1. Don’t purchase/use an instrument that is too complicated for your musicians.
“Workstation” keyboards offer a number of innovative built-in options (like on-board programming/sequencing, in-depth signal processing, sampling, recording, etc.). In most local church settings, such options are seldom (if ever) needed or employed. These extra bells and whistles often call for a higher retail price, as well.
2. Know what gap you need to fill within the sonic landscape of your typical Sunday worship service.
Let that be the determining factor for your keyboard purchase. The various synth manufacturers present in the marketplace today are marked by vastly different strengths. Some produce keyboards filled with amazing pop/rock sounds. Others offer instruments that are strong in the orchestral sound family. Still others create instruments rich with fantastic sonic landscapes and pads. And some companies have a very narrow focus on offering instruments centered on pianos, ep’s, and organs. In my opinion, not one manufacturer does everything well.
3. Take it for a test drive.
Take time to visit pro instrument stores and play the various options currently available. In many cases, store managers will allow a local church to audition a keyboard for a week or two – it never hurts to ask!
4. Be sure to know the technical proficiencies and stylistic strengths/weaknesses of your keyboardists.
The approach to playing the synthesizer is as different from playing classical/gospel piano as the night is from the day. Most people who have spent decades as a solo instrumentalist accompanying choirs, solo vocalists, and congregations will not likely ever be able to grasp the fact that engaging the right hand only to play whole note open fifths is often the most appropriate approach to playing a warm, soft string or vocal pad. Make well-informed personnel decisions.
5. Look for specific synth and/or string reduction charts when purchasing charts for your band/rhythm section.
These highly specialized charts are ideal for auxiliary keyboardists who cannot read chord/rhythm charts or play by ear. Do not be surprised when you discover these charts are usually not complex. The role of an auxiliary keyboard player is most often to serve as sonic connective “glue” or “body” in a band. This approach is usually best achieved by playing fewer and longer notes.
6. Take advantage of the synthesizer’s innate ability to diversify the genres and/or sonic environments within your worship services.
Don’t let your keyboardists become too comfortable with – or stuck on – one or
two sounds. Although your team will certainly develop a rather short list of “go to” patches that work well in most worship gatherings, the creative palette of a synthesizer opens up a broader world of musical colors than most people ever fully explore.
7. Create an “At a Glance” cheat sheet list of patch names and corresponding numbers.
Once your keyboardists have gotten to know your synthesizer(s) well and have landed on the best pre-set sounds/layers it has to offer, keep this list readily available and nearby the keyboard. Most synths manufactured these days come out of the factory pre-loaded with anywhere from 500 to 1500 sounds. The vast sea of preset options can be overwhelming to the average church musician. A quick reference list can be a lifesaver in the middle of a service.
8. Provide ample training to all of your keyboardists.
The dashboard, display, menu, navigation system, nomenclature, owner’s manual, etc… for every manufacturer is proprietary. There is not even much standardization or consistency from model-to-model within a single manufacturing family. So, training is the best way to help out your keyboardists.
9. Consider buying a good “controller” and using mobile apps in order to save money.
A controller keyboard is essentially a soundless synthesizer that employs MIDI connectivity with external sound generating devices. Rather than spending several thousand dollars for a sound generating synthesizer, spend a few hundred dollars on a controller and, as little as, one hundred dollars on a mobile app synthesizer, available on an iPad or similar handheld device. An added bonus in this scenario is the increased portability/eased mobility you will gain.
10. Give your guitarist/pianist a break from underscoring once in a while.
Ask your auxiliary keyboard player to play a quiet pad during a scripture reading or prayer. Select synth sounds that are almost felt, rather than heard, for such a moment. This subtle, yet significant, action can provide for underscore accompaniment that is complimentary, yet not distracting.
11. Practice sensitivity.
Just because you think any given synth sound is groundbreaking or cool doesn’t mean it is right for corporate worship. Let the spiritual climate within a given service and the genre of the song determine your sonic decisions.
12. Remember the role of the synthesizer in a band is almost always supportive.
Piano or guitar will usually drive the band. There will be many times when your keyboardists might feel the number of notes and/or rhythms they’re playing is too simple. Ask them to resist the temptation, in those moments, to overplay, thus stepping on someone else’s role.
Craig Adams, a recipient of multiple Dove Awards, has produced and/or participated in more than 3,500 recordings for artists, record labels, music publishers, tv/film, and radio over the past 35 years. In addition, his vast experience in music production, local church worship ministry, and musical direction for live events, along with his work at LifeWay Worship, gives him the talent, experience, and credibility to not only listen, but really hear, what each album delivers to the listeners.