Being the pianist/organist: Leading worship in a traditional setting [Part 2]

(Being the pianist/organist, part 1: The GOAL)

Hi again,

You may recall my first post on this subject a few weeks back? We established that our goal was to enable the congregation to be present with God. So that’s our aim. Now we need to work on exactly how we achieve that.

For me as organist, achieving this aim comes down to the following:

  • Respecting your congregation’s safe zone, as mentioned previously.
  • Responding to direction from your ministry team.
  • Choosing the hymns/ (if applicable).
  • Playing the hymns. Speed, volume, arrangements, and what to consider if a choir is involved.
  • How you play other music…either before/after the service, or during.
  • Behaviour when you don’t play (not really applicable if you are hidden in an organ loft!)

Let’s have a look at these.

Safe Zone

Respecting a congregation’s safe zone is an excellent way to get them to respect YOU. You can – and should – push that boundary if you feel it would meet our ultimate aim, but very, very carefully.

Do identify what their safe zone is. I’ll list some of the factors for my settings, and you can think through your own setting and compare. This is only in relation to the music, though, and there are plenty more outside our remit.

  1. Hymns (or songs) they know.
  2. Styles of music that they are used to.

In my setting, the hymns/songs are given to me, so I can’t change that. However, my clergy generally pick from a list of songs the congregation already know, which usually takes care of it.

Styles of music – well, for our village church, what we actually get is roughly in this proportion:

  • 80-90% traditional hymns
  • 10-15% modern hymns, or older contemporary church music (e.g. “From Heaven You Came Helpless Babe”, “I the Lord of Sea and Sky”)
  • About 2% contemporary church music from this century (e.g. “My Lighthouse”, “Cornerstone”, “10,000 Reasons”)

It’s not always easy to tell what a congregation’s preference is. Bear in mind, though, that they probably attend this church because they like the way these things are usually done there. This means that preserving the status quo is an easy way to respect the safe zone without too much difficulty.

The main thing is understanding what happens in the absence of this safe zone. “This isn’t how I was expecting it to be”, or “I don’t like this very much” would then be running through their heads. And if that’s what they are thinking, they are certainly NOT thinking about God. So it’s crucial that we respect what they are used to.

Responding to direction from your ministry team

There’s not much to say here. If your ministry team wants the organist to do things a certain way, it’s generally wise to follow their guidance. It might be to do with choice of hymn, or the approach you take.

If you disagree with the direction, I highly recommend you find out why before challenging it. Even then, be careful in how you offer an alternative suggestion. Most ministry teams and vicars are pretty open-minded with new suggestions, but if they are asking for something specific, or even asking you not to do something, they usually have a good reason.

Choosing the hymns/songs

If I play for a communion service, one church I serve at allows me to choose the communion hymns. They are played while communion is being served, on the piano. The congregation have the option of whether to sit quietly or to join in. Their safe zone is also for me to sing and play at the same time. Without the pianist singing audibly, I’ve noticed very few people will sing themselves.

Again, it’s useful if the hymns are familiar. It’s also useful if you have a steer on the theme of the sermon so you can tie in with that. For me, this is also a place where it’s possible to introduce less familiar music if it’s simple, fits the theme and/or meets our overall aim of enabling a connection with God.  But this is only as long as the congregation have a means of reading the words.  Of the two hymns we usually have time for at this point, I usually ensure the congregations knows at least one of them. Anything I pick that’s unfamiliar must be able to work as a background for quiet reflection.

How you play the hymns

To enable a congregation, the organist needs to play confidently. You can do this by ensuring three things in your playing:

  • A good speed/tempo
  • A reasonable volume
  • Not hesitating too long between verses

Volume and speed give the congregation momentum to feel they can sing out. There aren’t that many non-musicians who can sing confidently when the organist is too quiet. They can hear themselves too easily and worry that everyone near them can hear them singing.

I also feel strongly that it’s much better to play incorrectly at the right speed. Better that than to play correctly but too slowly for the congregation to be able to get into singing it. The odd mistake is nowhere near as noticeable as you might think! But believe me, everyone will notice if the hymn is too slow. As a result, I am very good at playing incorrectly!

The ‘other’ music

This again depends on your setting. I usually play something reflective at the start and something uplifting at the end. Again, it’s all about meeting our overall goal of enabling the congregation. It’s useful if you don’t play the same pieces week in, week out! However, the congregation are less likely to notice than you are!

Sometimes there’s a place for quiet instrumental music during the service. As long as it meets that need, then anything goes.  There is a trick in being able to finish a piece sooner than expected. This is difficult and is really only mastered by experience. Finding any chord to finish on is fine; just slow down and stop.

Behaviour and related areas

Modern churches are pretty relaxed about what you wear, and perhaps some traditional churches are less so. However, unless you dress disrespectfully, what you wear is not going to hinder your overriding aim. So: dress comfortably, and more smartly if you feel it helps.

Anything else is simply common courtesy. Do try and pay attention to the service. Don’t draw attention to yourself when you’re not playing if you can help it. I’ve heard of some organists reading a book or playing on their phone when they can’t be seen. Tempting though this might be, I would question your motive for playing if you felt you had to do this!

Most churches are immensely grateful to have a musician capable of giving them any music at a service. Too many have already had to resort to canned music from a CD. Live music played imperfectly is still much, much better at enabling that congregation than anything automated. So play knowing that God is thankful for your role in serving this congregation, regardless of your ability or experience!


Next time: Negotiating the Liturgy

Previously in this series

Pianist or organist? Leading worship in a traditional setting


By day, Sacha Tomkins works as an administrator in a High Wycombe grammar school in the UK. That’s the easy bit. The rest of the time, she’s either being a mum to Peter, Clare and Alice, a wife to Chris, a professional musician (singer, choral conductor, pianist, organist), a youth worker at St Margaret’s, Tyler’s Green, or of course a worship leader. Unless she’s comatose in bed from doing too much, or glued to her phone avoiding doing the chores. Oh, and you may just spot that she has rainbow hair.