Congregational piano playing is something I’ve been doing for about 16 years now (wow, reality check right there about how old I’m getting!). It is one of my favorite ways to minister during the services at church. Currently I am one of three regular pianists at our church, and I play every Sunday morning. Being a church pianist is an extreme privilege that I do not take for granted. It is also something I strive to better myself in continually, whether it be by having new offertories ready each Sunday, mastering a new improvisation technique, or spiritually preparing for each service and remembering to ask God for His help as well as for His glory to be evident.
If you are a church pianist or aspire to be one someday, here are some things I’ve learned:
You have an important role in the overall spirit of the service. Remember that the way you play can either inspire people to sing or make them wish the song service were over!
You are not the song leader – you are supporting the song leader. Though I might feel a song should be sung a certain speed or a certain way, I always defer to my song leader’s decision on how to sing a song. If I begin a congregational song with a lively introduction but halfway through the first verse realize that he is resisting the speed, I quickly adjust and slow down accordingly.
Anticipate your song leader’s plan for the service. At my church I am blessed with a spiritually mindful song leader that takes into consideration how the music affects the service. I know that towards the beginning of a service he wants to make sure everyone is focusing and participating; towards the sermon time he wants to ensure people are thinking towards the preaching; and during the invitation he wants the attention to be on the altar and not on the singing.
For many parts of the service, you are the “cue”! If you are not sure when something is supposed to happen during the service, clarify that with your song leader before the service starts to avoid as many awkward fumbles as possible!
Learn to play hymns in keys that are comfortable for singing. Some hymnbooks have songs written in keys that make for some very high notes in a song.
Don’t be too proud to ask for help with your role! It is really nice how that right now, I am usually able to sit through two out of three weekly services thanks to the other pianists in our church. This gives me a chance to do things like utilize the altar during invitation or reach out to visitors before church starts. Side note: if you desire to implement other pianists in the service rotation for congregational singing, always clear this with both your pastor and your song leader first.
Congregational playing is not the time to implement a new technique unless you are 100% comfortable with it. You don’t want to throw your song leader off track and cause him embarrassment due to a mistake that YOU made!
If you make a mistake, accept the fact and move on with your life! Be able to laugh at yourself. I remember one time when I was a teen, out of habit, I played the introduction in a key different than what was written. Then when I looked to the music to continue with the congregation, all at once I both realized I was in the wrong key AND made the bad decision to switch to the correct key! Obviously that sounded terrible; the song leader paused, graciously made some quick joke about it, and let me re-start the introduction. Things like that happen – we are human!
It is incredibly helpful and almost essential for you to be able to see the song leader out of your peripheral vision as you play. Even though I don’t watch him the whole time I play (I am not skilled enough to complete such a feat), I glance at him often throughout a song to make sure I’m following his timing and spirit – especially at the beginning and end of each verse and chorus, at fermatas, or during songs that include things like handshaking time. This is also a necessary thing when my sound system monitor is failed to be turned on. If at your church your piano is positioned in a way that you cannot see the song leader during the congregational singing, talk to him (and your pastor) about repositioning the piano to eliminate this problem.
Though your role as a church pianist is very important, it is not supposed to stick out and distract from the song leader, singing, etc. Your role is supposed to blend in – kind of like glue that supports and holds everything together!
There are probably a dozen more things I could say, but this blogpost is getting long 🙂 If you are a pianist but have never deemed yourself “worthy” to play for the church service, think again! Congregational playing is an excellent way to improve overall as a musician! When I started out I didn’t really know what I was doing…I was 12 years old, had very little formal musical training, and made a lot of mistakes. But, I also had a desire to improve my skills and learn to play “like my friends who do that” because I was so amazed at how they were able to participate in the services like that. India and I always say that the Holy Spirit was our chief music Teacher, because God really broadened my abilities and insight about congregational playing through the years. To this day, I am kind of obsessed with watching other church pianists play so that I can learn new techniques and styles of playing. My desire is to continue to improve as a pianist my entire life!
Perhaps something I’ve said today sparked a question or two in your mind. I’d love to hear from you and I would do my best to answer more about being a church pianist!