In On the Job Training, Thoughts on Writing

My previous blog on the importance of piano accompaniments in choral arranging drew a healthy response from readers. And more than one person wrote to ask (and I paraphrase): “What about those piano parts that are basically a boiled-down version of a rhythm section or a full orchestration?”

That’s a good question, and the answer may surprise some of you: The piano plays a very different role in contemporary music than it does in traditional music. The written piano accompaniment in a contemporary choral arrangement is little more than a guide, and rarely intended to be played as written.

(If you want to hear what I mean by traditional versus contemporary, go to the Music pages here at my site. Listen to “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” versus “Praise Without End.”  That should give you a clear idea.)

As I pointed out in my previous blog, traditional choral music publishers sell music that is conceived for choir and piano (or organ). The accompaniment is often the backbone of the arrangement, and is created along with the choral parts. If additional instruments are called for, those instruments are generally considered to be optional, and they must work well with the written piano part. Even if the arrangement is conceived to include a rhythm section, the piano part is expected to be a playable, stand-alone accompaniment option. Traditional music publishers understand that many of their customers do not have a rhythm section, an orchestra, or a brass choir. What’s more, their customers are generally not interested in singing along with pre-recorded tracks. A well-written piano part is essential to their business model.

I began my choral arranging career writing these kinds of arrangements for a very traditional publisher – Shawnee Press. 

Contemporary church music publishers, which cater to more evangelical churches, offer music that has been conceived with a rhythm section, and even a full pop orchestra accompaniment, in mind. The arrangements are often adaptations of popular artist recordings, and are meant to sound as much like those recordings as possible. The choral arranger builds the music up from a rhythm chart, not a piano part. Contemporary evangelical music publishers assume the majority of their customers will perform the music using either a recorded track, a band, or a full orchestra. The printed piano part accompanying the anthem or choral book is merely a transcription of the the recorded track, created after the studio recording was completed. This transcription is rarely written by the arranger, and more often by a transcriber hired by the publisher.

The unspoken secret is that the printed piano parts in contemporary/evangelical/CCM choral music are considered “for rehearsal only.”

So what is the approach generally taken to write these transcriptions? Essentially, the Left Hand (bass clef) tackles the recorded bass line and fills in other essential harmonies when possible.  The Right Hand maintains a groove and might cover essential orchestra lines. The resulting piano parts tend to be mechanical, and for good reason: They are cobbled together from Finale scores and studio recordings, and not written with any sort of piano pedagogy in mind.  I don’t say that as a criticism.  It’s just what they are. 

Remember: most churches that sing contemporary choral music do not rely solely on a piano for their accompaniment. For them, the piano is just another part of an instrumental ensemble that is increasingly dependent on guitarists, not pianists. Ironically, the art of playing these written piano transcriptions comes in knowing what notes NOT to play when performing with a rhythm section. The chord symbols on the arrangement generally are of more use than the printed piano part.

Honestly, if the arranger knows the piano part is for rehearsals only, there isn’t much point in writing a “real” piano accompaniment that will never be used in performance. In those cases, a transcription suffices, and the arranger is better off knowing how to write an proper Master Rhythm chart that will guide an entire rhythm section through the song. On arrangements with full orchestra, I sometimes write a separate specific and limited piano part for the orchestra score. I will then put “for rehearsal only” on the anthem piano part. This prevents the pianist from doubling all the pretty lines in the orchestra.

However, if you want the arrangement to work with piano only, as well as with a rhythm section, I recommend you create a well-written piano part first, and then develop the rhythm chart from that.  The result will likely sound a little “square” when played with a band, unless the pianist is able to leave the printed page and become a band member, rather than a “pianist.”  But at least the arrangement will sound decent when played with piano only.

And that leads to the changing role of the church pianist. If a traditional pianist finds herself in the world of contemporary music, it  becomes her responsibility to learn how interpret chord changes, play a groove, and stay out of the way of the bassist and the guitarists. Once you become part of a band or an orchestra, all those printed notes underneath the choir parts are no longer your sole responsibility to play. The good news is, it’s easier to learn how to NOT play all the notes than it was to learn how to play ALL the notes.

Showing 6 comments
  • Randy

    Robert – well stated and knowledgeable article. In many churches the pianist role has changed or is even gone. For good or bad, pianists should consider their new role in the “band”.

    • Robert Sterling

      It is a very different role than the classical pianist accompanist role. The problem is shifting from choir rehearsal mode t(piano alone) to playing with the band.

  • Barbara Billingsley

    Truth spoken here. Adapting to a new role as accompanist is not easy but it is necessary.

  • O. D. Hall

    This is such an important factor to consider as the pianist’s job changes from rehearsal to performance. In rehearsal giving the choir what they may expect to be hearing when it is put together, but in performance fitting in as part of the ensemble. In most churches, however, the whole approach is more “piano driven” than the recording.
    O. D. Hall

    • Robert Sterling

      You are right, O.d> The demo recordings have become a necessity – but they can also be misleading. They are created in a pristine environment with professional players, chosen specifically for the task, and mixed to bring out subtle nuances. These are factors that often cannot be reproduced in a live situation.

  • Nancy Middlemas

    Yes, when our praise and worship band functions and I play piano, I learned THAT I DID NOT get to play everything! This was a hard concept for an old “play everything and help the group” gal like me. Your EAR has to adjust to filling in what is not covered by the other instruments. Like you said, Robert, a chart is better than actual notes.

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