Tagged In: pianist
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Church pianists are amazing people! They solve problems you didn’t even know you had. (Such a great t-shirt line!)
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! 🙂 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. 🙂 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. 🙂
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.
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.
Being a church pianist can be a tough job–especially when you are the only pianist in the church. Greg Howlett wrote a great post for the busy church pianist a few years ago on this blog. Check it out, because he provides some great advice.
Truthfully, I have been blessed to be in churches where the keyboard accompanying responsibilities have been able to be spread out among at least a couple individuals. Currently, we might have one accompanist who plays for the choir, another who might play for a soloist or ensemble, another who might play for an instrumental offertory, and I play for the congregational music. As much music as we do, it is almost a necessity to have this many pianists involved.
However, many churches have just as much music, and have only one capable pianist who can play adequately for the service.
Ouch! This has got to be hard. These pianists plod forward week after week, service after service. They are very faithful (they have to be!), arriving early and staying late for additional rehearsals, spending various amounts of their free time learning music to play that will probably not be repeated. They have choir music, music for specials, instrumental offertories, preludes, postludes, and invitational music to learn/rehearse/brush up on. And yet they must avoid even the appearance of burn out.
My hat goes off to these musicians. If you are one, I say: bravo! And, thank you. I used to think I could do it all, but the older I get, I am just thankful when I get a break in the service and someone else plays. And I’ve noticed that when I play for the majority of the service (more than normal) that my brain starts to slow down, and I make a lot more mistakes.
If you have more than one accomplished pianist in your church, be thankful, and utilize them to the degree that they desire to serve. If, however, you only have one, be sure that they are taken care of and appreciated. It’s hard work, and it can be a thankless and unappreciated job, especially in volunteer settings.
What’s your experience? Do you serve with other accompanists? Or are you the only one?
Please join me at my church (Mikado Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia) for a gathering of church pianists! This year, on October 20th, I have the distinct privilege of hosting this conference with guest clinician Cindy Berry.
Many of you are very familiar with the music of Cindy Berry. She has been writing for choirs, children’s choirs, and church pianists for years. As a church musician herself (and a spouse of a music pastor), she has been blessed with a unique understanding of the needs and concerns of pianists who serve in local churches. Her experience, expertise, and meek spirit will inspire and challenge you to “next level” artistry and ministry.
So register today! The registration deadline is Monday, October 15th.
I will periodically be posting new information about this 1 day conference on my Facebook page, so be sure to “like” the page so you can keep up with all the exciting news. As I met and have gotten to know a little more about Cindy (exclusively through email!), I can tell you that it’s going to be a great seminar full of helpful topics and useful information.
I look forward to seeing you there!
The wait is over! Many have asked, How (or when) can I get the sheet music for the songs on your Wondrous Love CD? I’m pleased to announce that all of the songs from Wondrous Love have been published by Alfred Music Publishing in two Sacred Performer Collections: Wondrous Hymns, Books 1 & 2.
Wondrous Hymns, Book 1:
8 Contemporary Arrangements of Traditional Hymns of Hope
Publisher’s description: Arranger James Koerts thoughtfully created these fresh renditions of traditional hymns. His contemporary arranging style, which blends syncopated rhythms and unexpected key changes, is sure to encourage inspired performances. Titles: Amazing Grace * Day by Day * He Leadeth Me * Jesus Is All the World to Me * Love Lifted Me * My Redeemer * Only Trust Him * ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.
Wondrous Hymns, Book 2:
8 Contemporary Arrangements of Traditional Hymns of Power
Publisher’s description: Arranger James Koerts thoughtfully created these fresh renditions of traditional hymns. His contemporary arranging style, which blends syncopated rhythms and unexpected key changes, is sure to encourage inspired performances. Titles: Crown Him with Many Crowns * Holy, Holy, Holy * I Sing the Mighty Power of God * I Stand Amazed in the Presence * It Is Well with My Soul * Our Great Savior * The Solid Rock * What Wondrous Love Is This?
Also, check out these collections:
[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:
- They can predict what chord should be played with a particular melody note.
- They can predict what chord is coming next.
- 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).
- They can reharmonize on the fly (spruce up harmony or replace it entirely).
- 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!
The Mikado Academy of Music is hosting a seminar for church pianists on Saturday, October 9.
If you’re interested in developing your skills as a keyboard musician in your church, then consider attending this one-day event. You’ll be encouraged in your ministry work. Your registration ($25; $15 for students) includes a seminar notebook, a catered lunch, and some extra freebies. It will also be an opportunity to meet and connect with other church musicians in the field.
Here’s a list of ten things you probably shouldn’t say to your church pianist, whether or not they’re true.
That song was one of my favorites. What was the name of it, again?
You play like a man.
Thanks for your offertory. It gave me just enough time to read the church bulletin from cover to cover.
You did a great job. Did you ever take piano lessons?
I would give my left arm to be able to play like you.
That was the best you’ve ever played. I only heard a few mistakes.
Did you sneak a Paul McCartney tune in your prelude?
How exactly did your song selection fit with the rest of the worship service?
I’m dizzy after hearing you play all those notes!
You sounded much better when I turned off my hearing aids.
Can you add to this list? What else should be left unsaid regarding church pianists?