Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Playing for Funerals

Of all the possible gigs a pianist may get, funerals are certainly one of the least discussed and mysterious events to face for the first time. Since I have been a part-time church musician for over five years, I thought I would share my experience with these rather common rituals and provide some guidance for you if a funeral gig presents itself. It is yet another one of those practical things you do not tend to learn about in music school, but should – keyboardists often take on church jobs while in graduate school, and many of us who are more or less freelance performers depend on a church gig for steady income during those inevitable "dry" spells. If you work (or think that you will work someday) as an accompanist/organist for a church, playing your first funeral will be just a matter of time.

Readers may be wondering why I am pursuing such a somber topic! Well, let me just break the ice and say that playing for funerals can be rewarding and even quite lucrative. After all, somebody has to do it and that someone is going to get paid. And consider this: if you are a musician that can handle playing for funeral services, you will never be completely out of work! You know the old saying, attributed to Benjamin Franklin: nothing is certain but death and taxes. Now we just need to work on getting some kind of music-requiring ritual involving taxes…but I digress.

If you are a church musician, what follows below may not offer much that is new. I should also add that preparing music for a funeral service is mostly just a matter of common sense. (My focus here is on the funeral practices of Christian-based services; I don't know enough about other religions' funeral rites to properly comment.) But I know that I would have liked to have known a little bit better about what goes into a funeral performance when I first got started. My purpose here is to include the needs of the pianist and/or the organist – in fact I usually play both instruments at funeral services. Here are ten things to consider when preparing for one:


1) A funeral service is almost ALWAYS a short-notice performance.

When you are notified about playing for a funeral service, you will usually have just two to five days notice. That simply comes with the territory for obvious reasons. Enough said. However, you may occasionally get longer notice about a remembrance service that occurs well after the deceased has passed. These types of memorial services, however, are quite rare.

The trick is to be aware that this is the way it is, and prepare ahead of time accordingly. If you follow my guidelines below, you should never have to scramble to prepare for the short-notice funeral service.

2) Develop a repertoire of suitable material to use for the "Prelude" (before the service) slot.

Most funeral services will have a "Prelude" of music selections before the actual service begins. These preludes can last anywhere from five minutes to half an hour in my experience. If you want to feel comfortable with your Prelude material when the call comes to play, have a list of selections that you already know and can perform in a few days' time. You should keep a list handy to which you continually add new pieces that work well for Prelude music (see number 3 below). I keep a list of pieces/arrangements in a spreadsheet document, complete with time lengths, stylistic considerations, and the place in my library where the piece can be quickly located. The more prepared you are ahead of time, the easier it will be to fill in the gaps during crunch time.

You should also mark places in the music where repeats could work – there will be times when you may want to extend a piece for a little while longer if the circumstances warrant it.

3) In general, Prelude music should fit the following descriptions: Reflective, Peaceful, Meditative, Tasteful, Uplifting, and Appropriate.

Prelude music at a funeral should not be a place where you do your aesthetically challenging repertoire. Stick to quiet, subdued classical music (just to provide some examples, I've used Debussy's Reverie and some of the Gliere Preludes) or tasteful hymn arrangements. Some common hymns associated with funeral services are "Abide With Me", "Amazing Grace", "Be Still My Soul" (also known as Sibelius's Finlandia), "I Need Thee Every Hour", "Be Thou My Vision", and many others. One tactic you can use is to look at the appendixes in your church's hymnal and find a section that lists hymns for funerals. You can than shop for arrangements of these hymns online or at your local music store – lots of good arrangements are coming out every year of the most common tunes and hymns. (A future post may contain some more specific suggestions for prelude music at funerals – including that here would make this post way too long.)

Yes, it is true that someday you might be asked to do something a little more off the wall for the Prelude. Maybe the deceased really loved ragtime, and so the family wants you to play nothing but Scott Joplin. In those cases, you should try to go with what the family wants if possible.

Don't get into extensively pyrotechnical music – the funeral service is not for you! Dazzling your "audience" with your most recent rendition of Liszt's Dante sonata will probably get you a dirty look from the clergyperson presiding over the service. Repertoire like that is simply not appropriate here.

Stay away from extensively minor mode music as well – remember to keep it uplifting. Whatever you do, NEVER play the third movement of Chopin's B-flat minor sonata. Not ever.

4) Whatever amount of time you are told to dedicate to the "Prelude" slot, add ten minutes and prepare enough music for that amount of time instead.

Believe me, you do NOT want to get stuck playing prelude music at a funeral and then run out of music before the service starts. Anything can happen before a service – an important family member could be late, children who are speaking about Grandpa might get uncooperative at the last minute, etc. Do yourself a favor and be ready for a delay in the service. Most of the time, you will not get through all of your prepared material. But isn't that a lot better than running out of material and needing to repeat stuff ad nauseam from just-played pieces? It's simply more professional to not have to resort to endless repeats. I've done it before, of course, and I'm never very happy with the result.

