Four reasons why church pianists should be a bit nervous

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Today is going to be one of those posts that might make some uncomfortable. I will interested in your feedback for sure and I expect that many will disagree with me. I am just going to call it like I see it.

I want to talk about the future of the piano in church. To do that, I want to talk about current trends that I see and also give some general observations from a lot of years in church music.

To provide a bit of foundation, remember that the church has been around for 2000 years but for 95% of that time, the piano was either not invented or not welcome. In fact, well into the last century, the piano was considered an instrument for the bars and the organ was God’s preferred instrument for a church.

I say that because I want to emphasize that God does not need pianos nor do churches need pianists. A piano is just an instrument like any other instrument, complete with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Churches that have pianos are not superior to churches that don’t.

From that perspective, I will say this: the future of the piano in church is pretty uncertain if not bleak.

Why do I say that? Here are four reasons and I doubt any of them will surprise you.

The movement toward band-driven worship.
While 50 years ago, churches usually were organ/piano driven with as much of an orchestra as they could scrape together, today’s typical church depends on drums, guitars and lead vocals. I am not going to comment much on that except to say it is not what I prefer. (I will readily admit that is a preference.)

In a band-driven church music program, the piano is marginalized or eliminated completely. In many cases, it is kicked to the curb as the organ was a few decades ago and sometimes, it is replaced with a keyboard either playing simple rhythm or string reductions. I have been to numerous churches like that, and it is rare that I ever hear the keyboard/piano. It is mixed down if not eliminated completely out of the mix.

Traditionalist influence is waning
It is true that there are still probably tens of thousands of churches around where the music is still piano/organ oriented. However, to be very blunt, the vast majority of those churches are dying, losing their people steadily to churches that are considered more exciting, Biblical, hip, or whatever. The demographic in those more traditional churches is elderly and while they have managed to hold onto their traditions, the next generation needed to keep the church running has left the building.

Now, many of you might say you know of this or that church that is thriving and growing and still has orchestral-driven rather than band-driven music. You are right. There are a few. However, the truth is they are rare anomalies. In my metropolis (Atlanta), I can name them on one hand. In a typical less populated area, you would be very fortunate to find one.

In an environment where most churches are hurting financially, acoustic pianos are enormously expensive and they are very expensive to maintain. On top of that, they have sometimes astronomical hidden costs. For example, while a church building might only get used a few hours a week, it is impossible to keep a piano in decent shape unless the room is always conditioned (humidity and temperature). Think about how much a large church would spend in a year just conditioning that piano. It is no wonder that many churches have decided to use keyboards rather than pianos.

Even ten years ago, getting a great sound out of a keyboard was practically impossible. That is not the case anymore. Churches are starting to figure out they can send a MIDI feed out of a cheap keyboard into a workstation using cutting edge samples (piano or any other instrument) and then into the sound system. All of a sudden, there are lots of options on the table.

By the way, the secular world is not exempt from the technology advances either. Piano dealers are really sweating these days. The piano brands I grew up with such as Baldwin have got out of business left and right. Even premium brands like Steinway that may have seemed untouchable a decade ago are struggling.

We don’t have to like it but the writing is on the wall. There are forces working against the piano in church and I think we will continue to see its decline. On top of what I have written here, I think there are other challenges too that I am going to discuss soon in another post.

What do you think? Do you agree that the piano has probably already seen its peak in a church setting?

22 thoughts on “Four reasons why church pianists should be a bit nervous

  1. Kurt Goodman says:

    My wife is the ward organist and I am the choir director. We have a great tradition rooted in organ and piano. In every LDS church I have been to throughout the western U.S. we can expect to sing hymns in our services accompanied with an organ.

    Many of our buildings may have 3 or 4 pianos. Pianos in our chapels are usually a professional grand. There may be an upright piano in the room where the primary children meet, a piano where the young women meet, a piano where the women meet and sometimes a piano where the men meet. So we may have as many as 4 pianist and 2 organist- a few being youth.

    The pianos are not only used for daytime services and evening meetings on Sunday, but also during the week for youth and often times used in practice for intermediate musical numbers. The piano and organ are used for our choirs as well. Much of the time local piano teachers use the pianos for their student recitals.

    There may be as many as 3 different wards or units in each building. Each ward functions independently at different times- so our instruments get used a lot.

    We may have an occasional harp or stringed instrument or flute accompaniment but that is the extent of the orchestral instruments. There are no guitars, drums, or bands of any kind.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      That is interesting and I did not know that. So the LDS has remained completely immune to contemporary P&W and band/guitars?

