One of the first tasks that will be given to any church pianist is that of providing a weekly offertory. While some may consider the presentation of a solo one of the easier aspects of the position, I feel that the quality of the weekly offertory is one of the major factors that distinguishes a good church musician from a superb one.
Because of the role music plays in the church service, the offertory must be selected with care. Think about where the solo will occur in the order of worship. Are you following a lively choral anthem that will lead right into the congregational worship? Will the offering follow a generally somber prayer for the needs of the congregants? If you find yourself in a church without a strong liturgical tradition as I do, the positioning of the offertory may be altered weekly. There are few scenarios worse than a grandiose arrangement that follows a quiet time of meditation. Without advance thought and planning, you can sometimes find yourself in an awkward situation.
Additionally, it is important to think about your congregation. An uber-contemporary church may not respond to a classical setting of your favorite hymn. In contrast, the latest praise and worship chorus is probably not the best option for a high liturgical service. Most of us probably find ourselves somewhere in the middle of these two extremes - in what is commonly referred to as a blended service. In these settings, the choices become more difficult and more exciting as well. How often have you tried to find a great arrangement that blends a contemporary chorus with a traditional hymn without giving the impression that one of the pieces is more important or, worse still, more holy? There are a few arrangers today who are doing just these type of settings, but they are few and far between, generally demanding extreme technical facility as well.
More often, I find myself looking for arrangements of hymns that are approached with harmonic and rhythmic freshness. My current congregation is a multi-generational group with eclectic tastes in music. I have quickly accepted the fact that I will never please everyone present with my selections. Because I have so many preferences in my congregation, I get to explore some unusual settings. Some of our favorites are jazz settings of hymns such as Leaning on the Everlasting Arms and a complex harmonic treatment of Great is Thy Faithfulness. I didn't begin using these unusual arrangements immediately though; just as with all other areas of ministry, as the congregation develops trust in you as a music minister (for that is what every church pianist should strive to be), they will also extend that trust to your musical selectivity.
Here are a few closing thoughts on making your weekly offertory a highlight of the weekly service for those that you serve.
- Select pieces weekly in an attitude of prayer. All too often we forget that our solo will be a part of the worship service. We can simply choose to provide pretty background music while the important activity of collecting the congregation's cash is performed. I think the better decision - and the one for which we strive - is to play music that is anointed by the Holy Spirit to aid those who are hearing as they worship in the act of giving.
- Always have a few selections that you can fall back on. We've all been in the situation where the week got too hectic and our preparation time suffered. Perhaps the scheduled soloist became ill at the last minute, making the planned offertory less than desirable. Having a few selections in your back pocket gives you some flexibility whenever the need arises to make a last minute substitution. Use them sparingly though or they will become part of the normal rotation and you'll find yourself in need of some new fall-backs.
- Don't sacrifice beauty for showmanship. Have you ever listened to a church pianist play a solo only to later ask "What WAS that song?" The arpeggios are beautiful and the tricky scale passages are impressive, but if they get in the way of the music's message, we're taking the focus off of the One we are to worship and shining the spotlight directly on ourselves. (Ouch...is anyone else feeling the sting of those toes that were just stepped on?)
- NEVER attempt to play beyond your technical abilities!!! As a musician, I am all for stretching myself and continuously developing my technique. The worship service is not a practice hall, though. Just as bad as shining the spotlight on how beautifully we play is presenting a glaring example of an ill-prepared solo as part of a worship service. I am not in competition with the pianist at the church across the street, so I don't have to attempt to play as beautifully as she does. I just have to bring my musical offering to the Heavenly Father each week as a loving sacrifice that brings Him honor and my worship. When we try out that new arrangement that is just a bit too difficult (or - Heaven forbid - completely beyond our skills) we risk interrupting the flow of the service and distracting the congregation from their worship.
- Always play for the Audience of One. This is the last point on my list because I believe it is the most important one. All that I am as a Christian, a musician, and a person is because of Jesus. It is a wonderful feeling to have an audience respond to beautiful playing with appreciative applause - and, let me add, there is nothing wrong with receiving these accolades! Scripture teaches us to give honor to whom it is due. More than anything though, I want the applause of Heaven that comes as I play for the audience of One - the One who gave His all that I might have life. He is the source of the music and our constant goal should be that our music bring attention only to His grace, mercy, and greatness.
Do I get tired of trying to find a new piece each week? Of course! Like everyone else, I have a core set of arrangements that I rotate through. But the blessing of sharing my gift with God's people outweighs the long rehearsals. Occasionally, God opens doors because of our obedience as well. A few years ago, the congregation provided an opportunity to professionally record some of my favorite arrangements. In July, I will have the chance to sit down in the studio again and record two new CDs - one for Christmas, the other songs of praise and thanks.