An honest appraisal (and a giveaway) – Part 1

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At the bottom of this post, I am going to tell you how you can win a free signed copy of Brian Buda’s new advanced arrangement book with Lorenz (Hands to Heaven). Brian was the winner of my arrangement contest a few years ago and that arrangement is in this book.

What I am about to write is my own opinion. My opinions are well informed from being in this industry a long time but there are many qualified people that read this that will have their own opinions and may disagree with me. Some of you are writers and some of you are publishers and your perspective is at least as valuable as mine. I would love for you to post your comments and thoughts below.

If you have read me for a while, you have probably heard me say that the piano has only been in church a century. That is not debatable really but what I am about to say is more debatable: the piano probably will not last much longer.

I am not saying you won’t be able to find some pianos in churches in a hundred years, just like you could undoubtedly find some pianos here and there in churches before 1900. However, as a dominant church instrument it has a short shelf life.

In general, there are just some major shifts that are affecting the number of piano in churches. Here are the three biggest:

The piano has become disproportionately expensive when compared to other instruments and often unfeasible for the average church to either acquire or maintain.
Compared to alternatives, a typical church struggles to find the money to buy a good piano and struggles to maintain it. We all know that pianos are expensive but sometimes forget the hidden costs of keeping them. It can go far beyond just a quarterly tuning.

For example, consider the fact that to keep a good piano playing well, you have to keep it in a conditioned environment. If a church is committed to doing that, they have to condition a large auditorium all week even though people are probably only actually in that room for a few hours a week. Compare that to a guitar that can be purchased for a fraction of the cost and can easily be tuned and/or moved to a conditioned environment.

Again, I am not saying it is impossible for a church to buy/maintain a piano. I am just saying that as churches get smaller (see below), it is becoming more and more difficult, especially when compared to inexpensive modern instruments.

Modern music has moved away from the piano as a dominant instrument.
As music has become more band-driven, sales of pianos has plummeted in the US. The percentage of households with pianos is way, way down and as a result, far fewer children are taking piano lessons. In the future, churches will have a harder time finding pianists and the unused pianos will eventually make their way to the curb as most organs have.

The trend in modern music away from pianos also impacts the piano in church because essentially every church in existence is modernizing their music constantly. They do it at different speeds but they are all doing it: conservative churches do it slowly and progressive churches do it faster.  Wherever you are on that spectrum, don’t let what I said offend you. I am saying it very neutrally; it is what it is. But almost any church that moves toward modern music is going to devalue the piano as a result. It is pretty much inevitable.

The church itself is struggling.
Most denominations are in decline across the US. I realize that depending on who you read and how you spin numbers, that is a debatable statement. However, under a best case scenario, the subgroups of Christianity that are either growing slightly or declining more slowly than the rest are also the ones less likely to use pianos.

From my experience, my music is mostly used by and sold into two subgroups of Christianity–the far left (mainline liberal) and far right (fundamentalist, separatist). The more liberal side of Christianity values their tradition a lot and that is why you can walk into a liberal church and see an unusual dichotomy between doctrine and music. As we looked for a church over the past few years, we were struck by the fact that the most conservative music always seemed to be found in churches that would be considered liberal. On the flip side, the far right still likes the piano because their separatist theology leads them to believe that their music needs to be different than modern music.

As it turns out, those are the two subgroups of Christianity that are declining the most. Both are losing members because of mortality (they both skew toward the elderly) and attrition to the middle. By the middle, I mean those that are conservative in theology but less so in practice as well as the non-denominational sort of world. The significant thing in relation to this post is that this middle I speak of has pretty much abandoned the piano.

A few quick caveats before I am done for the day. First of all, I am saying all these things neutrally; my perspective here is more business-oriented than anything. I am not saying any of this is good or bad. I have my opinions but that is not the point. I am just stating what I think is fairly obvious when you step back and just observe. Second, I know there are exceptions. I know that some of you belong to churches that break the mold. Anecdotal evidence is weak because there are always outliers. For example, if you belong to a church in what I refer to as the middle that still has traditional music that you like, in my opinion you should feel grateful because you are in a rare place.

I wrote this post to set up what I want to talk about tomorrow in part 2, which is how this impacts my world where I do this on a professional basis as well as many other writers and publishers who still feed their family this way. See you then.

OK, how do you enter to win the free book from Brian Buda? Simply post a comment below (if you are reading by email, click here). Any comment works even if it is just an emoticon. A winner will be picked at random on Friday from everyone that comments. If you want to just buy the book, click here.

