4 Implications For The Church Pianist
The morning service is about to begin. The pianist sits down to play the morning prelude, and after adjusting her music one last time, she lifts her hands to the keys. As she begins to play the sanctuary quickly fills with the joyous sounds of . . . Bach? Latin jazz? Gaither? Gospel?
These days, who knows? The days of “one style fits all” in church music have long since past, but even today, the breadth of musical styles being used in worship is astonishing. Where is church keyboard music heading and who will be there to play it when it gets there?
For the past forty years, music of popular culture has gradually found increased acceptance in the church as a vehicle for worship expression. When I first began playing for my church’s worship services as a high school student, “service playing” was a style in its own right and included such techniques as the liberal use of octaves, scales, and arpeggiation. These techniques, added predominantly to hymns and gospel songs, were passed on to me by my piano teacher and from watching and listening to other church pianists. This type of playing was meant to inspire more energetic singing, but also encouraged the pianist to use more of their technical prowess. Today the piano is likely to be but one of many instruments helping to lead worship, and due to changing musical styles, the songs used in worship do not lend themselves to the same sort of piano playing that was common in my youth.
Like the modern worship labels themselves, it seems to me that three types of church pianist have emerged: the “traditional” pianist, the “contemporary” pianist, and the “blended” pianist. The traditional pianist is one who is likely to have been classically trained, is most comfortable with playing printed music, and likes to “have it all in front of them.” The contemporary pianist may have had some classical training or piano lessons, but prefers to read chord charts rather than having to play exactly what’s on the page. The blended pianist has likely studied classical piano and is comfortable reading printed music, but also has the ability to play from rhythm charts.
While both the traditional pianist and the contemporary pianist have their strengths, the blended pianist is of the greatest service to the church of the future.
Music of the American church continues to diversify. Even the most traditional of worship traditions are embracing newer songs for worship. At the same time, worshipers in “contemporary” churches are looking for deeper theological expressions of worship and have begun to re-introduce hymns and liturgical elements back into worship.
What are the implications for the church pianist?
Greater diversity means new challenges
Neither the historic hymns of the church nor contemporary worship music are going anywhere. A blend of musical elements from both traditions is the new norm. For both the traditional or contemporary pianist who wants to serve the church of Jesus Christ, this means moving towards becoming a “blended” pianist.
For the traditional pianist, this may mean studying contemporary styles of playing like they studied classical piano. It might mean taking a class or private lessons in jazz piano and theory and learning how to read from a chord chart and voicing chords in contemporary styles.
For the contemporary pianist, this may mean studying privately to improve note and sight-reading skills. Some pieces of music really should be played as written.
Context is also a factor in determining musical choices: for example, one generally plays differently when part of a band versus playing alone. For all pianists, this means that whatever the style called for—classical, pop, jazz, Latin, gospel, etc.—one needs to acquaint themselves with the basic idioms of that style so as to do a credible job playing in that style. Listen to recordings of whatever style you’re trying to learn to play.
Greater diversity means new technology
Keeping up with changing technology can be a daunting task, but if you are called upon to play an electronic keyboard, make the time to learn its features thoroughly. Electronic keyboards can often have an intimidating array of abilities, but offer a wide array of color choices.
Far from being a compromise, a keyboard can help immensely in lending authenticity to a variety of worship styles. Think of the keyboard not as a “mini-piano” but as an entirely different instrument in its own right, like an organ or a collection of orchestral instruments. Learn to pick “colors” on the keyboard which will help support the singing. Often, less is more with a keyboard.
Greater diversity means new creativity
With the large range of musical options now available to the church musician, there also lies a wider range of creativity for worship planning. For example, at our Good Friday worship service last year, we included a bluesy composition about the crucifixion, “Good Friday Lament,” a folk arrangement of the hymntune, “My Song is Love Unknown,” the Gilbert Martin choral arrangement of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” the music of Taizé, as well as hymns and choruses. We moved in and out of several musical styles with no apparent whiplash, because all the pieces flowed into one theme.
Greater diversity means new servanthood
Finally, whatever one’s particular strength as a pianist, remember: it’s not about the music, it’s about the worship. Our goal as pianists is to help lead the congregation to an encounter with the living God. Anything that gets in the way of that goal is at best a distraction, and at worst, a sin. The church pianist God will use is one that is humble before Him and concerned with pointing people towards Jesus. Our job is to be good stewards of the gifts God has given us, and “fan into flame” those that have yet to be developed to their fullest potential for the glory of God.
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