      • Kurt Goodman says:

        In regards to your question the short answer is YES- there are absolutely no drums or bands in any of our worship services throughout the world and relatively no contemporary praise and worship. You may hear more contemporary music from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir but that is a broadcast to our friends of the world- not a part of our worship service so…

        Our music comes from an approved hymnbook and there are guidelines. We are told that members and priesthood leaders are expected to review the general principle-based guidelines and then, with the guidance of the Spirit, apply the guidelines to a particular circumstance, adjusting to the occasional exception as appropriate. “Music should be worshipful and fit the spirit of the meeting. … Music and musical texts are to be sacred, dignified, and otherwise suitable for sacrament meeting” (Handbook 2, 14.4, 14.4.4). In keeping with these guidelines, music for sacrament meetings should be chosen and presented with the intent of promoting worship, rather than bringing attention to the performance itself. Hymns throughout the hymnbook may be used as sacrament hymns if they follow this guideline: The sacrament hymn “should refer to the sacrament itself or to the sacrifice of the Savior” (Handbook 2, 14.4.4).

        But we as a people often have questions regarding what is appropriate.

        To be brief and so that I am accurate in my response I quote directly from our Handbook 2 available on on the following questions:

        Does the Church have a policy that only hymns can be used as music in sacrament meeting?
        “The hymns are the basic music for worship services and are standard for all congregational singing. In addition, other appropriate selections may be used for prelude and postlude music, choir music, and special musical presentations. If musical selections other than the hymns are used, they should be in keeping with the spirit of the hymns. Texts should be doctrinally correct” (Handbook 2: Administering the Church [2010], 14.4.2). (See also “Hymns for Congregations,” Hymns, 380-81.)

        May we use hymns from other denominations for special selections?
        Yes. However, musical texts should be doctrinally correct (see Handbook 2, 14.4.2).

        May we use classical music for special selections?
        “In addition [to the hymns], other appropriate selections may be used for prelude and postlude music, choir music, and special musical presentations. … Secular music should not replace sacred music in Sunday meetings. … Also, much sacred music that is suitable for concerts and recitals is not appropriate for a Latter-day Saint worship service” (Handbook 2, 14.4.2). In keeping with these guidelines, music for sacrament meetings should be chosen and performed with the intent of promoting worship, rather than bringing attention to the performance itself.

        May we use popular music that is written for a Latter-day Saint audience in sacrament meetings?
        “Some religiously oriented music presented in a popular style is not appropriate for sacrament meetings” (Handbook 2, 14.4.2).

        May the guitar be used in sacrament meeting?
        “Organs and pianos, or their electronic equivalents, are the standard instruments used in Church meetings. If other instruments are used, their use should be in keeping with the spirit of the meeting” (Handbook 2, 14.4.2).

        May brass instruments be used in sacrament meeting?
        “Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting” (Handbook 2, 14.4.2). “Music that is carefully selected and properly presented can greatly enhance the spirit of worship” (Handbook 2, 14.4).

        Is it possible to use recorded accompaniment for special selections in sacrament meetings?
        “Live accompaniment is normally used in sacrament and other ward meetings. If a piano, organ, or accompanist is not available, appropriate recordings may be used” (Handbook 2, 14.4.2.) Karaoke-type accompaniment is discouraged.

        Should the performer of a special musical selection use the microphone?
        The use of a microphone would not be appropriate in sacrament meeting if it were to detract from the spirit of the meeting, creating the semblance of a popular performance. However, a microphone may be used if the performer’s voice or instrument needs to be amplified.

        Is there an official list of “banned” or “approved” music or composers for sacrament meeting?
        No. No official list of “banned” or “approved” selections or composers exists.

        May the meetinghouse organs and pianos be used for paid private instruction? What about recitals?
        “When there is not a reasonable alternative, priesthood leaders may authorize the use of meetinghouse pianos and organs for practice, paid private instruction, and recitals involving members of the units that use the meetinghouse. No admittance fee should be charged for recitals” (Handbook 2, 14.7).

        May the piano and organ be used together?
        “Using the piano and organ at the same time is not standard for Church meetings. However, these instruments may be used together occasionally” (Handbook 2, 14.9.3).

