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Photos 4:  Portable Keyboards/Hymn Singing




Once any of us have sung in a choir, played in a band or orchestra, played the piano or in any instrumental ensemble, or felt what it was like to sit at a large pipe organ, draw its stops, play spread chords with double pedal, and experience THAT amount of tonal spread and THAT amount of power, we're never the same again.  Our ears, our eyes, our hearts, ALL are opened up in ways not possible by any other means.  Being involved in the production of music feeds us, nourishes us, and brings us great joy.  Being able to connect with audiences in this way is always a plus.  At some churches however the situation is not a simple one for the organist/choir director:


THESE ARE FACTS OF THE MATTER:  Many people these days do not like the "pop concert" swing-and-sway atmosphere that now pervades church music.  They want a simple hymn book with music lines, a single song-leader, and a simple [organ or keyboard] accompaniment as opposed to a performing band in all kinds of special "music" of their own.  They admit there is room for excellence and talent in accompaniment but also believe it shouldn't be in competition with the congregation.  They want to hear God's people united in praise, including harmony, not stumbling through or silently listening to music and words they can't follow except by gazing at lines flashing across a Jumbotron screen.  They want to KNOW the music so they can sing from the heart.  Some don't even open their mouths to say "amen" but still know what they like and what they don't like.

This is a modern trend that has pushed the organist out of the picture right along with the traditional hymn book.  The current so-called "shortage of organists" has been coming on for some time and can likely be attributed in large part to this concert atmosphere that's developed and the fact that, for a number of reasons, attendance has been dwindling in mainline churches.  Consequently fewer young people are undertaking the study of an instrument which consumes a great deal of their time and effort to develop and maintain the several skill sets involved and yet tends to yield a shortfall in what it takes week after week to pay the bills.  There are some organists out there, of course, who make a full-time living from their music with a pay scale which provides for all of their needs, health coverage, and other considerations, but it's reasonable to venture that they would not be in the majority.  The best case scenario for the majority seems to be earning an income in other ways in order to allow them to pursue church work with a mind free of undue concern.  It is perhaps more "spot on" to say that there is an acute shortage of churches a) willing and able to pay their organists as trained and qualified tradespeople and b) who haven't abandoned their organs to fall into disrepair and disuse.  In those churches which have decided that organ music was discouraging people from coming to church because it was too "old-fashioned," the need for the traditional organist at those locations has been eliminated altogether.  The churches more lately seem to be discovering  that the real reason people are not coming to church is because they've lost their perceived need for it and have other things to do, NOT because of the music.  There are probably many among these people who don't really care whether they're singing with an organ, but it's as if organs and organists have become the scapegoats for the decline in numbers.  The resulting fallout in education has involved young people interested in a serious study of the organ; these are struggling more and more to find the right kind of teacher [this website has been created as a tool to help fill part of this instructional need for what must be studied away from the instrument] AND, in the event they have no instrument at home, somewhere where they can practice.  Among denominations where organ music and accompaniments ARE embraced we find that there are fewer local churches open than ever before, fewer ministers, fewer congregants, smaller choirs (where there is a choir), greater costs for upkeep of the building and the functioning of worship, and more legislation on security, youth, insurance, etc.  Judging by their increased publicity for scholarships which have increased significantly in recent years, school faculties also seem to be more challenged than ever before to recruit organ students.  BOTTOM LINE:  the mindset of ministers, worshipers, and students as well as church-goers is simply no longer what it was half a century ago.


Hymns are theological statements set to music.  It would therefore serve local churches well, wherever their hymnals are sitting in boxes or stacked in hallways, to consider the relevance and important place singing the so-called "old-fashioned hymns" occupies in worship, especially when supported by live organ accompaniment [See Blog/Archive, Hymns, Parts I-XII]:

  • Hymns serve as a means to teach and reinforce the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith.  Many contemporary songs simply lack the depth and theological richness that hymns provide.  Hymns can help educate and spiritually nourish congregations of all sizes.
  • Hymns have connected generations of believers throughout history.  The singing of just one hymn at an appropriate moment, something approved of and encouraged by Jesus Himself (Matt. 26:30, Mark 14:26), can serve as a bridge between the church's past and its present, reminding all participants they are part of a much larger, timeless group which shares unity and continuity in worshiping God.
  • Hymns are easy to remember.  Their melodies and lyrics stay with people for a lifetime.  Congregants can carry the messages and lessons contained in hymns throughout their lives, reinforcing their faith.
  • Hymns can be a unifying force among a diverse congregation.  They transcend cultural and language barriers and provide an opportunity for people of different backgrounds to worship together.  They are a beautiful expression of unity in Christ among various sundry peoples that gives them a real sense of identity and belonging.
  • Hymns can offer a broader musical palette and a sense of balance in worship.  They are flexible, arrangeable, and can accomodate a wide multiplicity of musical tastes and preferences.
  • Hymns often carry deep emotional resonance.  Their melodies and lyrics can evoke strong feelings of reverence, joy, comfort, and pleasant memories of departed loved-ones.  They reach deeply into the soul, beckon the unsaved, and provide a safe space for people to express their emotions, a place where they can find solace and healing.
  • Hymns can be powerful teaching tools.  They can be and are very often used to instruct and encourage, especially in conjunction with the preaching of sermons.  Many hymns are directly tied to biblical passages and stories, making them valuable teaching aids.
  • Hymns preserve a sacred legacy for future generations.  These timeless songs of the church are a way that children and grandchildren have the opportunity to experience the same spiritual heritage that has been passed down to the present generation.    

