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When I first started playing keyboards in church, it was piano and organ all the way: traditional worship. For added thrills, the music director might whip out a trombone or trumpet and play a descant on the last verse of the hymn. The organist and I would take turns playing the offertory, either A.M. or P.M. Pianists aspired to sound like Dino, and we all, for the most part, played from printed sheet music.
Next came the "God With Us" era in the early 90's - this was the worship "cantata" that introduced praise and worship to traditional churches. Hip churches instead did charts from Don Moen's "Rivers of Joy" - the recording that launched "Shout to the Lord." Worship was still keyboard driven, although church pianists were finding they had to start improvising from chord charts. Who let that acoustic guitar on stage?! I call this genre "classic worship," along with early songs like "As the Deer" and "He Is Exalted."
Then came the Matt Redman Passion era in the late 90s and early 2000s which ushered in the guitar-driven sound (although still lots of keyboard driven songs.) This is where the bulk of churches are musically right now, and the top 10 CCLI reflects this with songs like "Open The Eyes Of My Heart," "Come Now Is The Time To Worship" and "You Are My King." Mainstream is no longer traditional, it's contemporary.
The cutting edge contemporary churches of today, churches doing what I call "modern worship" like Mosaic, Mars Hills and LifeChurch, will rely heavily on guitar-driven worship songs. The music sounds much like what you'd hear on rock/pop radio - Hillsong United, Desperation Band, Lincoln Brewster. While still doing some piano driven ballads, these churches have a full-band sound with several guitars.
After spending the last fun-filled year at Seacoast Church, I've enjoyed discovering just what a keyboardist can do with himself in this next phase of worship style.
When I started in the Seacoast band I mainly played a piano sound, but that eventually became boring. My guitar buddies Jay and Adam seemed to be having all the fun.
The American Idol guy Chris Sligh (and Seacoast worship leader) is the kind of person who always has the latest CD and is playing it for you, wanting to know what you think. So I've been listening to a ton of modern music that I wouldn't normally hear.
I'm still hearing lots of keyboards, but not necessarily pianos. I'm hearing pads, popping and gurgling sounds and textures. And I'm hearing these same sounds in the modern worship recordings. If I do hear a piano sound, it's never "legit" - but swamped in cool reverb, delay or distortion effects.
Basically my brain neurons have become completely re-wired this past year. I've morphed from plunking out a keyboard rhythm to creatively adding sonic icing to the mix. It's funny how you >can< learn to love new styles. For instance, I got the Keane "Hopes and Fears" CD a year ago and heard nice piano ballads. Now, with my neurons rewired, when I listen to this CD I hear all kinds of cool synthesizer stuff that I hadn't even noticed before.
Another funny thing is how retro sounds are in again. I dug around in my closet and found my old Roland XV 2020 synth module. I thought I'd never turn it on again, but now I use it all the time - those synthy sounds are popular.
There are several different things you can do with synths that make playing in church a whole lot more fun than merely playing piano. Here's a rundown:
Leads: Remember the trumpet/trombone descant I mentioned in the first paragraph? A synth lead is sort of a modern version of this. I might play a synth lead line (a single, melodic monophonic part) during the intro and maybe as a descant during the chorus. Most synths have a category called "leads."
Pads: A synth pad might also be called, and sound like, a string pad. I'm playing chords, sort of like a synth string reduction. Synth pads could sound like strings, or have a breathy or smooth, synthetic quality. You also can mix the pad in with a keyboard - so whatever you'd be playing with the piano sound would also be played with the pad. Most synths have a category called "pads."
Textures: I noticed that Adam, a Seacoast guitarist, often is not even playing notes, but is playing effects and feedback. I'm starting to do the same, playing gurgling, popping pad sounds during upbeat songs.
Pulses: Also called "seq" or "arp," this is a a sound that can be played rapidly (8th or 16th notes, for instance) to give a pulsating feel to a song. Most synths have a category called "seq" or "arp."
Orchestrations: I might replicate an orchestral feel by playing a string patch or an orchestral instrument line like a french horn. You can download synth string and instrumental parts for my All Hail the Power hymn arrangement.
Keyboards: Instead of a piano patch, how about a rhodes or wurlitzer?
Organ: No, not pipe, but B3. Hold down a chord and turn on the Leslie.
And of course, the piano. On any given song, I might play a lead on the intro, a pad or texture on the verse and a rhythmic piano part on the chorus. I might just play a synth pad on some songs. On some I might just use a texture. You can get as complex, or not, as is tasteful. I'm talking contemporary worship here - I wouldn't try this in a traditional setting!
Bottom line: 21st century worshipkeyboards are more than just hammer, strings and pipes.
Don Chapman is an arranger/composer whose passion is for the Church, music and technology. He's traveled the globe leading worship and visiting churches, and his unique experiences give perspective and insight into your own ministry through his blogs and seminars. Discover more about Don and his ministry at any of several resource websites devoted to contemporary worship: HymnCharts.com, and WorshipFlow.com. If you'd like Don to come to your church, email him at email@example.com.
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