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How to Be a Good Church Choir Pianist? Tips and Advice For Accompanying The Singers

Updated on October 10, 2011

Music has always played a big role as part of the corporate worship in churches. Many churches have huge magnificent choirs, that help to lead the congregation into a time of worship. However, there are also many churches whose choirs consist of volunteers and lay people who love to sing, and who have a heart to serve in the church choir. If you are in a church choir pianist, what are some of the things to look out for that are particularly pertinent in a church choir setting?

1. Be aware that the purpose of a church choir is to serve God

Some church choirs are blessed with choristers who are prolific musicians, while other choirs consist mainly of singers who may have little or no music background.

As a pianist, if you are just starting out, and are feeling very nervous about playing well, always remember that you are merely an instrument that God is using, and that He sees your heart as you play. It is of utmost importance that you serve with a joyful and willing heart.

On the other hand, if you are a pianist who has always been surrounded by music geniuses, serving in the choir as their pianist may require you to be extra patient with the singers and the conductor who may take longer to master their parts. Also, this might mean changing the focus of music making from achieving technical perfection (like in a music conservatory) to ministering and being sensitive and aware of your motivations while playing - are you distracting with too much flowery ornamentation? Are you taking the glory away from God when you are playing and accompanying the choir?

Copyright 2011
Copyright 2011

I can’t stress how I do believe that service starts from the heart, and that our music as accompanists should be a sweet and acceptable offering to God.

2. Play Hymns in a way that encourage the choir (or even the congregation) to sing

There are certain hymns like Holy Holy Holy, O Worship The King, All Creatures Of Our God and King... that are clearly composed to sound majestic. In the hymnals, we often have only four parts in the score.

To encourage the choir to sing with a spirit of awe and reverence, as accompanists I would encourage you to play in such a way that lifts the spirit of the congregation. Here are some practical tips that pianists can adopt

  • doubling up the octaves in the left hand bass

a stronger bass often anchors the sound of a song and gives it more depth. The bass notes (the lowest note that you see on the musical score) is a good note to double up, especially when the congregation sings rousing choruses that could do with a boost in musical oomph.

  • playing the right hand an octave higher, in chords

John Rutter's For The Beauty of the Earth

playing the right hand melody an octave higher can be a very useful way to help the congregation learn a new song. Playing in octaves can be really effective for hymns that have more melodic melodies like What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus... hymns that have a lighter touch to them. For hymns that are grand, adding the chords will be helpful.

Sometimes, playing the right hand an octave higher in the second verse or third verse will cause the choir (and congregation too) to perk up when their ears detect something refreshing and different. Christian music is defined by the lyrics - for it is precisely the lyrics that make a song Christian. A good pianist knows how to play in such a way that the choir becomes aware and sensitive to the lyrics that they are singing - which also makes the congregation of pay attention to the words of the songs.

Depending on the church that you come from, sometimes it might be very effective to improvise and change a few of the chords here and there, to make the hymn sound very refreshing. This has to be done tastefully of course, but when it is done successfully, it can bring new life to a hymn, and it can really inspire the choir and the congregation to sing from their hearts.

3. Play Contemporary Songs such that the choir learns it easily

There are so many new songs out in the market today. One of the ways that churches can learn a new song is through the choir singing it as a choir anthem first. As the choir pianist, accompanying choruses and new songs require a lot of versatility. This can be challenging especially if your choir members do not have music backgrounds, or are not familiar with grooves at all.

  • emphasize the grooves in the music

Often, choirs do not rehearse with drums or other instruments. As the pianist, you should emphasize the important beats in the song so that the choir can feel the groove. Like the hymns, this might often not be written in the score, and it might be a little hard to pick up.

One rather easily rule for many new Christian songs is that the groove emphasizes the second and fourth beats. So if you were playing, in your head the beat would go ... ‘one TWO three FOUR, one TWO three FOUR...’... thus as you accompany the choir, it is almost as though you are playing the role of a drum (in fact you should have a very strong beat in your head as you play) that keeps time.

This might inspire some of the singers to move, nod, or tap along as they feel the rhythm - which is a good sign. In essence, you want the singers to feel the beat and catch the rhythms as naturally and quickly as possible.

4. Always be encouraging, patient and positive and humble

It is not easy being a choir pianist sometimes when the choir tests your patience. Sometimes, it is good to realize how blessed you are that you are able to pick up the notes so quickly, while others struggle to master their pitches.

On the flip side, if you are really struggling with your accompaniment, don't be discouraged. Perhaps you should find ways to play it simply but effectively, or you could discussed some of the tricky parts with the conductor to see how you might adapt to it.

As the pianist, it is always important to support the conductor. Sometimes, if the conductor is not musically trained (which is possible that you are more musically qualified), you might need to step up to provide musical leadership. This is your privilege, and always do it with the utmost respect and deference. The conductor is the leader of the choir and it is wise to always allow the conductor to assume leadership and take the initiative during choir rehearsals - while you play a very proactive supporting role as the pianist.

Sometimes, while learning a particular part that stumps a particular section, it might be useful to play the melody together with a supporting harmony. For example, if the choir was learning John Rutter’s For The Beauty Of the Earth, or All Things Bright and Beautiful, it would facilitate learning if you played a chord underneath the melody, so that the choir would be able to perceive the music like a song instead of an isolated bunch of notes. This can help pitching too, especially of those tricky intervals that stump the choir.

Do you have other tips that might be especially useful of a church choir accompanist? Leave a comment below!


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    • Charlotte B Plum profile imageAUTHOR

      Charlotte B Plum 

      7 years ago

      Hey kschimmel!

      Yes yes yes! You are totally right about the accompanists being able to save the soloists and the choir - I totally agree with your comments. They can do their magic and rescue without drawing attention to the mistakes, and without overshadowing the soloist or the choir too. Thank you for dropping by, and for the follow too!

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 

      7 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      A good accompanist is a rare and beautiful thing! Most people don't understand that the best soloists are not necessarily the best accompanists. The accompanist plays well, but he/she also knows how to "save" a soloist who has lost her place (don't ask me how I know that, LOL) and how to insert the voice part while playing if a section gets off track.

    • Charlotte B Plum profile imageAUTHOR

      Charlotte B Plum 

      7 years ago

      Dear Vocalcoach,

      You are so encouraging and I have been so inspired by your music articles, and nurturing and caring spirit. Thank you for being a blessing to me too!

      You are one of the most inspiring music teachers that I have met, not just knowledgeable but with such a lovely personality. Meeting you here on hubpages has been a blessing to so many of us; you really help to spread the joy around. =)

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      7 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Charlotte, my friend - I have come across many articles on this subject, but have never found one written this well. You have thought of everything! What a sweet spirit you have. Your comments to lovely Hyphenbird are absolutely true - every single word.

      I am blessed to have met you here on hubpages! And God Bless you, dear one.

    • Charlotte B Plum profile imageAUTHOR

      Charlotte B Plum 

      7 years ago

      Hey Hyphenbird!

      thank you for your sweet comments. You know, it's people like you who are very special - I know a very close family member who is not musical, but when he sings, he does it with so much passion - I think when God hears him, it makes Him smile. God sees our hearts and hears beyond our voices!

      You might just be an inspiration to someone who is so musical he/she forgets the little joys of making music.

      God bless!

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      7 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      I have always wanted to be musical but that is not my gift. I think people even shift away when I sing. laugh

      This is an informative and honorable Hub. I enjoyed it very much. Regards, Hyph.


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