Even our non-instrumental brethren should find the journey of the lowly piano of interest. In particular, we’re fascinated how one technique, called “stride,” turned the piano into the natural instrument to accompany congregational singing.

Until the late 1800s, the organ was the church’s primary instrument and the piano was considered a secular instrument unfit for church. That all began to change primarily as revivalists of the time, including R. A. Torrey, Billy Sunday, and Charles Alexander began to see the value of the piano in their services.

As the piano became popular, prominent pianists began to start formulating the style of playing that would work in church situations. Probably the first such pianist was Robert Harkness, pianist for R. A. Torrey. Influential during most of the first half of the Twentieth Century, Harkness published a set of lessons that detailed his style. These lessons was eventually compiled into a book and published in 1941.

I have a copy of this book, and it clearly shows that Harkness was instrumental in developing the style of congregational accompaniment that is still widely used today. The style is a variation of stride with big chords in the right hand and jumps between octaves and chords in the left hand. It is fascinating to me that Harkness taught pianists to play stride in exactly the same way I was taught in hymn-playing classes in college almost 80 years later.

Piano player painting by Christian Aldo. The art is made from denim that has been altered by paints and other processes into contextual art. Photo courtesy of Rob Campbell, Flickr.

So where did this style originate? Harkness was obviously influenced by two periods of American music–ragtime and the early years of jazz. The style of stride typically used to this day by hymn players is sort of a “sanctified” offshoot of these two styles. It lacks some of the rhythmic elements and is much less technical than either ragtime or early jazz, but the basic elements are identical.

With that in mind, I want to take this post to give you a bit of musical history about the period that Harkness wrote in and was partially shaped by.

The arrival of jazz was the result of a philosophical shift in America toward individualism. No longer were musicians interested in being bound by restrictive rules of composers. Jazz is about improvisation, meaning that the musician has the freedom to change virtually anything in a song. In other words, the power shifted from the composer to the musician. Or to put it another way, jazz is democratic.

To say that jazz musicians were talented would be an understatement. By the 1930s, stride piano was quite the spectator sport. Virtuosos improvised extremely complex arrangements like magic. Perhaps the best known stride pianist was Art Tatum, whom Rachmaninoff said “has better technique than any living pianist and may be the greatest ever.”

For your enjoyment, here is a clip of Tatum. In this example, he is not playing stride, but it is still a good example of his technique. It is the only video I know of on the internet of Tatum though you can listen to many of his songs on YouTube.

Art Tatum, at the Vogue Room, New York, c. 1947

Here is a clip of traditional stride from that era. Note the similarities and differences between this and traditional church hymn-playing.

Getting back to Harkness for a second, it seems clear that he had a love/hate relationship with popular (jazz) music. On one hand, he incorporated it into church piano music but at the same time, wrote a very harsh (though entertaining!) chapter in his book called “The Perils of Jazz”.

Harkness also lamented that most church pianists could play classical music well but could not improvise (a common problem to this day). In that respect, jazz and church piano music are similar, because both required improvisation. And it is clear that Harkness took advantage of that fact as he developed his style.

By the end of the 1930s, stride was waning as a style in favor of more modern styles. But the church has continued its “sanctified” style of stride to this day. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is open for debate. I see pros and cons.
On the pro side, stride accomplishes what Harkness desired, which is to support congregational singing. It is also easy to teach and easy to learn.

On the other hand, stride just sounds a bit dated. And it is hard to play tenderly. We have all heard church pianists bang their way through “Just as I Am” in the traditional stride form. For reflective songs especially, stride needs to give way to something better.

While I have been studying the history of the piano in the church, I have been struck by something that I find unsettling. I have been struggling for a few weeks trying to figure out how to address it.

Here is my dilemma. I look at certain musicians as heroes because they were pioneers. They created things that have been useful in the church for an entire century. But on the other hand, I have been flabbergasted by some of the things I have read. These things frankly do not make these men look like heroes at all. In some cases, they just look silly.

So how do you honor these pioneers while still being honest enough to point out their flaws? I am not sure, but that is what I am going to attempt to do in this post. Specifically, I am going to focus on Robert Harkness.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Harkness could probably be considered the father of the style of piano playing you hear in churches that still mostly sing hymns. This style is often called evangelistic and resembles a jazz style called stride.

