This is not a scientific survey, just my observations of pianists over the years in music in academic and church settings.
There’s an old saying, “The Catholic states, ‘the Pope says;’ the Episcopal declares, ‘the Bishop says,’ and the Baptist contends, ‘it seems to me!’”
Well, since I’m Baptist I will just say this is what it seems to me. There are five overlapping categories of piano players. I’ll just throw them out there for general purposes.
1. The “strictly by the note player”
These players are often very good sight readers for published anthem and solo accompaniments. Unless it involves some virtuosic writing for the concert stage, if it is on the page they can play it. They may be limited in style interpretation when it comes to something like a gospel shuffle feel, but they can play the notes.
These players soon find out that playing for hymn singing needs a lot more than is just on the page. The growing practice of using lead sheets (or chord sheets with lyrics only and chord symbols) will be a problem for them. They are excellent playing pre-wedding and ceremonial music.
My advice to the “strictly by the note” player: Take a chance. You have plenty of technique. In your private practice time experiment playing simple tunes like You Are My Sunshine and Amazing Grace in different keys. Learn your chords. Start with the major and minor chords and add the sevenths and diminished chords later. Mainly, don’t be afraid to play something that isn’t on the page!
2. The “I can only play by ear player”
These players often come from musical families that enjoy playing gospel tunes informally in church and for recreation. The songs are usually in friendly keys and have limited primary chords with a V of V here and there. They are quite proficient with the bass line in the left hand and chords in the right.
My advice to the “I only play by ear” player: Musical literacy, even limited, is a good thing. Sometimes you need to hear a tune or teach it to a singer for the first time. It’s not even important to know the note names, though as a theory teacher I would recommend it. Start by just learning the treble clef. Get over the fear of music reading, you will be a better player. It will come more naturally than you expect.
3. The “Gospel” player
Invariably the “Gospel” player comes from a family of gospel aficionados with a tradition dating back to the 1950s. They are able to play in a variety of styles including “boom chic,”
Gospel shuffle, and ballad style. In their repertoire will be the popular gospel songs from several decades. These players are good at playing full accompaniments for hymns and accompanying soloists, but will struggle with choral anthems and formal accompaniments for soloists.
My advice for the “Gospel” player: Broaden your stylistic playing. Learn to discipline yourself to be able to play not only gospel songs, but more formal hymns and praise songs.
4. The “Improvisational” player
These players come from a variety of backgrounds. Gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll genres are common. These players need to learn to coordinate their playing style with the musical needs of the moment. Musical literacy may be minimal, but seldom missing all together. They are usually good at reading from a lead sheet and are excellent in the “praise band” setting.
My advice to the “Improvisational” player: Work on your music reading skills and be aware of your role in the musical texture. Resist the temptation to play more notes than necessary. When accompanying, apply the “less is more” philosophy. Let the singer or singers have the spotlight. There will be a time for you to show your chops, just know when.
5. The “Integrated” player
With fundamental instruction and exposure, usually at an early age, these players are able to change styles and genres with ease. They are aware of different playing styles with other players as models. Playing a formal anthem accompaniment or performing in a praise band from a lead sheet present no problem. Genres are easily crossed and opportunities are ever present.
This should be the goal of piano players. Learn the playing styles and techniques of all the genres of music. It’s a wide palette of music in today’s world, and many, if not most, can be found in a church setting. Be flexible as musical attitudes vary frequently. Develop the talent you have been given.
My advice to the “Integrated” player: Be available and continue to be flexible. You have a skill that is much in demand.
by Stan Pethel