The Value of a Piano Player

From time to time, we’ve had lively and insightful discussions here about the value of live instrument players in Southern Gospel performances. But it seems that I may have left the wrong impression.

You see, I framed the discussion in the context of live bands. Live bands are great, if you can afford them. A good piano player, bass player, drummer, and utility musician can create some downright incredible music. But amidst the flurry of discussion over whether groups can afford three or four extra salaries, the point I actually wanted to make got obscured: My point isn’t the necessity of live bands—it’s the value of live music.

The roots of this genre are in three or four vocalists accompanied by a piano player. We could debate what Southern Gospel’s greatest decade or era was until the cows come home, but there’s little question that the 1950s and 1960s were the golden decades that moved Southern Gospel to the forefront position in the Christian music scene. From Southern Gospel’s founding through those golden decades, three or four voices and a piano player was enough. Done right, it’s still enough.

Over the last few years, I’ve heard concerts by several prominent artists with and without piano players. Our genre’s finest can pull through the challenge of a soundtrack-only program to put together a decent experience, just like they can pull through other challenges (like 90 degrees, rain, or an early Sunday morning service!) But, almost invariably, there is a noticeable improvement in spontaneity, excitement, and flexibility in those concerts where there is a live piano player.

One more clarification: Tracks aren’t bad. The Cathedrals’ mix of mostly live music with a few tracks worked so well that they’re the gold standard of live Southern Gospel experiences in the modern era.

Give a Southern Gospel group the right piano player, the right vocalists, and the right songs, and that is all most groups need. Additional instrument players are nice, but, as countless group owners point out, they’re simply not feasible in this economy. But a live piano player adds so much that a pianist should not be counted as a luxury.