About Barry Liesch

Barry Liesch, Ph.D, Professor of Music at Biola University (La Mirada, CA). Head of Music in Worship program. Keyboardist, Arranger, Author. Published author of People in the Presence of God (Zondervan) and The New Worship (Baker Books). Teaching responsibilities: Worship Foundations, Hymnology, Worship Seminar, Pop Theory I, II, Keyboard Improvisation. Albums/CDs: Contemporary Keyboards, Moments with You.

If you read but don’t improvise

This is the first chapter I assign to keyboardists serving in churches who read traditional notation but don’t know how to improvise.  It takes advantage of their reading skills. It teaches them how to refashion what is on the page by revoicing/respacing the sounds so that more dynamic contrast is achieved.

This file is 31 pages long and has 45 musical examples with a running commentary included of what is going on technically. It’s a serious attempt to help you start to make the transition from just reading traditional notation to doing basic improvisation. I think you will find it to be an effective first step.

02A Revoicing Revitalizing


Ideas in Worship Keyboard Improv Book Coming

In seeking to hone our improvisational capacities, the keyboard has advantages over single-line instruments, for it allows us to think more comprehensively about music—not only melodically but also harmonically. Ideally, we need an…

Abundance of Harmonic Possibilities. Why is that important? We may be searching arduously for the exactly right, fitting sonority in a piece. Obviously, our chances of finding it are much better if we have a slew of many-hued sounds in our experiential memory to draw from.  Even more fundamentally, the keyboard can help us understand chord structure and chord function. And as we make music physically with our fingers, the theory behind music becomes tactile, concrete, alive—less abstract.

Abundance of Examples. The two volumes employ well over a 1000 examples. Three kinds of examples are employed: (1) you’ll find abstract examples that express how a particular chord or harmonic relationship can function; (2) then it is demonstrated a number of times in different worship songs so you can see it’s potential and usefulness; (3) finally, you’re asked to “try it,” to apply it yourself in a piece where I know it can function effectively.

Transposition. Keyboard transposition is stressed in this book. Why? The repetition of playing a chord or short phrase (it’s various spacings and functions), over and over again in various keys, helps to establish it firmly in our inner ear and fingers. The goal is to acquire the actual “feel” of the chord or relationship, so we don’t have to think hard about it. A seventh, a ninth, or any kind of extension, has got to become as easy and effortless as playing a C major chord.

Transposition solidifies the thinking and hearing process. It tests whether we can apply concepts in another key. It forces us to think in new keys, and get “command” of those new keys. You may find that you can think better in some keys than others! We’ll keep our transposition examples really short (usually four measures), and we’ll use well-known songs you probably know. That will make it more fun and relevant.

Modulation. Once we can play songs in different keys, the desire emerges to have the capacity to fashion effective transitions, to be able to modulate and to craft segues within and between pieces. Modulations that lead to the coveted goal of achieving meaningful, flowing, seamless worship can usually be handled more competently by keyboardists than guitarists. So we’ll need detailed, specific training in this area.

Guitar Keys. In worship contexts today, guitarists (who often rule!) tend to avoid keys with flats. They prefer keys with sharps. Therefore I limit the range of keys to those you will tend to use most frequently. Once we can think in the keys of C, D, E (especially), F, G, and A, it’s relatively easy to extend our thinking to the flat keys. Furthermore, this limitation serves to reduce the “brain load” and allows us to cover more material, yet with the confidence we are truly grasping it.

Sing and Play. The ability to be able to sing and play simultaneously is invaluable when leading or accompanying worship—and it’s challenging! It takes extra energy and concentration to maintain good pitch, tone, and congregational eye contact while singing, and yet play fluently and rhythmically, barely looking at the keys. A higher level of keyboard mastery is demanded. We’ll be developing this skill along the way. I’ll supply the words to many songs so you can practice singing and playing.

Worship Keyboard Improv Book Coming

I expect to post a greatly revised keyboard improv book in a couple of months.  It’s a major update of the keyboard book mentioned on my home page. The two volume effort will contain, in total, more than 1000 music examples and over 500 pages.  My intent, for now, is to offer the materials free of charge. Teachers and students will be able to download, make copies of any pages.  A generous copyright notice should appear with the work. Volume One will become available first.   Below, read the Forward for Volume One.  I’ll be posting more info on this project in the days to come.


Would you like to become an accomplished keyboard improviser? How about the ability to play instantly any worship song you hear, transpose it to another key? Or do you aspire to create captivating harmonies, arresting melodies and bass lines?

Are you motivated by a burning desire to help your congregation sing out with energy and conviction, and to bring out the words and theology in worship songs? (I must admit, this is a personal passion of mine.) Would you love to have at your fingertips an abundance of ideas on what to do, how to proceed, and concrete ways to develop yourself? Then this book is for you!

For many years I have been teaching keyboard improvisation to music majors whose primary instrument is the piano at Biola University, an evangelical university of 6000 in the Los Angeles area. Many of these students, guys and girls with “classical chops”, possess quite a bit of technique, and read traditional notation fluently. The majority, however, cannot improvise, cannot think in music, or do so in a simplistic, halting manner. They don’t know what to do. They are most comfortable with written-out music.

On the other hand, I’ve had other students who are pretty good improvisers and have real imagination, but read traditional notation slowly and hesitantly, and are very limited in their understanding of how music works. The differences between the two, in both background and aptitude, can be startling, even extreme! This is my attempt to meet the needs of all of these diverse learners.

