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! 🙂 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.

  • Lanise Killingsworth June 30, 2017 at 7:15 am

    Thank you so much for your sharing this with me.
    It is somewhat encouraging and very comforting to know that I am not alone in the struggle.
    All of these points have been a struggle at one time or another. I want to use my God given talent and not have negative thoughts.
    One problem I have had in trying to transition from traditional to contemporary music is the chord format……no music…..lyrics with a chord over certain words …no time signatures or information that written music provides. I have managed to “learn” chords but the struggle is real. Old dog….new tricks.
    And I am no longer referred to as the pianist….but a keyboardist! 😳
    Again….thank you for your input and look forward to your wonderful arrangements!
    Lanise Killingsworth

  • As one who was a church musician for many many years, I can relate to most of the responses in this post. I am fortunate to be in a church that realizes the importance of letting piano students get experience, and many of my students have benefited from this. I have started to teach my students how to read lead sheets. I want them to be useful with their piano skills. I also make them play simple hymns in every key utilizing the chords they have learned in their scale work and theory–this also develops the ear. As to the difficulty level of “offertory” type arrangements, a “normal” piano student does better with an intermediate level piece that is not too long. Their attention span lapses and they lose their motivation if a piece is too long or involved. Personally I would rather play an upper intermediate or early advanced piece as I can relay the message of the song better if I’m not worried about “getting in all the notes.” More gifted performers probably prefer harder and could carry them off. Our choir has sung your arrangements from time to time. I appreciate what you are doing and hope the Lord continues to bless you.

  • I am one of those “lone” church pianists and doing it for a little over 30 years. It’s pretty much a given that I will show up whenever there is a meeting or special service going on. It does tend to get me a little frustrated and makes me feel somewhat guilty if I say no. But I am grateful for the gift God has given to me and I want to use it for His glory. Our church is a small nondenominational church so alot of the proper “manners” of quietness and worshipfulness of the congregation coming into the sanctuary goes out the window. I just try to keep any prelude I do, very simple and nonflashy.
    The concern I’m having with any prelude I may do is trying to keep the music relevant to my audience. Today’s audience is not so much into the hymns that I grew up on and love, but rather with the “praise” music. I was told in my college music classes that if we are using praise and worship songs in our singing, we should also balance them with the meat of the great hymns of the faith.
    For me, I don’t tend to use a practiced written arrangement for preludes…I just sort of take a hymn and simply embellish it for the few minutes I have. I would like to have an intermediate level song with interesting chord structures that I could put together in say, an hour of practice so I could play it quietly in the background on Sunday morning. I’m having trouble finding praise and worship songs that are in a simple arrangement. I don’t want to only play hymns for the older members but I want to also make it interesting for the younger listeners as they come in. I used to play more difficult piano solos when I was a little younger, but I am at the point where I want to keep things a little simpler. Perhaps we could bounce some ideas off of others within this blog and share what has worked for each. Thanks for this avenue of sharing.

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