An Unexpected Surprise: Fanboy Elation

Lunchtime around this period of my life consists of a single cup of homemade Greek yogurt mixed in with honey and some sugar-free strawberry preserves. As I was eating my lunch and reviewing my GuitarZoom transcription work, I get this friend request from Michael Shawn Turner. After accepting it, he suddenly tells via a private message something like, “Hey are you the guy who wrote this? ” And then I realized I was talking to one of my heroes: Battery’s Mike Turner!

I was very much surprised. I never would have thought one of my heroes would start to speak to me, let alone read my blog! Anyway, to cut the somewhat long story short, it was a very pleasant exchange. He even wished me well in my search for a new drummer. Afterwards, he explained the reason why Battery ceased to exist: he flew to Los Angeles. It was as simple as that!

I remember saying in my blog that I regret not purchasing any of Battery’s albums back in the day. Mike Turner revealed to me that all of Battery’s songs are available via his Reverbnation page: http://www.reverbnation.com/michaelshawnturner/songs. Now I know that I can enjoy Battery’s music via the web.

I cannot thank Mike Turner enough for being an inspiration and for giving me a fragment of his time.

Before I end this piece, I’d like to share with you folks Mike’s latest project called booRADLEY. They started an Indiegogo campaign, so please visit the page and offer your support. I’m very sure that it’s a decision worth taking into consideration:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/booradley-join-our-journey

A Jazz-Prog-Rock Fusion Band’s Early Beginnings

Since going for anything musical full time in a professional capacity, I decided to form my very own jazz-prog-rock band with two guys from graduate school, namely Diamond Manuel on trombone and Jeffrey Abanto on guitar, bassist RJ Sy (Karl Roy Band, Kastigo, etc.), and drumming virtuoso and chef KC Puerto. Together, we’re Hi-5! Nah, just kidding. We’re an unnamed jazz-prog-rock fusion band that is currently in its infancy. The video above is an excerpt from our two-hour first rehearsal session together where we had the audacity to take a crack at Alan Pasqua’s “Proto Cosmos” (popularized by the Tony Williams’ Lifetime band and Allan Holdsworth). I am quite pleased with our first session together as we were able to go through a somewhat tricky piece and survive it, hahaha! Other than this piece, we also had loads of fun with a free improvisation session. Hopefully, we’ll start working on original music as well as a couple of covers to spice things up.

The spark of it, all, however, was this free improv session with Diamond:

The Search for Christian Progressive Rock

About 9 years ago, when I was looking for progressive rock bands that were Christian in orientation, I first found out about Kerry Livgren’s work both with Kansas and then with Proto-Kaw and his solo work:

Afterwards, I discovered Ajalon:

Then I discovered Glass Hammer:

A few years after that, progressive rock giant Neal Morse became Christian (although he kind of misunderstands what the Trinity is all about; his views sound like a mix of tritheism and modalism):

It doesn’t really do any justice by just watching these clips. Keep in mind that Christian progressive rock (like secular prog) is known for suites and concepts albums so it’s always best to listen to entire albums to understand the big picture i.e. the love of God manifested through Jesus Christ.

Prog/Dream Theater Fan Humor with PSMS and Devin Townsend @ Sea

I’m a Dream Theater fan. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I like every Dream Theater album, and that includes the much reviled “Falling Into Infinity”. This is the band that got me into prog in the first place. Though largely known for extremely lengthy complex prog metal masterpieces like “Scenes From a Memory”, they do have good short tunes too, like this one:

This, my readers, is “Burning My Soul”, a rather serious hate/rant song with lyrics by Mike Portnoy. It was originally a lengthy song with a slower tempo instrumental section (which became, through executive meddling and producer manipulation, a separate instrumental called “Hell’s Kitchen”). Anyway, enough of that history. It’s a pretty serious sounding song, right? The video above demonstrates a fragment of Dream Theater’s impeccable musicianship skills. However, my new favorite version of this song is this bootleg video from “Progressive Nation at Sea 2014”, performed by ex-DT members Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian (Keys) with Tony MacAlpine (Guitar), Billy Sheehan (Bass). and Devin Townsend on vocals and stand-up comedy antics:

One comment posted said that this is a train wreck done in style. I’d say in great humourous style. It’s as if Frank Zappa came to life with Devin Townsend’s vocal cords. If you’re a musician and a fan of Dream Theater and Devin Townsend, I would bet that you will find this to be funny. If you’re not enjoying and laughing at this then I feel very sorry for you.

