Introduction To Runs And Fills

Perhaps the most frequently asked question about improvisation is “How do I know what notes to play?” or “What is a good run for this spot?” While this seems like a straightforward question, it is riddled with difficulties. To answer this question, we shall return to the old adage: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

In these next few sections, I hope to “teach you to fish” for your own runs and fills. When you can do that, then your playing will not sound like mine (or anyone else’s), but you will have the knowledge to develop a sound that is unique to yourself.

It may be surprising for you to learn that almost all runs and fills that a pianist plays are determined ahead of time. “But wait,” you say, “I thought improvisation was spur-of-the-moment!” In one sense, you are correct. Improvisation is unwritten and flexible, but that does not mean that the pianist has no idea what he is going to play. A good church pianist has spent much time figuring out and perfecting possible runs. His improvisatory skill, however, is demonstrated in the application of that knowledge.

Consider this: I attended a church which was blessed with many pianists. After attending for just a short time, I did not have to look towards the piano to know who was playing a particular offertory, or who was substituting for the congregational singing. It was not because one pianist was good while the others were bad, but rather because they each played differently. Each could play the same song in the evangelistic style, but each would add his own flair to the song.

A person’s style of playing is described by the techniques he uses most frequently. In the case of runs, most pianists have a favorite few that they use repeatedly. This is their improvisation. They are taking a run with which they are familiar and adapting it to the key and rhythm requirements for that particular song. Unfortunately, if you listen to them play fifty songs in a row, they all sound the same! That is because they have allowed their learning to stop. They became good at those few runs, and are satisfied to use them from now on. These pianists will never learn anything new, for they are content with what limited knowledge and ability they possess. Please do not be in this group!

These lessons are written for the pianists who want to learn more, despite their current situation. Perhaps they learned the basics of hymn playing, and picked up a run or two, but that is all. Either the teacher or the student has moved away, or perhaps the teacher has passed away. In some cases, the teacher simply does not know how to teach them anything else. Perhaps there is no teacher in their area. Whatever the case, the student desires to learn more, but they have no resource to aid them in their journey. It is for these pianists with a desire to learn that I am writing this section, that they may further glorify God in the music ministry of their church.

Runs and fills are made up of two elements: Notes and Rhythm. Unfortunately, one cannot discuss one without referencing the other, so there will be some overlapping in the next few sections. The final section puts this information together into numerous examples for you to study and develop for your own use.