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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Some Thoughts on Worship Atmosphere

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On my Sunday off I had a unique opportunity to worship in another church. I’d like to comment about their atmosphere for worship. It seems that worship today has become so performance oriented. I know that worship is performance for God, yet it seems we on the stage are performing for the folks in the pews. Even though we on the stage are trying to worshiping God ourselves, I believe the folks in the pew often feel like its those on the stage performing for them. We are expected to “perform” in a certain way, with a degree of proficiency, with a degree of professionalism. I know we are supposed to do our best for God’s glory, yet I feel this type of atmosphere is not conducive to an atmosphere of worship.

At Christ Church, the atmosphere was different. It was non-performance. It was non-professional. I’m not being critical. This is a positive comment. Let me explain.

Someone put together an order of worship. Songs were chosen. Charts were provided for the worship team I sang with, and I think we were following the keyboardist. At least I was. We gathered before the service, went through most of the songs one time, took a few minutes break, then started the service.
We didn’t rehearse to get all the right notes. We didn’t worry about not having a bass player or a drummer. We just gathered who was there and worshiped. We weren’t on a stage, weren’t even in the center. We stood off to one side of the platform, on the same level as the congregation, and just worshiped. No one stood front and center leading worship. No one had to encourage the congregation to sing along. There was no anthem or solo. It was just a bunch of folks gathering to worship God together. The atmosphere was conducive to worship.

I’ve been thinking of ways to create this atmosphere in my church. Its going to be challenge. There is a big, elevated platform (stage). I’ve always lead from the front of the stage, sometimes from a keyboard, sometimes without a pulpit. I try to lead the congregation with gestures, encouraging words and a loud voice. (God gave me a big voice, and I like using it.) I would really like to create an atmosphere for worship that is not perceived as performance for anyone but God. I want to create an atmosphere where everyone can worship God, not just those on the stage.

I just hope our folks will realize that if I’m doing something new and different, I’m trying to lead us all in worship of Almighty God. I’m not just trying to be different for the sake of being different. We humans so easily get into ruts. The worship of God is one thing that should never be “rutualistic.” You can’t get out of a rut without changing direction.

Let’s all worship God!

Brad