I’ve discovered approaches that work for different kinds of students. Many times I’ve gone back to my office after a lesson and have added another step, another example, to improve clarity. In other words, be assured these materials have undergone much scrutiny, thought, testing, and revision. My sincere thanks to you, my students, who have helped me understand your needs and desires better. I’ve learned much from you.

A big problem! I understand young people, particularly, would like the book to contain the very latest, “hot” worship songs as examples. But this doesn’t make much sense for a book of this sort. The latest songs tend to last a couple of years and they’re gone. Nobody seems interested in singing them anymore. The “turn over” rate is simply astonishing and it’s unrelenting! Therefore, I’ve chosen well-known hymns and worship choruses with at least some proven staying power… stuff you’re likely to continue to use.

The book is aimed primarily at college-level students who have acquired at least a minimum of two semesters of music theory. And you should also know that this book deals predominantly with harmonic possibilities, and less with rhythm.

Nevertheless, this book should be helpful to any intelligent intermediate to advanced keyboardist, even if you may not know much music theory and consider your sight reading skill deficient. Why? First, many examples are extremely easy to read. Second, the step-by-step approach, replete with an abundance of music examples and explanatory written comments, communicates in simple English what is going on musically and theoretically in worship pieces. It breaks down harmonic and improvisational concepts into small, achievable chunks.

In another worship book I wrote, The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church (Baker, 2001), I called for an outpouring of worship materials in all areas, including music, the dramatic and visual arts, and works that would embrace the theoretical, practical, and pedagogical. I pledged myself to contribute to the effort (p.35). These two keyboard volumes are part of my effort to make good on that promise.

Finally, if another writer/contributor can borrow from what I have written, improve upon it, and advance the field, wonderful! Nothing would make me happier than to see the Church built up, rise up, and offer a paean of praise to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Music Industry versus Worship MInistry

Music Industry takes a Nosedive

The music industry is experiencing a plummeting nosedive. Between 1999 and 2014, music record sales have dropped 70%, resulting in a loss of 14 billion dollars in income. More individuals than ever are consuming music, however, fewer and fewer are willing to pay for it.  The result is that music itself has lost value, has become less valuable.

In the past, people were forced to buy a CD of a dozen songs for $15-20 dollars for their personal music library.  Today they can buy the one song they really want for $1 via itunes. CD use is becoming something of the past as each year the volume of CDs sold drops.  In 2016, Walmart, the largest seller of CDs in North America, is reducing its store space for CDs by 50%.

Music Streaming Services Ascending

Instead music streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and Utube are becoming the mainstay. The result is that an immense catalogue of music, previously out of reach to the individual, is becoming available for a few dollars or cents, or for free. With the plummeting of music sales, recording studio are closing and professional recording musicians find their services increasingly unwanted. In Hollywood, professional musicians are rebelling against music unions and their unions dues because they can’t find sufficient work. Many no longer see the value of the unions –“What are they doing for us?”

Heightened Awareness of the Worship MInistry

In contrast,the worship ministry in our churches has been accorded more importance than in the past. It is recognized as valuable.  Worship can play an important role in the spiritual development of believers and in attracting new worshipers and seekers. Pastors and worship leaders today are the most visible leaders in the church.  More time is being accorded to worship. Consequently worship leaders are in greater demand than ever before.

Recording studio musicians, given the stress of paying their bills, are often seeking part-time work in churches.  They desire some form of regular income to supplement the “feast or famine” lifestyle they experience in the commercial music industry.  Furthermore, the excitement of touring across the country with a band, soon fades.  Musicians wishing to settle down and start a family understand they need to be able to spend time with their spouse and children.

The upshot to all of this is that, for musicians, a worship ministry in the church is looking more attractive. Though less spectacular, it appears to offer more long-range stability — even more personal meaning.  Now there are serious problems facing the worship ministry today, and working in the church is uniquely challenging itself –it’s not for the faint of heart — but let’s save that for another time.

Several New Revisions

These revisions of lecture PowerPoints were posted on Sept 15, 2014; intended to  supplement the book, People in the Presence of God.

01g (key word) “Identical”

01j (key words) “Discontinuity” vs “Continuity”

03 (key word) “Patriarchs” and “Parents”

09b (keyword) “Sinai”

Use the search box to find these PowerPoints quickly.

O1i Understanding the Sabbath

A look at the sabbath, it’s meanings in the Old Testament, corrections in understanding by Jesus, and its relevance for families today and contemporary worship.  Does it apply to Israel only?  Is it of universal scope in application for all of humanity?  Saturday?  Sunday? Is the sabbath mainly for devotion to God or is it intended for us too?

33 slides. Downloadable PowerPoint with full formatting. See square icon.

Supplement for the book, People in the Presence of God.

Five OT Sacrifices Revised, Improved

10A Five OT Sacrifices

(Supplemental PowerPoint for People in the Presence of God)

Updated, Improved, August 4, 2014.  This version gets at the meanings of the 5 sacrifices more strongly, their echoes in the New Testament,  and possible applications for today.

For proper formatting, go to the search box (upper right corner), and write in Tabernacle: Five Sacrifices, or simply click on “download” (bottom left-hand corner).

New! 01E Holiness in OT/NT Worship

The words holy/holiness appear frequently in our Christian worship choruses/songs. But seldom is their biblical meaning ever explained or developed. The need for holiness is merely stated repeatedly. No content.

This PowerPoint seeks to reveal the ways holiness is used/applied in scripture. Wholeness is one of the primary meanings of holiness.

To download with proper formatting, see download sign is bottom-left corner. 69 frames.