Posted In: Church Music Ministry

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Creatively enhancing your worship service with these keyboard tricks

April 9, 2018 - By 

As a church pianist, I think it’s helpful from time to time to focus on your artistry. I know the church pianist serves a purpose, and it’s important for us to consider our role as servants in the church. (I do believe people are called to serve, and all Christians are “wired” with ways in which they serve the church. There is great value to servant-hood, and it’s a broad Scriptural principle.) But to maintain merely a utilitarian view of our position is to miss out on opportunities to be creative and artistic.

A couple of preliminary thoughts. First, make sure your leadership is on board with your ideas. This also means you need to clearly and precisely communicate your ideas. Don’t just do some of these “tricks” without informing anyone; that would not be wise. Further, know that change is sometimes difficult to implement, and can often be met with resistance. This is not a blog about change in the church, but I’m sure there could be entire blogs devoted to the subject. Just use your wisdom, and the combined wisdom of your peers, team, and leadership. In most of the examples below, I would recommend that you showcase or demonstrate what you have in mind–in detail–so that everyone is on the same page.

Change up the prelude.

Maybe you just have a CD play; spice it up with live musicians. Maybe you just play a bunch of hymns in the hymnal; change it up with some modern songs, or a variety. Maybe your church likes a lively prelude as people enter; consider throwing in one meditative song, perhaps in the middle, that might help people to reflect and pray. Add instrumentalists. Have an acoustic ensemble. Incorporate a student ensemble. Do something out of the ordinary that says you’re being intentional about all aspects of your corporate worship.

Add transitions between songs.

Tying your songs together with seamless musical transitions helps create momentum and a sense of direction. Including the lyrics on the screens or in the bulletins best facilitates this, but it can also be creatively achieved by using a hymnal. Some modern hymnals contain a few ready-made medleys available for use. Even if you have to spend time writing out your transitions, it will be well worth your time.

Provide background music for segues and prayers.

Sometimes, dead space is appropriate. But sometimes it’s helpful to include music to help transition, or to provide an atmosphere of thoughtfulness or reverence. Of course, we don’t “create” worship. But in the same way that a full orchestra aids in worship, or an organ or a guitar aids in worship, so can our keyboard artistry. Use simple, whole note chords and progressions. Don’t have distracting melodies, that might actually compete with the speaker or worship going on.

Introduce a poignant instrumental solo or ensemble.

At our church, we normally have an instrumental during our offering. It’s just been our tradition that has worked well, and it certainly gives a lot of our keyboardists and instrumentalists ample opportunity to serve. Perhaps you do too. But what if your instrumental was placed strategically at a location that really made people think. You could include some of the lyrics on the screens or in the bulletin. Especially if it’s thoughtful, and especially if it works well with the progression of the song portion of your worship service, this could be very effective.

Provide thoughtful invitation or response music.

Yes, our church still has an altar call. And if your church still utilizes a church pianist, there’s probably a good chance that you have one, too. Let’s not do a raise of hands, but many of us have sat through a boring, repetitive invitational played while the pastor prays, or calls the congregation to some sort of response. Why not play quiet, contemplative, and simple chords under the final invitation. An invitation hymn could be alluded to, but not outright played. And I’ve found playing at a much slower pace significantly helps the time to be more thoughtful and reflective.

Your service in the local church as a keyboard artist should provide you with many ways to explore creativity and imagination. With alignment and backing from your church’s leadership, you possess some powerful tools that enable you to provide variety and creativity in your church’s expression of worship. Ultimately, our goal is to exalt the greatness of our God (Psalm 145:3). In all you do–no matter how creatively or imaginatively–may that remain your top priority.


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How to simplify your congregational accompanying

March 16, 2018 - By 

Simplified piano accompanying is not something new or original with me. A lot of people are teaching this concept these days. Bob Kauflin, and many others who lead worship with a band, emphasize the importance of utilizing the keyboard in a way that enhances the mix, and doesn’t draw attention to itself. (Many are even minimizing the role of the accompanists in an effort to emphasize the actual singing of the congregation, which is a great trend!) But I’ve found that this technique, while necessary and appropriate in a praise band setting, also works very well in a more traditional setting (which is what I’m more familiar with).

If you’re the only accompanist for the congregational singing, I suggest you take this tip with a grain of salt. Sometimes, what you play (or don’t play) will make the difference between the congregation feeling very confident and singing out, versus them feeling uneasy and possibly even derailing the song. Your goal as an accompanist is to build confidence and provide support. Another factor involved is how long you’ve been their accompanist, and how well the people are used to you. If you’re a newbie, you’re going to want to take every precaution to ensure your playing is super supportive.

But if you are fortunate to play with other instruments (an acoustic band or a church orchestra), or your church is a four-part-harmony-singing type of church, you might find it helpful to simplify your accompaniment to compliment the ensemble or the singers. Let me give you a few examples.

Example 1

Here we have a pretty basic rendition of Amazing Grace, built on the harmonies found in the hymnal. This will work well with playing with a church orchestra.

Example 2

In example 2, you’ll find a much stronger bass line. I will often incorporate this style, especially if we don’t have adequate representation of the bass section (either brass or strings). Also, our church’s piano is a 9′ concert grand; those bass notes resonate beautifully and powerfully.

