Contemporary Christian Music and the Piano

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Contemporary Christian music has re-defined the role of the church pianist.

Most music played in churches today falls into one of 2 categories. I’ll call them “rhythm driven” and “melody driven.” Most contemporary music is rhythm driven. In their original performance, rhythmic songs are performed without piano. The music is led and supported by a praise band (drums, guitar, electric bass & keyboard) and vocalists. The only reason we use piano in rhythm driven music is because we have pianos and pianists in our churches. If we didn’t have grand pianos on our platforms, we’d never get a piano to do rhythm driven music.

In traditional church music, before we had drums and guitars, the piano and organ were the lead instruments in worship. They were the only instruments, they played from hymnals and other printed music, they played all the notes on the page, and were even expected to embellish the music, adding to the notes on the page. Piano & organ worked very well together. The musical style was well suited to these instruments. However, today’s rhythmic music is a stylistic polar opposite to the melodic and harmonic sounds of our hymns and gospel songs. It might be well to point out that when guitars were first introduced into our churches, they found it difficult to play the traditional songs.

So your church has a grand piano, you’re the pianist and now you have to play these rhythmic songs with the praise band. What do you do? I’ve got a few suggestions.

I believe the first thing church pianists must do is realize they are now part of a team, the praise band. Being part of a band means that you need to play fewer notes. I’ve heard this analogy: if there are 5 band members, think of only playing a fifth of the notes.  The more instruments in the band, the less each instrument needs to play. So don’t give in to the tendency to play all of the notes. After all, most of these contemporary songs were played and performed before any notes were written on the page.

Second, learn to play chords and rhythms. Its very difficult to find piano parts for rhythmic music that are written well for the piano. If a written accompaniment does not sound good on the piano and is not relatively easy to play, don’t play it. Instead, learn the chords and play them. Start simple. Start out playing just the chords on whole notes and half notes. Let the guitar player add the rhythm. Learn to add your own simple rhythms. Learn what you can add to strengthen the accompaniment as you become more familiar with the song and the style. Eventually, you will be able to add strength, character, color, ambiance and variety to the sound of the band.

Third, don’t play the melody. The melody will be sung. Contemporary bands play chords and rhythms. The bass line is about as much melody as the bands ever play. Melody is sometimes used in instrumental intros and bridges. Melodic passages often connect the gaps between the sung phrases, or lead from a held note to the continuation of the melody. The electric lead guitar often plays this melodic material.

As the pianist, you can easily add melodic material. You can play those lead guitar rifs if you don’t have an electric guitar. You can play phrases that lead into a sung line. You can add music to held notes and lead into the next sung phrase. You are always an accompanist. You will almost never play the melody. Let the congregation sing the melody.

Fourth, if you have a bass player, don’t play the low bass notes. Both of you playing the bass notes will muddy up the sound. When I played a little (and I mean a very little) jazz in college, the director told me to sit on my left hand. That would be good advice. Keep your left hand right below your right thumb. For sure, don’t ever play low chords with the left hand. I wouldn’t chord anything below the F under middle C on the piano. However, if the bass player is gone, be prepared to add a good, low, strong bass line.

Finally, be versitile. Be creative. Be willing to learn new styles. Be willing to sit there and sing if there’s nothing the piano can add. Be joyful. Work on the skills needed to perform your instrument to the best of your ability for the glory of God.

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The Church Pianist

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I am seeking a pianist for my church. In this day and age, the role of the church pianist has changed. So perhaps this would be an appropriate platform to share my thoughts what a church pianist is expected to do.

First, I believe a church pianist should hold the same faith values as the church. Because music is so important to our churches, sometimes we’ll hire a pianist regardless of their faith, which is not wrong. Its just not ideal. In any situation, however, the pianist must have a willingness to work under direction and work as part of a team.

Second, the pianist needs to be versatile. Ideally, the church pianist needs to:

  • Sightread well
  • Play written music
  • Play by ear
  • Play melodic based music
  • Play rhythm driven music
  • Be the lead instrument
  • Be part of an ensemble
  • Accompany choir, solos, instruments, etc.
  • Play music for prayer & scripture reading, etc.
  • Play alone
  • Not play at all
  • Be willing to learn

I thought the list would be longer, its probably not complete, but it’s a list that requires many different skills. Its also hard to find a pianist who can do most of the list well. For example, most pianists grew up taking piano lessons, learning to play just the notes on the page. Other pianists, however, learn to play by listening to the music, and can’t read music at all. A church pianist needs to be able to do both, in varying degrees. These two disciplines are hard to find in one pianist.

Since its so rare to find a pianist who can do everything on the list, I’d like to have a pianist who can sightread, play music well and accompany the choir. I can teach them to do the other things.

Is there anybody out there who has “heard the call?”