

Read my story here

Keep in mind that I, Leila, am a classically trained-to-the-page musician who learned to improvise. I’m a recovering classical pianist–perhaps just like you?

Bradley Sowash is a jazz guru who also speaks the language of traditional piano pedagogy. I know the risks of stepping away from the page.

Both Bradley and our special guest teacher, Debra Perez, understand how to guide “risk takers” in their first steps and beyond.

#5: A Metronome

State-of-the-art technology is integrated into most activities at the workshops. You’ll learn how to use and create backing tracks with the latest apps. You’ll see how apps can spark creativity In addition, you’ll learn how to use the latest Clavinova models to enhance your groove with hip rhythms as you improvise by yourself or in a group.

#6: A Big Marketing Push

Although there are plenty of resources recommended throughout the workshop, guidance is not based around only one certain book, philosophy or methodology. We don’t teach a method, we teach creative human beings. We want you to discover what works for you.

#7: A Box

You’ll be too busy thinking outside the box with the fresh perspectives offered by Bradley, myself and, Debra Perez to worry about the “traditional” in-the-box frame of mind.

#8: Registration Fee?

Yes, it’s possible to attend one of the workshop tracks for free! We are excited to announce our VERY first 88 Creative Keys competition. Entering involves just a few steps:

  • Improvise your own arrangement of “Twinkle, Twinkle” using the prescribed ingredients…
  • Create a video of your performance and send it in.
  • Follow this link for all the details. HURRY, the deadline to enter is May 1, 2016.



WHAT will be there?

Now that you know what’s NOT at 88 Creative Keys, here’s what you CAN expect at the workshop.

You’ll learn to play and teach:

  • The art of unlocking your creative voice and that of your students
  • Improvisation using the incredible features of Yamaha’s Clavinova
  • How to’s of gig piano playing including chording, improvisation, and stock styles.
  • Ways to build musical imaginations and composition skills with top apps
  • Off bench activities to enhance comprehension of theory and rhythm

View our tentative here: SCHEDULE


WHO will be there?

YOU! And, fellow pianists and teachers of various backgrounds who are

  • Passionate about the piano
  • Enjoy playing and socializing with other piano people
  • Interested in exploring unfamiliar and exciting ways to make music
  • Enthused about an intensive program of learning
  • Of intermediate technical ability with basic reading skills
  • Prepared by studying the prerequisites prescribed for each track.

Piano teachers, bring your students! Students, bring your piano teachers! 

I have implemented so many wonderful ideas from the 88 Creative Keys Workshop I attended last year. My studio has gained a great deal of improvement with improvisation, creativity and technology. Thank you for the continuous stream of insight and creativity you share with all of us….you help to keep teachers motivated and fresh. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your hard work and efforts. – Andrea (2014)

Learn more about our tracks

July 6 – 8 Getting Into It (Discovery level)
July 9 Teaching Creativity (Teachers only)
July 11-13 Digging Deeper (Going further level)

Not sure which track is right for you? Bradley covers all your questions clearly and concisely below.

On more time…


I really do hope we get to make friends at the 88 Creative Keys Keyboard Improvisation Workshop…there’s a bench waiting for you!

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How a classically trained pianist learned to improvise

Perhaps you are one of those classical pianists who was lucky enough to have a teacher that encouraged creativity beyond the grand staff? Lucky you. The rest of us have one thing in common that keeps us from pushing beyond our creative boundaries. We are burdened with baggage called “excuses.” These excuses may include:

  • I’m a visual learner.
  • I was never taught to play away from the page.
  • I’m scared I’ll sound awful.
  • I’m embarrassed to let everyone know what I can’t do.

With this heavy baggage we are moving towards one of three routes: Read More

Do you “Write the Songs?”

As much as I would like to experiment with song writing–we’re talking lyrics too–there is just not enough time in the day.

Although composing and arranging piano solos would be my first choice,  the art of writing a good song intrigues me.

A couple of years ago I attended a session led by Robert Sterling, a Dove Award-winning songwriter, arranger and producer. His book Jesus Chairs shares an approach to Christian songwriting that would appeal to any future song-writer.

The table of contents features chapter titles such as “Getting Started (Ideas, Inspiration and The Mysteries of the Creative Process)”, “Poetic Devices”, “Collaboration” and much more.

As a teacher of composition, I find  this book invaluable as I guide for wanna-be song writers and composers too!

What inspires you to write lyrics? Do you teach song-writing? What resources do you find helpful?