The keyboard’s full potential

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

The family were excited when Dad brought home the new Mercedes C-class. It had the most comfortable seats they’d ever sat in, much better than their lounge suite in the house. And the Music System! It blew their minds. They’d never heard quadrophonic sound before. Their CDs sounded so much better. So Dad, Mom and their three teen-children went out to the garage frequently to enjoy their music is such comfort. Day after day, week after week, month after month, they sat there, enthralled with their new car. 

It never went out of the front gate. 

We smile in disbelief at the way this family was so caught up with the comfort-music capabilities of their Merc that they did not use it to its full potential. It was designed to provide much more than comfy chairs and super music. It was designed for the open road, for exploring their surroundings, for visiting friends and doing shopping and business without the need for public transport.  (And for going to Church where they would join the Singing Revolution.) 

But that is the way more and more would-be musicians are treating their keyboards, even their pianos. Just as that family treated their Merc.  They only use 10% of its potential. They squander the full purpose of the instrument they own. 


Merely thumping out chords
The keyboard was designed to play Music with Melody. It has the potential of producing a wide variety of tunes and harmonies.  It offers its owner a choice of every key, over a wide range of octaves. But instead of exploring and using its full potential, more and more ‘musicians’ are using it merely to thump out chords. Like a guitar. No tune to lead the congregation’s singing. Just chords. 

These ‘musicians’ don’t even bother to obtain or read the full score on sheet-music. They use a lyrics script with the guitar chords pencilled in. They play these on the keyboard.  They leave it to the vocals to discover and lead the song’s tune. 

In the de-volution of so much contemporary Christian Music, they debase the key-board to become a sustainer of a background sound-haze. 

The guitars are much better at that assignment. They can strum chords well.  They were designed to strum chords. 

Actually some really bright guitar-players don’t strum ~ they can pick the melody-line, and even harmonise with it. 

When it comes to supplying chords to undergird the vocals’ melody, the electronic keyboard is far more competent than the piano.  It is far more versatile too. With a touch of a button the player can summon synthetic strings, accordion, saxophone, bagpipes, flute to do his bidding. 

This is making the piano itself out-of-date. What was previously the central instrument leading worship-singing is now being sidelined, pushed aside as irrelevant. It will soon join the organ in the musical museum of memories.  A headline in The Witness recently reported “Piano stores closing as fewer children taking up the instrument”. The caption, with a picture of Jim Foster surrounded by grand pianos in his Foster Family Music piano store in Iowa, USA, told that when he opened his store 30 years ago, he had 10 competitors also selling just pianos. Now his store, the last one in this city, is closing down. 1909 was the best year for pianos in the US, when 364 500 pianos were sold. Annual sales have plunged to around 30 000 nationally today. With today’s population 10 times greater, sales have plummeted to 10 times fewer. 

“People are interested in things that don’t take too much effort, so the idea of sitting and playing an hour a day to learn piano is not what children want to do. Youth sports demands also compete with music studies.”  Technology also plays a part in making the piano redundant. The new Yamaha Disklavier is equipped with wi-fi and fibre-optics. 

If the electronic pianos are taking over from the traditional acoustic pianos, this has the potential of reviving the skill of playing melodies with their harmonies. But this potential is squandered if these are simply used as another form of guitar-chord strumming. 

So, as we foment a Revolution that will restore enthusiastic Congregational Singing, let us simultaneously stimulate the skill of using the keyboard to play tunes.  These tunes will give the necessary lead to congregations to join in with their voices and sing, Sing, SING Christian Songs like we’ve never sung them before! Let us consciously encourage the upcoming generations to learn the keyboard well. 

Then we’ll move from sitting in our comfortable Mercedes C-class listening to the Vocals up front doing our Worship for us. We’ll move out onto the wide open roads of Musical Maturity. As congregations, we’ll sing Singable Songs with catchy melodies. We’ll sing the Word of God to one another, and so build up the Church and reach out with the Gospel to the world around us!

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