  2. ys says:

    Our church uses a blended worship style…we’re not big enough to splinter into multiple service formats (traditional vs contemporary). I kind of agree with Mark that I think there are people from younger generations who still like this or if given the chance would like this. I agree to stick it out. I direct the children’s choir and the kids used to never sing since “they didn’t like it” so they just never did it. I disagreed with that, make it positive and have children choir and you’ll have kids that like to sing (sure some won’t as much, some will like it more,etc……..but don’t give up and have NO ONE sing! There are no winners there and long-term that won’t be good! (Although OTOH I think long-term there are lots of issues as the choirs have been going by the wayside more and more for the praise bands,etc but that’s a whole other discussion). I think it’s a mistake to drop traditional instrumentation…I think they belong in the church much more than the rock style music. But part of the issue is a lot of the current churches styles are to “pump people up” versus moments of quiet reflection. Sure they can be some other styles of music but to me some of those are more fitting for after the service, used as closing songs,etc. Thankfully our church has not given up on some of the more traditional aspects and I hope more churches will continue. It seems like more and more just try to emulate other churches and jump on the same bandwagon, which is a cycle then as more and more churches follow to try to keep up. But I think it can be a mistake, not everyone does like it and also all the continuous talk of the young people I think is maybe a bit misguided……I hear that about young kids and what they “want”. Who do I hear this from? Mainly the parents and adults, not the young kids themselves. I am not convinced that a very young child has such a set preference on music…..they haven’t hardly heard many genres and different types of music to listen to. It seems biased to me, or the kids just repeat what they have heard others say. I don’t really think they are so set in their ways at these young ages. They are just learning things! So why not introduce them and teach them a variety of music and things?(And I’m talking about the younger kids……the older they get they probably start to get a bit set but that’s partly just lack of exposure to different things. I think there is a real window of opportunity to be had in young kids). I have bucked the trends and do that with our kids. (Someone will ask my young child who their favorite singer is and they may say Johnny Cash,lol! See the adults surprise on their face to hear a response like that! Because most of them grow up on singers who use autotune….they don’t know any better,lol )I think more conservative music directors should absolutely stick it out like Mark said and think they have more champions then they may know. I refuse to give up! While we do things in our church and specifically with our children choir that aren’t considered mainstream they are still very well received. There has been tremendous positive feedback and enthusiasm. The kids have even sung southern gospel style (which is not common at all up north!) and it’s been very well received. I am convinced we make an impact. I think we can impact the culture long-term. So I agree, keep it up and don’t give up! Because I think in the long-run the pendulum may swing back, who knows. Eventually all this “new” sounds and things are so fresh and hip will be old and maybe they’ll try something again which may be piano!:)

  3. CarolW says:

    I agree that the piano/organ style of music in the church is dying away in favor of bands, praise teams and 7/11 songs (7 words and 11 notes or vice versa). I sometimes think the services are much like rock concerts. I accept that church worship is changing, but that worship style isn’t for me. I’ll listen to the great choral anthems, offertories and preachers on YouTube and be content.

  4. Amos Walker says:

    As a church pianist it seems like the majority of people who show interest in learning piano just want to learn that one song they can impress their friends with. These days it’s less theory and technique and more give me that one chord I can hold on to for as long as possible. It’s sad and discouraging that the best we give in music a lot of the time is our left overs with no real skill anymore. I prefer more classical type hymns/music in church as I just feel it’s more polished and orderly. It also finds me in a more reverent, worshipful state of being than CCM and such. We have two decent pianos and an organ in our church, one piano in the sanctuary and one in the practice room (and thankfully are able to have them tuned and maintained regularly). We desire to see much more pianist trained here and continue to use traditional hymns along with newer sacred music (E.g. Majesty Music)

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Several have mentioned (through email) that the best way to avoid getting sidelined as a pianist is to be good. I think that is probably pretty true.

  5. Donna Vogt says:

    I have been so blessed and privileged to play organ for several years and now for the past 35 years piano..I love playing and hearing the people sing..
    We currently use piano lead, organ, 2 guitar and drums with a praise team. We use hymns and current which works for our conservative church but is not a draw to our church.
    Thankfully, we have dynamic preaching and many good programs and a wonderful church body.
    Right now, I am as skilled as I’ve ever been, play only parts for the choir which uses tape and struggles to exist, and congregational music. I love when I can actually hear the people singing which is not always the case.
    I don’t know what the answer is but count my blessings to have grown up with great singing and great music…and pray that our kids and grandkids will have such memories as they age…
    To God be the glory, great things HE has done! How great is our God!

  6. Chris says:

    Greg, I think you are right. Unfortunately, it does seem that traditional music is headed to the wayside. As a church pianist for over 20 years in the traditional style, I hate to see it go, but I have expanded my own musical horizons a little bit in learning some different stylings and techniques, and I think there are appropriate places (even in church sometimes) for using these. I believe that we as traditionalists, often get stuck in a rut. The current church I play and lead music at had terrible traditional music when I showed up. Oh sure, it was just piano and organ playing hymns, but it wasn’t anything close to excellent or desireable to hear/sing with! I am happy to say that it has come a very long way from that in the last 3-4 years! It wasn’t that we didn’t have skilled pianists, but they did not know how to apply classical skills to hymn playing. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, so I ended up teaching a couple of classes on congregational accompaniment, and even put on an entire conference for church music leaders.
    I am not advocating CCM, but some of us may do well to loosen up a bit and expand our horizons ( jazz has a lot of techniques that could be utilized for instance). Even though I play and prefer the traditional style, it is not beneath me to accompany a band when I’m asked (even if I don’t like the song).
    Most of the CCM I am familiar with is self-centered rather than God centered, and that is partly the reason it is “more exciting” to much of the church going populace today. Generally speaking, it is an emotional entertainment which had been called “worship” long enough now that the church accepts it as such. Traditionalists are unlikely to change this trend, but one of your readers commented that we are less likely to be phased out if we are making excellent music. I couldn’t agree more! If we lose our jobs for doing well, we cannot be faulted. If we lose them because we are lousy musicians, that is our fault. Just some thoughts…