Example 3

Example 3 emphasizes the mid-section, and also provides some momentous movement in the left hand. (Movement helps maintain momentum, or keep a lagging group moving forward. But be careful. Too much movement–sixteenth notes and such–can slow things down.) This rendition works well when your highs and lows are represented well in the church orchestra. It also works well when you’re the only accompanist, or one of a few.

Example 4

Now things are starting to get exciting. Example 4 shows how you can eliminate some melody notes, and still provide support and momentum. Let’s face it, most people know this song really well. So the melody on beat 3 of the first full measure is not necessary. Notice the right hand pattern in the second full measure. It grows out of the harmonies of the chord, and provides the movement while the voice holds a half note out.

Example 5

Example 5 will actually only (best) work when you are the only accompanying instrument, mainly because we’re beginning to steer away from the harmonies found in a hymnal. If you are playing with an organ, or with an orchestra, or with four-part singing, this option likely won’t work. It will work best for congregations that are used to singing melody, or used to occasionally singing in free form.

Go ahead and hum the melody while you play through this example. The second full measure is really exciting to me. It not only helps continue to maintain momentum, but it builds into the next measure. Notice I removed the E minor chord on beat 3 of the third measure.

It occurred to me that you’re beginning to see the thought process that goes into arranging music. A pattern like this would work well for accompanying a soloist (vocal or instrumental) on this song. Even while simplifying, great interest has been added.

Example 6

Now let’s have some fun. Again, hum through the melody while playing this example. You won’t be able to get away with this pattern for a whole stanza, but you might be able to maintain it throughout the first half. It’s very open sounding, almost ethereal. This will also work well when you want a stanza to be very reflective.

Example 7

Since we’re getting crazy, have a look at this fun example. This is obviously very open and sustained. It will work in very few contexts. Our congregation follows a song leader who is confident and inspiring. Vocally, he can keep the momentum. That being the case, I might have liberty to experiment with options such as this. It wouldn’t be common, however.

Hopefully, whatever you decide to do, you will provide the congregation support, and you will enable the most important thing about congregational singing to be emphasized: the singing itself.


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Church pianist tips and tricks

February 22, 2018 - By 

Church music ministry looks different than it did 20 years ago, and even 10 or 5 years ago things were vastly different than they are today. Church pianists have to adapt. Skills that worked long ago must be developed, updated, and built upon.

As one of our church’s pianist, I’m constantly reminded of the need to change things up. Change is a good thing. Here are a few ways you can change things up, and hopefully see improvement in your worship service.

Simplify

Less is more. That’s never been more true than today. It used to be more desirable to be a flashy church pianist. I remember being in awe as I heard church pianists in college who executed stunning arpeggios and runs. But when it came down to it, I’m not really sure that helped me to sing better. (In fact, as an observant, aspiring musician myself, it was probably more distracting than anything.)

I’m not suggesting that we need to be less creative. The fact is, it takes a great deal of creativity to accomplish your accompanying goals in a minimal manner, as opposed to using more and louder notes. Less truly is more.

Emphasize

When it comes to congregational singing, what is the most important element? The accompanist? No, not really. Sure, the accompanist provides support and confidence, but the singers are the most important part. It’s what it’s all about.

Seek ways to emphasize the congregational singing. For me, it involves not always playing the melody, especially when it’s a song that the congregation knows extremely well. For example, songs like “Amazing Grace,” “In Christ Alone,” and “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” rarely need the melody played. I can emphasize the congregational singing by minimizing the notes that I play.

Modernize

Let’s face it: The model and techniques we were taught in the university 20, 30, or 40 years ago aren’t always relevant to what we’re doing today. You’re going to need to modernize your approach. The stride that was popular generations ago is–by and large–rarely ever used today. I rarely use full 4-note chords to achieve a loud sound. I’ve found I can achieve a loud sound with just a few notes, and be even more effective.

I’m not suggesting that older techniques and effects were wrong. They served their generations well. It’s just that modern ears are used to something different. Find out what that is, and employ it.


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Church Pianist Challenge: Disruptive Congregation

July 27, 2017 - By 

This is the first in a series of articles I will be writing about challenges facing church pianists today. It grows out of this article, which seemed to hit a nerve.

Church pianists are valuable resources to the church. Just ask someone who attends a church without a pianist, and they’ll tell you how important they are!

When a pianist prepares an instrumental solo, what’s involved? Many things. Initially, there is the time investment to peruse and discover new and appropriate repertoire. Then there is a financial investment made to obtain this music. Finally, there is the mental and time investment for preparation, which may include many hours of rehearsal. Add to that the stresses of performance, like perhaps dealing with the quarks of a less-than-ideal instrument, awkward or difficult page turns, air handlers blowing your music everywhere, or coping with stage fright and performance anxiety.

All of this, so that the congregation can take part in a special aspect of worship through music. Scripture is replete with God’s desire for instrumental music (2 Chronicles 29:25-28; Psalm 150; Revelation 5:8, 14:2-3, 15:2-3). Psalm 33:3 seems to have a directive specifically for instrumentalists: play skilfully and loudly. The passage seems to emphasize a need for precision and confidence. When this is achieved, an opportunity for worship (minus the distractions) exists for those who listen.