Early Evening at Cycfi Research, Inc.

Last Saturday, I got invited by the man behind the Cycfi Alpha, Mr. Joel de Guzman, to visit his facility somewhere in Quezon City to discuss ideas and possibilities regarding music as well as the innovative projects he undertakes. Realizing that this was one of those opportunities that I should not miss, I gave Joel my schedule and when I would be able to go visit. Fast forward to around 5:45 p.m. yesterday, I was with my son at the gates of what appeared to be a 21st-century-state-of-the-art residence, complete with tight security, a laboratory, and a properly built and well equipped studio. The first impression I got was he pushed the concept of SoHo to the extreme. The gate was opened and Joel welcomed us into his home office and conference room.

Joel de Guzman Cycfi Research Inc

(Mr. Joel de Guzman)

Joel de Guzman is one of those rare, forward-thinking individuals. He is an IT consultant, software developer, musician, instrument maker, and open-source advocate. It’s not off target to say that he’s the local Bob Moog. He strongly believes in give-and-you-shall-receive philosophy so much that he posts his designs and concepts freely on the web which include his hexaphonic pickup design and the carbon-fiber/glass truss rod. He is a living testimony of a person who has been blessed so much because of his belief in giving. One could easily see that the gates and storehouses of heaven have opened up for him because of his unselfish attitude in life.

We talked about a lot of things, mostly exciting and forward-looking ideas for making music. Right there and then, I realized that I was in a presence of a genius. The things we were talking about were mindblowing to say the least. Joel was particular about how he could use waveshaping to explore new timbres and techniques when using the full-range hexaphonic pickup that he has been developing. The math of it all was mind-boggling to me (being a person who has struggled with math) but I guess I had enough knowhow to understand how I could use it. The idea of synthesis using the guitar’s strings and pickups as an oscillator has been expored by a number of other institutions. Companies like EHX have played with the idea by developing the POG and HOG pedals and Moog Music even has its own guitar for that purpose, but Joel made me realize that you could do more than that with his full-range pickup, a parametric EQ, and a waveshaper. He also had the idea of hiring me as his child’s music theory tutor. Sadly, I could not accommodate his request, given the distance I would have to travel to go there and give lessons.

After discussing ideas about how we could work together, Joel gave us a tour of his facility. The Alpha prototype was in the process of a paint job so he was not able to demonstrate how it sounded like. We went into his recording studio and he showed me a Fender Stratocaster with the prototype hex pickup installed. The pickup sounded rich on a Marshall combo that the guitar was plugged into. More than that, the hexaphonic output of his pickup was also connected to his Logic Pro based DAW. How it sounded like was something I have never heard on any other guitar. It was phenomenal! Imagine having individual control over each string having its own excusive output routed to a dedicated channel. Andres Segovia once said that the guitar is an orchestra unto itself. Joel’s hexaphonic pickup pushes that to a whole new level. I was very fortunate enough to have tried it for myself.