If there is to be 10 minutes reserved for the prelude, prepare 20. Et cetera…

(Those of you who are good improvisers probably do not need to worry about extending your repertoire – I just thought I would mention that!)

5) Develop a few solid organ and piano pieces to use for the Postlude.

If you have never played a funeral before, keep in mind that it is usually preferable to do the postlude on organ rather than piano. Like your prepared-ahead-of-time list of known pieces for the Prelude slot, you should have a couple or three pieces that you can whip together in a day or two that work well as postludes. I have a list of about five organ pieces and two piano pieces. The reason you want both instruments covered is so that you can adapt depending on circumstances. Sometimes one or the other instrument is out of service or the institution at which you will be performing does not have an organ. Again, be prepared for an unexpected change in plans.

Postludes should generally be uplifting, up-tempo works that contrast with the reflective qualities of the music for the Prelude. If you are not sure what kind of piece you should prepare, ask your pastor or reverend what they typically expect for the postlude. The family who hires you may also wish for something specific – in those cases, go with what they want if at all possible.

6) Learn the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah.

This is the most common request that I have encountered in my experience playing funerals. You can often demand more pay if you are required to play this work. Find a reasonable version (there are many available online) and be able to play it on piano and organ. You will save yourself a massive headache when the request comes in to prepare this in three days. It will happen – it did to me!

7) Be able to play specific hymns on the organ WITH pedal tones.

Let's face it: hymns at funerals really should be played on the organ rather than the piano (unless otherwise requested). If you are new to the organ and have yet to get your feet involved on the pedals, start practicing simple bass lines for the most common hymns ("Amazing Grace" is a great place to start). You should of course have the music theory and harmony chops to come up with simplified bass lines that you can play with your feet for the required hymns if the notated bass line is too technically demanding. (They often are a bit too hard for me – I am definitely a pianist first and a sometime-organist second!) If you can't do the pedals just yet, be sure that at some point you couple the left hand with some 16' or 8' stops for more bass. Let it rumble a bit!

8) Honor any musical requests for the deceased person's family to the best of your ability.

If your pastor calls you in and tells you that the deceased person's Uncle Hank and Cousin Jimmy want you to accompany them on a banjo and harmonica rendition of Barry Manilow's "Looks Like We Made It" – smile politely and say you would be delighted. When the duo show up twenty minutes before the funeral with five chord changes scribbled on a greasy napkin, and they instruct you to just "follow them", smile again and serve up the music as best you can.

If you play in a church long enough, you will be sure to run into an absurd request now and again. You need to be able to just roll with it and not get personally offended or feel like you've "sold out." Keep in mind that this is someone's funeral – the memory of that awful performance (in your mind) might be someone else's long-cherished memory for years to come. It is honorable to meet the needs of the bereaved, no matter how silly or absurd you may find those requests to be.

9) Be sure to leave enough time for one music store run before the funeral.

This goes along with No. 8 above – a family member may ask for something that you do not currently have in your library. Always be sure that there is enough time in your schedule (a free morning or afternoon, for instance) to allow for a last-minute run to the music store to pick up any requests. Do this and you will be remembered as a dependable musician for folks in the real world.

10) Be prepared for the possibility of an intensely emotional experience if the death was tragic.

OK – time to get back to something serious after the fun of writing No. 8 above. Something has to be said about this, even though it is a no-brainer. Believe it or not, most of the funerals you will play will be for very old people who have mostly lived long and productive lives. Their passing is not the tragedy it could have been if it happened years or decades earlier. Therefore the service in these more common circumstances is usually not a heart-wrenching ordeal. But watch out if you get the call to play for the funeral of an accident victim or someone who was taken suddenly by cancer or other fatal health problem. These services can leave you reeling if you are not prepared to handle the highly charged emotional atmosphere that comes with the tragic death.

Usually you can safely check with your clergyperson (the professional clergyperson will understand your need to know if the death was tragic or "nothing unexpected") and then make a decision based on your ability to remain detached. I'll readily admit that this is not an easy thing to do. If you feel like you may be too disturbed to handle a given situation, it is perfectly professional to say no up front. Some weeks it is just not necessary to subject yourself to the intensity of someone else's sudden family loss.

Now these ten items about playing for funerals are certainly not the final word, so I invite you to chime in with whatever else pertains to the subject!

6 comments:

natalie said...

What a great list of helpful tips! Thanks, Joshua!

Joshua Nemith said...

You're welcome, Natalie. I'm glad you find it helpful.

felton said...

thank you for the inspirational tips and thoughts.. it help me a lot,, thanks again for that.. you can also play for the wedding!!

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Your advices are gonna help me to grow up so much in this industry. I began to play piano around 3 moths ago, but I already know in the music you never stop to learn.

Cisco Lee said...

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Anonymous said...

inAlso avoid playing hymns during the prelude that will be sung during the funeral service.Get a copy of the funeral program. It will be helpful.