How church pianists can adjust to new church music (Part 1)

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A few months ago, I published a post where I promised to discuss how pianists can adjust when their church moves from traditional to more contemporary music. Sadly, I promptly forgot about my promise until someone pointed it out last week. Time to remedy that…

Let me introduce an idea this week to get you going. I am going to strip away a lot of mystery right up front with one statement that is going to sound simple but is not simple (trust me).

The first thing you need to learn is how to play the right chords at the right time.

This is a bit counterintuitive for pianists who always want to earn their keep by playing as many notes as possible. I have not met enough church pianists who understand that you shouldn’t judge quality by the number of notes, but if you are a church pianist, you are not paid by the note. OK, you are probably not paid at all, but that is irrelevant. 🙂

When I teach this topic one-on-one, I always start with a very simple exercise. I ask the pianist to simply play the chart/lead sheet playing the right chord on each beat. Here is a chart (the top staff) and what I am looking for from the pianist (the bottom grand staff).

This is of course a very simple chart (Amazing Grace) and the chords are simple. That being said, even when the chart is this simple, I am not sure that I have ever had a pianist get though a chart on the first try with anything approaching precise accuracy. There is always a struggle with playing the right notes of the chord and even when the pianist figures out what to play, slight hesitations throw the rhythm off.

If you want to excite your music leader and the rest of your band next Sunday, get the charts ahead of time and practice just this pattern until you can play 100% accurate chords and 100% in time. Get out your metronome. Your metronome tells the tale. If you can’t play each chord right on the beat, you don’t know the chords. Those slight hesitations to search for the right notes may work OK in some kinds of music but they do not work in contemporary church music.

You might look at this exercise and think that it is just not enough notes. I get that. You might look at it and think that it adds nothing to what is happening in the rest of the band. I get that too. However, here is the important thing: if you are playing this way accurately, at least you are not detracting from the music. Unfortunately, most pianists transitioning from traditional to contemporary DO detract from the music and the first step is simply to avoid doing that.

I need to tell you one other thing before I wrap up for today. In the world of contemporary church music, there is a kind of chart that looks like this:

If this is the kind of chart you get from your music director, it is not your fault if you can’t play it well. Frankly, these kinds of charts are the bane of contemporary church music. They are almost useless and should be banned from every church. Why? Because they do not give enough information to the musicians to know how to play the song accurately.

Note that in this chart, you have no idea about the timing of the song. You know that when the verse starts, you play Bb for the first phrase but you have no idea how long the phrase is. Based on the intro, I think I can guess that that first phrase is 4 bars long (but I would not bank on it) and I am quite sure that the time signature is 4/4 (based on the slashes in the intro). I would also guess that the melody starts roughly halfway through the first bar but exactly where in the bar I have no idea.

Assuming I am right on my assumptions, I still have no idea where to position the F and EbM7 in line 3. I suppose if I know the song, I will have an idea and if someone is singing in time, I can sort of follow. Those are two big “ifs” though. I don’t listen to this kind of music ever and in a typical church, it doesn’t sound like anyone else does either.

In short, this kind of chart is a disaster waiting to happen. Normally I can play these charts but only because I have been at this a long time. It is completely unreasonable to expect average pianists to play them well. If this is what you get, ask for something better such as a lead sheet that has the melody written out. If you can’t get anything better, go through and mark where the measure lines should be and use slashes (as you see in the introduction) to notate where the chords change in the middle of a bar.

In summary, get a lead sheet ahead of time and if you are stuck with silly charts, make them look like lead sheets as much as possible. Then turn on your metronome and learn the song just playing block chords on every beat. You will know when you know the song–you either do or don’t. Once you get to that point, you are ready for church and the rest of the band will be glad to have you.

Of course, that is not all you need to know. This is just the foundation. We will talk about next steps in coming weeks.