At one time, a “call to worship” would set in motion an organ or piano-led denominational “order of worship,” many times sung by a choir. No drums or guitars needed, thank you very much – the sweet sounds of a keyboard instrument were all that a congregation needed to sing until the cows came home.
Although there are churches that still use this traditional approach to worship, many church communities enjoy worship led by singers, along with all kinds of instruments including drums, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and auxiliary percussion… and maybe a keyboard, if there is one at all.
Worship music is definitely more complex than “back in the good ol’ days.” Chord charts and lead sheets have replaced the simple piano/organ arrangements from a hymnal. The songs themselves are no longer written solely on piano, and as a result they often don’t lend themselves to a piano as the lead instrument. In fact, the majority of the most popular worship songs sung in churches today are written on acoustic guitar or even electric guitar, without any keyboard instrument involved.
So how does a piano player fit in? What if you are trying to lead worship from the piano or keyboard, or simply trying to fit in as one more “color” instrument alongside a couple of electric guitars?
Hopefully you can benefit from the following ideas, gathered from some worship leaders who have “tried it all” and lived to tell the story.
Piano versus keyboards
Sometimes I’m asked about leading worship from a keyboard, versus playing the piano. If you normally use a piano, you are accustomed to a wonderful instrument under your fingertips, but you do not have the options that you have with a keyboard. If you fancy the soundscape of backing pads behind your piano sound, you enjoy playing the warm bell tones of an electric piano over the top of a light string pad, or you crave the energy of an organ on a chorus, you should try leading from a keyboard. There are many that work well for worship leading, including the Yamaha S-90, Motif, and Mo series, the Roland RD 700 and Fantom, and the Korg Triton or TR.
Just remember one thing: if you decide to lead from a keyboard and you’ve led from a piano up until now, take the time to work through all of your sonic ideas before you actually lead a group of people. Take it from me…one of the worst worship leading experiences you can have is to think you know what sounds you are going to use; you reach a spot when you’re ready for a heaven-touching-earth moment – and instead of hearing a string section underneath your grand piano, you hear the shocking blast of a trumpet. Well…eight trumpets, if you count all the notes you’ve played and held with the pedal. And so you end up repeating the chorus one last time in an effort to recapture what was supposed to be a “holy moment.” Needless to say, planning out your sounds is really crucial to the actual worship set with your church.
If you want to add the benefits of a keyboard but want to stay at the piano, consider inviting a keyboard player to join your band. That way you get the best of both worlds, rather than trying to cover pads or organs along with a rhythm instrument like piano or electric piano all by yourself.
The piano is not an orchestra
I still remember one of my first jazz piano master classes. You know, the one where you sit in front of other students and play, while an expert gives feedback on your performance. After playing a bit, this fellow pointed out rather loudly that I was not supposed to be an orchestra – after all, I was a piano player – so I needed to play less.
It’s funny now, but at the time it was an embarrassing situation that still serves me well today as a worship leader. I make it part of my routine to analyze my playing, both in “real time” while I’m in a rehearsal or a worship service, and later in recordings from the sound board, to listen to how much I’m playing. It’s really easy to get in the habit of filling everything from the bass to the highest notes on the piano, with plenty in between, without realizing it.
Make every note count
Evan Wickham, brother of recording artist Phil Wickham and a wonderful artist in his own right, puts it this way: “Cut back on the noodling!” Us keyboard players can play incessantly if we aren’t careful. As tempting as it is, there’s simply no need for us to fill every beat or sub-beat with playing. Arpeggios, runs, licks…they might sound good in the right song, but often they don’t fit a lot of contemporary worship songs.
Even if we are the only instrument, keep in mind that we’re still functioning in an accompaniment role. We are accompanying not only our own voice or those of the singers on our worship team, but also the voices of the worship community we are playing for. And although our piano playing might be absolutely stunning, it’s not the focus…it needs to be in balance with the expression of the lyrics.
If we are playing in a band setting, this advice is doubly important. It’s easy to overwhelm the other instruments with a few ill-placed bass notes, overly huge chords, or arpeggios. If we add a couple of microphones to the piano on top of playing like that, look out!
Find the rhythmic pattern
Whether it’s “How Great Is Our God,” “Holy Is The Lord,” “Open The Eyes of My Heart,” or “Everlasting God”…many of today’s favorite worship songs are written and arranged with the guitar in mind. That’s not a death-sentence to a keyboard-based worship leader, but it certainly means we need to think differently than if we are playing a song like “Shout To The Lord” that is tailor-made for a keyboard.
It’s not an easy fix…it totally depends on the arrangement and what each song is calling for, but the concept is that we first determine the feel of the guitar rhythm pattern, then we translate that feel into something that works for the keyboard. The end result could be a rhythmic chord in the right hand over a left hand that follows the bass line, or it might be a rolling pattern that combines the left and right hands to sound like an electric guitar motif.
Voicing, voicing, voicing
A piano or keyboard presents a unique opportunity to work on what we call “chord voicings,” or what notes you use to spell out a chord. I find that many worship leaders who lead from the keys don’t take much time to work on voicings. Since many worship songs are written in the same keys with the same chord progressions, songs become monotonous without some variety chord shapes.
Evan Wickham points out that there’s a reason that a popular band like Coldplay can use a piano to start a song, playing a simple chord voicing in a rhythmic pattern, and the song is instantly recognizable. It’s because they have worked out the most effective chord voicing for the song key and for the notes they are singing. This approach is just as effective with worship music, and helps to make songs more interesting to the worshipping community. It’s disappointing when a potentially incredible worship song quickly becomes boring to a congregation because the piano playing worship leader bangs away on the same chord and rhythm patterns one more time, rather than finding a fresh, simple, purposed way to approach playing that song.
Maybe it’s time for a change of scenery
Our last piece of advice is to think about the scene you are setting when you lead worship. If you are a solo worship leader and you’re exclusively a keyboard player, you should find a way to alternate your keys with an acoustic guitar in the lead instrument position. There are a few different ways to do this. One is to find an acoustic guitar player who you can work with, who can step up and lead a rocking song with a great strum pattern, or who can take over a mellow ballad that sounds better with sparse acoustic guitar.
If you can’t find an acoustic guitar player, an option that Evan Wickham suggests is to challenge yourself to learn basic acoustic guitar chords, so at some point during a worship set you can move from one instrument to the other and continue to worship. One way that Evan does this is to lead a song from the acoustic guitar and when he’s done with the second time through the chorus, he leads an acapella chorus while he moves to the piano. Then he finishes the song with one final chorus on piano, after which he moves into a time of leading from the piano.
Certainly the instruments do not take the place of the Holy Spirit, but in our pursuit of creativity and excellence that God calls us to, working on these “scene changes” will help set the stage for very precious moments of worship. And in the grand scheme of things, they can help make the difference between one more time through a worship song with the same piano chords, and an “I was blown away!” worship time.