Mark@Cycfi Research Inc 01-28-2014

(The author smiling like an idiot with Joel’s Fender Strat and the Cycfi Hexaphonic Pickup)

It sounded crazy good with each string having a different position in the sound field starting with the low E string panned hard right and the high E string panned hard left. Since the pickup had a flat frequency response of 20 to 20,000 Hz, you could do all kinds of things with it and a parametric EQ. One of Joel’s intentions in developing this pickup is to disprove the idea that a full-range pickup is brittle sounding. Upon strumming my first chord on his guitar, I realized that he was right. Noodling with Joel’s Strat for a bit made me see all sorts of things that you can do with it. Some of the more basic things I thought I can do with it is faking an acoustic guitar with a solid-body electric (without the need for piezo saddles) and simulate any kind of pickup. That’s just the tip of the iceberg! Applying distortion to it while it is rigged in a hexaphonic manner was very interesting: full triads sounded very nice and very different. Rather than the aggressive high gain sound you usually expect from your typical humbuckers running into Marshall stack, it sounded more like a guitar orchestra. You could actually play your thirds with the gain all the way up to 10 without sounding harsh or dissonant. I could already imagine setting up six amps in a room or hall, surrounding both guitarist and audience, with each string’s signal going through each amp, exuding music like you’ve never heard before. An added bonus is that the pickup is so quiet even with distortion that the only thing a noise gate would do in this instance is to turn down the ambiance from the amp itself. Another thing currently in development is for this pickup to function as a sustainer. Once Cycfi Research finalizes the design of this pickup, I’m very sure that the serious musician will have to rethink about how to make a sound with a guitar. The question of single-coil versus humbucker would not matter with this kind of pickup. Rather than getting a pickup installed to give your guitar a certain kind of character, you can get the exact kind of voicing you want with this hexaphonic pickup by just using EQ.

Cycfi Hexaphonic Pickup Prototype

(Cycfi Research Hexaphonic Pickup Prototype)

To cut the story short, I was very happy and honored to have met Joel. I hope that this will be the start of a mutually beneficial working relationship. More important than that is the fact that I have met a new friend who has the same sort of passion that I have for something new in music, finding ways to make music that’s really progressive.

To find out more about Joel and his projects, visit http://www.cycfi.com.

An Electric Guitar, a Tube Amp, a Hymn, and the Dream of an Electric Guitar Orchestra

The idea of having an electric guitar is nothing new. It’s been done before in the studio by the likes of Brian May and in live situations by somebody like Glenn Branca. However, that does not stop me from being fascinated by it. As a matter of fact, I still dream of establishing a purely electric guitar orchestra in the Philippines. I don’t know if that idea has already been implemented in this godforsaken country where I live but I hope to turn that idea into reality.

Anyway, as I was going through and studying the hymns that will be sung at the UCCP-MCCD on Sunday, I ended playing our benediction hymn (“The Lord Bless You and Keep You”) on the piano. The idea then came to me to create a test recording of my electric guitar plugged into a tiny tube amp,  a Bugera BC15 (a hybrid actually with a tube preamp and solid state power section). Okay, I know some snobbish gearhead somewhere in cyberspace would have their negative impressions of it but who cares anyway? As long as it can do what I need, I’m happy. Guess what the piece I used for the test recording. It’s the benediction hymn. Not much of a puzzle at all, right?

So, I plugged my guitar into the amp, mic’ed up my amp with my trusty old condenser mic, took the hymnal from the piano and into the other piano (where my recording equipment is located), and I began reading through all the parts while recording. Since it’s SATB, I recorded each part into four different tracks, mixed everything, performed some post-production processing, and ended up with this:

 

So, on face value it seems like I’m trying to channel a cheap Brian May impression. Brian May is, after all, Brian May, and nobody could match what he could do. The point here really is not imitating Brian May (although it somewhat sounds like it), but experimenting and figuring out how a tiny amp and an electric guitar would sound like as an ensemble instrument. It’s kind of like an electric rondalla ensemble, the kind of thing I’m dreaming about. For my ears, it sounds nice although opinions by others may vary. I’m happy that I could realize something like an electric guitar orchestra in a studio setting.

This got me into thinking: I suppose it really is possible for me to organize an electric guitar orchestra here in the Philippines. The thing required to turn this into reality is to get around 12 note-reading guitarists equipped with their electric guitars and tiny amps (with overdrive). This, however, is fraught with certain problems:

1. In a performance situation, having at least 12 guitar amps would be difficult to control. No matter how tiny they can be, each amp can be really loud. This leads us to problem number 2:

2. There are lead guitarists that have an inflated sense of ego. They would complain they are not loud enough, so they would turn up their volume. Eventually everybody starts competing for volume. It can be a big headache.

