Congregational accompanying considerations (Part 1)

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The most important job of a church pianist is congregational accompanying.  I have a confession to make though.  This is an area in which after 30 years of experience, I am still trying to figure things out.  In fact, on many Sunday mornings, I feel like I am experimenting in a lab.

Today, there are two styles that are primarily used in church:

1) Evangelistic style.  In the 100 years the piano has been in the church, this has been the dominant style.  It is characterized by a striding left hand (moving up and down the keyboard), big chords in the right hand and an emphasis on melody.  Proponents of this style feel that the pianist has to provide support for the congregation.  They believe that the piano is foundational for the melody as well as rhythm and harmony.

2) Contemporary style. In the past 20-30 years, many church pianists have moved away from trying to be the foundation that everything is built on.  They see their role as complementary to the big picture.  Most of the time, they don’t play melody.  They focus more on harmony and some rhythm (based on what other instruments are being used).  They believe that a congregation can sing a melody without the piano hammering it out for them.

The so-called evangelistic style’s biggest influences historically have included George Schuler and Rudy Atwood.  Some still teach it though.  Rebecca Bonam and Duane Ream for example have written multiple books with systems for learning it.  I remember a conversation with Rebecca a few years ago where she told me emphatically that congregations cannot sing effectively without strong support from the piano. 

One thing I can say about the evangelistic style is that it works.  In fact, I teach my own version of the evangelistic style in my course Congregational Accompaniment.  But just because something works does not mean it is best and I don’t believe for a second that this particular style is the only way or even the optimal way to play congregational accompaniment. 

If you want to learn more about the contemporary approach, I would recommend Bob Kauflin’s free 4-hour discussion that you can find here: http://www.worshipmatters.com/?s=piano+part (there are three parts).  You will not learn to play the style through these videos though Bob tries mightily to get through many concepts (there is just so much you can teach in 4 hours).  But if you listen, I want you to listen for his philosophy even if you can’t catch his licks/harmony.  As you can imagine, your philosophy and theology drives what you actually do musically; it is worth taking some time to just focus there.

You will hear Bob talk about many things that I preach too–things like simplicity trumping flashiness, less is more, etc.  I will talk about the key points over some coming posts but I want to address just one philosophical thing in this post–the question of whether the piano needs to provide the melody.

Bob says the answer is no while Bonam would say yes.  I think the answer is somewhere in the middle; ideally, the piano should not play melody but I am not sure that will work in every church.  Churches that are used to a pianist pounding out everything may go dead if the pianist decides to just play harmony and rhythm. 

If you go to a church like that, you will have to train them to sing without being handed the melody on a silver platter.  Start by playing gentle chordal patterns on slow, simple well-known songs like “Amazing Grace” or “Take My Life and Let It Be.”  Over time, they will get on board with you.

Of the three major elements of music (harmony, melody and rhythm), the most important to the group of congregational accompanists is rhythm.  Somebody has to have that covered and covered well.  In traditional churches, that role falls on the pianist.  On the other hand, if you play with a drummer or rhythm guitar, you may be able to leave rhythm to them. 

But even if you have an orchestra/band that has rhythm and harmony covered well, that does not mean you should play melody.  Most of us sense that playing melody when accompanying a soloist is not optimal, but the same problems occur when you accompany a congregation.  

So, here is my advice.  If you don’t play melody when playing in your church, keep it that way.  If you do play melody, start leaving it out some and watch how the church reacts.  If they sing just as well or better, you know you don’t have to play it any more.  On the other hand, if they can’t handle it, start a slow process to train them not to depend on you so much.

An awful lot of this depends on the musicians you have around you though and I will be talking about that in future posts.