77 thoughts on “An honest appraisal (and a giveaway) – Part 1

  1. Val k says:

    We do not have enough musicians to have a worship band and there are only two people in our church that play piano. One person plays hymns and the other plays more modern songs. We seem to be moving towards YouTube

  2. Kay Goodman says:

    I know in most modern churches they don’t use the piano which is sad. So glad ours still does. I enjoy playing for church.

  3. Susannah Miller says:

    Although our church still has it’s share of elderly members, the majority of the members are in the 25-50 age range. And the piano is our primary instrument. For choir, it is accompanied by a keyboard on the “strings” setting. For congregational singing, it is accompanied by the organ. We have many specials that are accompanied by violin or guitar, but our primary accompaniment is piano. Although we are a small church (about 230 on a Sunday morning), we are blessed to have a grand piano that is in very good condition. We live in NC in the Bible Belt… Maybe our location has an effect on the traditional aspect of our music ministry?

  4. Robert Grafton says:

    Oddly enough, we are a 3 keyboard church (piano, Clavinova, synth). However, I realize that many modern worship songs just don’t cut it without strumming guitars, beating drums and thumping basses.

  5. Cindy Hays says:

    Our church still uses the hymnals, I have 4 and most likely 6 grandchildren that will be taking piano lessons. Five of which attend our church, so I hope in the future our church will not want for a pianist! Also, our congregation still uses and loves the hymnals. I can also say that we have had people come to our church especially because they can’t find a church that still sings the hymns. We are not your run of the mill conservative fundamentalist church, but just a small congregation that focuses on Biblical truth and teaching.

  6. Robert Smith says:

    I am a pastor and my days are numbered. On the serious side, I appreciate these thoughts because they cause me to think.

  7. Cherie says:

    Our church is very small. We use hymnals and have a very nice Kawai grand piano, which I love playing. The piano is used for congregational singing and specials (instrumental and vocal). We also have a small orchestra–one trumpet, one flute, one cello, and several violins–that plays in our morning service. Once a month we have “folk hymns,” accompanied by guitars, and/or a banjo, hammered dulcimer, violins, ukelele. Our church also focuses on biblical truth and teaching, and that is reflected in our music. We also have a “hymnsing” every Sunday before the afternoon service.

  8. Roy Fitts says:

    Our church is an a cappella music church. A cappella means “In the manner of the church”. We sing the traditional hymns and also the more current contemporary songs. I’m also part of the Praise and Harmony singers from across the country. We come together once or twice a year to record hymns and contemporary songs to teach congregations to sing these songs. Each album comes with a training disc to learn from. Website is https://acappella.org/store/praise-and-harmony/.

  9. Sarah Nething says:

    My church has 2 grand pianos in the auditorium, and we have so many pianists on rotation that I’m only on once every couple of months. (I’m not on as often as the others because I also play in our small orchestra). Organists, on the other hand, are another story.

  10. Paula Kilpatrick says:

    Church piano music has also evolved quite a bit during the past 100 years. I love the piano. Every musician should take piano lessons.

  11. Alice says:

    Your observations are accurate, from what I’ve seen, and sadly, your prediction probably is too. Digital keyboards should be around awhile, at least. Let’s hope they continue to have weighted keys. I’m thankful to have lived during the piano era.

  12. scteo2004 says:

    Fortunately, in Malaysia, where I grew up, the piano is still the main instrument in the churches. Nowadays, more and more churches are having electrical piano instead of the normal piano. I think it is cheaper and easier to maintain. After I migrated to NZ, I noticed the churches I attended here are still using piano, if not, keyboard. However, hymns are less being sung or not at all in the contemporary churches here.

  13. Brenda Powers says:

    We have an acoustic piano and a digital piano, and there are at least 4 pianists who share the duties in pairs for preludes, offertory, and accompaniments for hymns and songs each week. We are a small, rural, *vibrant* congregation in Southwestern Ontario, Canada.

  14. Sandra. Deaton says:

    As a lifelong church pianist/organist, it saddens me to read your observations; however, I have to agree with them!

  15. Terry Kelly says:

    Being a church pianist for the last 40 years I too have seen the decline of pianos/pianists in churches. Today’s church leans more towards bands with or without keyboards. A lot of keyboardists just aren’t pianists and couldn’t be very convincing at a truly fine acoustic piano. I have felt for some time now that if a church isn’t going to properly maintain a good acoustic piano in the way that it should be maintained, then they should opt for a fine digital piano instead so that it isn’t adversely affected by the heat, cold or humidity so much. Your posts are very relevant to the day, please keep them coming.