I also think you can make a case that, when instrumental music is not accompanying singing, it ought to be used to remind us of songs the congregation already knows, so that the truths of those songs can be non-verbally communicated (reminded) through the music. Not everyone sees it this way, and there is certainly room for varying viewpoints. Bottom line: the music serves a purpose.

If a congregation is unengaged, uninterested, or otherwise distracted, it will deflate any purpose of the instrumental worship. Ultimately, a church pianist is not responsible for the behavior of a congregant, any more than a senior pastor is responsible for bad behavior during his sermon. It’s important for pianists to remember this. We should be very thankful for pianists who dutifully perform their responsibilities, regardless of the attention level, response, or outcome. They have the right perspective. They are ultimately playing for the Lord, and they are grateful for the handful of people who “get it,” and find encouragement and worship opportunities through their keyboard artistry.

A congregation that is disruptive during an instrumental offertory simply doesn’t understand the opportunity for worship they are carelessly discarding. A church pianist would be wise to work with the leadership of the church (the pastor, the worship pastor, the song leader, etc.) to identify the problem, and seek appropriate resolution. Perhaps a song leader merely needs to occasionally remind the congregation that the offertory is not filler, but rather an important part of service. If there are “main offenders,” they need to be gently and personally approached, and dialog should take place to find a solution.

What else can be done to emphasize the spiritual ministry of the instrumental? Make lyrics available to the congregation, whether on overhead projected screens, or in the bulletin. Even if lyrics to the entire song aren’t practical, include just the refrain, or a main thought from the text. In addition to helping emphasize the meaning of the music, this might just help with quieting people down.

Pianists should also evaluate their playing. Listen to recordings of your performances. Ask some questions to help when evaluating. Is this arrangement interesting? Is it unnecessarily lengthy? Am I playing with expression and dynamics (or am I just pounding)? What can I do differently to build more engagement into the mix? Would I enjoy listening to someone else play this?

In my experience, the prelude and postlude serve as background music, and talking by an entering or exiting congregation is expected. I plan accordingly. But for offertories, we still regularly feature the instrumental solo, and our congregation knows this is an opportunity to worship God through their joyful giving in the offering plate, and through thoughtful meditation of the Scriptural truths presented through the message of the song being played. It is our prayer that we will point people to Christ through our ministry.


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Challenges facing church pianists

June 26, 2017 - By 

Church pianists are amazing people! They solve problems you didn’t even know you had. (Such a great t-shirt line!)

I recently posed this question on my Facebook page: “What challenges do you face as a church pianist?” There were many responses. It was surprising. You can view the post here for yourself.

I decided to break down the responses into common categories, and include them here. I will post the challenge, and then include some personal observations. Here goes:

People talking during the instrumental offertory. So, apparently this doesn’t¬†just happen at my church! ūüôā The prevailing consensus is that it really comes across as rude, especially to the performer (effort, time investment, etc.), and to the purpose of the offertory (to minister through the message of the song).

Phasing church pianists out. Many churches are transitioning from traditional music to contemporary music, from the traditional choir and orchestra, to a few featured voices and a band. As a result, the trend seems to be putting church pianists out of a job, or at least out of a job as they knew it. Some fortunate church pianists will adapt, although not always happily. Others will be out of a job. It certainly doesn’t feel good to have a ministry that is no longer needed.

Finding music that works. While some have difficulty finding more challenging music (publishers seem to be publishing more intermediate level music, no doubt because it probably sells better), others have trouble finding music that isn’t too difficult for them. I’m pretty sure this is a challenge that faces all musicians, and each musician has their own method for finding the music that works for them.

Finding music that works for the musicians they serve with. Many church pianists are involved in the planning and preparing of church music for vocalists and other instrumentalists. It can be challenging finding music for your musicians, especially if they are not all studio musicians. ūüôā Less experienced musicians will need easier music, or music that is simplified. It sure would be nice to have a go-to resource that would provide such music, or at least point people in the right direction.

Training future church pianists. This is such an important endeavor, something that today’s church should take a long and hard look at. There seems to be a distancing from education in the church. While the church’s purpose is not primarily education, it is undeniable that the church should have a role in training future church musicians. Specifically, church pianists face the challenge of how to convey their artistry and years of experience to young learners. A further challenge is finding opportunity for these young learners to participate in worship, so that they have the chance to gain experience and grow as a church musician.

Lack of dedication from other church musicians they serve with. In my experience, church pianists are some of the most dedicated church musicians. I’m not just saying that because I am one. Really. It can be very discouraging when another scheduled musician chronically cancels at the last minute, or half the choir doesn’t show up to rehearsal. Added to this challenge is the fact that most church pianists aren’t in a position of authority to deal with this issue. In most cases, other than appealing to the church leadership (worship pastor, choir director, pastor, etc.), they very often have no recourse and must altogether keep silent on the matter.

Too much of their time monopolized. I can see this. If a church has only one pianist, my heart goes out to that pianist. No doubt they are asked to play for every service, for multiple elements in each service. All of this takes rehearsal, and often, much preparation is needed before rehearsal can even happen. This has got to be a big challenge for many church pianists today.

