Part of being a church pianist means being asked to play for funerals. I have to play (and sing) for one this afternoon, so it's on my mind this morning. I have a few things I always do to make sure I am prepared for funerals, and I'd like to share those tips with you. This is only my second funeral to play for here in Moncton. When we lived on the island in Nova Scotia, it seemed like my husband and I were constantly doing funerals. So I compiled a few things so I'd always be ready. It sure helps me not to be so nervous when everything is in order for the music part of a funeral.
1. Compile a 'funeral notebook' with about 15 familiar hymns. Put them in plastic page protectors, for the purpose of your notebook staying neat, and for the purpose of quiet page turning. Most of the funerals I have played at wanted a prelude of about 15-20 minutes long. If I play 2 verses of each song, my collection of hymns will be sufficient, with a few extras just in case it starts a few minutes late.
2. Learn/know how to smoothly modulate between hymns during the prelude. As I've mentioned in previous posts about modulation, it is a pet peeve of mine when there is an awkward silence between hymns. Funerals are already nerve-racking enough for family and friends without having an uncomfortable pause between hymns. (See my post on "Easy Modulation For Church Pianists")
3. Contact the vocalists ahead of time and practice with them, even if it's a familiar hymn. You'd be surprised how many little kinks can come up even with a simple song (timing, the need to transpose, etc.) I consider it tacky to be running over songs right before the service.
4. Copy the songs that the vocalists are singing, and put them in your notebook. It's a lot easier to have it right in front of you instead of switching books and trying to get them to stay open, remembering the page number, etc.
5. Be familiar with the instrument you will be using. In Nova Scotia I often played at the funeral home. They had an ancient organ that needed a lot of tender loving care (no, actually it needed to be retired!) and it was very difficult to play, especially after being used to playing a piano most of the time. Call the funeral home and arrange a time to go in and practice on the instrument.
6. If using an organ at your church or the funeral home, write down the settings on a piece of paper and take it with you. Anyone who plays the organ knows that something happens to all organs in between when you walk away from it and when you come back to it! :) Possibly children play with the tabs and settings. In the case of the funeral home, there are often many musicians using the same instrument and you can't be certain that when you return for the actual service that the organ will still hold your settings.
7. Ask for an order of service from the officiator and be familiar with when you are "on" to play.
8. Be prepared for emotional vocalists. This is so hard, and I have a hard time knowing what to do when vocalists are unable to continue singing. I usually play a few measures of the song, giving them another chance to come in if they are able. Usually the vocalist is able to make a decision as to whether or not he/she can continue, and it is the instrumentalists job to follow and help that incident go smoothly and not be too obvious.
9. Keep the tempo of the prelude and specials at an even pace. It is not necessarily needful to drag the hymns so as to depress everyone even more. But neither is it necessary to fly along trying to encourage a false sense of happiness. Be sensitive to the family and the mood of the service. Often memorial services allow for a more upbeat tempo than funerals.
10. Decide ahead of time whether or not you will sit at the instrument for the entire service. If possible, arrange for a chair to be placed somewhere within reach of the instrument for easy transition during the different parts of the service. Our grand piano is up on a stage, and it can be tedious to climb and descend the stairs multiple times. I usually place a chair behind the piano to eliminate that movement and to save my back from unnecessary pain when I'm not playing.
11. In the event that there are several instrumentalists, contact them ahead of time and talk through the program (who is playing what, and when), the switching of pianists, etc. and make it as smooth and unnoticeable as possible. Once again, having chairs set up will help with the moving around.
There is always that chance that something will happen that you are not prepared for, but having some of these things in place will help immensely with some of the smaller details.