As a pianist who is not an organist, I sometimes lament the inability to aid the assembly’s song with sustained sound. After all, the attack of a hymn’s final chord is immediately followed by a decay, or dying away, of the sound on the piano. My experience has been that congregations often follow that lead and pull back with their voices, rather than hold on to a final chord with gusto.
Despite that shortcoming, the piano and its rhythmic quality can help to enliven the church’s song in a way that isn’t always possible on the organ. Worship expert and author Michael Hawn writes at great length about the church musician as “enlivener,” or that trusted person who bridges the gap between choir and congregation, between saints of old and those present, and between familiar song and songs from other cultures. While Michael uses the word “enlivener” to describe a person rather than a specific instrument, I often find that the energy and vitality that can arise from singing accompanied by the piano serves as a catalyst for enlivening as well. Let me give you some specific examples of how this can happen.
Use the piano to bridge the gap between verses by keeping the rhythmic flow and energy moving. This can be done by adding a measure or two of accompaniment between verses but does requires a good visual cue with the head to ensure everyone knows when to join in again. Consistency between each verse is important as it helps the congregation to anticipate what will happen. One simple way to accomplish this is by keeping the tonic pedal tone in the left hand while moving rhythmically between tonic and subdominant with the right hand. “Day of Arising” (ELW 374) or “Lord, Be Glorified” (ELW 744) are good examples of hymns that work well using this technique.
Get out of the way of the sung melody and use the piano to provide extra rhythmic support. This works best, of course, when there is strong vocal or choral leadership, when the song or hymn is well known, and when it is stylistically suited to this type of accompaniment. If you are tempted to read the notes of the melody that are written, try keeping your eyes focused on the chord names above the staff. Apply this idea to hymns like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” (ELW 857) and “Have You Thanked the Lord?” (ELW 829).
Utilize an underlying rhythm that changes the style of the music to refresh a traditional hymn. Using a hymn that is in three or six beats per measure—such as “If You But Trust in God to Guide You” (ELW 769) or “Amazing Grace” (ELW 779)—create a jazz rhythmic style by feeling an underlying triple pulse (rather than duple). You don’t have to be someone who is comfortable improvising at the piano to make this happen. Simply take the notes that are already written on the page, breaking the melody away from the chords underneath, and place those chords into a consistent rhythmic pattern.
It will indeed be a glorious day when we can sing all together with full voices once again! Consider exploring the possibility of using the piano in one or more of these ways as one tool to enliven congregational song.