A View from the Piano

Most people have probably never thought about what it’s like to be an accompanist – to play the piano or another instrument whilst we sing to God. That’s because most of us don’t have to do it. But even those of us who do play don’t always think carefully about what we are doing or trying to achieve. For most people, when first asked to accompany the congregation, it’s a terrifying prospect; your greatest concern is to get through without making any mistakes and embarrassing yourself. Nothing else is really on your mind except that. Perhaps as time goes by you get more comfortable and stop worrying so much – and then the temptation is to stop thinking about what  we are doing and why. So why do we have accompanists and what are they for?

 The New Testament tells us what singing in the church is for:

Eph 5:19-20 Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

 It’s obvious from these verses that: 

  • Our singing must be addressed to God, expressing our thankfulness to him.
  • Our singing must come from our hearts – we must mean what we are singing.
  • When we sing, we are also speaking to and teaching one another.

Hence the reason for accompanists must be this: to help us as a congregation (which includes the accompanist) to sing to God together from our hearts and speak to and teach each other in our singing. If that’s the case then a number of consequences flow from that definition:

1. An accompanist is not strictly necessary.

If a congregation is big enough, or has strong singers and knows the hymns or songs sung then why bother with an instrumental accompaniment? Spurgeon refused to have an organ installed at the Metropolitan Tabernacle because 5000 people singing together didn’t need any musical accompaniment. But most congregations in the UK today do need some help singing. It’s not very natural for us English folk to sing. And on the rare occasions we do sing we’re used to having accompaniment.

Hopefully, Christians are more used to singing than many people in Britain but in my experience many of us still feel uncomfortable singing a capella. Also, if visitors come into our meetings not knowing the hymns and the singing isn’t strong enough for them to pick up the tunes readily then it’s likely to put them off – the piano will help them to feel more comfortable. Also, if we are reluctant singers, the playing will help us in other ways:

  • To help us sing tunes we don’t know so well.
  • To keep us in time and singing together.
  • To ensure that we start at the same time.

2. The accompanist is one of the congregation, also praising God.

The ideal is therefore for the accompanist to sing as well as play. That means that they are fully joining in the worship. And it also helps them to know if we are singing too fast or slow – you can’t play too fast if you have to sing along. Obviously, not every accompanist can sing and play – and we mustn’t unfairly make that a condition of playing. It was a long time before I ever sang when playing in church. But for myself, I would far rather play some wrong notes and sing, than play perfectly and be excluded. So if there are multiple pianists in the church, it makes sense take turns to allow each other to sing – especially if some of them can’t sing while playing. That also means it’s not fair to ask flautists or clarinettists to play – they physically can’t sing as well as play. That’s also one reason why I’m not keen on having music groups playing in church – it makes it very difficult for that group of people to sing and think carefully about the words we should be singing together.

3. Accompanying a congregation is not a performance.

We are singing to God and listening to each other sing: concentrating on the words and what they mean. Beautiful music or exceptional playing is likely to distract us from true worship. The ideal is for the accompaniment to be unobtrusive; an ideal accompanist will only be noticed when they are not there. So when I’m playing I don’t want to be up at the front for everyone else to see; ideally I’d be out of people’s eye-lines but near enough everyone else to be part of the congregation – not perched up in an organ loft away from everyone else. But if it is necessary to leave the congregation in order to play I want to be back with them for as much of the rest of the service as possible. I once sat in a church in Canada where for every hymn the ‘musical director’ leapt to the front and conducted; it didn’t seem to help the singing and simply distracted me. He’d have been much better off staying in and singing with the rest of the congregation.

Some people argue that church music should be as beautiful as possible, to bring glory to God. After all shouldn’t we do all things ‘to the glory of God’ (1 Cor 10:31), ‘with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men’ (Col 3:23)? Hence churches have choirs and orchestra, solos from wonderful singers, superb organists playing on wonderful sounding instruments. But what does ‘excellence in worship’ actually consist of? What will please God? What does he look for in our worship? Surely it is hearts singing words with real meaning to God – including the whole people of God. So while we have no excuse to mumble and refuse to sing well if we are able to, that tone deaf lady singing whole-heartedly out of tune behind me is bringing far more excellent worship to God than the wonderful organist performing a stirring recital. The old folks singing a simple hymn from their hearts in their home please God more than the finest orchestra playing to please men.

Does that mean that God has no time for or interest in musical performance or musical excellence? Not at all – he loves beauty and creativity. Music beautifully performed does please him – especially when performed by someone who loves him and is playing ‘as unto the Lord’. There are times when I sit down and play (I don’t claim any excellence) exalting in God and I’m worshipping him in my heart. But no-one else knows that – they can’t read my heart and emotions. They can’t join me in that expression of praise. So church isn’t the place for these things – as Paul makes clear in 1 Cor 14:15-17. Let’s save them and enjoy them at other times.

So having worked out what I’m trying to accomplish when playing in church, what would be my ideal approach to a service as an accompanist? How do I try and work it out in practice?

  • Knowing the hymns in advance. So that I can check that I know the tunes, practice them if required and choose an appropriate alternative tune if the set one is one we don’t know.
  • Ideally (though I confess this rarely happens) to read and think about the words in advance. Especially if the tune is so complicated that I won’t be able to sing along. Think whether there are parts of the hymn that should be played louder or softer.
  • Get to church in time to pray and then play before the service begins. That reminds people that we are about to enter God’s presence. If there’s an unfamiliar tune to one of the hymns I might play it through to familiarise people with it. This time of playing isn’t a performance either – it’s to help us settle down and prepare for worship. Then the point at which I stop playing acts as a signal that it’s time to stop talking and concentrate on God.
  • When a hymn is announced I’ll play a short introduction, so that people recognise the tune and are ready to start to sing at the same time. If it’s an unfamiliar tune I might play a couple of lines, or even the whole tune through a couple of times if needed.
  • While playing I try to sing. If there are particularly thrilling or emotional words I may play louder to remind people that this is something grand that we are singing. If appropriate I’ll play softly to remind people of the solemn-ness and wonder of what’s being sung.
  • The tempo is important. You cannot sing songs of exuberant praise to God slowly and woodenly. But neither should they be so fast that we can’t concentrate on the words. Singing myself helps with setting the right tempo.
  • I try to listen to the congregation. Sometimes you realise they aren’t familiar with the tune and you need to play more firmly and lead them in the tune and encourage them to sing. Sometimes they are singing slower than you are playing and you need to slow down to match their speed.
  • Leave an appropriate gap between verses. Again, it helps if you are singing yourself to judge how long this should be. I don’t think anyone who truly sings ‘And can it be that I should gain’ should have any breath left at the end of a verse – so a longer gap is needed.
  • Finally, I often slow down at the end to a natural finish.

Writing all this down makes me realise there’s much more involved than I usually think. It’s like driving a car – you do most of it by instinct and practice. But it’s still a complicated task. Yet if we are going to sing God’s praises more meaningfully, more together as a congregation, in real worship to God then it’s worth doing. So spare a thought for the person sitting at the piano – especially if they are new and nervous to the task. Forgive the mistakes and wrong notes. But then forget about us and join in the great task of singing to God’s glory.

Geoff Budgell

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