I recently started playing piano for Wednesday night and some Sunday services at my little Free Will Baptist Church. My church has about thirty or forty attendees on a good Sunday morning, so it’s slim pickings for pianists.
The little old lady who had been playing is very feeble, and she managed to miss more accidentals than a seventh-grade clarinet player due to her failing hearing and eyesight. As such, she was eager to pass off the monkey’s paw of church piano playing to someone else.
As such, I’ve gradually improved my sightreading. More importantly, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some wonderful old hymns—and to learn some for the first time.
I grew up playing saxophone in church, so I know the melodies and harmonies for dozens of tunes—and lyrics to only the choruses. The power of hymns, however, lies mostly in those lyrics. It’s been through the repetition of hymn singing, surely, that the message of the Gospel has been reinforced better than any number of sermons.
There is power in the music, too. Catholics might have beautiful buildings and amazing choral music, but Protestants win the hymn contest. So many classic hymns are born of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century folk music—source material that makes for easy singability and pentatonic melodies.
They are also hard to play well—sometimes. Hymn writers apparently love to write secondary dominants (so do I), which makes for soaring vocal lines but difficult piano accompaniment. That said, I’d rather play one of those (like the classic “He Lives,” Number 64 in the classic Free Will Baptist Hymn Book, which moves from the tonic Bb to a major III D in the span of one downbeat, and also features a saucy C7 pointing to the dominant F7 chord) than a two-chorder—unless I’m sightreading in a hurry.
Christmas music—which I will start playing next month (Halloween deserves a month to itself)—is notoriously difficult melodically, with its many leaps and bounds. Every Christmas it seems I have to relearn classic melodies on my sax, an instrument that can’t slide around looking for the pitch (like a solid trombonist in my extended family who notoriously would slide all around the pitch until he got it). It’ll be even more challenging on piano.
All the same, I’ve been very thankful for the opportunity to play—and for the congregation’s forbearance. There is an anatomy to how I play in church on a congregational singing (for the unfamiliar, it should be known that every Baptist church always sings the first, second, and fourth or final verses, never the third; I don’t know why, but it’s a time-honored tradition, so if you have something important to say, don’t put it in the third verse). The first verse I play somewhat sloppily, but mostly correct. I get more confident and play the second verse fairly well, with maybe one or two minor errors.
By the third verse, I’m getting cocky and relaxed, and start putting in little flourishes and turns (the ladies at church—seriously—call me “Liberace,” presumably because of my Baroque ornamentation, not because I’m light in the loafers). Naturally, that’s when I make the biggest mistakes. But I always land home on the tonic. Mostly.
But I digress. I despise the fad in churches towards the massive, pre-sermon rock concert, full of sustained-second chords and flat melodies. The mistake of contemporary Christian praise music is that it tries to substitute feel-good lyrical and harmonic structures for actual Truth. The result is songs with two-tone, repetitive melodies and stagnant harmonic structures—and lame, “Jesus is my boyfriend”-style lyrics.
Contemporary Christian music also assumes that people will enjoy the music if it’s a two-note melody, because it’s easier to sing. WRONG! Last Christmas, my little niece (who was three at the time) was belting out “O Come Let Us Adore Him” at the Christmas Eve candlelight service at my parents’ church like she’d been singing her whole life.
Old hymns are rich musically and theologically. Churches should bring back some of these classics. There are so many wonderful pieces to rediscover, and it might do Christendom good to have people singing songs with titles like “Saved” and “Blessed Assurance,” rather than “Oceans.”