3. Financing such a project can be expensive. To sum it up, I cannot afford it and the future of an electric guitar orchestra being financially compensated for what it’s worth seems nil.

Possible solutions include:

1. Hooking up each amp into a mixing board. However, the entire point of an electric guitar orchestra is to simulate an acoustic one i.e. I will treat an electric guitar and an amp as a single instrument. Positioning each amplifier in different sections of the performance hall is essential in how I perceive an electric guitar orchestra should sound like. Hooking up each amp to a mixing board with the output ultimately coming from PA loudspeakers would completely destroy the ambient effect I am looking for.

2. Hiring for attitude, training for skill. I should try to employ humble and open-minded guitarists willing to learn how to read notation. I should avoid those who try to be extra special with egos bigger than Yngwie Malmsteen.

3. Getting a grant and looking for sponsors. Perhaps I should turn this into a proposal for a local arts society or foundation and see if they would finance me. Are there local foundations out there who would give a rat’s ass about a project like this? I don’t know. I could try finding if I got the time. Perhaps there might be a couple of rich people out there who have the money for such.

I wonder if this electric guitar orchestra dream of mine could become a reality here in the Philippines. Maybe somebody out there would support it.

Dealing with the Six-String Bass Guitar

The electric bass guitar certainly has a very interesting history. If it were a person, you would know that one of its ancestors was the orchestral double bass and from the other side is the electric guitar. Most people would know a bass guitar to be a four-stringed instrument, but as bass players wanted to extend the range of their instruments, instruments with more than four strings have been developed, the five-stringed version with the low B being very popular. However, I have chosen to go one string further with a six-string bass.

I started playing a four-string bass when I was a teen and then I went up to five, and then more recently the six-string bass. While there are those who hate the six-string bass by being too much to handle, I personally love the instruments flexibility and range. I’m assuming people didn’t realize that the six-string bass was supposed to make people’s lives easier. If you’re surprised that I’m saying that, try playing a two-octave arpeggio over a four string. I’m quite sure that it’s a stretch. On a six-string bass, you can play the same arpeggio over just a span of six frets. If I use the four-string technique on the six-string, I could cover three octaves.

The way I chose my tuning is a matter of convenience. For a while I was playing my six-string bass in the standard fashion: all fourths from B to C. It was wonderful at first. But being a guitarist as well, the C at the 1st string can sometimes be off putting. I could manage with that C well, but I wanted my guitar technique to translate into my bass playing. This is why I decided to tune my bass like a baritone guitar (an octave lower of course) and so the tuning is (from 6th to 1st string) is B, E, A, D, F#, B. It’s a step higher than the Guitarron Mexicano. The great thing about this tuning is that I could use my guitar techniques, one of the most important is the CAGED system. I could also use certain techniques I’ve learned from fingerstyle guitar i.e. classical/flamenco-style tremolo, barre chords, etc. Rather than putting energy into learning techniques specific to the standard six-string bass tuning, I’d like to concentrate more on writing and making music and so the baritone guitar tuning helps a lot by saving up my neurons for something else. It’s just more efficient for me that way.

Given the size of the neck, the six-string bass guitar can be unwieldy. Thus I am not surprised why John Myung wants his six-string bass guitar to have a neck width comparable to just a five-string. At this point, I really can’t have a choice on that matter. It’s rather difficult to find a six-string bass guitar in the Philippines unless you have one crafted for yourself, so I’m very fortunate to have found one at a budget price. All in all, the six-string bass guitar has been of great help for my music.

How to Prepare a Project and Record Audio in a DAW

Hello dear readers. It’s Mark A. Galang again in another installment of audio production tutorials. This tutorial was written in compliance to the peer review assignment requirement of the Berklee Course “Introduction to Music Production” being hosted by Coursera. I do hope that you all find this tutorial to be informative.

