Advice for the busy church pianist

October 27, 2010 - By 

[message_box title=”Guest Post” color=”red”]This is a guest post by Greg Howlett. Greg is a recording artist and Christian concert pianist. Check out his website (www.greghowlett.com) for free resources, lessons, and tips for church pianists.[/message_box]

As I talk to church pianists, I try to always stay conscious of the realities of their life. Most of them are parents who are focused on rearing their children. They are usually heavily involved in church activities. In fact, they are very busy with things that are all very important.

Many of them feel guilty that they do not have time to practice piano very much. In my opinion, they do not have to feel guilty and I usually find a way to tell them that. After all, it is hardly a stretch to say that rearing children is more important than becoming a virtuoso on the piano.

But this issue is complicated. The Bible gives very few specific directives about music, but there are a few. For example, we are called to “play skillfully” (Psalm 33:3) and “make His praise glorious” (Psalm 66:2).

That is the balancing act that we are faced with. How can we balance the pressing responsibilities of life with the responsibility to play skillfully in our churches? Neither extreme is appropriate. No parent should elevate piano practice over caring for their children. But on the other hand, no church pianist should ignore their responsibility to practice their skill in order to play as well as they can.

In this post, I want to give some thoughts to adult pianists about how you can improve your skill. I also want to give my perspective on what you should focus on learning.

You are probably better suited for learning right now than you have ever been.

Many good musicians seem to believe that learning stops when college is done. That is simply not true. For decades after college, learning actually becomes easier in many respects. I can honestly say that I am learning far quicker now (in my thirties) than I learned in college. As your base of knowledge grows, your ability to learn grows. So, never give up on learning.

Becoming a better church pianist is not a sprint; it is a marathon.

Forget about your occasional three-hour practice sessions after the children are in bed. They will not help you very much. I would propose something much easier: play every day.

Notice I did not say how much to play every day. If you can only afford to spend five minutes, play five minutes. But try to find a way to end each day a tiny bit better of a pianist than you started.

Becoming a better pianist does not happen in a day or a week or even a month. It takes years of a little practice each day.

Look for others to learn from.

The biggest obstacle in church music is pride. Pride is devastating in many ways, but one thing pride will often do is kill a person’s capacity for improving.

Prideful pianists do not think they need to learn from others. They find fault with everyone else’s music and develop an attitude that no one can teach them anything.

Don’t be that way. Look for the positives in other pianists’ music and learn from them. Ask them questions. Ask for lessons. I still beg for a quick lesson whenever I can and every pianist I respect is the same way. If you possibly can, take regular piano lessons (I still do that too).

Strive to be useful in church.

Unless you go to a certain kind of church, practicing Bach inventions has somewhat limited value. I am not saying to never play classical music, but it should probably not be your focus. You need to focus on learning how to be good at the skills that church pianists need to have.

Those skills include congregational accompaniment, accompanying smaller groups, and playing by ear. You have to be able to play in different styles (sometimes powerful, sometimes soft). You have to know how to transpose, modulate, understand harmony, and many other little things.

Understand and become proficient in all three ways that people play the piano.

People play either by reading notes, by ear, or by knowledge of theory. All three can be learned by all pianists, and church pianists should learn all three. Each has its place in church.

Everyone knows what I mean by playing by reading and playing by ear. But let me discuss the concept of playing by theory in a little more detail. Pianists that understand theory and use it in their music have numerous shortcuts that help them:

  1. They can predict what chord should be played with a particular melody note.
  2. They can predict what chord is coming next.
  3. They can switch out technical patterns easily based on the underlying chord (for example, they can switch a run slightly to make it more comfortable for their style/hands).
  4. They can reharmonize on the fly (spruce up harmony or replace it entirely).
  5. They can transpose and modulate easily.

Theory is extremely important for church pianists and it is a bridge between playing by reading and playing by ear. If you play only by reading, you can probably learn to play by ear fairly easily if you can lean on theory knowledge. Likewise, those that play by ear can learn to read music quickly by leaning on their theory.

You can probably surmise that I think theory is very important. But how do you learn it well enough to start leaning on it in your music?

First of all, you need to become aware of it in your music. Start watching the music from a theory perspective. A good first step is to start analyzing the notes you play to figure out what the chord is. Over time, you actually want to start thinking in terms of chords rather than notes.

Fortunately, there are lots of helps available today to pianists that want to learn theory. There are plenty of free resources online (including my site www.greghowlett.com). Books and courses are also widely available. But ideally, you need to find a teacher, coach or mentor that understands these concepts.

Once you understand theory, music becomes very exciting and new doors will open to you. You will almost magically find yourself playing by ear better and reading music better.

These thoughts have not been for pianists that want to play professionally and have hours to practice each day. Rather they are for busy church pianists who just want to continue to improve over their life. Trust me when I say that a few minutes every day working on the right things will pay off. You just have to get started. Eventually, you will be able to look back and see how far you have come!

5 Comments
  • Very helpful article! Thanks for posting this.

  • Very well stated. Gives me some hope!

  • very helpful!

  • I agree so much!! I just became our church’s pianist back in December, but I’ve filled in often over the past few years… Thank you for explaining the part about theory! I’ve wanted to take some courses on theory just because I’ve heard it’s good to learn – but I never knew exactly what it was. After you explained it, I’m thankful I know a good bit of it (I play by note and by ear). Looking forward to learning more about theory and by God’s grace widening piano skills for Him. Thanks again!!!!

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