Maintaining their own spiritual heart, even when called upon to regularly perform. Some find it easy to maintain a heart of worship during a worship service in which they are significantly involved. But others are more naturally distracted by their craft and artistry. For the latter, the challenge is to maintain times of personal worship outside of the worship services, so that when they are called upon to “perform,” their relationship with the Lord is where it should be. (Don’t let that word “perform” throw you. The distraction doesn’t come from trying to perform, but rather from the attention needed to stay focused and execute their craft well with excellence.)

Other challenges that were mentioned are trying to keep your music fresh and current sounding, tactfully helping weaker musicians without coming across as arrogant or being offensive, people trying to have full-on conversations during preludes or postludes, those pesky page turns in the wrong places, and of course, nerves! Humorously, someone said they have a shaky music stand, so they have a hard time reading the notes that are jiggling all around. ūüôā

I’m convinced: being a church pianist is not for the weak of heart. There are genuinely difficult challenges for those in this field. I’d be interested in learning of other challenges you face as a church pianist. Even more importantly, I’d like to know how you overcame some of these challenges.


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Why Choir?

January 18, 2017 - By 

Recently, a friend of mine sent me an article on reasons why it’s a good idea for a church to have a choir. It was a good list. You’ve seen these types of articles, haven’t you? I gave it a read, wondering if I would discover something new, or at the very least find something that confirmed my already opinionated thoughts on the matter. (After all, the choir is a big part of my ministry.)

What stood out, however, was what was missing. I wrote my friend back: “It’s a good article, but the author missed the most important reason to have a choir: it’s God’s idea.”

It’s true, there are a lot of good musical, social, and spiritual reasons to have a church choir. As another friend recently reminded me, choirs are the quintessential “small group” of the church, offering tremendous opportunities for worship, edification, and spiritual growth. And this is all true and important.

But to me, the most compelling reason to have a choir is simply because it was God’s idea. From the early beginnings of organized Temple worship (2nd Chronicles 5:13, see the whole chapter), to the mass choir of eternal worshipers (Revelation 7:9-12), God has implemented, accepted, and enjoyed the ministry of the choir of believers.

Can a modern church truly be a New Testament church without the ministry of the church choir? Sure. Church plants and small congregations may find it to be low on the list of their immediate priorities. But eventually, as a healthy church grows numerically and spiritually, it would be wise to evaluate the validity of the church choir (even if it could really be called an ensemble).

And it would be a good idea… because it was God’s idea.


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The Wilds Music Conference

January 15, 2016 - By 

Over the first week of January I had the privilege of attending the Wilds Music Conference at the Wilds Christian Conference Center in Brevard, NC. I was given the opportunity to speak at a few of the workshops, which was a lot of fun. I met a lot of great people who lead in their various music ministries across the country. It was great to connect, meet new friends, and renew old acquaintances.

The topics I spoke on were about church administration. My first session was a “nuts and bolts” session, which basically went through everything we do as ministers of music. My second session was more of a philosophical discussion that tackled two main areas: turning from a performance mind-set to a worship mind-set, and the idea that we all lead out of our calling. My third and final session was a potpourri of tidbits I’ve learned and done through the years.

Whenever I’ve attended these sessions, I’ve always felt like I could walk away with one or two nuggets that I could take back to my ministry and incorporate. And that was my goal for the participants in my sessions. From the feedback I heard, people seemed to appreciate the content.

While I was there, I was able to “hob nob” with some ministry friends. I’d like to make you aware of their ministries, though I suspect most of you are already¬†familiar with them. Read more…


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The right way to worship

November 11, 2015 - By 

In his article, “Is All Worship Equally Acceptable to God” (here), author Tim Barnett reminds us that if nothing else, the stories of Cain & Able (Genesis 4:1-5) and Nadab & Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3) teach us that there is a right way and a wrong way to approach God in worship.

A further study of the Tabernacle worship, and then later the Temple worship, replete with significant detail regarding the the worship of God’s people, indicate that God sets a high priority on the way in which we approach Him. God makes a way, and we are to follow it.

Throughout the history of humanity¬†God has relentlessly pursued Read more…


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Can you hear the crickets?

October 29, 2015 - By 

It’s been sort of quiet around here. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy, however. Besides my family responsibilities (you do know my wife and I have four children age nine and under!), and my full time job (music minister at the church), I’ve been keeping the side projects rolling. I can’t divulge all the details, but I can give you a glimpse of what’s coming up… Read more…


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Playing Second Fiddle

September 29, 2015 - By 

There’s a quote on the internet that I thought was great, and it is relevant¬†to music ministry in addition to many other areas of life.

The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm–that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony (Leonard Bernstein).

As it relates to church music ministry, I think this is a huge concept that we all need to get through our heads. Starting with the leadership. Read more…


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Building a great choir

August 21, 2015 - By 

When it comes to the volunteer church choir, I’ve come to the conclusion that a “great choir” is a choir that worships God passionately with excellence. It’s a choir that understands its role as a collective worship leader, leading the way to the very throne room of God. And I’m always interested in what will make the choir (or any music ministry team) be a place or ministry that people¬†want to be a part of; where they are humbled and honored to be involved. The truth is, I want that for myself.

I’ve read this great article about how to build a great choir by Mike Harland here. You should give it a read!

