The Golden Rule:
We, the music leaders, are there to serve the congregation in their worship. This translates into giving them confidence in their singing. All technical considerations at the piano (or other instrument) are subservient to this.
Part of our task is to acknowledge and reconcile these.
We will see that the "performance" of modern church music is, in some senses, radically different from that of traditional hymns, but is, in other senses, remarkably similar.
Some features of bad leading, all of which apply equally to worship songs and traditional hymns:
Bad playing is unmusical playing. And unmusical playing is that which fails to give the congregation a secure lead. Good leading may not be the same as a concert-perfect performance (classical or rock).
Almost all the points in the list above are to do with bad flow or rhythm. Modern music styles tend to emphasise "flow" between its verses (its components). So bad flow becomes more obvious, but so more easily corrected. Addressing this can feed back positively into our leading of traditional hymns.
Stylistic variety: Though there is variety in the traditional hymnbook, there is a vastly increased range of musical styles in modern music. We should become familiar with these styles, so that we can better lead our congregation. We can do this predominantly by listening to the style, then experimenting in our practice times. Getting to grips with a particular song is perhaps primarily finding our own way of expressing its style, in order comfortably then to lead it.
Learning styles: As with traditional piano practice, there is a place for "studies". Christopher Norton's Microjazz and Microstyles books are worth looking at. The children/teen hymnbook Sound Bytes (Stainer & Bell, 1999) has a variety of contemporary styles, usually well captured in its careful editing. Very important is simply doodling and playing around at the keyboard at home.
Accompaniment: "by the book" is "out of the window". Book accompaniments often differ for a song and are sometimes desperately hopeless anyway! We need to find our way of doing them.
Tunes: the printed notation is often at variance with what people know. We need to recognise and resolve this in each particular case.
Many pianists are familiar with the traditional graded exams of the "Associated Board". In the late 1990s, the AB introduced a contrasting Jazz Piano Syallabus. The material for this is well worth investigating.
See the huge stylistic variety. And that is without touching rap, hip-hop, dance, garage, grunge etc.
Exercise for the reader: Why is My Jesus, my Saviour (Shout to the Lord) so popular? Musically, what are its strong points? What its weak? Consider these in relation to composition, arrangement, and structure. If you were writing, arranging or editing it, what would you change? Why? And how?
Simplify. Very often we don't need all the printed notes. So long as we can "feel" the particular style, we may often be able to lead with a stripped down accompaniment.
We don't have to play the tune! Our job is to provide a secure lead. The major components of this are rhythm and harmony. The congregation know, and are already singing, the tune. So if there are too many notes on the printed page, consider leaving out the tune.
In most of the song we are simply supporting the congregational singing. Identify the key turning points, and the places where we need to provide a strong, indicative lead: that is where our leading role must be prominent.
Indeed, we can sometimes get by with just a bass line and occasional chords. Experiment at home:
Think about the role of tune, harmony and rhythm, and how they map onto the various parts of a song. Rhythm is vital to most modern styles (indeed, though less "up front", to traditional styles). In any given song, know what is providing the rhythmic drive, what is providing the harmony, which components are sustained, and which more percussive.
The "right way": In contrast with classical music, the concept of "the right way" hardly exists. Listen to Eric Clapton's song "Layla", as famously known from the 1960s, then to his performance of it on his "Unplugged" CD. It is hardly recognisable as the same song.
Listen to some of the better quality secular pop music. Example: CD "Medusa" by Annie Lennox (Royal Academy of Music trained) and arranged by Anne Dudley. Note the different frequency ranges covered by different instruments, and their arrangement to avoid muddying and interference. (Organists might then note the similarity to use of pedal and of non-8' stops.)
Modern music is often quite lax with regards to using music theory. Yet paradoxically, for those of us approaching it from a traditional piano-lesson background, one of the most useful things we can do is to get to grips with basic chord theory.
Old-style piano teaching was intent on creating the technical perfection of the concert platform. But this ran the risk of suppressing our own creativity and imagination, even innate musicality.
By contrast, modern music styles start from the emotional aspect of music, and appeal to the innate musical ability latent in all of us. Few of its listeners, who also comprise our congregations know any formal music theory, but they have an appreciation for, and sheer physical enjoyment of, music.
Good practitioners of modern music end up creating music that is reasonably good, according to the theory. Yet most of them would claim to know little theory: they just "do music". So cold, academic theory and "just jam it" experimenters, end up at roughly the same place, though by different routes.
Get to know some basic chord theory, and recognise how it applies across all keys. For example in a major key (say, C), what are the three major chords? the three minor chords? the "never-used" chord? What chord very often precedes the main (tonic) chord? Now try it for D (then E, etc.) and note how the answers resemble each other across keys.
Experiment. To what chords can you add a seventh (major or minor)? A ninth? Get to recognise the sounds of different chord types (major, minor, seventh, suspended, inversions). What chord sequences work well? What things do good bass lines seem to do? How do good inner parts work?
Doodle. Sit at the piano with no sheet music in front of you. Pick out tunes. Try chord sequences.
Arrange songs: Open the book to a song (a simple one!) you know well. Ignore the printed notes. Instead look at the guitar chords and try to play those (e.g. "C" will be some combination of the notes C, E and G, with a C in the bass). Try then to sing in the tune. Perhaps also play the tune.
Fifth column: doodle by adding a high fifth (in key C, a high note G). Example to try: Give thanks with a grateful heart (MPC:170).
Minor the major: in rock and roll, try sliding onto the third of a major chord from its minor (in C chord, catch Eb before sliding it onto E). Example: Praise him on the trumpet (MPC:558) whose tune itself embodies this idea.
Mind the gap: As you progress, consider filling the gaps between sung lines, to maintain movement. For instance, reduce right hand activity during sung lines, increase it between the lines.
Adapted from training material written for the Durham Diocesan Liturgical Committee music sub-group.