The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Apprentice’s advice

I recently came across the following church notice sheet blooper: ‘The church fundraising concert was a great success. Special thanks are due to the minister’s daughter, who laboured the whole evening at the piano, which as usual fell upon her.’

As a regular church pianist you may be feeling the weight of the job you have to do. But the good news is that being a helpful church pianist is relatively easy once you have a few principles in mind.

So let’s take 3 general church music set ups and hopefully there will be something helpful in there for everyone.

The ‘piano only’ church

* Crystal clear introductions are vital, particularly if you have no vocalist. Play the first/last line of the song, make it clear when to start, and then bang out the first sung note as hard as possible. Modern songs often have intros included that sound great, but bear no resemblance to the melody and are pretty confusing if people are unsure/newcomers. So, even if week by week this seems dull, stick at it.

* Keep links between verses short for your comfort as well as the congregation’s!

* If possible, play the melody line along with the congregation in at least the first verse, for those who don’t know the tune.

* Don’t do too much. Clear rhythm is key. Too much ornamentation is confusing

* Have a strong and simple bass line. If the congregation are singing well, the bass is all they will be able to hear, so this helps to keep them in time and in tune.

Full band with bells on

Let’s say this band consists of piano, acoustic guitar, solo instrument, vocal, bass and drums. What instrument is most important for the congregation to hear?

Surprisingly, not the piano. (This is good for our humility?) The vocalist gives both visual and melodic direction, bassist gives depth and pitch, drums give rhythm, and guitar and piano simply fill the middle ground and support the rhythm.

The temptation for pianists in this scenario is to do too much. We either step on other band members’ ‘territory’ musically, or get overexcited and doodle. So in this case, imagine yourself as part of the rhythm section. Adopt the principle of a strong and simple bass line, perhaps venturing up an octave so that you and the guitar aren’t always playing the same notes, and just blend!

Little band

Many of the same principles as big band apply here, except that you can think through what is missing from the band. So if you have no bass or drums, beat out a steady octave with your left hand. If you have no melody instrument, get your right hand up there and play the tune. And in both ‘band’ scenarios, if in doubt, less is probably more.

On a more practical note, the most useful church pianists are those who can improvise, even a little. With much modern church music being written by guitarists, and also with a lot of older church music being a tad musically busy (for want of a better phrase), the ability to simplify and improvise is priceless. So if you can’t already, give it a go.

Most church music is written in C, D, E, F, G, and A, with the odd B flat. Try improving in a different key each week. If you have a keyboard with a transpose button, winner! It means you never need to know how to play in E flat — my personal nemesis. Just be sure you switch it off again before the next song… although if you forget once, you never will again…

Finally, make sure you spend time looking at the words you are helping people to sing. The most important thing is to be corporately praising our God with our church family, so be sure to join in with the rest of the congregation as much as possible. Play in a way that expresses the words and sing them in your heart if you can’t out loud, because more than anything else we have a God who is incredibly worthy of our praise!

Heather Cowan was a music apprentice at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and now works with students, youth and children at Christ Church Kensington in West London.

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

4 thoughts on “The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Apprentice’s advice

  1. Great article. Bob Kauflin has a lengthy training video for church pianists, lots of good info for learning to improvise. I have shared it on my blog….will send you the link shortly. Cheers Ros at

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