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.
If you purchased music from the Koerts Music store in the last year or so, chances are very strong that you may have had an issue actually receiving your downloaded links. For those who have registered their email with the site, this wasn’t an issue, as they were able to access all former purchases from their account page. But for others, this often led to a long waiting period, in which nothing was delivered. Inevitably, I would receive a message from the buyer, and would have to manually send them the links to their download(s).
The processes of sending the links to those who didn’t automatically receive them was time consuming, and it was becoming an increasingly regular problem. I hated to have to apologize so frequently that my system was not acting the way it was supposed to act.
What led to this problem? I’m not even sure I understand. Basically, there were certain email domains (for example: @aol.com or @yahoo.com) that would reject any emails sent from my system. It was fairly random, but there were a few email domains that gave frequent problems.
What was the solution? A more reliable email delivery system. It was a project beyond the scope of my understanding. Some of you may be surprised to know that there is no team behind Koerts Music website. I’m it. I have no employees, and I certainly don’t have a web development team – though I would love one! Fortunately, I do have a friend who knows a lot about the websites, and he has helped me much over the years. Through his expertise, we were able to get the email delivery problem solved.
I’d like to be able to say that the problem has been 100% solved, but the percentage is more like 99%. Occasionally, we still have a random customer who does not receive their download links. If this happens to you, contact us right away, and I will personally make sure you receive your music as quickly as possible.
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.
So 2016 was a whirlwind year. The year in which I turned 40 gave me no time to pursue a mid-life crises, ha! My first priority has been my family. Our daughter (9 years old) enrolled in a Christian school for the first time this year. She is a social butterfly, and flourishes with friends, schedules and structure. In addition to that, we home school two of our boys, and our three year old continues to bring an overload of joy to our family.
Second has been my church ministry. Things have continued to grow and flourish. We are enjoying the second year of the implementation of our music leadership team, a group devoted to the growth and work of the ministry. I attribute much of the success of our ministry to this group of fellow laborers who love the Lord and are committed. And frankly, that describes the majority of the people I am privileged to serve with week after week. Above all, God is doing a great work at Mikado Baptist Church, and as my pastor likes to say, “we are just glad to be on the bus!”
It’s been a joy to continue to contribute to the online work here at Koerts Music. Here is a list of all the major projects I was able to accomplish in 2016, thanks to the grace of God:
- 2 new Flex Instrumental solos (Jesus Paid It All and Christ Arose) — Flex Solos are instrumentals adapted for various instruments
- A new Easter piano collection
- The new Loved piano collection
- 2 new patriotic piano collections: One Nation Under God
- We launched our new Piano Club, which has done really well. You should join it!
- 3 new African American Spirituals piano collections
- A piano duet collection: Repeat the Sounding Joy
- A new Christmas piano collection: Rejoice
In addition, about half way through 2016 I began recording and making YouTube videos of all music I produce on this website. Please check out my channel, and if you like what you see, please subscribe. I expect to continue this with all future projects.
So, it has been a very busy year, and I give all the credit to God who has allowed me to keep up at this pace.
What can you expect this year? I’m glad you asked. Here’s a few plans I have for 2017
- Continue my current pace of musical output. Perhaps even exceed expectations. There are plans for new piano collections, more duet and duo arrangements, as well as more Flex Instrumental solos.
- Continue to deliver amazing content for the Piano Club members.
- Release a new simple series, with piano collections that include arrangements that are easy.
- Releasing music by other composers, not just that James Koerts guy. 🙂
- A renewed emphasis on blogging.
Let me just park there for a moment. Blogging is, frankly, a chore for me. I find it easier to “do” ministry than to blog about it. But the longer I’m in church music ministry, the stronger my passions in the field have become. There are some things I simply want to say. There are other things that I just can’t figure out, and I’d like your input. I view it as a worthy exercise, and so it’s something I’m willing to commit to do in 2017. I don’t know if it will be once a week or more or less frequent than that. But I do plan on sharing my thoughts more often, and my whole goal is encouragement and engagement.
I realized I haven’t shared some of my recent choral music, so this post will serve to make you aware of some new and fairly new choir anthems released within the last few years. Click on the pictures to access more info such as demos, preview pages, and purchase information
Publisher description: James Koerts’s rhythmic arrangement of Patricia Mock’s uplifting Gospel song expresses gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary and underscores the message: “I’m not ashamed to sing out His story!” Add the optional rhythm to amplify your worship experience.
Forever and Until
Publisher description: This anthem of dedication beautifully expresses the believer’s desire to respond to God’s call until Christ returns. “We are here and we are Yours, lead us in Your way. May we be Your messengers tomorrow and today.”
Here’s a new piano arrangement of How Great Thou Art.
Watch the video:
I’m really excited to introduce this piano collection of piano duets: Repeat the Sounding Joy.
Watch the videos here:
These are great ways to get lots of piano arrangements, and save some money in the process. Click one of the pictures above to learn more.
Here is the newest collection in the African American Spirituals series. The titles included are: Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley * Little David, Play On Your Harp * Lord, I Want to Be a Christian (with I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me) * Ride On, King Jesus * They Crucified My Lord (He Never Said A Mumbalin’ Word) * Wayfaring Stranger * Were You There * When the Saints Go Marching In
Watch the videos:
Here’s a new piano arrangement of Higher Ground. Enjoy the corresponding video:
Here’s the video:
From time to time I discover videos on YouTube of my arrangements. I really enjoy listening to them. I’ve been very impressed with this particular YouTube user who is making some great music.
Here’s a video of the free piano hymn arrangement, For the Beauty of the Earth:
Here’s a new piano collection of African American Spirituals. It’s the first of probably four or five such collections.
As I was researching the project, I found that there were nearly 50 African American spirituals that I was familiar with. I was amazed at how much material there is! So I’m excited about future projects!
Here’s the newest solo piano video: More Love to Thee.
If the video above doesn’t display, then copy this address into your browser address bar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBGdDsQ52rg
Find the sheet music here.
Here is a new video of one of my new arrangements, It Is Well with My Soul.
Copy this link into your web browser’s address bar if you don’t see the video above: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Df9DZaZ_BpI
I’ve been very busy here lately, and I’m excited to share with you some new and exciting things. In addition to the new YouTube videos I’ve been producing lately, I’m pleased to tell you about my new piano club.
For $25 a year, this premium piano club will deliver brand new piano arrangements to your email inbox each month!
Here’s what you get with your membership:
- Monthly piano arrangement
- Accompanying audio file of the complete arrangement
- A note from James about the arrangement
- An automatic 10% discount on all future purchases
Click here (or on the picture above) to learn more and sign up.
I have finally completed all of the videos for the Loved Piano Collection. Now, when anyone wants to preview the collection, they can listen to it in its entirety.
Instead of posting each video as an individual entry, I decided to put them together as a Playlist on YouTube (and here in this blog post).
If you like it, would you subscribe to my YouTube page? I would greatly appreciate it.
Expect to see many more demos on the site in the coming months.
If you don’t see the video above, copy this url into your browser address bar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLidK6gA7gI&list=PLQm9Ioy48lI81hmFox2F2ma2cPjzOEdZ3
Here is a new video of the gospel song, Oh, How I Love Jesus:
Copy this link into your browser’s address bar if you don’t see the video above: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1QQQV3ce_g
Over time I will be introducing new videos that contain demos of my new piano arrangements. Below is my first video, an arrangement of “I Am His, and He Is Mine.”
If it doesn’t show up, copy this link into your browser’s address bar: https://youtu.be/dulDrNyOTKY
If you’d like to purchase the sheet music for this song, visit this link.