This tutorial features the way how I prepare a project in my DAW for recording. It also gives some insight into how I compose and record music. I use Cakewalk Sonar X1 as my DAW software. Let’s get started.

1. Sequencing the Drums

01 Sequencing the Drums

Before I actually create a project in Sonar, I usually write drum parts, orchestral parts, etc. using Sibelius 6. In this case, I just wrote the drum part for this project.

2. Exporting to MIDI

02 Exporting to MIDI

After writing the drum part in Sibelius, I would then save my work and then export it as a MIDI file to the folder of my choosing.

3. Creating a New Project

03 Creating a New Project

After opening Sonar X1, I make use of an atypical method of creating a project. I close the project creation wizard and then just drag the MIDI file I created into Sonar. Sonar will automatically open the MIDI file as a project.

4. Creating an Instrument Track

04 Creating an Instrument Track

Once the MIDI file has opened, I would then create an instrument track that would play back the MIDI data in the project. In this case, I’m using a VST instrument called EZDrummer. An instrument track is a combination of a MIDI and Audio track. The data displayed is MIDI but the playback comes from an audio source, usually a software instrument.

5. Transferring MIDI data to Instrument Track

05 Transfering MIDI Track to Instrument Track

Instead of assigning EZDrummer as the output for my MIDI track, I just simply drag the MIDI data into the instrument track and then delete the resulting empty MIDI track. The instrument track can read MIDI data anyway so I have no further use for the empty MIDI track.

6. Creating an Audio Track

06 Creating an Audio Track

I would then create an audio track next by right clicking on the empty space where the channels are supposed to be in Track View and then selecting the “Insert Audio Track” command.

7. Labeling Audio Track and Setting Up for Recording

07 Labeling Audio Track and Setting Up Channel for Recording

After creating the audio track, I would then label the audio track. In this instance, I’m recording a bass guitar track so I simply label it “Bass”. Afterwards, I select the appropriate input source for my audio track. In this case, my bass is connected to the left instrument input of my audio interface and so I select the left one in my DAW. If I select it this way, I will be able to record my bass part in mono.

8. Saving as a Project File

08 Saving as a Project File

Because Sonar opened my project as a MIDI file, it cannot save audio data yet. I would then save the project as a “Normal” CWP (Cakewalk Project) file with the “Copy All Audio With Project” option ticked so that I can assign the project and audio data folders for easier file management.

9. Arming the Audio Track for Recording

09 Arming the Audio Track for Recording

Before I begin recording, I then click on the red button in my audio track so that it would be “armed” for recording. Once the audio track is armed, I check my instrument’s recording levels on my audio interface and on the DAW. I am now ready to record my bass parts.

10. Setting up Metronome/Click and Countoff

10 Setting up Metronome or Click and Countoff

Before I start recording, I check my metronome/click and then see if I have the correct settings. I prefer using an audio click rather than MIDI and I set up the record count in to just “1”. Since the time signature in my project is 7/8 with a tempo of 100 bpm (in quarter notes), I expect to hear seven fast clicks before the DAW starts recording my audio.

11. Recording an Audio Track

11 Recording Audio

Once the levels are set and the audio track is armed, I start recording by pressing “R” on my computer keyboard. I count along to the count-in clicks (one, two, three, four, five, six, sev) and then start playing my bass parts. Once I’m done recording, I press the space bar to stop.

12. Cloning an Audio Track for a Second Take

12 Cloning an Audio Track for Second Take

Because I need to have a couple of recorded options, I record a number of takes. To do this, I just clone the audio channel where my bass is recorded. To do this, I just right-click on my audio track and select the option “Clone Track”. Sonar will then duplicate the audio track in its entirety.

13. Setting up Cloned Audio Track for a Second Take

13 Setting Up Cloned Audio Track for Second Take

The cloned audio track contains all of the data from the previous audio track, including recorded audio. Therefore, I would delete the recorded audio from the cloned track in order to empty it so I can begin recording a second take. To lessen distractions, I would then mute the original audio track before I record my second take.

