I recently came across the following blooper from a church notice sheet:
“The recent church fundraising concert was a great success. Special thanks are due to the minister’s daughter, who laboured the whole evening at the piano, which as usual fell upon her.”
As a regular church pianist you may be feeling the weight (hopefully not literal) of the job you have to do each week. But the good news is that..being a helpful church pianist is actually relatively easy once you have a few principles in mind. And therefore any pianist with little training should be able to learn how to do it well with a bit of practice. In fact, its sometimes those with lots of formal training and tonnes of grades under their belts who struggle most to play church music, especially if it is off a chord sheet. To be a church pianist is a very different skill from that of a classically trained pianist.
I know that every church is different, as is every muso, and we can’t hope to cover every angle in a little blog post, so let’s run just through 3 general church music set ups and hopefully there will be something helpful in there for everyone.
1- The ‘piano only’ church
A- crystal clear introductions are vital. As the lone instrument, and especially if you have no leading vocalist, you need to give the most clear intro you possibly can. Play the first/last line of the song and maybe add an extra bar with a 5-1 chord progression at the end to reinforce when people come in, and then bang out the first sung note as hard as possible. Modern songs often have intros included that sound great, but bear no resemblance to the song and are pretty confusing if people are unsure/are newcomers. So, even if week by week this seems dull, stick at it.
B- keep links between verses short. For your comfort as well as the congregation’s!
C- if possible, play the melody line along with the congregation in at least the first verse, and if people are singing well, feel free to drop it off and improvise a little in the verses after.
D- don’t do too much. Clear rhythm is key. A steady chord per beat in the right hand and chord per bar on the left can be as clear as anything else. Too much ornamentation makes the sound too muddy and hard to follow.
E- have a strong and simple bass line. If the congregation are singing well, the bass is all they will be able to hear, so this helps to keep them in time and in tune.
2- Full band with bells on.
Let’s say this band consists of piano, acoustic guitar, solo instrument/electric guitar, vocal, bass and drums. What instrument do you think it is most important for the congregation to hear?
Surprising, the answer is not the piano. (This is good for our humility, right?!) In this scenario I would argue that piano is basically a filler. There is a lead vocal and a solo instrument, so not even in the intro am I, as the piano, required to stand out. The vocalist gives both visual and melodic direction, bassist gives depth and pitch, drums give rhythm, and guitar and piano simply give the middle ground and support the rhythm.
The temptation for pianists in this scenario tends to be to do too much. So we play the melody when there are two other band members can do that, or we play heavy bass when the bass guitar has this more than adequately covered. Or worst of all we just get overexcited and doodle. This makes the overall sound of the band muggy. So in this case, unless specifically told differently by your band leader, how about imagining yourself as part of the rhythm section. Adopt the principle in point 1d, perhaps venturing up an octave so that you and the guitar aren’t always playing the same notes, and just blend!
3- Little band.
Many of the same principles as big band apply here, except that you can think through what is missing from the band, and try to fill that in. So if you have no bass, beat out a steady octave with your left hand. If you have no melody instrument, get your right hand up there and play the tune. If you have no drums, make sure you are as steady as a rock and not too flamboyantly wiggly.
And in both ‘band’ scenarios, be sure and listen to the other instruments. A band is a team, we don’t want to outdo each other, we want to compliment. And if in doubt, less is probably more.
Many of these tips seem simplistic and dull, but it’s good to remember that we aren’t there to play beautiful, intricate music that will make people look at us and marvel! It is not our concert. We are there to help people sing to our amazing God, and to encourage each other, which may mean often playing less than we can.
On a more practical note, I think that often the most useful church pianists are those who can improvise, even a little. With much modern church music being written by guitarists, and then provided as chord sheets or badly written sheet music, and also with a lot of older church music being a bit too musically busy (for want of a better phrase), the ability to simplify and improvise is a gift. And thankfully it is a skill that I think any pianist can learn to a certain extent. So if you can’t already, give it a go.
Most church music is written in one of 6 keys: C, D, E, F, G, and A, with the odd Bb thrown in. So how about setting yourself the task of improving in a different key each week. Get some chord sheets off the internet and see how you get on. The more you do it the easier it becomes. Especially as most church music follows the same chord progressions, so after a while, the patterns come naturally. If you have a keyboard with a transpose button, winner! It means you never need to know how to play in Eb- my personal nemesis. (Just be sure you switch it off again before the next song… Although if you forget once, you never will again…)
Finally, make sure you spend time looking at the words you are helping people to sing. I know a minister who maintains that if a musician is unable to play and praise at the same time, it is better that they don’t play. His point is clear- that the more important thing is to be corporately praising our God with our church family, so be sure to join in with the rest of the congregation as much as possible. Play in a way that expresses the words and sing them in your heart if you can’t out loud, because we are part of his people, and more than anything else we have a God who is more than worthy of our praise!