Congregational accompaniment: Is variety necessary?

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A few weeks ago, I introduced a concept about congregational accompaniment: making it more musically meaningful. Today, I want to discuss that in a little more detail and move in a bit more of a practical direction.

It is important to remember that more than any other playing in church you do, congregational accompaniment should be driven by pragmatism, meaning it should “work.” And when we say it should work, we mean this:

* It should give the congregation what they need musically in order to participate in the singing. * It should encourage them to participate enthusiastically.* It should encourage them to participate appropriately. In other words, this is not the part of the service to experiment very much. It is not the place to get horribly creative because creativity will almost always generate confusion in a musically-challenged congregation.

On the other hand, the status quo is not a requirement either. You do not have to accompany congregational music in the way it has always been done. You don’t have to worry about tradition. One big reason that is true is because there isn’t any tradition of the piano in the church to speak of. The piano has only been in the church for the past hundred years. It is true that congregational pianists are still taught to accompany today the same way they were taught back when the piano first made its appearance in church. But really, 100 years is not significant.

So the traditional style of congregational accompaniment is optional. You don’t have to play octave/chord patterns in the left hand and four-note chords in the right hand. (By the way, that style of music is an early offshoot of ragtime/jazz that we call “stride.”) You can play stride if you want to but you don’t have to. If you can play something more musically meaningful, go for it.

That brings me to a question that I get all the time. When accompanying a congregation through a few verses of a hymn, should you change what you are doing on every verse?

I think the answer is yes–if you are making the music more meaningful as a result. So go ahead and get some diversity into your congregational accompaniment. Here are just a few ways to do it:

* Dynamics
* Tempo
* Technical treatments or texture
* Rhythm
* Accents
* Changing from playing melody to not playing melody

I still play some stride at least as a foundation, especially on bigger songs. I don’t play it much on lighter songs or faster songs. But I don’t abandon it altogether because of a very pragmatic reason: it works fairly well.

Today was an example. We were singing Christmas music today in church and got to the carol “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.” In my mind, that is a song that fits into sort of a medium dynamic range that builds into the refrain (which is a beautiful moment by the way). I would normally not play stride on it so I started playing something a bit lighter.  It quickly became apparent that the congregation did not remember the song very well and needed more support so I switched to stride with pronounced melody for the first verse.

After one verse, they were good to go, so I switched to something less aggressive that I could build dynamically into the refrain.
This strategy is not a bad one most of the time. It makes a lot of sense to play the first verse more directly with more harmonic and melodic support. That helps the congregation remember the song and get into the “groove” in terms of the overall feel and tempo.

When you do switch, don’t be afraid to leave stride way behind. I like to play very simple rhythmic patterns with fills and no melody, especially on familiar songs that are more meditative. If you listen, you will know right away if the congregation is able to follow or not. Chances are very good they will be just fine and not playing melody will actually lead them to participate more enthusiastically.

Dynamics is a very big part of this. Watch the words to look for opportunities to introduce dynamics. You will be shocked at how well the congregational will follow you dynamically. Even if you are not comfortable experimenting with a lot of variance from traditional stride, incorporate dynamics as much as possible.

I also like to use different rhythms and accents. When playing patterns rather than melody, it opens up all kinds of rhythmic opportunities. And just as importantly, it makes it easier to change accents. For example, in 4/4, I quite often accent (stress) the backbeats (beats 2 and 4) rather than beats 1 and 3. In 3/4, I like to stress beat 3. These are subtle changes that few will notice, but they introduce energy and forward movement.

I mentioned earlier that not playing the melody will likely generate more rather than less congregational participation. All of these changes should help participation for a very simple reason: the congregation may be close to musically illiterate but they are not drones or idiots. They want to feel like they are helping make the music rather than just singing along. If you don’t feed them the melody, you are subtly telling them that they have a job to do. If they fail, there will be no melody. Their natural inclination will be to step up to the job and they will enjoy doing so.

The key is to find a healthy balance between making it too hard or too easy for them. Pound out melody and a grandiose harmonically dense accompaniment and they will likely sing like drones, never engaging their brains. On the other hand, if you start playing too sparse or with complex rhythms, they will get lost quickly and give up, leaving the music to the “professionals” on stage. I have seen both extremes an awful lot in my travels.