He talks about a few important ingredients, and I’ve added some of my own thoughts below: Read more…


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Music ministry interview

August 20, 2015 - By 

I was recently interviewed about church music ministry by my friend, Mark Martin, who is also involved in church music ministry. For both of us, it was our first attempt doing this sort of thing with Skype, but we had fun talking about things that music directors like to discuss.

Here are the topics we discussed:

  • My¬†approach to a music ministry kickoff.
  • What got me¬†started arranging piano music.
  • What are some keys to having a growing committed¬†orchestra ministry.
  • Ideas for writing for an orchestra.
  • A notation software feature that will help you if you don‚Äôt know an instrument‚Äôs range.
  • Whether¬†you need to be a theory geek to be able to write music.
  • How long it takes me¬†to write a piano arrangement.
  • My¬†answer to the question, ‚ÄúWhat action can we take to lead church music with skill and authenticity?‚ÄĚ

So head on over to Mark’s site and watch this 35 minute video.

Also, you should know, Mark has recently begun selling sheet music on his website, and he also has a free piano arrangement that you’ll want to get! His arrangement of “My Jesus, I Love Thee” is worth checking out, too.


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Memorizing choir music: confidence & freedom

May 7, 2015 - By 

Recently I was talking with a friend about music memorization. He’s seemed to have mastered the skill; I’ve never been good at memorizing vocal music. I can remember back to my college choir days, having to memorize multiple songs for one of the regular vesper programs we participated in, and thinking, “I must be the weakest link here. I hope I don’t sing and unintended solo someplace!” I’m not sure how I ever survived that.

Then there was the time when I was singing in a trio for a church service at my first ministry. We got up the nerve to sing the selection by memory. But that was before lyric slides (those wonderful “cheat sheets”), and let’s just say it was so bad, that all three of us laughed our way through the final stanza. Collectively, we couldn’t remember any of the lyrics. What a hoot!

So, yeah. I shy away from memorization. Read more…


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Why have an instrumental ministry?

April 17, 2015 - By 

A LA CARTE SPRING PROMOTION:

Choose any 10 piano solos (for $3.99 or $4.99), and automatically receive 50% off at checkout. Visit the sheet music store.

As an instrumentalist often involved in church music, I am intrigued by this question: Is there still a place for instrumental music (solos or ensembles) in our modern worship services?

With the rise of the ever popular praise band and concert driven services, instrumental music seems to be replaced with… yet another song in the set. Many contemporary churches¬†have done away with this element in the worship service.

But many churches still have slots for the solo instrumentalist or group instrumentals. Many churches continue to grow and develop a church orchestra. This is certainly reflected in the musical offerings of many publishers. It seems the majority of the mainstream publishers still include orchestration sheet music as a companion product to choral anthems. The fact that people flock to this website from all over the world has to say something about the viability of the church instrumental program.

In our church, the instrumental ministry is alive and well. Here are a few benefits of such a ministry: Read more…


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Worship Leaders Lunch

February 21, 2015 - By 

I’m always looking for ways to grow our ministry team members closer together. A group that is talented and gifted can work well together, but I find that the closer their relationships are, the team works even better together. We’re a family, after all. And families spend time together and get to know each other… warts and all. Read more…


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Pagan church worship?

December 29, 2014 - By 

I admit it, I did read this article: http://www.crosswalk.com/church/worship/is-your-church-worship-more-pagan-than-christian.html

And I did not agree with it. (Imagine that!)

I approach church worship ministry, as those of you who know me will know, primarily from a traditional point of view. Our church doesn’t have a praise band; we have a choir and orchestra. So we don’t deal with some of the scenarios that were mentioned in this article.

However, I’m not really sure I agreed with the premise of the article, which basically tried to show us that music isn’t really a way to enter God’s presence. Read more…


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It’s fall, but you would think it’s Christmas

October 27, 2014 - By 

It is fall‚ÄĒone of my favorite times of the year. But while many of you are picking out your kids Halloween outfits or making big plans for Thanksgiving dinner, music directors such as myself are busy sorting out all the details for their music programs. Oh, I’ve made time for late-night campfires and s’mores with the kids, the fall festivals (there are some many to choose from!), apple cider (a must in our home at this time of year!) and the seasonal Krispy Kreme donuts. My wife is particularly awesome at making sure our family enjoys all this and more!

But in addition to all that, here is what’s been on my plate: Read more…


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Hosting a successful choir kick-off

August 22, 2014 - By 

Hosting a choir launch (or, choir kick-off, as we called it for many years) has several benefits:

  1. It’s a great way to make a fresh start and begin a new wave of momentum for your music ministry.
  2. It provides an opportunity for you to invite new choir members to “try out” the choir ministry of the church.
  3. It serves as a fantastic fellowship opportunity for your choir members.
  4. It allows you to introduce new music, or present a new Christmas musical or other large work you will be presenting.
  5. It gives you a chance to introduce new service opportunities and impart your vision and philosophy for the ministry and future of the choir.

Our launch usually begins around the beginning to mid-August, around the time that schools are starting back up. Read more…


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What the hymnals vs. screens debate says about us

July 30, 2014 - By 
Amazing Grace

Last week there was a flurry of activity on the internet over this popular article that gave reasons for using hymnals, as opposed to screens, in worship. I shared the article on my Facebook page with the following comment:

I’m not sure I agree with much of this article. It’s amazing how passionate people can be about their preferences.

