Congregational accompanying considerations (Part 2)

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In part 1 of this series, I made a statement that rhythm should be the primary focus of church musicians as a group; it is more important that they get rhythm right than melody or harmony.

As it turns out, most of you agree with me but many don’t.  So I want to flesh that idea out a bit today.

First of all, you should not assume from my statement that I am saying that rhythm is more important than the melody in music as a whole.  I did not say that.  Nor should you assume that I am trying to introduce a bunch of funky, syncopated rhythm into your music.  There is no agenda; for example, this is not a plot to get you to add rock beats to traditional hymns.

Nor am I saying the pianist has to provide the rhythmic support.  You may have another instrument that does, and if so, you are off the hook.  But many of you don’t have that luxury.  I have to take responsibility for rhythm in my church and I will tell you why in a second.

Of the three components of music, melody should be covered by the song leader along with a choir or praise team.  Some of you have rightly pointed out that there may be occasions where that is not the case.  For example, the song leader just might be challenged in singing the melody and there might not be any choir support.  In such cases, play melody if your church needs you to.  However, many if not most of you should not have to provide the melody from the piano.

On the other hand, harmony is important but let’s not go overboard.  If your church sings everything in unison, who really cares?  Most people in the pews are singing unison regardless of their range simply because they can’t hear or read parts.  While harmony makes things nicer, it is hardly necessary.

That brings us to rhythm.  Rhythm is ultra-important because it keeps everyone together and it also critical to how the music works and what it says.  And frankly, it is also the thing that almost everyone is bad at.  Most musicians are not rhythmically accurate.  That includes everyone from the piano to the song leader.  (By the way, if that includes you, I am right there with you.)  To make matters worse, if musicians are not accurate, what do you think that means about the non-musicians in the audience?

It is important to note that the piano is one of the few instruments that can reliably provide rhythmic support in a traditional church.  An organ does not unless it is played in an un-organ kind of way.  Strings? No.  Woodwinds? Maybe but not likely. 

I don’t have nothing against those instruments of course.  They all have their strengths but they don’t do the job here.  For example, at the end of a verse of  “Amazing Grace,” here is what an organist is typically going to play:


It sounds great, but where is the rhythmic support going to come from?  Take it from me: if that is all the rhythm that the musicians hear, they are all going to start the next verse at slightly different times. and the congregation is going to be worse. 

This same situation is why a song leader cannot be expected to provide all the rhythmic support.  Because he is sometimes holding out notes for long periods of time (in this case, 6 beats), there is no pulse that everyone can follow.  Yes, some song leaders still wave their arms, but I am not sure if anyone is watching.

The piano is usually considered a rhythm instrument for a reason.  That is because a pianist can easily and naturally play something like this at the end of a verse of “Amazing Grace.”


As it turns out, the key to providing rhythmic support is subdividing, or breaking up pieces of time into smaller pieces.  Simply dividing those six beats into quarter notes is all it takes to keep everybody together.  Even non-musicians can accurately keep track of time if it is broken down like this.

So assuming melody is covered by the song leader, that leaves the responsibility for this kind of rhythmic support to the musicians. And unless you play with another rhythmic instrument (bass, drums, or rhythm guitar), you are going to end up responsible for rhythm on the piano.

In my church, I play with a small ensemble–a few strings, woodwinds, brass players and an acoustic guitar.  They are playing orchestral parts, which for the most part are counter-melodies and fills.  They are not written in such a way to provide rhythmic support and as a result, rhythm defaults to me.  The director and choir provide the melody support so I can focus only on harmony and rhythm (though I play melody some).

What you do in the way of rhythm can vary.  This is not about being complicated or simple.  It is not about playing backbeats or syncopation.  It is just simply about providing a very accurate pulse that keeps everybody together.  We can talk about different techniques for this in future posts.

It cannot be said enough that the key to this is first of all identifying what your place is among the other musicians.  For example, how much melodic support is provided by the vocals? Do you have other rhythm instruments and how solid are they? Every situation is different, but my guess is that for most of you, rhythm needs to be a focus of what you do.