How the role of church pianists is changing

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Things are changing rapidly in church music and pianists need to adjust.  This post will discuss some trends that are heading your way.

For decades, church pianists in typical churches have had a pretty cut and dried set of things that they had to know how to do.  A typical church service involved:

1) Playing along with the congregation (reading from a hymnal).
2) Playing a prelude (a set of semi-arranged songs for 5-10 minutes before the service begins).
3) Playing a offertory (a pre-planned arrangement of a song either self-arranged or learned from a book).
4) Accompanying choirs, soloists, and small groups (typically reading an arranged piano part from a book).

In general, the skills a church pianist traditionally needed to have included just reading music and improvising a solid style for accompanying a congregation.

As I travel and see what is happening in various types of churches, it is clear that things are changing in what is expected of a church pianist.  As expected, those changes have occurred more rapidly in the more liberal churches, but they are slowly happening in the conservative churches too. 

Now I know that some of the trends I am about to mention have been around a long time in some churches and you might have been doing them yourself for 40 years.  But they have not really been common and expected for too long.

Here are some of the changes you are already seeing or can expect to see:

1) The offertory is dead.  The idea that there has to be music during the offering and that it has to be instrumental music is fading fast.  To be honest, it never really made too much sense.  Why should there be instrumental music in every service, and why should it be in the offertory?  Why not a reading or a vocal song?

For sure, many of you will be playing during the offertory for years to come.  But you will start to notice that you will be asked to play shorter (no 5 minute songs when it only takes 1.5 minutes to take the offering).  And there will be less emphasis on a huge flowery arrangement and more emphasis on just being functional.

2) Mood music.  Pianists play under everything now–prayers, speaking, and communions to name a few.  The music has to be quiet, sparse and meditative.

3) Charts/lead sheets.  More and more, church pianists do not read written music, or at least not in a form where every note is given to them.  They have to read charts where only the chords are provided or lead sheets, where the melody and chords are provided.  This requires pianists to understand theory much better and also requires them to be able to improvise much better.

4) Transitions.  Most churches have started packaging songs, which requires the musicians to transition between songs, often with modulations.  Again, to make this happen, pianists have to understand theory better.

5) Ensemble work.  More instruments are going to be used in your church.  That is true for even those of you who still use only piano and organ today.  And extra instruments do create the need for an adjustment on the part of pianists.  Often, pianists will need to back off and give up the melody to other instruments.  When playing with bass players, they will often need to change what they are playing in their left hand.

5) Less formal practice, more spontaneity.  There is a lot of life in improvised music, and churches are starting to get on that bandwagon.  Also, more instrumentalists means more complexity in scheduling practice.  So, musicians will often find themselves sight-reading charts in live settings.

Many of you will find these changes refreshing.  For the most part, they make sense, and they reflect a growing interest in putting together a worship service that is preplanned and themed (rather than just choosing a few songs from the hymnal at random). 

On the other hand, these changes may be frightening for many pianists who only read (as opposed to playing by ear) and have little knowledge of theory.  For those of you in that position, I hope you will choose to see these changes as a challenge and learn new skills. 

If you know you need to grow and don’t know where to start, note the link just below this post and download my free 75 minute course on mood music.  That addresses one of the more important skills a church pianist needs today.

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Latest Comments

  • Great observations, and true.

  • Greg, I’ve seen these trends, too. You mentioned “less preplanned” in #5, but then mentioned later that services are more preplanned and themed. I understand what you mean, but what about churches where the orchestra is just starting to grow and has younger members? They wouldn’t be used to the spontaneity of sight-reading charts. Any thoughts on how to prepare younger orchestra members?

  • Daniel

    This is interesting. I haven’t really seen this yet but I have heard of it. It’ll be interesting to see where church pianists are in 5 years.

  • Jason Gear

    Greg,

    Good thoughts, you are correct in all of these particulars. Flexibility is a must for any church pianist (speaking as one for 22 years)

  • Greg

    Laurie,

    I went back and reworded a bit. While church worship services involve more planning today, that does not necessarily translate into practice for the musicians.

    Regarding young orchestra members, ideally, they should be learning skills besides reading. Those would include playing by ear, learning how to play charts and understanding the theory, and improvisation. This concept goes against the norm, but is important.

  • Thanks for the clarification. I agree that learning skills in addition to reading is very important for any musician.

  • Toni

    This is spot on! For one, like me, who doesn’t improvise well, this is very intimidating. We are in the midst of this type of change, and I have been tied up in knots for weeks!!!!

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