As most of you guys know, the piano has only been considered acceptable in church for about a century. Until that point, the piano was primarily a bar instrument and had heavy baggage associated with it sort of like drums might have today.
When the church accepted the piano, it accepted the style that the piano was currently being played at that time. In the US, that style was ragtime and an early form of jazz known as stride. If you don’t know why I say that, play a few bars of ragtime standard “The Entertainer” and the light will come on instantly. Stride is simply the style of playing low octaves (or other intervals) on the first and third beats of a bar and chords higher on the piano on beats two and four.
It took a few decades but eventually the church reluctantly accepted the piano and the stride style of playing it. Tens of thousands of church pianists learned how to “hymn play,” which is nothing more than what I would call “sanctified stride.”
In the secular world, stride was petering out in the 1940’s but inside the church, it kept going strong. In fact, it is still unchanged in traditional churches to this day and traditional Bible colleges/universities still teach it.
If you know me at all, you know I am not one for holding some arbitrary standard just because it has always been done that way. I don’t think “Give Me That Old Time Religion” is good theology; I think it is just a very lame song.
So, in my opinion, it is a bad idea for the church to stick with stride piano if the only reason is to preserve a past that was not necessarily that great in the first place. Or to put it another way, why would today’s church want to sound like a bar in the first half of the 1900’s? The simple answer is they shouldn’t.
Now at this point, you are probably expecting me to say that I think it is time for the church to ditch that style and for colleges to quit teaching it.
Not so fast…
The reason I still teach stride and actually still play a (heavily modified) version of stride myself is this: it works. When accompanying congregational singing, it does what it needs to do.
There are three primary objectives that church musicians need to accomplish when accompanying a congregation. Here they are in order:
1) Provide a pulse that keeps everyone together (tempo and rhythm)
2) Help the congregation find and stay on melody.
3) Provide the harmony to support the singing of parts.
Of course, you could make a case that there are really only two objectives because singing parts is optional. You would get no argument from me on that but singing parts is a good thing if possible so I want to include it in the list.
Though stride is antiquated, it is hard to deny that it meets these objectives very well. The stride pattern in the left hand itself is a natural metronome that will keep the most musically-challenged members of a congregation in time. The use of full chord inversions with the melody note on top in the right hand spoon feeds the melody and harmony to the congregation too.
Depending on what other musicians are in the church, the pianist does not have to meet all three objectives. For example, if there is a drum player, the piano does not have to provide the pulse but if there is no rhythm section, the pulse needs to be covered by the piano. An organist cannot do that nearly as well. A small orchestra can’t do it either. And if the piano does need to provide the pulse, stride is a great option to do so.
I don’t think that stride is the only way to make things work well and I think it is really annoying at times. For example, I hate to hear soft songs banged out in a stride style; there is no reason why pianists cannot play some left hand arpeggios instead of stride in that situation. They can lighten up the right hand as well by getting rid of those big 4-note groupings.
But in spite of the caveats and exceptions, stride still belongs in the church because it is a solid option for accomplishing what needs to be accomplished. It is not the only option or even the best option but it is a very solid option and it is easy to teach and learn. There is a lot going for it even if it is showing its age a bit.