I have been getting a lot of questions lately about preludes (music played before a service). I have never talked about preludes before, but there are definitely some points that should be considered.
The primary goal of a prelude is simply to help create the mood for the service and it is amazing how well it accomplishes that task. If the prelude is somber and meditative, the mood of the congregation will be too. If it is high energy, you can expect the congregation to sing with energy and be more engaged. And if it is lackluster, it is highly likely that no antics from a song leader will be able to get the congregation engaged at all in the music.
Most church pianists should focus on setting the right mood rather than some of the other things that they have been taught about preludes. Granted, some of my opinions are highly subjective, but I have now been doing this non-stop for almost 30 years, and I have hopefully developed some instincts about what works.
Here are (in my opinion) some myths about preludes:
Myth: The congregation listens to the prelude.
Sorry, but they don’t. Maybe 2% are actively listening. But the rest are not. However, even the ones that are not listening are affected by the mood you are creating.
Myth: Preludes should be themed.
Many pianists are taught to try to theme a prelude by combining several songs with the same topic (such as the cross or an attribute of God). I don’t consider that very important because no one is listening anyway. Feel free to ignore the concept of themes entirely.
Myth: Preludes should be planned and organized just like an offertory.
Again, no one is listening. So don’t obsess about making a prelude follow musical rules of composition. It is not a sonata; it is background music! During the offertory, people are actively listening, so you need to prepare much harder.
Myth: Preludes should have lots of contrast.
This is highly subjective, but I strongly disagree. I am not going to play music that goes against the mood I am trying to create simply because it introduces contrast. For me, that means I am not going to play slow, soft music during a prelude. If your church is highly formal, that might mean that you need to avoid fast, loud songs in your preludes. Sure, there can be some contrast, but it should be limited.
Myth: Preludes need key changes (modulations).
Why? Key changes are great and they can help, but you don’t have to use them. And no one is going to know the difference.
Ignore these myths and just focus on creating the right mood. Don’t over think it. Just play songs that you can play well and connect them together. I always play preludes by ear and pick the songs as I go. If you are not comfortable doing that, make some copies of hymns you play well and put them in a binder. Or if you want, play arrangements that you have learned over time.
Here is something important to understand. Pianists have a tough enough time communicating ideas in music when people are listening. When people are not listening, it is impossible. So just focus on the mood of your music. If you get that right, you will have done your part admirably.