  16. Tracey says:

    Thought provoking, as always. But a sad commentary, from a music education standpoint. The piano is such a great instrument for kids to start on, but even what and how I teach has changed over the years as what I grew up with become less and less relevant.

  17. Kobe DeChurch says:

    I feel so blessed that I am a 16 year old who has been taking piano lessons all my life. Greg, has really helped in my journey as a church pianist! I use his arrangements for everything from church offertories, and even competition. I feel greatly saddened by the decline of church pianos and pianist alike in the modern day church, I wish it wasn’t so.

  18. Barbara Halliday says:

    I read your article with interest. I agree with much of what you said; however, I would like to think that those of us with piano skill could perhaps slow the progression away from its use in our churches. It may be wishful thinking, but I can always hope! Thanks for your insights.

  19. Kaitlyn S. says:

    We recently changed churches from one that had about ten pianists on a given Sunday — and they were really good pianists — to one that had none. I play piano, and am self taught, and not very advanced (late intermediate/early advanced) and have become the sole pianist for this new church. I realised very quickly several things: the responsibility and time and dedication it takes to prepare all week (I was actually NOT counted as a pianist in the other church — there were others who were better than I am and I was glad to not have to play every Sunday :D); the way I took the all the piano players at the other church for granted, ’cause they were always there; and the truth of articles such as this. I would normally read articles like this and think that the author didn’t really know what they were talking about, and just weren’t looking in the right places. I’ve realized that this is more true, and the other church was an exception to the rule.

    I’ve realized how sad it is that the piano really is dying out. I was told before I came that the church was just going to get true of the piano because there was no one to play it and they were paying to have it tuned and kept in a good environment for nothing.

    The congregation is mostly older people, and we still sing out of hymnals, which is similar to the other church we were attending. Which makes it fun for me, as the pianist, to improvise 🙂 I must say, I hardly ever play what is written in the hymnal =)

  20. Kim says:

    Currently, my church has a piano (which I play) and a clavinova. At home, I have a piano and a keyboard. Out of these, the piano is my love! I do enjoy worship bands, but there is something special about hearing the beautiful melody of the piano! Hoping it will be around for a long time!

  21. Manfred says:

    Our church is fortunate enough to have a baby grand piano which is used regularly with the worship band using mainly contemporary worship songs, but with a spattering of hymns thrown in as well.

  22. Jessica says:

    This saddens me, but I agree it is probably accurate. I am the pianist at my very small, rural church, but I am thankful for our beautiful and well kept Kawaii baby grand. It is a pleasure to play.

  23. Joel Rao says:

    THought I did not think about it, I agree that the piano will slowly be phased out. However, worship and praise will continue in various forms, and we need to use our lives as instruments to praise God. Worship is more than just music, it is a lifestyle!

  24. Dawn says:

    Thank you for the thought-provoking, insightful article. I’d be interested in your perspective on church choirs as the two are related. Our church just started a Piano Fund to replace our 50-year-old grand piano, as the current congregation of 350 supports a variety of musical styles and instruments: choir, piano, organ, praise team, orchestra. One of my favorites was coordinating getting four pianos/keyboards to the sanctuary and playing 4-pianos, 8-hands hymn arrangements.

  25. Jack Melvin says:

    Fear not! Music has always. Had a pop culture component in the church. The only difference today is the pace of change I don’t remember reading anything in the Bible about Jesus having a any music as a preparation for his message or to help with the worship. Against that perspective, I play in a church band have sold pianos and continue to sell new pianos for over 45 years. I love music! Music making offers many options today, but a traditional new perfect prepared grand piano is sometimes the only place that I find personal satisfaction. Why do we make music? I know my answer ,,,,,,,

  26. Dave says:

    I’ve offered or been asked to assist small churches who have lost their pianist, but they insist on “blending” with drums and amplified guitars. Generally the other musicians only play by ear or are limited to 3 chords and the net result is most of the congregation that is 55++ doesn’t participate because they can’t follow the relatively unstructured CCM styles. An acoustic piano against drums and amplified guitars is no contest, so I avoid opportunities to play except in my own music room.

  27. Victoria T. says:

    Interesting article, and (sadly) looks to be correct. I play the piano at our church and give lessons. I love the piano and find joy in worshiping the Lord with the talent He has given me! But I have seen a decline in the “average church.” Just another sign that the Lord is preparing the way for His return!

