From Harkness to George Schuler

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In recent posts, I have started talking through the history of church pianists.  I got sort of stuck on Robert Harkness, not only because he was very important but also because he was so opinionated in his writing.  Today, I want to move on to other pianists from his era.

Billy Sunday was another revivalist who loved using pianos.  His song leader, Homer Rodeheaver, used two grand pianos in at least some of their crusades.   Well known pianists of that team included Bentley Ackley, his brother Alfred Ackley (writer of “He Lives”) , and Robert Matthews.

Another revivalist, Gipsy Smith, used a pianist named H. C. Hamilton.  Hamilton wrote a published article in 1925 in which he discusses how to accompany large congregations.  He reinforced the thinking that many pianists already knew; simply playing the notes from a hymnal were not enough.  While he disdained keyboard showmanship, he was a big fan of incorporating counterpoint into his arrangements.

In 1922, the first important guide for church pianist was published.  It was written by George Schuler and entitled Evangelistic Piano Playing. A reader of my blog was gracious enough to loan me a original copy of it.  It is a short work that covers many of the same topics that Robert Harkness was teaching at the same time.  In fact, Schuler gives credit to Harkness and other revivalist pianists in his preface.

Like Harkness’ book, Schuler’s work is more useful as a historical artifact than as a learning tool.  Schuler takes an ad hoc approach, covering seemingly unrelated topics in a random way.  He breaks down church piano playing into four categories:

1) Choral – Playing 3 or 4 note chords in the right hand and octaves in the left hand.
2) Variation – Adding ornamentation or arpeggios.
3) Accompaniment – Playing octave/chord patterns in the left hand.
4) improvising or Fantasy – Utilizing various classical treatments such as broken chords.  He also includes reharmonization in this category but does not attempt to discuss how to do it.

Schuler died in 1973.  I recently did a church pianist seminar in Texas and a concert pianist was in the audience who told me that he had known and greatly been influenced by George Schuler.  In his time, he was very influential and even today, many of us have benefited from his influence whether we know it or not.  While reading, I was again struck by the fact that much of what he taught was taught to me the same way in the 1990’s.