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The Erstwhile Church Pianist

The Erstwhile Church Pianist


“Erstwhile (adjective): former, old, past, one-time”

Obviously, this title is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, because if you actually were a “former” church musician you probably wouldn’t be reading this now.

What I’m referring to as “erstwhile” is the type of church piano playing that happened when I was young (back in the last century). Not that there was anything wrong with it; in fact, it was highly inspirational for me as a budding young musician to hear those (mostly old) ladies arpeggiate, tinkle, run up and down and pound the keys.

Problem is, styles have changed since then. The advent of rock in Christian worship brought in other instruments, notably guitars and drums, which began to crowd out the noble pianoforte (the piano’s real name which means a keyboard instrument that can play a full range of dynamics from loud to soft). The piano’s ability to play a variety of dynamic levels becomes mostly superfluous when it’s part of a band with electrified instruments and drums playing at a uniform volume level (usually LOUD).

But what happens if the pianist is minus the other instruments but has to play contemporary Christian music conceived with those instruments in mind? The influence of popular music then makes it necessary for the pianist to do things that were (usually) not taught at childhood piano lessons.

So what is the postmodern pianist supposed to do? Answer: Learn to be more than just a pianist! This can assume several forms, but it boils down to one thing—the ability to think “orchestrally” and to be an “arranger” as well as a performer. How exactly this works depends to some extent on whether the piano is the sole (or primary) accompaniment to congregational singing, or whether it’s part of a band.

Good accompaniment reinforces congregational singing by carefully attending to four basic elements in the music—melody, chord structure, bass line, and rhythm pattern. If you as pianist are carrying all (or most) of the weight of the accompaniment, your right hand will need to play the vocal melody notes, but with an additional feature: Right hand fingers not used in playing the melody will need to grab chord notes below (i.e., to the left) of the melody notes on important beats, and always whenever chords change. Your left hand will establish the bass as a separate part, playing roots of the chords in octaves or maybe alternating with the 5th of the chord, and then walking up or down the scale from one chord root to the next. If the song needs additional rhythmic propulsion, play each of the right-hand notes—melody and chord notes—singly, rather all at the same time; this will mimic “finger-picking” on the guitar.

What I’m calling “orchestration” is when the pianist plays other things (obbligatos, descants, countermelodies, fill-in licks, etc.), which is more likely to happen when you’re part of a band. If guitar, bass, and drums are providing the basic reinforcement for the singing, then the piano is free to play the melody or some other melodic line. “Orchestration” means you might want to make your part sound like a flute or a trumpet, or Dino Kartsonakis (heh, heh). It’s okay to use your imagination here.

Things change over time. We’ve seen humanity progress from the Mechanical Age to the Electronic Age. What’s next? How about—the Spiritual Age? But the most important thing is to submit the whole process to God for His guidance, direction, and inspiration.

“In the beginning, Lord, You laid the earth’s foundation and created the heavens. They will all disappear and wear out like clothes. You change them, as you would a coat, but You last forever. You are always the same. Years cannot change You. Every generation of those who serve You will live in Your presence.” (Psalm 102:25-28, CEV)

Ray Andrews currently serves as senior pastor of Romans Eight Church in Fort Worth, Texas, after having been music pastor there for 30 years.  His involvement with music ministry spans five decades in many areas, such as composing, arranging, recording, vocal and instrumental performance and teaching.  Contact him at [email protected].

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