Being a pianist is often a solitary pursuit. You take lessons with one other person in the room, you practice by yourself, you play solos, while your friends who play string and wind instruments are always making music in groups. You might accompany a soloist or play duets with your organist, but your role in those cases is fairly clearly defined. What happens when you find out that you’re going to be part of a “band” to accompany worship?
I remember the first time that happened to me. I was accompanying a five-voice ensemble that did concerts at local churches. At some of the rehearsals, I was the only instrumentalist there, so I played the written accompaniments as usual, but, at performances, I was joined by a guitar, bass, and drums. After our first concert, I was all pumped up from the excitement of playing with other musicians. We went out to eat and discussed the concert.
The bass player said, “Larry, you certainly have an active left hand.” At first, I thought that was a compliment until I realized he was gently trying to tell me that it was his job to hold down the bass part, so I didn’t need to whack those low notes quite as hard … or sometimes at all!
Then the guitarist said, “I like those fills you add between phrases … but maybe sometimes you could leave some space for ME to do a few?” Whoops. Another mistake. Playing with the band loosened me up to add some extra spice to the written part, but I had forgotten there was another “melody” instrument which would like to contribute to the mix.
So the next time we played, I kept these things in mind. I made better eye contact with the guitarist, so we would know who intended to add a little solo here and there, and I kept my left hand much simpler, especially in places where the written accompaniment was rhythmic. (Two people trying to play the same syncopated line in unison are not likely to do so!)
All that happened to me years before the “praise band” became a standard element in many churches, but the lessons I learned in my little group helped me prepare for belonging to a larger ensemble.
Remember the Pie
Songwriter Paul Baloche once explained the praise band situation like this: the instrumental accompaniment to worship is like a pie. Everyone should have his or her own slice; nobody should try to hog the whole pie. Unfortunately, as a pianist with ten active fingers, that had been my habit.I did not like sharing the pie.
It might help to think about the ranges of the various instruments. The bass covers the extreme low register: the bottom two octaves of the piano keyboard. There’s no need for you to be playing strongly down there, except perhaps in certain accented passages. The guitar is more or less a bass-clef instrument, too; its highest E-string sounds the E just above middle C. All the standard chords are happening in the tenor register of your piano so there’s no need for thick chords there on the keys, and if the guitar is strumming, there’s no need for busy playing around the middle of the piano.
What part of the pie is left for you? Virtually the entire upper half of the piano! Solid chords in that mid-to-high register sound great with guitar and bass because you are carving out your own spot in the frequency spectrum. Well-placed arpeggios and fills in the upper register will stand out against the sound of the band. You may discover that you are using fewer than all 10 fingers, which is just fine. If the guitarist is doing slow picking, you can move lower and fill in some of those tenor-range chords.
The important point is to be generous with other players. Let them bear their share of the accompaniment burden while you seek out your own “sweet spot.” You will be delighted to find out that being part of an ensemble is just as enjoyable, if not more so, than “going solo.”
Larry Shackley is the sacred keyboard editor for The Lorenz Corporation. He has published almost 600 arrangements for piano in over 90 collections. He also edits two music magazines: The Church Pianist and Keyboard Worship and Praise, and is active in his church music ministry in Irmo, SC.