Two things you want to know about the piano

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I recently asked a question on my public Facebook page about what church pianists want to learn. There were two prevalent answers given: pianists want to learn to play by ear and they want to learn how to adjust to newer worship music.

You guys know how I feel about playing by ear. I think every pianist should learn how to play by ear and more importantly, I think every pianist CAN learn to play by ear. I still can’t believe that we are in a place as a culture where playing by ear is marginalized and even discouraged by many music teachers. Honestly, I think that may be the most absurd thing I know of in music. Just because that has been the prevalent perspective for the past century does not mean you have to succumb to it and if you have your children with a teacher that believes that, it may be time to reevaluate teachers.

A few years ago, I did a YouTube video that essentially gives you a roadmap for learning to play by ear. It is not rocket science; it is three relatively simple steps. If you have not seen it, watch it here:

By the way, if you want a more in depth discussion of playing by ear, pick up my Play by Ear course which is $30-$40 and fleshes out the concepts in the YouTube video more.

Now let’s talk about that second issue a bit. I wish I knew the stats but I would suspect that the vast majority of you church pianists are no longer in a traditional church music environment. (By traditional, I mean hymns led by piano/organ.) Anyone that has been through that change recognizes fairly quickly that there are radical shifts in thinking that have to occur for a successful transition. This post is an introduction into what kinds of changes you need to make.

The biggest change by far is not the music itself. Music to a large extent is just music. The biggest change is the role of the church pianist. In churches with more progressive music, it is extremely rare for the piano (or organ) to be the lead instrument. Rather, the piano takes on a role of support. While in traditional church music the piano is responsible for providing melody, rhythm, and harmony as the main foundation for congregational singing, in progressive church music, the piano is usually put into the rhythm category but is not even the most important rhythm instrument. I don’t mean to imply that the piano cannot still provide harmonic support because it does. However, that is secondary to rhythm. Typically, the piano is not responsible for melody at all.

Now think about traditional hymnplaying/stride piano. The left hand typically plays a interval/chord pattern in the bass that provides rhythmic and harmonic support while the right hand is playing heavy melody (usually doubled) and strong harmonic support. Basically, that style reflects a mindset where the pianist is in control of all those music elements. When you try to use it in progressive music, it clashes and steps on other instruments that are responsible for those elements.

If I am being very honest, I hear from a lot of worship leaders who are frustrated with their pianists. The issue is always what I just described. A traditional church pianist is trying to bring the same style into progressive music. The drummer gets frustrated because the pianist is getting in his way. The vocalists get frustrated because the pianist is playing melody all the time. The bass player gets frustrated because the pianist is playing roots with the left hand pattern.

Typically, a worship leader does not really understand technically what the pianist is doing wrong. His advice to the pianist is usually overly simplistic: play less. When that does not work, his practical fix is to turn down the piano in the mix. As a result of these two things, pianists feel marginalized. Feelings get hurt. I hear from countless pianists who struggle with this scenario. I get the hurt feelings but the first thing you have to know as a traditional pianist moving into newer styles is that you have to change. What you used to do is not going to work anymore.

I am going to tell you in future posts what you need to change and what the other instrumentalists and worship leader want to hear from you but I am going to warn you that you won’t like it all. It is going to require flexibility on your part and honestly, many pianists will need some humility. Again, this is not about notes a pianist plays; it is about the role he/she plays. It is not easy to go from the leader of the pack into a supporting role.

It would be naive to suggest that eventually all of you will learn to love your new role better. Not all church situations are created equal. However, I think that in general, collaborating with other musicians as part of a team is immensely satisfying and I will tell you that I prefer collaboration over being the only musician almost all the time. I think most of you can grow to love that new role too.

In the next post on this topic, I will get more practical. I will see you then.

2 thoughts on “Two things you want to know about the piano

  1. Bekah H. says:

    I would love the next post on this topic! I am the pianist in our church and have been the only musician for the past several years. Recently the young adults in our church have joined me with a handful of other instruments. I am thrilled with their willingness, but my role needs to change. I just don’t know what I need to change!

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