I have been involved with church music my entire life. Still am. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven years old, and from the beginning, dreamed of playing the piano for a southern gospel quartet. Never happened. That’s okay, I never pitched for the Detroit Tigers, either.
I played my first trumpet duet in church when I was in 6th grade. I sang a solo for the first time when I was in 7th grade. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise, when as his mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” I still hear the melody in my head. It was a small clip in a Christmas Cantata entitled “Born A King.” I sang in the church choir until 10th grade when we moved to a different town.
After we moved, I played piano for the choir at our new church. I think playing for the choir got me out of a moving violation from a police officer. One night I sped up to get through a light before it turned red. The officer who pulled me over said I didn’t make it. When he asked where I was going I said, “I’m going to church to play the piano for choir practice.” He told me to slow down for yellow lights in the future.
I played my first piano competition when I was 12. I received a second place trophy simply because on the last chord of the music I lifted my hands before I let go of the sustain pedal. I played in many other contests and never got higher than second place. I hated competing because I was always so afraid my mind would go blank, which made my mind go blank. After the last one when I was 15, I said, “Never again,” and that was it.
Crazy, but I can still play the song I performed in that last competition. It is “Springs of Living Water,” arranged by Ted Smith, who was the pianist for Billy Graham. I just won’t play it in front of anyone.
I continued playing the piano for church but I started faking it. I played the music like I wanted rather than what was on the page. That way, if I blew it no one would know. I still don’t play written music in public more than fifty years later.
Music in church has changed drastically in my lifetime. It used to be hymns only, then hymns plus a “prayer chorus,” then a couple hymns and a few choruses, then no hymns at all. That’s okay, to each their own. But some folks have had a difficult time adjusting.
In one church I pastored, my wife and I led the music as well. As soon as we sang something that wasn’t in the hymn book, there was an old man in the front who quit singing, folded his arms and stared.
I don’t want to be that old man. I am an old man, just not that one.