An honest appraisal (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. However, 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 the church for 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 that 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 pianos 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 that 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 have 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.