I mentioned before that this style is not my favorite but I have to admit that it has certain advantages. It is easy to learn and accomplishes what it is supposed to do. Its function is to support congregational singing, and with its big chords and sound, it does so rather well.

R. A. Torrey. Courtesy Biola University

Harkness started playing for R. A. Torrey early in the Twentieth Century and was influential for decades. He published a series of lessons over the years that were eventually compiled into a book and published in 1941. I have a copy of that book.

I am fascinated by his opinions because it helps understand a different era. You can learn much about what was important to Harkness by noticing what he focuses on. It is clear he was passionate about these specific aspects of piano playing.

Harkness says that “the musical student with a dependable memory is most likely to achieve success.” Many of the lessons in the book emphasize memory. I read somewhere that Harkness prided himself on having practically the entire hymnal memorized.

In his short introduction, Harkness says that “mechanical playing must give way to the whole-souled interest of the musician.” He discusses this concept through the book often in terms of expressiveness and emotion. He was a big fan of rubato.

Harkness discusses technique from the traditional standpoint of one with classical training (which he had). His book is full of random exercises that are somewhat similar to what you might see in a Hanon or Czerny exercise book.

Now, on the flip side, I want to discuss a few problems with Harkness as a teacher and also with his philosophy of music. These are not very positive, but as I said before, an honest treatment of Harkness requires that I tell you both sides.

First, the book is weak on theory which is the foundation for improvising for those who do not play by ear. For that reason, it is not likely that anyone will learn much from the book and I would not recommend that you read it for that purpose. Harkness supposedly knew how to compose and he wrote 2,000 songs. You certainly would not know it by reading this book.

A copy of Harkness’s best selling piano book

Second, Harkness says some things that are, to say the least, inaccurate, and probably more on the just silly side. Some are perhaps excusable. For example, he makes the dubious claim that you can overcome the problem of small hands if you regularly soak them in hot, soapy water. We can give him a break on that one; he obviously wasn’t a medical professional.
Unfortunately, it gets much worse. Harkness clearly did not understand the difference between minor keys and major keys. He makes a statement that 70% of the secular music played on the radio at that time was written in minor keys. I knew that was not even close, but found a study online that showed that during the period the book was written, the actual percentage was well less than 10%.

Harkness also claimed that sounds of the ocean, cats, donkeys, horses, birds, thunder, wind, earthquakes are all minor. He goes so far as to say that the “music of Niagara Falls is probably in the key of F minor.” Yes, he really did say that. (Lesson 26, page 111) For those of you that are not musicians, just know that this claim is ludicrous.

His point was that music in a minor key is of the earth, pagan, and wrong. I am not sure how he deals with the fact that God created all those things he claims make pagan music and the Bible celebrates God’s nature without ever condemning its “music.”

In the next chapter, Harkness goes from bad to worse as he discusses “The perils of jazz.” I am going to spend a whole blog post on that chapter because I consider it to be important. It is important for church musicians to understand jazz (many cannot even define it). They should know the philosophy behind it, the way it works, how it has affected church music, and why conservatives have typically reacted negatively to it.

One thing is for sure. If conservatives developed their dislike for jazz because of the influence of men like Harkness (and I think they did), it is time to reevaluate. Harkness’ opinions on the subject are racist and ignorant.

There is an important point that I want to make here. While I am not convinced that Harkness was a musical genius, which is by no means an indictment against all musicians of that era, there were numerous great composers in several genres during his time frame that really understood music. Rachmaninoff was performing at that time. So was Art Tatum.

I confess that this paradox confuses me and brings up some interesting questions. Exactly who has influenced our Christian philosophy of music and why should we listen to them? What other ignorance has shaped our philosophy?

In the meantime, let’s appreciate Harkness for his contribution to church piano music. It is highly probable that none of us will ever develop a musical style that lasts even 10 years much less 100. Let’s also be happy that God can use imperfect people to do great things. That means there is hope for us.

We would like to thank Greg Howlett for this great retrospective which first appeared on his blog at www.greghowlett.com. Greg’s site is a cornucopia of information for the student of piano, from beginner to expert.