Congregational accompanying considerations (Part 3)

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If you haven’t read the first two parts of this series, here they are:

Part 1
Part 2

Up until now, we have addressed the idea that church pianists do not necessarily have to try to be a one-person band.  You probably don’t always have to be responsible for all three of the major components of music (rhythm, harmony, and melody).

I made the (admittedly debatable) assertion that the main job of the church pianist is actually rhythm, which ironically is the biggest weakness of most pianists.  So, I want to discuss rhythm a bit today.

In the first series, I directed you to a series of videos by Bob Kauflin where he is teaching church pianists.  If you have 10 minutes, I would like you to listen to him discuss a concept called “groove.”  Go here and start watching at about 4:30.

Bob is a great pianist but I had to laugh a bit when I watched him try to explain what groove is.  The reason I find it humorous is because I struggle to explain it too.  So did the teacher who tried to explain it to me several years ago.  It is just one of those things that you know when you hear it.

Groove is a phenomenon that occurs when rhythm gets beyond mechanics and starts to communicate on its own.  Typically, it is associated with modern music and especially music with a very strict tempo, but you can get a sense of groove in any music when it is played very well.

Here is the frustrating thing about it.  Groove means rhythmic preciseness but it also allows for rhythmic variance at the artist’s discretion.  In other words, it means being precise while not being precise.  Being completely precise sounds like a machine (metronome).  Groove is being precise but yet having tiny artistic tweaks that make it slightly imprecise.

Confused yet?  Trust me, I understand why. 

Really, the only way to really understand this is to listen and imitate.  We can try to distill the concept of groove down to some basic principles though.

1) You cannot groove if you are not very comfortable with the music.  The music has to feel effortless.

2) Groove means that if you have to choose between the right notes or the right rhythm, you choose the right rhythm. 

3)  Groove requires preciseness on the important beats but there is some artistic freedom otherwise.  Here is an example of what I mean.  Let’s say that you are dividing a quarter note into 2 parts.  It does not matter too much how you divide it as long as the sum of the two notes is a quarter note.

By the way, it does not even matter whether you can even represent what you do on
paper.  Imagine a eighth note with 2.75 dots after it.  That is fine as
long as the other note is precisely the correct length to make both
notes add up to one beat.

4) Groove does not require overly complicated rhythm but it almost always involves at least a marginal level of complexity.  As an example of what I mean, watch Bob’s examples of groove in the video I mentioned above.  Every single one of them involves a bit of simple syncopation.  That is true even on the ones where he just plays quarter notes in the right hand.  Those quarter notes are set up by a slight syncopation he plays in the left hand.

The key is to not overdo it.  You don’t have to play overly complex rhythm or you are almost certainly going to get too imprecise to accomplish groove.  But on the other hand, you don’t want to play straight eighth notes either.

Here is an example of a very simple rhythm that accomplishes what I am talking about.  It is called various things (a “push” in Nashville, the “Charleston” in jazz) but it is simply a way to make rhythm a bit more interesting. 


When you try this, accent the syncopation slightly when you play it so people know you did it on purpose.  A lot of the preciseness you hear in groove is actually an illusion created by the confidence of the musicians involved.

5) Accents are ultra-important.  There is no formula I can give you though.  The accents that are used in groove vary in many ways and they are used at the discretion of the musician. In general though, you hear accents on the back of beats as well as the front of beats.  In other words, in the example above, you might hear the eighth note accented as much or more than the down beat even though it is on the back half of a beat.

Really, learning how accents are used just requires listening to musicians you like and then trying to imitate them.  Again, this is not something that can really be notated on a music score.

At this point, some of you may be wondering how this applies to church, especially if you go to a conservative church.  Trust me; you want groove in your music.  Really, groove just generates the perception that a musician is in control of the instrument and knows what he/she is doing.  It eliminates tension from the music and allows other musicians, singers, and the congregation to participate in worship together.  In fact, it helps to lead people to want to participate and it helps keep them together when they do.