The second part of my comment was primarily aimed at the comments section of the blog post. I felt the author was well reasoned and balanced in his approach, though I disagreed with most of his points.

If you wonder where I stand on the hymnals vs. screens debate, I mostly take a middle of the road position. Read more…


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Keyboard artistry that enhances the worship service

July 23, 2014 - By 

More and more churches are finding creative ways to use music in their worship services.

My background is in a more traditional evangelical-type service. At the beginning of a worship service, the song leader would step up to the pulpit, welcome the people, and ask everyone to turn to hymn number 341, “Such and Such Gospel Song.” We’d sing three stanzas (omitting the third, of course), and then the music would stop. Unless there were several hundred announcements to give, he would then ask us to turn to hymn number 299, “Other Gospel Song,” and we’d sing three stanzas of that one.

I’m not really mocking the traditional way. In fact, I have been a part of that style of service for years and years, and was even involved in planning and implementing that type of service in the past.

But many churches have found a better way, and if often involves the church pianist.

Here are ways in which churches are using keyboard artistry to enhance worship services:

1. Instead of starting and stopping between each songs (especially songs strung together, often called a “set”), church pianists are now called on to provide transitions between songs.

This often involves the ability to modulate, navigate between diverse meters, and change moods as appropriate. Some church pianists are able to improvise and have no trouble with this. Others will need to develop this skill, and until they do, can write out their transitions or have someone write them out for them.

Transitions can be as short as one measure (especially when the keys and meters of both songs are the same), or may take two to four measures. (Usually, the shorter the better.) Having the ability to “vamp” (continuously play a one- or two-chord pattern) allows the song director to share a few words of testimony or “set up” the next song. Transitions will need to be longer if the congregation is using a hymnal; using screens (which allow you to switch between lyric slides quickly) allow for shorter musical transitions.

2. Instead of silence during pastoral prayer or special moments of reflection, church pianists are encouraged to provide soft “mood” music to set (or really, continue) the spirit of the service.

Providing these special musical touches throughout the service can add a dynamic element to your worship experience. Writers of musicals and cantatas have long understood this. It’s not a manipulative move to fabricate¬†or drum up emotionalism. Rather, it’s an opportunity to set and continue the tone of the service, much like the goal of the instrumental prelude.

Places in a service that a church pianist might do this include pastoral prayers, the closing prayer and/or invitation time, baby dedications and baptisms. Music is usually slow and simple (and beautiful), and always played softly so that the person speaking can always be heard.

As a church pianist, if you are interested in using these methods, it often will involve a conversation (or series of conversations) with your leadership. Some leaders are uncomfortable with this and might find it a distraction. But if they are looking for ways to add an additional dimension to the service, I’m sure this will be a welcomed addition.

What are some other ways you can use your keyboard artistry to enhance a worship service? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below.


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Preparing for big church events

April 21, 2014 - By 

It’s been awhile, so a blog post is long overdue. I’ve been tied up with a lot of things going in my life lately. Here’s a quick list of things going on: our newborn (well, now he’s 11 months old) who we absolutely adore (but he’s crawling now!), some big events at church, several big publishing projects, and many other things.

Not the least of which was my newest digital piano project “Blessed Assurance”. This piano collection, released the beginning of February, has quickly become one of the most popular projects on my site in the two and a half months it has been available. And for the rest of the month of April, you can get it for 20% off the original price (use code APRIL20 at checkout). Check it out here.

This past Sunday (yesterday at the time of this writing) was Easter Sunday, and that’s always a big day at our church (as it is for many, I’m sure). We celebrated the resurrection in a few special ways: a musical that we presented Saturday and Sunday evening, and we hosted two identical Sunday morning worship services, giving our folks some options with flexibility for their Easter Sunday plans. We also saw it as a way to “make room” for the potential of even more worshipers/seekers than usual, as Easter is a time when more folks come to church than the normal Sunday morning crowd.

While the Easter musical was more of a dramatic production, with choir, orchestra, drama, stage lights, with a culmination of the gospel message, our Easter Sunday morning services were more congregationally focused, with an emphasis on congregational involvement and a strong gospel message.

I’d like to offer¬†a few thoughts on preparing for big events in your church, especially from a musical planning perspective.

First, take time to dream about what your final product (production) will be. In order to strategically carry out a vision for a big event like Easter, you need to have a vision in the first place. (Profound?) Once you know what you want, you’ll be able to begin planning and implementing. I’ll be honest, sometimes that vision changes over time, especially as personnel and ability changes and as new ideas come to mind. Be flexible enough to consider changes as you go along.

Once you have your goal, then you can begin implementing your game plan. Here’s a rundown of what I do. It may not seem like the most orderly process, but it has worked over the years.

Prayerfully select a program that fits your needs, abilities, and desires. This is done several months in advance. Seek guidance from other staff members and those you trust. Consider variables, such as adapting a work, adding to it, drama or simple narration, etc.

Once a choice has been made, order your products. Make sure to order extras for your tech teams. Consider purchasing rehearsal CDs, printed materials, etc. All of this should be done with plenty of time for preparation of your people.

Come up with a promotional plan. Handouts? Tracts? Tickets? Invite cards? Mailers? Billboards? Radio ads? Facebook advertising? And the list goes on.

