The Church Pianist Experience versus the Prog Rock/Jazz Keyboardist

Last New Year’s Eve was very memorable for me. It was one of those rare occasions that happens a few years or so when a church requires a pianist. It’s another case of a regular pianist/organist becoming unavailable and I’m asked to fill in. It’s no accident that such times happen, and I do think it is God speaking through those people to call me up and help in their worship service. Therefore, December 31, 2012 became the second time that I was able to perform some music at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines – Makati Church of Christ Disciples (UCCP-MCCD for short). This piece is actually for people who are interested or called into becoming a church organist or pianist, and I would like to share what little experience I have in this field.

First, I’d like to provide a little disclaimer: I am not an authority on being a church pianist or organist. I have much more experience as a keyboardist/pianist in a progressive rock band than a pianist/organist for a typical Christian worship service that favors hymns from centuries past. There are many similarities yet there are notable differences.

  1. First obvious similarity is the instrument. ‘Nuff said.
  2. Second similarity is the need for repertoire knowledge and technical keyboard skills. Just like playing in a progressive rock or a worship band, you need to have some good chops because hymns are not easy to play. The ability to sight read is also a necessity because unless you have impeccable memory you only have a few hours to practice and get your repertoire for the service at a considerable level.
  3. Third similarity is the the need for improvisation. In certain sections of the worship service, the need to improvise becomes apparent such during certain sections for prayer, offertories on occasion, etc.
  4. The last one and most important similarity is the need for synchronicity between pianist and choir/congregation. In a worship service, almost everybody will sing, and the church congregation is always an active participant in the music making experience. Just like the prog rock or jazz keyboardist, a church pianist must be able to play in sync with the congregation’s flow and momentum.

When I say playing in sync with the congregation’s flow and momentum, I mean to say that a pianist should have the attitude that the congregation would become a band or ensemble member and that the pianist will treat the congregation as such. This goes both ways:  Sometimes, a church pianist will dictate the tempo and overall mood of the piece/hymn through his playing (unless the choir conductor takes charge of that). There are also times when the pianist has to adjust his playing in accordance to how a congregation would typically sing. One example I can think of is this: There are congregations that are used to singing a hymn in a particular key other than it was originally written. A church pianist must be able to transpose such hymns on the fly. A church pianist would have an easier time playing a hymn as written when a congregation consists mostly of members with some form of musical training. In cases where a congregation has little or no training at all, a pianist must be prepared to adjust accordingly. The worst experience I had regarding this was a congregation that tends to sing hymns in different keys after each stanza. Whew! That was challenging.

Now, let’s take a look into some differences between being a church pianist and a prog rock or jazz keyboardist:

  1. The instrument: A church pianist playing in a service where old-style 16th- to 18th-century hymns are in order only has a piano and/or an organ. Prog rock and jazz tends to be free and experimental, and therefore they can call upon a wide array of sounds as their instruments can call up. Keyboardists in a contemporary worship band have the same options as guys who play in prog rock bands.
  2. Repertoire: Church pianists would typically play the classic hymns. Prog rock keyboardists go anywhere from renaissance-era music to contemporary.
  3. Improvisation: While church pianists have the need to be able to improvise, their improvisations cannot be indulgent! No shred piano for me while in a church service. When I function as a church pianist, I can’t play blindingly fast and aggressive a la Franz Liszt. Prog rock and jazz keyboardists can be all over the place and blaze away with solos that rival Spinal Tap proportions.

Being a church pianist is an exercise in restraint and control. While I am required to have some considerable chops and precision, you need to be able to hold back and only play what is necessary. You can improvise but you cannot chop up your keyboard like Keith Emerson stabbing his L-100 Hammond organ. Such control is VERY important because the goal of being that sort of musician is to facilitate the congregation to focus on God through music and not focus on the musician.

Here’s some advice for aspiring church pianists and organists:

Learn the material: Get into the habit of sight reading hymnals every day. Make it a goal to commit to memory popular hymns like “Amazing Grace”, “How Great Thou Art”, etc. even if you can manage to play the melody at minimum.

Learn how to improvise: Improvisation helps in many ways. First, you can compose some lovely pieces on the fly and on the spot for sections of the worship service like the prelude/postlude, prayer time, offertory, etc. Second, given the fact that playing all four voices of hymns can be difficult to manage at times (e.g. intervals that go up to the 12th and 13th, unless you have really huge hands like Rachmaninoff!), being able to improvise an accompaniment based on the melody of the hymn is VERY important.

Brush up on music theory and ear training: This helps prepare you for improvisation, which is essentially an application of both disciplines.

The most important thing to take note of is pray to thank the Lord for such an opportunity to serve. Thank the Lord for allowing you to become an instrument for his glory. Also ask the Lord for necessary strength for the task. All that preparation will always fall short without the strength of God.

My pastor friends tell me that that particular instance of being a church pianist/accompanist is God’s calling. I have no doubt that in that particular day, God led me to that path in order to serve. However, I still don’t know if God would want me to go towards that direction in the long run. What I am certain is that that it’s one sign that the Lord has called me to be involved in a very musical life. I’d like to emphasize once more that it is not out of my own strength and skill that has made me capable. It’s only through the Lord that I gain the confidence go ahead and be a church pianist, even it if it’s just for one particular day. This experience always reminds me of Philippians 4:13 which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

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