Transparent Playing
By Richard Huggins
From AccompaList, a Resource for Church Accompanists
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If I said the term "transparent playing" to you pianists, what would you think it meant? (And I'm prepared for your "Casper, the Friendly Ghost" remarks!)

Transparent playing is my term for the type of playing you would do if playing behind a prayer or (esp.) an invitation. (Set aside for the moment the fact that the organist usually is the one who does this!)

I began thinking about this many years ago when visiting a worship service and noticing what the pianist did during the invitation hymn, which was the hymn, "Down At the Cross." The people sang it at about the usual tempo and gusto for that song, and then the pastor indicated that he was going to say a few words. The pianist downshifted....but not very far. What she did was play the same tempo and the same rhythms, even pretty much the same pianistic style, only softer.

I found myself distracted. Distracted because there was just too much going on, if you understand my meaning. I was conscious of the rhythms, the tempo, the stylings, even if they were softer. What my sensibilities longed for was a light pastel, soft-cotton fabric, the texture of a baby's cheek. What she was giving was a lightly-muted ensemble of fall colors from Talbot's. (Don't worry, guys, at least the ladies got that.)

Transparent playing has holes in it--on purpose. It allows whatever is going on in the room to flow through it easily. It's there but it's not too MUCH there.



When I play transparently, usually everything is shifted upward, above middle C. It is light, of course. The tempo is slowed down considerably and in fact the song is not played all-that-closely to a beat at all. There are deliberate hesitations ("lingerings" is a better word for the concept). But the biggest factor in transparent playing are the notes that are not played at all! This is where the transparency comes in.

The key concept behind transparent playing is that you are giving a *suggestion* of the song more than you are giving the song literally. Another way to think of the goal is "reduced motion." To me, motion distracts. (Wouldn't physical motion during a key moment distract? Same idea, only musical motion.) Not every melody note is played. Not every passing note or harmony note is played. You play enough of the notes to keep the suggestion alive.


Take the melody of this common invitation hymn:

"The Saviour is waiting to enter your heart. Why don't you let Him come in?"

Now look at it again. If I were playing this transparently, the notes in parentheses that might *not* be played (this isn't a science!) would be.

"The Sav(iour) (is) waiting (to) enter (your) heart. Why don't (you) let Him (come) in?"

If you did the same thing to the hymn "Just As I Am," it might go like this:

"Just as (I) am, (with)out (one) plea. (But) that (Thy) blood (was) shed for me. (And) that (Thou)bidd'est (me) come to Thee (1st note only on "Thee"), O Lamb (of) God (1st note only on "God"), I come, I come."

Generally I am sort of touching the high points of the phrase and the low points of the phrase. This is what I mean by "suggestion."

Underneath this there would be some motion but not as much as if it were accompaniment to sing against. Think of *touching* harmony notes more than *playing* them and maybe that will help you understand what I mean.

I have had more than one occasion where a pastor went out of his way to mention to me how effective the background music had been during what is an important time, when no distraction sould be introduced and when, in fact, the music should help focus the moment sharper. Transparent playing does that.

One of these days I will write out a playable example of this, but I encourage you pianists to try this out yourself with these hymns and other hymns or songs that might be used where transparent playing could come into play.