14. Recording a Second Take

14 Recording a Second Take

Once my cloned audio track is ready, I would then record a second take following the steps mentioned a while ago.

After completing all of these steps, I think the entire effort went well. I was able to set up a project and record an audio track. Upon reviewing the project, I think that I should have saved the project immediately as a normal DAW project before setting up the audio track so that I wouldn’t run into a problem later should the application crash. Some of the steps I took to create the DAW project are atypical. However, this fits my usual workflow which involves composing and notating music first before recording audio.

For those who are interested, here’s the track I recorded for this particular tutorial:

I hope that you all have enjoyed reading and learning about recording audio in a DAW through this post. Thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you. If you have any feedback, comments, or constructive criticism, please feel free to let me know as I would love to learn new things as well.

The Kurzweil PC88: My Present-Day Gig Instrument

Today I’d like to talk about my present band practice and gig instrument, the Kurzweil PC88 Performance Controller Keyboard. Why would I do so? Because I like this instrument very much, plain and simple. For any of you out there looking for a review of this fine instrument, read on.

Before I discuss the ins and outs of this instrument, I’d like to tell a brief history about how I stumbled across this “portable” stage piano and eventually became its owner. I was looking for a portable 88-key replacement for a Yamaha SY-77 I had sold a few years back. In July 2012, I browsed through the Philmusic classifieds and found a seller who was selling a PC88. The price seemed reasonable, and then I thought to myself I could use something a bit similar to Jordan Rudess’s Kurzweil K2600. To cut the long story short, I bought it and have been using it since then.

The Kurzweil PC88 was exactly what I was looking for, a keyboard with a pianistic range and some very good sounds. My favorite patches in it are “Classical Piano”, “Suitcase E. Piano”, a number of organ sounds and the “Slow Digital Pad”. In my mind, these sounds should serve as my bread and butter presets. My particular unit is the “MX” variety so it also has a general MIDI bank and a generous 64-note polyphony. Because it’s not a synth, its selection of sounds is limited but it has powerful layering capabilities via the “MIDI Setup” mode where you can layer four sounds, each of which has its individual volume slider. In a limited way, you can create some fantastic patches with real-time control over each sound. Whether I’m playing progressive rock, praise and worship music, or jazz, I can pretty much cover good ground.

I’m not really doing multitrack orchestral stuff with it so 64 notes is pretty generous for my purpose. The feel or touch of its key bed is definitely weighted, similar to the feel of a Yamaha grand I had used about 4 years ago in a company Christmas party, but has a bit of a springy bounce that you will never find in an acoustic piano. How would I know? It’s because it feels very different from the acoustic upright piano I use at home. The rugged metal casing provides me with confidence that it would withstand the rigors of playing out.

As much as I love this instrument, it is not without its faults. I bought this particular PC88 used, and so some of the lead weights were loose. I had to hire a technician to have all the weights of the key bed fixed with a stronger adhesive. My technician said that the original adhesive used doesn’t hold up well to tropical weather, and that’s why they would become loose as the instrument ages. Given the fact that it’s not a synth, I could not use the sort of analog-ish lead sounds I enjoyed in my former Yamaha SY-77, and so I have to stick to organ or piano sounds for my leads.  Lastly, the PC88 is heavy! You will not enjoy climbing up stairs lugging this keyboard on your own. When I set this up in the church (UCCP-MCCD) where I occasionally play, I usually have to ask for assistance from friend and bandmate Pastor Chaz to carry it inside the church. Yes, Kurzweil didn’t lie when it said that the PC88 was portable. They forgot to write down a caveat that it’s only portable if you have a car, if a buddy to help you carry it, or strength comparable to a well-trained athlete. If you plan on carrying it around while commuting, I’d probably laugh at you.

So, in summary, other than the initial key bed lead weight issue, the lack of decent synth lead sounds, and the weight of the instrument, the Kurzweil PC88 is a great piano analog and an impressive MIDI controller.

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.”