Category Archives: piano solo

piano solo

Offertory: More Than Background Music

Every week in churches around the world, a musician plays a selection while the collection is being received from the congregation. This piece of music is generically referred to as the offertory and is a difficult moment for the church pianist. Despite their best efforts, many in the congregation consider the music as an intermission of sorts during the service — an opportunity to greet those around them who came in late, discuss lunch plans, and get ready for the REAL purposes of coming together week after week: the congregational singing and the minister's sermon. While it is not my intention to lessen the importance of any other part of the service, I firmly believe that the offertory should be treated as something more than just background music.

Scripture tells us to make music on the organ and high sounding cymbals. In the Old Testament, professional musicians in the role of the priesthood spent countless hours in rehearsal and preparation to lead the people of Israel into the courts of the Lord. Musical worship was an important and highly reverent part of the praise of Jehovah that involved both the performer and the audience. Regardless of the quality of the music being played, it is offered to the Lord as a sacrifice and is intended to assist the listeners to enter into pure worship.

Responsibility for the success of the weekly offertory lies with the performer as well as audience. The soloist must make a significant commitment to prepare themselves musically and spiritually each week before playing. Presenting selections that have not been adequately prepared or do not require our very best (whatever our technical level) is less than what our awesome God is worthy of! Additionally, it is just as important to seek the direction of the Holy Spirit when selecting an instrumental solo as is the selection of the congregational worship songs. Unless we as performers view the offertory as a part of the worship service that can be powerfully used in ministering to the hearts of sinful man, neither will the congregants we serve.

Congregations have more influence over the quality and worshipfulness of the offertory than they often realize. While a pianist is concentrating on the task at hand, he or she is not deaf. I have often been tempted to comment on the conversations that I have heard while playing in the middle of service: Pot roast sounds wonderful for lunch……No, I CAN'T believe she actually wore those shoes with that skirt…….Do you need to run home and set the VCR since you're probably not going to get home in time to watch your favorite show? (Just to be clear, these are all conversations that I've heard clearly from the audience of various congregations that I have played for.) While I'm sure the intention is not to seem unappreciative of the labor required to prepare the arrangement (if you think these works are just pulled out of the air each Sunday, ask your pianist about their weekly preparation for these 5 minutes of playing!), the constant conversations can make the most mature Christian musicians among us wonder if it's really worth all the effort since no one is listening.

In case it's not abundantly clear, let me point out a few reasons why conversations should not occur during the offertory (or other parts of the service for that matter!).

  1. It's distracting! Although you may not be trying to listen, others around you are. Your conversation is interrupting them. We do not know what God may use to minister to the hearts of hurting people in our midst — a vocal solo, a devotional thought, a single sentence in the sermon, or *gasp* an instrumental solo. Additionally, there is a good chance that your conversation (which is louder than you realize) is distracting the soloist as they are offering their worship, especially if you are sitting in the congregation near them or are a member of the platform party.
  2. It's irreverent! Our entire gathering is considered an act of worship to God, who is to be the focus and center of our time together. Everything we do and say should continue to draw the focus to Him. Everything else can wait for 90 minutes. If it can't wait, I think it might be time to reconsider our priorities.
  3. It's simply rude! Have you ever had someone talk to their neighbor while you were giving an oral presentation? It's probably one of the most frustrating experiences a speaker can have. The lecturer wants to do nothing more at that moment than sit down and stop talking. Just because a pianist is not looking at you while playing doesn't mean that we're not aware of the extended time that your attention is elsewhere.
  4. It's not worship! There's nothing more to really say here. If you didn't come to this place to worship, why are you here?

I'll be the first to admit that there is some level of frustration that has developed over the years as I have played numerous solos in multiple churches around the world. For many years, I hated playing them because I felt no one was listening. Finally I decided that I was playing to bring honor to my Heavenly Father who could hear through all the noise of the congregation and would receive my sacrifices of worship when offered with a pure heart. Still, I long for the day when musician and audience together focus their hearts and minds on the worship of the King through instrumental music, corporate singing, and the declaration of Truth. When we are consistently focusing on our Risen Savior with unity of mind and purpose, our time together will be touched by Heaven as we begin to experience new depths of worship–the heart cry of the people of God.


In Search of Advanced Offertories

Like many church pianists, I am constantly searching for new piano solos that are advanced harmonically and technically while still maintaining a worshipful quality for use in the weekly worship service.  Sadly, this proves to be more difficult than one would expect.
Before the Christmas holidays began, I ordered some choral music from Word Music to preview for the new year and noticed that there were several new folios of piano solos.  I decided to take a look and was encouraged by the description of two books in particular:  Hymns for the Spirit arranged by Matt Hyzer and The Best of Cindy Berry.  Both books are included in Alfred’s Sacred Performer Collections and are labeled as “early advanced piano.”
When I received the music, I was sadly disappointed!  Cindy Berry’s arrangements are of her original choral works — so not terribly useful in a blended worship setting.  This was a fact that I missed in the ordering.  Hyzer’s arrangements are simple, but nice. However, they are almost too easy to include in a normal service, but might be nice to include in a youth emphasis service or a week that has a lot of thick textures in other parts of the service.
While I am not thrilled with the content, I realize that the source of my irritation is due to the marketing by Alfred’s.  The label of “early advanced” suggests that there will be some level of mature playing required to navigate the arrangements;  what I found should be appropriate for a piano student with 5-6 years of study under their belt.  Have all of our labels been dumbed down to make pianists feel better about their skill sets rather than giving an accurate representation of the content?  I’m frustrated by the situation, I don’t have a solution to recommend, but I know that I probably won’t be purchasing any more solo books via the internet in the foreseeable future.  Thankfully, I have some wonderful arrangements by Marilynn Ham and Bill Wolaver to rely on for a few weeks.  
Which arrangers do you return to when you need something musically satisfying for your weekly offertory?  I’d love to get some recommendations of collections to check out.