Learning By Ear, Playing By Heart: An interview with composer/arranger Mark Hayes
RW: Mark, in your last session I was intrigued by the description of your first piano teacher. Many children today need encouragement to study music, and many churches are looking for ways to encourage them to become keyboard players. What encouraged you to study piano as a child?
MH: I didn’t begin early; I was ten years old when I started playing the piano, but I had a very fertile and supportive environment in the Baptist church and the evangelical tradition of music. I remember even before starting lessons being fascinated by what keyboard players did. My first teacher was an older woman with whom I studied only about a year and a half because we moved to another town. But I guess she saw something in me and really encouraged me. Once we would get through a song in a John Thompson method book, she’d bring out a hymnal and help me figure out how to look at chords and notes and see beyond the page. Already then she was instilling in me the rudiments of improvisation.
You mentioned an echo technique that she used.
Yes, there was definitely this sense of learning to play by ear. She would play something and ask me to repeat it. That learning to play by imitation was a wonderful thing she taught me. But equally important was the supportive environment in the church. After our family moved, I was allowed at age thirteen to play the piano in church. I wasn’t really very strong yet at it, but it was a venue for me to play every week. It was probably the most important reason why I didn’t just give up the piano as so many kids do at that age when there are so many other things to draw their attention.
If I could say one thing to a teacher, I’d say this: Find opportunities for your students to play as much as possible, so they realize this is something that integrates into their whole life. It’s not just something to practice a few hours a week to get ready for a lesson. Kids need to have a sense that this is something they can use in their whole life.
Playing in church helped me develop an identity related to my talents and my spiritual gifts. It also gave me confidence in who I was. And it helped me gain a richer understanding of what worship is about. Even though I didn’t think about it in those terms at that time, it was building on that foundation.
As I think back as a choral and keyboard arranger and composer, the fact that I played so many hymns all my life prepared me long before I first sat down to write music for the church. Whenever I was trying to figure out how to do part writing for voices—if I would double the wrong note in a chord, for example—my ear immediately told me that it was wrong. I picked up a great deal by osmosis because I was so used to hearing and playing hymns. Good harmony and part writing were ingrained in me from so many years of playing hymns. There were so many benefits I didn’t even realize at the time that affected me and made me the musician I am now.
When did you start composing?
When I was a teenager, I was enamored with the contemporary musicals that were coming out for high school kids. I thought, This is really great, so I am going to write one. That first effort would embarrass me now. But I went on to study music at a Christian college and became part of a group of singers—there were seven of us, and I played the piano. I began arranging for them, and we made a record and even had a choral book printed. That was in my early twenties, and it began the process of my becoming an arranger. About that time I also decided that I would go ahead and try this composition thing too. And I have been at it now for twenty five years.
How do you usually prepare to play a worship service?
Well, I have attended the same church for the last twenty years. I have not chosen to be on staff at this church because I travel quite a bit in my work. But I do find it extremely important to be connected to the local church, so I volunteer my time there about two Sundays a month. There are times I’ve served on the worship committee and helped plan the services. But I help more in rehearsing our instrumentalists, including those playing melodic instruments. Over the years I have written charts for them as well. I often run our rehearsal and make suggestions about arrangements as I play the piano—either by myself or with a group of instruments. I usually have a microphone at the piano so I sing also when I play.
We have a rather blended, contemporary style of worship in the church I attend. I try to prompt, encourage, and lead the instrumentalists and singers as well as provide a foundation on the keyboard. We are a team-oriented church, and we try to find people who have gifts in a certain area who form a team, almost like a guild.
Has that church involvement had an influence on your compositional approach?
It’s been a real journey, and I have taken in everything I can from all the various places I have visited. I have had the chance to go to several foreign countries and many, many churches around the United States, and I have observed lots of different styles. My style is obviously rooted in the evangelical tradition, but there has been a great deal of cross-pollination with other traditions.
In college I had a lot of pride about doing the hippest, newest music, and my attitude really needed a major adjustment. I remember coming to this church that I attend now for the first time. At that time they were just using guitars up front. It was simple, and I thought, simplistic; I didn’t think I’d be able to worship there. But I sensed the Spirit in this group, so I thought I’d give it a chance. They began singing some very simple songs with simple accompaniment, and I had this experience of the Spirit kind of washing over me. I began to cry—and I am not a person to cry in church. It was so powerful that I thought, There’s something for me to learn at this place. So that began my journey to try to understand how God uses simple, yet profound expressions of music as well as more complex things. I had just come from the conservatory and thought I knew everything. It was at this church that I started giving up that false notion and began to really study and learn about worship.
I began with keyboard, and then the journey led me more into choral pieces and hymnody, actually coming full circle from the Praise & Worship choruses back to some of my roots in hymnody and even to more classical music than I was raised with and studied in school.
Any words of advice for young people who would like to become worship leaders at the piano?
I guess the first thing that pops into my mind is to perfect your skills or your craft. This morning, for example, I led worship in the service that included several different kinds of music, as well as improvisation. I had to tie everything together and understand how to move from one song to the next as well as how to modulate. Most of that was quite technical, but I couldn’t let the technical part get in the way of the flow of the Spirit. If I had not done all the work to understand the theory and be comfortable with technique, I would have been concerned with that. And that concern would have showed up in the way the music sounded. Possibly it would be a stumbling block or an obstacle to people as they were worshiping. You need to get to a level of freedom when you play. That’s a wonderful thing, but you have to put in an awful lot of practice and discipline to get to that point first. So, it’s . . .
. . . practice, practice, practice.
Yes. That’s true, but if you find something that you have a passion for, then you don’t get tired of doing it. If you’re gifted to play the piano or gifted to sing or play an instrument or dance, you’ll figure that out hopefully pretty early, and then you won’t mind putting in the hard hours to make it work because that’s what you were created and called to do. It’s part of your job description in the kingdom of God.
- Set the tempo of the hymn during the introduction with a clear, confident playing style.
- “Breathe” or clear the damper pedal on the last beat before the vocal entrance.
- If improvising, use recognizable harmonies at the last cadence point, such as a V or I chord. Congregations are attuned to these harmonies and recognize them as signals for their vocal entrances.
Example 1: Silent Night
Notice the reharmonization using a descending bass line in the left hand and the delicacy of the right-hand melody in the upper register.
Example 2: Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
This example features a repetitive harmonic sequence. Notice that C/F in the first measure is not entirely spelled out. This chord symbol is an approximation of the notated chord. By playing this pattern in a regular four-measure phrase, the congregation senses when to start singing because they are used to singing in similar phrases. Notice that on the fourth beat of m. 4 the repeated eighth notes stop, giving a slight breath before the vocal entrance. Because of the perpetual motion quality of this introduction, play the pick-up note strongly to cue the singers.
Here is another introduction to “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” showing a repetitive harmonic sequence in the treble register. Notice the lighter quality when compared to Example 2.
Here is another sequence that could also be used as a transition between stanzas. The sequence can either begin the measure after the singers finish or in the last measure, as shown below. Starting it before the singers finish adds to the energy of the transition, shortens the time between stanzas, and keeps the singers more involved.