   While it would be narrow-minded to think that hymn singing out of the hymnal is incapable of joining in praise with other kinds of worship music when congregations gather to offer praise to God, it does provide a great deal of spiritual depth, theological richness, timeless connection, memorability, inclusivity, variety and balance, and emotional resonance while serving as a powerful teaching tool with a living legacy.

There's something else to consider:  just holding a hymnal during worship is important.  Practically speaking, hymn books can't break down in the middle of a liturgy like technology can.  Musically, they teach -- looking at notes on a page as opposed to just lyrics helps people learn the basics of melodic direction and rhythmic value, giving them the first steps in learning to read music.  Theologically, congregants don't just see what the worship leader has selected but are instead exposed to the full repertoire.  They can turn the page and encounter hymns in other languages, reminding them of the church's diversity.  Seeing old hymns next to newer ones unites them with all believers throughout history.  Hymnals are also symbols of consistency.  Unlike a screen that fades or a paper bulletin which is discarded, they demonstrate that what is being sung is worth keeping around as well as reminding everyone that prayer is continuous and can't be turned off or discarded.  Hymnals are something that can and should be held proudly in the hands.

Additionally, the fact that congregants have a voice and the organist has an organ which can lead them remains a very dynamic way to enrich the spiritual lives of congregations by maintaining connection with the church's roots, providing a robust theological foundation, reminding people of God's love and grace, and fostering unity and inclusivity while helping to stir souls and draw them closer to God.  By the same token it's also important to admit to the truth that in a faith service where praise songs, hymns, anthems, unaccompanied choir music, or vocal solos are performed in any combination, the Holy Spirit is still present, so, in that sense, under these circumstances, it isn't for man to judge which species of music is "better" than another.  There is value in having a variety of reverent and venerating music available for worship, God is still anointing composers and song writers, and we know that all of our time-honored hymns found in our hymnals were at one time new songs.  That being said, it can be surprising if not alarming to learn of the behind-the-back if not open griping that can sometimes emerge from some of the older members of a congregation against the newer praise music, folks who are claiming in so many words that it is "not liturgical or honorable enough" for "church."

This makes it all the more important for organists/choir directors, worship leaders, and music directors to keep in mind the following:

a) Worship is not a concert but a corporate expression of one's love for the Lord.

b) God loves wondrous variety, He's been inspiring great worship music literally for centuries, and that by confining the music to one style we may be excluding from active participation certain people who are being drawn by the Holy Spirit to be there.

c) New songs and hymns, like all change, are best introduced gradually and carefully, such as by doing one new one a month, then maybe revisiting it every 3-4 months for a year.

d) The text of each song, new or old, always should be examined for biblical and theological truth, not merely emotional impact.

e) Worship doesn't take place just in the church building.

Emails might be sent every week with YouTube videos attached of the songs to be used at the next upcoming gathering of the faithful to those who have access to a computer along with the invitation to use them to prepare for that time together as well as for private and family worship.  Sending it out in advance to the congregation for study, inspiration, and reflection is likely to help produce the kind of results that keeps everyone happy.


As for an instrument, contemplating a serious run at playing for worship services where no working organ may be available will do well to look into obtaining a well built, sophisticated, versatile, portable, and relatively new digital electronic keyboard with authentic organ voices on board ... not a loaner mini-board but something substantial upon which to practice at home, transport when needed to lead congregational singing, accompany a small choir or solo vocalist, set the proper mood, and lift the spirits of listeners [See blog, The Fraternal Organist, Parts I-XIV].

Portland, Oregon, 2017
Portland, Oregon, 2017
Jefferson City, Missouri, 2018
Jefferson City, Missouri, 2018
Jefferson City, Missouri, 2021
Jefferson City, Missouri, 2021

NOTE:  This is not to say that sized-down, starter mini-boards built for an entirely different purpose and audience do not have their legitimate place, but they would be entirely inadequate for this type of calling.  In preparing for a worship event the organist's time is far better spent learning and memorizing the appropriate hymns, marches, patriotic songs, amens, and working on improvisation than by familiarizing one's self about how to work a demo button on a sized-down starter keyboard.  Even at events where the instrument is used strictly for entertainment the habit of never playing the keys of the instrument and relying solely upon a demo button when a few notes of music are called for not only leads to many mismatches between what the listener gets to hear and the mood of the moment but, obviously, merely teaches the performer how to work switches and not really grow from experience as a musician. 

The ideal electronic keyboard for the traveling organist would be one having state-of-the-art-realistic pipe organ samples aboard with, if possible, a 32-foot octave, adjustable EQ and reverb, expression (volume) pedal, transposer button, a row of adjustable presets to store selected combinations, and the ability to mix individual samples at any volume levels desired.  Finding such a board that was pre-owned in near mint condition would be even better to avoid having to pay full retail price for it.     

There are many makes and models of electronic keyboards on the market and in circulation which might serve the purpose.  With all of the above features plus 5 separate sound engines, 200 rhythms, 7 different pipe organ sounds which can be mixed, and over 1,100 separate sampled tones aboard, this little Roland RD800 stage piano [See photos below] is an example of the right kind of keyboard.  The fact that it's compass is a full 88 keys allows for the performance of all works from the piano repertoire.  A keyboard amp w/tripod, powered subwoofer, damper (sustain) pedal, volume pedal with adjustable sensitivity, keyboard stand, padded bench, surge bar with 10-foot extension cord, gig cables, Manhassat conductor's music stand (holding 4 pages across), some kind of traveling case (Gator is an example), and a cloth dust cover for the keys would complete the needed accessories.

An organist invited or appointed to play at a distant venue not having an organ needs to see that a reliable, versatile musical instrument is provided which can meet and/or exceed the needs of the event, and, while a variety of fine products are available today which can serve such needs and then some, this is an example of what constitutes a satisfactory system.