  7. Shirlee says:

    you are a snot. and you call yourself a christian. you are just snotty and disrespectful of people who don’t prefer bands.

  8. Shirlee says:

    Maybe the money changers in Jesus’ day reacted with a similar statement to yours(“Thanks for dropping that on us”) when Jesus drove them out of the temple. My earlier comment is not motivated as much by the question of appropriate instruments, but rather by the fact that you and people like you have turned praising God in song into a money-grubbing, self-seeking, competition-driven “industry.” You yourself have set yourself up as some kind of worship expert, confident that most people know nothing about history, but in fact, go back far enough in music history and you will find that the church “fathers” had deep discussions about whether or not to allow the organ to be used, since that was originally thought to be “worldly.” What’s funny is that you think you are “new” and “cutting edge,” but you and your whole industry have taken church music back to the medieval and renaissance days when church composers were competing to see who could get the most measures out words like “allelulia” – and those “large and in charge” church musicians were performing for the congregation, rather than leading them in corporate worship. The whole praise band thing is undermining what happened at the reformation, when people like Martin Luther believed that the voices of the congregation should be heard, and that they should be singing together, not being “sung at.” If pianos, organs, praise bands – whatever is in vogue – are louder than people’s voices (and praise bands always are), and if the instruments and the “worship leaders” are up there “performing” (which they are), the whole premise of singing praises to God becomes a sham, and maybe something worse than a sham. As an aside, the praise bands I have seen through the years do not look like they are even joyful, but are up there emulating the latest “brand” of non-Christian bands, getting their “fix” from being up in front like the “stars” and celebrities they want to be, with little disregard for the “lowly” congregational voices being drowned out by however many amps will get the job done. At best, you and your “industry” are sadly misguided and misinformed. Or maybe after all, you are just money changers in the temple.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Shirlee, way to assign motives and good job on avoiding bitterness ?
      Honestly, I am not going to address your comments until you get a bit more coherent and a bit less rude and a bit more informed about what I even believe.

      • Shirlee says:

        Way to market yourself and your products by fear-mongering pianists into thinking they better buy your stuff if they want to be “good enough” to not get “phased out.” And I have read about you and what you say you believe, but by turning worship into business, your underlying beliefs are quite clear. You have marketing savvy, I’ll give you that. You don’t need to respond to me, but maybe you can think about that.

        • Greg Howlett says:

          This is my blog. I will choose for myself what I want to respond to or not. You are a bitter person that is quick to judge motives even when you are ignorant of them. There was a time where I put up with your ilk here but not any more. Go play somewhere else.

  9. Monica L.Flores says:

    I have played piano off and on for 30 some years.I love the sound of a great tuned piano. One of my pianos was burned as it was falling apart beyond repair. I just recently inherited an old player piano with the scrolls and it still plays both ways with an air intake or manually.Can we say 1920’s. Loving it.Hymns are a big part of my life and so was piano.Although i am not near were I want to be professionally or even happy with my service as a pianist at church I would love to be better. Knowing i can be on my death bed listening to a player piano heaven to my ears.Now If I practiced without looking at my hands I know I d be betber at reading the music. MonicaFlores

  10. R.B. says:

    I am someone who went the other way. I am both a guitar player and a piano player, and when I started 20 years ago, the yearning was something modern and different, and so we played eclectic band-driven pieces. But there is a real yearning out there now for tradition and authenticity.
    When we switched pastors a few years ago and lost a key piano player, I became the head of music and switched to the piano. More and more, the want for a band and PnW fell away, and there was a real thirst for ancient and beautiful music and tradition. Sometimes chant without any piano at all.
    Sometimes the folks in the pews still want the modern praise, but I think the momentum has switched direction.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Yes, current trends might reverse. It is hard for me to see how normal people want to go to what passes for “worship” in most churches. There is a real draw toward Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism for the reasons you mention, even though the theology is far different. I have often said that if I could, I would go to Orthodox services just to soak in the beauty of it.

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