I’m a little bit of an “underscore” snob. Full disclosure: that really isn’t a category! And secondly, I’m really not snobby about it! But I do have some fairly developed opinions on how to/how NOT to underscore sensitive portions of the service. These moments would include time of silent and/or spoken prayer, moments of reflection, time of communion, lighting of candles, etc. During these moments, I feel like I have been given the responsibility of being the soundtrack to God’s voice while He is speaking to individuals, and I feel the weight of that awesome responsibility.
Music is a powerful emotional tool. I remember one pastor who never wanted music during these reflective moments because he thought it was an inappropriate manipulation tactic. I respectfully disagree. Music is a powerful tool that God has given to us to be used in moments such as these! Just as a soundtrack greatly enhances and appropriately pushes movie-goers into following the storyline with greater understanding, so a well-crafted underscore enhances the message and helps the congregation focus on God’s voice.
Here is a list of DO/DON’T DO when underscoring:
• DON’T assume that playing in an upper register will create a soft, gentle sound. It usually doesn’t! 7th grade science teaches us that the higher the pitch, the more piercing that sound wave is to our ears. So not only is the upper register piercing, on many church pianos, this register is often out of tune! This piercing sound is distracting; it pulls the focus away from God’s voice and onto our playing –which, of course, defeats the purpose of an underscore!
Instead, work your way down to the mid-register of the piano, which will produce warm and supportive sounds.
• DON’T believe that misconception that running 8th notes in the left hand create a soft and gentle feel. They don’t! After a while, these moving 8ths become busy, push the energy forward inappropriately, and become distracting.
Instead, become comfortable with using block chords, and let the measure breathe. I use 8th notes sparingly in an underscore, mostly just to provide a little bit of rhythmic glue.
• DON’T insist on continuously playing a familiar melody while underscoring a spoken prayer or another reflective speech. Even when there is no vocalist singing, a familiar hymn or chorus played during the underscore will keep the lyrics running through the listener’s head. It is hard for the listener to focus both on the words being spoken, and the “words” being played. Once again, we find that our underscore has become a distraction.
Instead, strive to play beautiful chord progressions, while occasionally weaving in small bits of melody. Or, play a melody that is unfamiliar to your congregation. This may require some thought and preparation ahead of time, but I think it is well worth the extra effort!
May God continue to bless you and your music ministry, and may your underscores be sensitive and supportive!