High-Tech Keyboarding

by Terry Wilhite

You would be surprised how many requests I get from pastors asking me to address the subject of music. Their emails usually begin something like this: "I am pastor of Calvary Community Church. I am writing because our church has no one who can play the piano or organ. As pastor, if there's to be accompaniment, it's up to me and, you guessed it, I can't play anything either. I realize you write about music technology, so I hope that you can offer some solutions for our situation."  Another plight many pastors and worship leaders face is often summed up like this. "We would love to have a praise and worship band, but unfortunately, we are missing some of the players, like a bass guitarist and drummer. Is there some way we can fill in for these missing musicians with technology?"

Even if you don't have any of these needs, I hope you'll listen up, because I have a tool I want to tell you about that may help the music at your church. What qualifies me to address this subject? For the past 30 years I have been a church instrumentalist. More than half of that time I've used digital technology to enhance music and the worship experience. I've also taught music technology conferences all over the country.

During a session a few years back in Atlanta, I met some music specialists at Yamaha Corporation of America who shared with me some new technology that totally changed the way I approach church music. Musicians with experience can benefit from it as well as pastors or lay leaders who don't know a "C" from an "E." The best-kept secret in church music is an automatic accompaniment keyboard. I had previously written such keyboards off because I equated them with the toy versions at Wal-Mart. What a mistake! Comparing a toy auto-accompaniment keyboard with a professional model is like trying to compare a Hotwheel® with a real Daytona Stock Car.

                 Here's what an automatic keyboard can do for a pastor without an instrumentalist:

By procuring an SMF (standard MIDI file) of your favorite hymn or praise and worship song, you can pop the SMF diskette into an auto-accompaniment keyboard, press the "start" button and hear full orchestration. Standard Midi Files (the digital equivalent of player piano scrolls) for every major hymnal and praise and worship book can be purchased from places like www.musicmansion.com.

With an auto-accompaniment keyboard, you can even add "personality" to the most straightforward, basic, SMF file by playing the file using your choice of dozens of styles (pop, country, bluegrass, jazz, swing and more) that are available. It is also easy to set song marker parts for, say, the chorus of a praise and worship song-so repeats, "on the fly," at certain points in the song are the press of a button away.

If someone has enough music savvy to read the chord progressions (C, D7, G, etc.) on sheet music and knows the equivalent on the instrument, one can take this technology even further by playing the note on the left-hand end of the keyboard, which will follow you with professional orchestration in the musical style and tempo of your choice.

While three or four manufacturers offer instruments in this class, I use the Yamaha PSR-1000 and Tyros for the preludes at our church, which are typically upbeat, praise and worship style music. With most of Yamaha's higher-end auto-accompaniment keyboards, any part-drums, bass guitar, whatever-can be instantly muted so live musicians who are available can play the part. While beginners can use these keyboards, it is easy to dive into "deep water" and use all ten fingers and "zillions" of professional-level features, such as the on-board digital recorder on the ones I own. 

In conclusion, the ultimate solution to ensure that there are instrumentalists in your church in the future is to "grow" your own! What a great addition these instruments would be for the young one's Sunday school class. Even the larger auto-accompaniment keyboards are lightweight, making them easy to take them to the nursing home or mission field. Entry into the world of auto-accompaniment keyboards can be as low as $200. But remember, it's usually the pastor that encourages the adoption of new technology. I hope you will investigate auto-accompaniment keyboards.

Terry Wilhite is a music and multimedia specialist. His email address is writeme@terrywilhite.com.

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