Recruit¬†your key volunteers. These are your go-to people who you know are dependable and capable. In church ministry, these people are the brains behind your operation. Who will lead the drama? Who will accompany the choir? Who will handle sets, costumes, makeup, lighting, sound, etc.? Do outside professionals need to be consulted? Who will your soloists and actors be? Auditions? Will you hire a few musicians to “round out” your orchestra? Will teens be invited to participate? How will you involve all age groups in your ministry? (Since this big church event is for the entire church, it seems fit that members of the entire church should be involved.) These are all questions you should answer.

Develop a rehearsal plan.¬†When will you begin rehearsing for the big event during regular rehearsal times (choir, orchestra, ensembles, soloists)? When will all of your extra (we have sometimes called them “bonus”) rehearsals be scheduled? Tech rehearsals? Drama rehearsals? Dress rehearsal? It is helpful to have this ahead of time as well so your musicians and actors can know what they are getting into, and what their expectations are.

Work your plan.¬†Make it happen. Stay faithful to your plan. Be flexible, though. I have had to add an extra rehearsal because I simply did not schedule enough rehearsals and the particular program was more difficult. I have also had to eliminate rehearsals, because the choir was ready ahead of time. This last Easter, I was going to cancel our last rehearsal, but at the last minute I decided to keep it. I’m glad I did because it was our best attended rehearsal (besides the dress rehearsal), and we were able to work out some “kinks” that would have otherwise wasted time at our dress rehearsal. Sometimes you just have to play these things by ear.

Elicit¬†suggestions and ideas from outside sources.¬†I confess, I often skip this step. Not because I want to, but it’s often not on my radar. But bringing someone in for the final rehearsal to give ideas and feedback is a good idea. I’ve even received helpful advise after a first performance and been able to make helpful changes going into the final performance. But it’s good to get ideas and suggestions from someone who hasn’t been in the trenches with you and who can give the kind of first response that is helpful and constructive.

Don’t¬†allow the PROCESS to overshadow the PEOPLE.¬†One final thought:¬†You are called to serve people (and serve WITH people), not a big church program. No, the big church program should be the way in which you serve people. It’s all about the journey, right? A choir member’s daughter is taken to the hospital for weeks on end with the final results coming back with little to no answers as to what her critical problems are. Another choir member’s daughter who is battling¬†cancer is rushed to the hospital with the flu the day of the opening program. Another choir member’s father passed away following the first program. This is just a small glimpse into what various PEOPLE in our ministry went through this last Easter. Life has its challenges and hardships. We must balance all the demands of ministry, and strive to keep people first. We are not always perfect at it (no, we will fail often), but our desire is to serve and be the hands and feet of Christ.


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The Privilege of Practice

March 28, 2014 - By 
A guest article by Joseph M. Martin, Director of Shawnee Sacred Choral Publications

We live in a time when¬†immediacy is an essential¬†element of the culture. A¬†“drive-tnrough, instant gratification”¬†philosophy has¬†permeated almost every¬†area of life. As choral directors,¬†we are in competition¬†for time and attention in a¬†very crowded marketplace of¬†other activities. The little amount of rehearsal time we¬†are granted is often peppered with mental and physical¬†fatigue, along with singer indifference and negativity. In¬†the wake of these realities, it is often challenging to inspire¬†people to musical and spiritual integrity.

While this situation is our new reality, I am often left¬†wondering if we have lost something important in¬†this quest for expedience. Is it possible to balance our¬†crowded calendars and still find meaningful moments¬†where we can stimulate a deeper appreciation for our¬†gifts in the sacred arts? ls there a way for rehearsals to¬†become more than note learning and logistics and to¬†truly be episodes of “seeking and finding” the greater¬†reasons for our musical impulses? Can we recapture the¬†call to devotion that is the heart of worship preparation?

Rehearsal is essential to the church musician. It takes time for message and music to find each other and for artistry an ministry to entwine in the heart. Our time of gathering together for preparation can be filled with much greater meaning and purpose. Our practice can actually be worship!

It is in these times of committed attention that we experience¬†that moment when music and message combine, producing in us the joy of illumination and the challenge of¬†service. The inner beauty that comes from celebrating the¬†gifts we are entrusted with allows us to truly understand how¬†to strive for “excellence without arrogance.”

A group of church musicians from the United States was¬†invited to visit communist China. During their time in¬†China they were to sing at some of this nation’s “approved”¬†churches, and to off er a cultural exchange and ministry of¬†encouragement to the minority Christian church. Money¬†was raised and plans were put in place. The arduous task of¬†organizing a trip of this magnitude was a great effort, but it¬†provided an exciting opportunity to take one’s music beyond¬†the walls of the local church to truly reach the world with the¬†message of hope and love.

The day of the planned worship service came, and there was¬†great anticipation among the members of the visiting choir.¬†They had traveled far, and now all of their prayers and¬†preparations were about to yield fruit. They rose early and¬†drove to the church to warm-up and become acquainted¬†with the venue. When they arrived, the choir director¬†became aware of music pouring forth from the church.¬†Confused at why the sounds of a great crowd of singers¬†should be spilling from the sanctuary, the director had¬†terrible thoughts. “Were they late?” “Had the service¬†already begun?” “Had they traveled across a timeline¬†during the commute that morning?”