  28. Barb Lange says:

    Yes, Greg, unfortunately I see this trend and it grieves me. I teach piano and I find it hard to find reasons to give teens hymn arrangements because they need to learn playing from a lead sheet. And who does offertories anymore?

  29. Karissa says:

    It’s sad that it’s getting rare to find a church these days that uses the piano and hymns instead of bands and contemporary pieces. :'(

  30. Dana says:

    We only have a keyboard. I’m struggling as the keyboardist since now it seems it’s only lead sheets and chord charts. I read music pretty well and thinking outside the box when there are no notes written has been so very difficult for me as the keyboardist.

  31. Katherine says:

    Hopefully won’t happen. I foresee the lack of people who can read music soon. Unfortunately the seminaries are not helping that. 🎶

  32. Kandra Stukenborg says:

    I wish this weren’t true, but I’m afraid you’re right. I will continue to serve in old fashioned, traditional churches. Thank you your informative blog.

  33. Faith says:

    Our church has 2 traditional services, one in the historic sanctuary built in the 19th century, and one in the larger, newer auditorium. We have both a small grand piano and a 3-manual electronic church organ in both auditoriums. I am the substitute organist and substitute pianist for the traditional services. They tell me it is difficult for churches to find organists, these days! Our church has started a contemporary service in the larger auditorium, as well. The contemporary service is accompanied by guitars and drums, no keyboards. Thanks for the opportunity to participate in the drawing for a free piano book. I enjoy your blog, it is very informative, especially, for me, the blog articles on arranging piano music. Thanks, Greg, we appreciate you!

  34. Rachel Rivera says:

    I really enjoying eating your thoughts on these various topics, even if I don’t always agree. Thanks for your honesty. I way especially intrigued by your observation about liberal church’s having more conservative music, and more conservative church’s having more modern music. I’d be curious to know if that was in a specific denomination or across the board?

  35. Velvet says:

    Good article. I had the opportunity to choose between the keyboard and a piano at our last church, and hands down my choice was the piano. A keyboard just doesn’t have the same feel to me.

  36. Joann Bapst says:

    We have a small country church. Other musicians with other instruments have come and gone over the years, but the piano remains. There is such joy, praise, worship, and truth in the hymns! We are hoping to keep the hymns alive and well. Thank you for your contribution to the church pianist. We play for the glory of the Lord!

  37. Robert says:

    I would have to agree with your assessment. I am grateful for the pianists God has provided for our church over the years (we will celebrate our 50th anniversary this November). And I am thankful to have a handful available in our congregation currently. There have been times we were stuck with me playing the piano as we couldn’t find an actual pianist, but God has provided skilled musicians again. The piano continues to be the dominant instrument in our arsenal of accompaniment, and we fit none of the descriptions of churches in your article. We are not far right, nor liberal. Neither do we fit your description of the middle (we are conservative in theology but also consistent in practice). God is good, and we are thankful for all of His blessings.

  38. Laurie says:

    “As far as churches not being able to afford a good piano, there are lots of free pianos out there on Craigslist if you live near a larger city on the east coast. If you are patient and keep looking, you can get a nice free Yamaha upright! I have experienced this two times and both Yamaha uprights would be fine for a church sanctuary. We transport and tune our own pianos so that saves more money. So far, the piano is the sole instrument at my church.”

  39. Dave Lloyd says:

    Brian Buda is already one of my favorite arrangers, part of the amazing legacy of new arrangers coming out of Bob Jones University mentored by other great arranger/instructors such as Gina Sprunger, Faye Lopez, and Joan Pinkston to name a few. BJU is dominating the sacred piano solo publishing world and rightfully so: Dan Forrest, James Koerts, Molly Ijames, Shelton Ridge Love, et al.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Dominating is a strong word and I disagree. There are many great arrangers out there with no connection to BJU or its brand of fundamentalism. Also, fundamentalist publishers (like SoundForth) have simply failed or at least failed to gain traction. It is true that the fundamentalist schools like BJU are getting a lot of influence in this space though and there are reasons for that. The biggest reason is simply that the space is shrinking and largely been abandoned by the broader evangelical writers. In other words, fundamentalist writers are a much larger piece of the pie now because they sort of have the pie all to themselves. That is overstating it of course because again, it is hardly like there are not still great writers out there from across the sphere of Christianity.

      That is however taking nothing away from the writers you mention who are not only good writers but good people. Many of them are my friends.

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