Tuning the Piano

I have played the piano since my elementary school days.  I was taught by a sweet older lady who was patient with my unconventional style of learning.  You see, I am not able to see written music unless the page is enlarged, which creates a cumbersome set of flopping sheets cascading down from the piano.  It was impossible to keep turning pages just to read a few measures at a time, so my instructor came up with a bit of a plan.  She started with the basics.  “This is middle C; if you play the E above it, along with the G, you will make the C chord.”  She then took me through chord inversions (ways to play the C chord in different formations so that C, E, and G could resonate in different ways depending on a particular song that I might be playing).

Obviously, one cannot get by with just one chord, for there can be no song, so my instructor showed me two more chords: F and G with the same instructions for inversion.  At that point, I could play three chords, affording me the opportunity to begin to play by ear.  I found I could play a simple version of “Jesus Loves me” along with a few other hymns, and it was just the start I needed.

As I progressed into middle school, I offered to help my mother with the music at evening church services.  She would play the congregational hymns while I would play my simple arrangements for prelude and offertories.  I made plenty of mistakes, but it was a way for me to gain confidence in playing in front of a live audience.  I knew my strength was definitely in my singing voice, but I also knew that playing piano would be a part of my future, and I was determined to work to improve my skill level.

In 2011, I accepted the position of Worship and Music director at my church, and that’s when the dramatic shift took place.  I was still playing by ear and I knew basic key signatures and chord structures, but my mind was far from music theory.  Instead, I would play along with CDs or other recordings, trying to memorize the structure of a song.  Sometimes, the chord progression would move far too quickly, and I would have to give up on a song because I just couldn’t make my fingers play what I was hearing.  But I kept trying.  Little by little, playing by ear got easier for me.  I started to print out chord charts for other musicians on our teams, and even though I couldn’t read the notation while playing, I would often take the music home and memorize the patterns.  Then, when it came time to play through the song on the piano, I would be more confident in the song’s structure.  There were times that my fumbling over the keys was hardly beautiful; in fact, I often cringe to think of some of my early attempts to make music in front of my very forgiving congregation.  But as time moved forward, my musical skill was improved, thanks to hard work, dedication, and encouragement from others.

When I am leading worship at church, I almost always play the Steinway Grand piano.  I feel a certain attachment to the old instrument.  To my understanding, the piano was a gift to our congregation, but its placement in our sanctuary took some tender, loving care and restoration.  I am fairly certain that the instrument was poorly maintained.  Although the piano has the distinct appearance of a Steinway Grand, it definitely shows its age.  It goes out of tune quite often, and when it is in dire need of tuning, I can hardly stand it. We have a few other accompanists at our church, but I am usually the only one who plays the Grand.  On a number of occasions I have though about how easy it would be to navigate over to the digital keyboard when the Grand is out of tune.  But I have only followed through with this one time, and that was because I had to give a concert.  I can’t walk away from the “real” piano.  Its pitch may be out of tune, but it’s still a thing of beauty to me.

The same is true of the musicians who make up our worship teams, and I count myself foremost in this comparison.  When I filled the role of Worship and Music Director in 2011, I felt largely under-qualified.  I only knew a handful of hymns and praise songs, and I didn’t have the ability to see written music.  For a long time, I felt limited in my skill level and far from effective.  Much like an out-of-tune piano, I felt very much like I needed the refining of the tuning tool to bring me musically to the level where I could succeed.

Now, looking back, I realize that I am always in this tuning and refining process.  Even as I learn and grow, I am walking alongside fellow musicians who are all at different stages of musicality and faith journey.  The diversity of each individual and their experiences has shown me that no one is perfect.  Sometimes, we have our great days; the harmonies are dead center and our voices ring with clarity.  But on other days, we struggle to find our rhythm; we can’t find our place and the arrangement is chaotic.  No matter the state of our musicality, or lack thereof, it is perspective that is the most important element here.

Those who are closest to me know that I am a perfectionist, especially when it comes to music.  Ideally, I would love to have each worship leading experience or concert go completely as practiced.  But when you are working together as a team, the desired results are not always achieved.  Some team members come well-prepared to practice; either they know the music well or have taken the time during the week to familiarize themselves with the music.  But sometimes, those who are not as musically gifted may practice a great deal and still not have a good handle on the music when it is time to hit the stage.  This imbalance can result in team members that are not always in sync with one another.

But an imbalance can also occur when team members are at different levels personally and spiritually.  In my short time working as worship leader, I have interacted with team members from a variety of backgrounds: college students studying to become music teachers, teenagers, elementary students, middle-aged adults, young mothers, and the list goes on.  All of these individuals are volunteers.  I am the worship leader— paid to work in the office, be at practice, and facilitate worship on Sunday morning.  The volunteers are not paid— they are giving of their time and energy— outside of their normal activities— and participating in worship.  These individuals are going above and beyond the call of duty to aid in leading worship, and sometimes, the business of one’s schedule can lead to less available time to dedicate to worship ministry.  In addition, these volunteers are bringing their personal struggle into the equation— grief, heartache, stress, worry, doubt, and uncertainty.  There are also those who have been following Jesus a long time, new believers, and even some who are not sure where they stand in their faith journey.

The difference in personal dynamics can be challenging for a worship leader, and all of this effects the inner-workings and health of a worship department.  These dynamics may not have anything to do with musicality, but in the end, one basic element rings true.  Just as I learned to play piano in a way that would help me accomplish my goals, so also a worship team must come together in all of its varied dynamics to accomplish a purpose.

Some keys on a piano need three strings to be tuned together just to play one tone.  If those three strings are not tuned to ring as one unified pitch, then any other notes played in harmony will not be harmonious at all.  Instead, one will hear an out-of-tune piano— unpleasant and grating to a musician’s ear.

I am not perfect.  No worship team is perfect.  We all have to find a way to work together to find harmony, even though we come from different backgrounds and personal struggles.  It is an ongoing process.  Sometimes, like a piano, we get out of tune with each other.  It isn’t that we are having disagreements or not united in our purpose; it’s just that we need to find common ground in the midst of our varied circumstances.  It is wonderful when a team can stand on stage and play music together, one in heart and purpose to worship the Lord.  He is the One who can bring us all together— the One who can pluck the strings of our hearts so we can sing in perfect harmony.

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