The director was despondent at the thought of having miscalculated the time, but it was clear the worship service was already in progress. Had they really missed the pinnacle reason
they had travelled to China? Had all that preparation been for naught?

Hoping to apologize and explain the reasons for their tardiness,¬†the director wall<ed into the back of the auditorium and¬†saw the fully engaged congregation singing with gusto one of¬†the great hymns of the faith. Searching the scene, he eventually¬†caught the eye of one of the church’s pastors, and soon¬†they were talking in the wings of the sanctuary.

“Pastor, we are so sorry for being late. We were completely¬†unaware of the time difference and we are heartsick that we¬†have arrived too late to participate as planned in the service.”

The pastor reached out and took the director’s hand in a¬†gesture of welcome and said, “You are right on time,¬†my friend. You and your group are perfectly fine and on¬†schedule. There is no need to worry.”

“I’m afraid I do not understand; the church is full of people¬†and the worship service has clearly already begun,” the director¬†said.

The pastor smiled and said, “In China, the Christian¬†congregations meet an hour before the service to practice¬†the hymns so that our offering of song will be acceptable.¬†We want to give our best to the Master.”

Stunned and stirred by the pastor’s remarks, the director returned¬†to the bus and shared the extraordinary story with his¬†singers. The choir was deeply moved by this congregation’s
sign of devotion and commitment to worship. It was a lesson they would never forget.

I think there is much to learn from this amazing story. It was¬†not the product or performance that ministered to that group¬†of American singers, but it was the people’s purity of purpose¬†that penetrated their hearts. This group of Chinese believers,¬†while oppressed in their own country, treasured each opportunity¬†to sing together of their common faith in Christ.

That which we take for granted was a treasure of great worth to that persecuted church. How rich is this lesson in humility for our own music ministries!

So let us celebrate the privilege of practice! Not that we should be prideful in our musical advancements or mesmerized by the echoes of our own voices, but that through our committed preparation, may we present a worthy offering to the Giver of the Song. May we, like that far away group of singers, tune our hearts and prepare our praise so that when we worship, we give only our very best to the Master.

[Originally published in the Inside Newsletter of Shawnee Press and Hal Leonard publications. Reprinted by permission.]


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When poor health keeps you away

January 27, 2014 - By 

Recently I had a bug that kept me out of church on Sunday. It wasn’t fun, but it was especially disappointing because it fell on a Sunday, “game day” in the ministry.

You know, missing Sundays‚ÄĒin my line of work (the ministry)‚ÄĒis never fun. Just ask my wife; I have to really be out of it for me to not attend on Sunday. Yes, I know it’s part of my job description, but every part of my being hates it! (Maybe that’s an indication that I’m in the right line of work?) I can count on one hand how many times I’ve missed Sunday worship due to illness.

Being sick on Sunday made me think of a couple of things…

It’s a real disappointment to prepare, or ensure that everything is prepared, for Sunday, and not be able to participate. It really is. Time, effort and toil have been invested. On the other hand, it’s such a blessing to know that my responsibilities were aptly handled by more than capable people who were willing to step in on a moments notice. I am so thankful for them!

I missed worshiping my God with my church family. I was able to have some extra “God an I” time while I was sick, but it wasn’t the same. I recently spoke with a woman who’s husband says he’s a Christian, but doesn’t go to church because he doesn’t feel it’s necessary. I couldn’t disagree more. Not only are believers instructed in the scriptures to “do church,” but there are so many side benefits to regular church attendance (fellowship, meeting new like-minded people, iron sharpening iron, growing in your walk with God, a better understanding of scripture, accountability, encouragement, and the list goes on).

I think there’s a hint of truth in the saying: “You don’t truly know what you have until you don’t have it anymore.” For me, this last Sunday was a good reminder.


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Are the chords in the hymnal optional?

January 8, 2014 - By 
Amazing Grace

As a church pianist, do you like to alter what you play from the printed hymnal version? Maybe you like to add your own unique chords as a soloist, or while accompanying your church’s congregational singing. But is it a smart idea to change the chords found in your hymnal?

Well, it depends.

If you are playing during a worship service with other instrumentalists (and vocalists), then no, those chords are probably not optional. If you start altering your chords, you’ll clash with the other instrumentalists, because chances are they won’t be playing the same chords as you. At that point it will become a guessing game that could end very badly. That’s why it’s wise to stick with the hymnal harmonization, each player using the same harmony, weather by hymnal or lead sheet.

But if it’s just you, then go for it. Changing the harmony for an instrumental solo is a great idea, especially because hymnal harmonies are usually basic (and often predictable). In fact, when it comes to arranging, this is one of the most effective ways to be creative and fresh: change-up the chords and chord progressions.

If it is just you as a pianist or organist accompanying the congregation, then it depends (again). If the room is filled with people who read parts, and everyone is following along in the hymnal, it’s probably going to be a good idea to stick with what’s written. However, if your congregation is singing lyrics projected on a screen, and most are singing the melody, then it might work well to change the harmony. I often do this in our church during the invitation hymn, when I’m the only one playing along with the congregation. It’s very effective, and the audience enjoys singing along with the new songs.

The bottom line? You don’t want to be distracting. Rather, you should be enhancing the overall worship experience.