Can that really work?

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A few days ago, I wrote a post about how pianists can improve congregational music in church. The gist of it was that pianists should shape congregational music in a way similar to how they might shape an arrangement with dynamic and textural variety and a focus on matching the style to the text.

On Facebook, someone challenged me a bit (in a very nice way), saying that perhaps pianists should not be making those decisions. Optimally, the song/worship leader is in charge and the pianist should just follow.

Is she right?

From a technical standpoint, the answer is yes. Someone ultimately has to be in charge. But let me say this. That is a very tricky thing. If every musical decision is made by a sole authority/dictator and the musicians are just expected to follow blindly, your music will suffer. And frankly, I have no interest in working in a environment like that.

Don’t get me wrong. A church music program that operates that way might have polished music in some respects. They might even have what is considered to be excellent music in some respects. But it will still be missing something. Exactly what that is is hard to quantify but two descriptive words are “energy” and “life.”

I know that some of us grew up in a culture with strong authority figures. There is a place for authority. But music is one of those places where authority figures need to check their ego at the door and listen to the people they are working with. Musicians are at their best when they are feeding off each other rather than dictating to each other.

Yes, I know this is a somewhat nebulous concept. Some of you know exactly what I am talking about but others are scratching their heads.

In my world of professional recording, here is what that means. It means I hire musicians I trust and then lean heavily on their expertise. Yes, I am in charge, but I don’t want it to feel that way. If an outsider is watching, I want them to find themselves wondering who is really in charge.  I want to ask questions and solicit advice and I want everyone to feel free to make suggestions. But on top of that, I want everyone to take the initiative to put their personal stamp on the music. If you ever watch me in a recording environment, that is what you will see.

Music just works best when it is done that way. And that includes the music in church.  It should be a collaborative effort. And by the way, it does not have to be a pre-planned collaborative effort. The reality is that there is just not enough time to plan everything. It is often going to be a real-time collaborative effort.

And that being said, a church pianist is especially important to the collaboration for an important reason: he/she is often uniquely able to add to the collaborative mix in ways that a worship leader cannot. For example, a congregation will follow dynamic changes from the piano much easier than they will from a worship leader, regardless of the contortions he might make with his body to lead them. Indeed, in many ways, a confident pianist can lead a congregation musically very very effectively.

I am not saying this is all easy. I know there are personnel problems involved. I know that sometimes musicians that want to collaborate may not really have the necessary expertise to do so.

But if at all possible, a collaborative rather than totalitarian mindset is better for church music. That is why I wrote that church pianists should feel free to take some initiative to influence.