I started playing piano for church when I was just a 2nd grader. Our kind and lovely church organist, herself an experienced church musician, asked if I would be willing to play a song for offering. I don’t remember the name of the piece. I know it was something from my hot pink Alfred method book and that I was really scared. I’m sure I made lots of mistakes and that those few minutes weren’t particularly meditative for the congregation.
But…I did it! And once I had that first experience under my belt, it became gradually more comfortable to play at church. The kind and lovely church organist soon had me accompanying the Sunday School choir, playing pre-service music on an occasional Sunday and playing all the hymns, songs, and music for the children’s Christmas Eve service.
In high school, I continued with organ lessons and played for chapel services and the school choirs.
There was a (very) brief time as a pianist where I gave solo piano and organ concerts. The majority of my musical “career” when it comes to the performance aspect has been to accompany choirs or school bands, church services, weddings or funerals. I am forever grateful to the kind and lovely church organist who gave me the opportunity to play as a 7-year-old, opening so many doors for me to grow musically and become a confident pianist and organist.
These are just some of the ways serving as a church musician has helped to strengthen my musical abilities.
I learned improvisation
As a church musician, you can meticulously plan everything for a service, but then the unexpected happens. A wedding starts a half hour late and you suddenly have to come up with lots more pre-service music than you had anticipated. The offering takes longer for one reason or another and your short piece isn’t enough.
Any number of unexpected things can happen when you will suddenly have to make something up on the spot. I learned how to “spice up” hymn verses by adding different accompaniments or changing octaves. There’s SO much about a worship service that requires on-the-spot thinking, and learning to be quick on your feet (or rather, your fingers) is a tremendously valuable skill.
I learned to sight read
Sight-reading means you play something without having practiced it. When you’re a church musician, you need this skill in abundance!
I once played for a congregation whose pastor was fond of changing the final hymn…and announcing it right before we sang it. Sometimes choir directors will distribute a new piece to the choir during rehearsal without having given it to me ahead of time, and I will need to play the parts for them so that they can rehearse (even though I haven’t)!
Strong sight-reading abilities make music so much more accessible, and are something I emphasize as a piano teacher.
I learned to follow a director and be an accompanist
Playing for a choir requires a bit of flexibility. Depending on the skills of a choir, sometimes I have to jump between playing the parts and the accompaniment so that they feel supported. I have to be sure to follow a director when it comes to slowing down the tempo at the end of a piece. Playing for the choir has allowed me to feel comfortable in gigs outside of church when I serve as an accompanist for the local community theater or school play.
I learned that it’s okay to make mistakes
I’m a perfectionist, and it’s hard for me when things don’t go perfectly. But we all make mistakes, and sometimes I make huge blunders while I’m playing for church. I’ve played the wrong hymn or added an extra verse or hit a wrong note on a really loud setting of the organ. It’s inevitable that things don’t always go as seamlessly as we would like them to – even when we practice diligently. It’s an important part of being a musician to accept this truth and continue to move forward.
I’ve become less “stage fright“
It’s true, I still have bad dreams on Saturday nights about forgetting my organ shoes and struggling through a really difficult pedal passage in my socked feet. But for the most part, I don’t have the agony, panic and roller coaster of emotions that I once had when it comes to playing in front of people. Having regular experiences sharing music with others. Even the times when I mess up in big ways (see #4) — have helped me to realize that 1- I can do it! and 2- even when I make mistakes, life goes on!
Does your family attend a church or parochial school where chapel services are held? Have your student add his musical gifts to worship services. It’s a fantastic way to teach really relevant and important skills that your child won’t necessarily gain from playing a solo for a piano recital or school talent show.