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Keyboard ensemble emerging as new church music sound

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–Keyboard-playing groups might just become the next hot sound in churches, a music professor said, suggesting the musical instrument could also prove to be an outreach tool.

“There are so many portable keyboards in closets and under beds in church members’ homes,” said Michael Sharp, assistant professor of piano and music theory at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “Imagine the doors [the instrument] can open for churches in a community.

“Among American boys and girls, there is a heightened interest in keyboards, and their use in churches holds a lot of potential for outreach.”

The concept of keyboard ensembles began a decade ago among keyboard teachers who provided group instruction, Sharp told participants attending his keyboard ensemble classes at the Church Music Leadership Conference, July 15-20, at Glorieta, a LifeWay Conference Center, in New Mexico.

Keyboard ensembles, a multi-keyboard group of up to eight players, can sound similar to a small band or mini-orchestra, he said. And while the idea for such ensembles in churches is in the early stages of discussion among musicians, several clinics on the subject are being offered throughout the country, and musical material for keyboard ensembles is being written.

Sharp has written some keyboard music for his students and for Pedalpoint, a keyboard publication published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

For Sharp, the advantages of keyboard ensembles are compelling, both for outreach and for replenishing a dwindling supply of church keyboard musicians. He said he would like to see keyboard ensembles become as common as handbell choirs among churches, “particularly with young musicians.”

“Church pianists don’t just happen overnight. Children and youth respond because they are not put so much on the spot playing by themselves,” he said of the group performances. “That is a very large step toward getting them to sit on the piano or organ bench.”

These young keyboard players can be used to play preludes in Sunday evening worship services and to accompany children’s choir musicals, he said.

“The groups can perform for senior adults, for fellowships, in local shopping malls and in nursing homes,” he said. “Every one of those experiences takes players one step closer to occupying a church sanctuary piano bench or organ bench without being petrified of it.”

While electronic keyboards, coupled with computer-generated sounds, are all the rage among today’s youth, fewer students than in the past are majoring in keyboard during college and seminary, the professor said.

“It takes someone who is dedicated to long hours to pursue the keyboard academically, taking the keyboard to an artistic level.”

Sharp said he sees many self-trained keyboard players skilled at the improvisational level.

“Those skills can be very helpful in the way worship styles are moving today,” he observed. “However, students who are self-trained, but who want to pursue a keyboard vocation, could still benefit greatly in more formal training that is offered in our Baptist educational institutions. At New Orleans Seminary we are striving to offer innovative approaches to training church keyboardists.”

Sharp said students of the keyboard ensemble movement might someday be the solution to the accompanist shortage among smaller churches.

“I think this concept has enormous potential for training future keyboardists,” Sharp said. “But it will take people who are willing to be pioneers.”

The music ministries department of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention sponsored the Church Music Leadership Conference.

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  • Charles Willis