I’ve consulted on worship to what’s going on a hundred churches now from all different areas of the country and with all different issues, but there seems to be one commonality between most of them. If they say they have issues with their worship, the first thing I ask for is what the keyboardist is doing. Most issues can be traced back to a wrong role for the piano – trying to play Hillsong or Tomlin with piano leadership because the keyboardist won’t back down or because the church thinks it needs a piano leading to sing. It struck me in watching the “Hillsong Creative Training” DVD the other day, that modern worship has found a creative place for the piano on the stage: nowhere.
A little history lesson on worship as it relates to keyboards throughout history. For the first few years of the Church’s history, instrumentation wasn’t a key issue with singing, since much of it happened through chant or through basic accompaniment. However, with the advent of the pipe organ, the European church fell in love with four part hymn singing to that sound and it migrated with the immigrants to North America. Worship music was largely written for piano and organ for years, except for a few pockets of Great Awakening hymns drummed up by mandolin players in the Kentucky hills. But, a worship revolution coincided with a church revolution in the 1970’s-1990’s. Although groups like the Gaithers had been using popular instrumentation, churches across the country started to use guitars and rhythm instruments in worship. This change should not be taken lightly as many a “worship war” split churches and people. Around the year 2000, a more significant change for our discussion happened. Worship music became more of an industry, more mainstream and more focused on a few key centers of output with a few key leaders setting the tone. Worship leaders Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United emerged as the key leaders of today.
There is one other note that should be made. Many people equivocate “contemporary” with “modern” worship. I argue for a difference between the two, and the difference is key in understanding changes in the use of the keyboard. This difference can be seen very evidently between contemporary leaders, such as Michael W. Smith and Darlene Zscech versus their national successors – Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United (led by Joel Houston rather than Zscech). Whereas Smith and Zschech’s music makes heavy use of keyboard as a lead instrument, Tomlin and Houston’s use the keyboard only as an accent/support instrument, if at all. In many cases, especially in live performances, laptops are subbed for keyboards altogether for ambient effects. This change is laid out in great detail by both Hillsong Church, who replaced Zscech with Houston in the 2000’s to change their style and Smith, whose live worship CD released in the 2000’s, “A New Hallelujah” features virtually no original songs after his 1990’s releases “Worship” and “Worship Again” featured mostly original content. Smith’s songs have mostly dropped out of the CCLI Top 25 (most used music in the worldwide Church), while Houston/Hillsong’s music dominates it.
This leaves churches in a bind. The first thing to realize as a church is that you must diagnose what stage you are currently in and not try to jump two stages at once. If you are traditional, the jump to modern could kill your base if you don’t move to contemporary first. The move to modern must be done, as all changes must, well. If your church does not have a strong rhythm section (rhythm guitar, bass guitar, drums), attempting to shift to modern worship is an almost impossible task. There is a reason the worldwide Church went through contemporary worship on the way to modern worship – it is a bridge style with some traditional elements, including logical versifications and piano-based leadership, in many cases.
In modern worship, however, the keyboardist is asked to step to the back and simply serve as a support or accent instrument. Even keyboardists for major leaders in the industry such as Hillsong United rarely use two hands on the keyboard – often playing one or two notes at a time or laying down ambient pads to undergird the sound.
This change in the keyboard’s role will, obviously, be felt the most by the keyboard player. For churches who are transitioning, recognize that all keyboard players will not be happy with the change. Traditional piano players are used to playing with both hands, laying down bass, treble, alto and soprano lines, setting the rhythm and leading the congregation. To shift from that to simply playing accent notes and laying down ambient chords is not only difficult to swallow, it can be downright insulting (not to mention many churches pay organists/piano players and modern worship means their paycheck goes away).
Recognize that you may have keyboardists that may quit and that isn’t the end of the world. In some ways, training new keyboardists for the new style is optimal compared to trying to fit traditional keyboardists into a modern keyboardist role. It is important to realize, however, that keyboardists are artists and, when pushed aside or asked to do something limiting, will react harshly unless they are blessed with a high degree of humility. I cannot tell you how many churches this scenario repeats itself in. At conferences, I’ll often mention the “piano Nazi” and someone jumps into everyone’s mind because the experience is so common to all of us.
The key is to approach worship change as necessary and with love. If you love too much and let the keyboardist run you over, they will. If you are too adamant about their role, you could run off a very good potential band member. Do not be afraid, however, to move forward if your keyboardist will not come with you. Find someone else (you can fake keyboard in a modern band with very limited knowledge if you have good rhythm and knowledge of notes, using the right keyboard patches) or simply download some ambient mp3 sounds from the internet and use a laptop in the keyboardist’s place. Often, it sounds better.
Make sure everyone realizes that, in this style of music, keyboard is not lead. That needs to be said and said again. If your band and church isn’t comfortable with that – play some 80’s/90’s music that’s written for piano leadership. Muddying the waters will only hurt you in the long run.