Yamaha? Roland? A word about keyboard preferences

OK, time to make a few more enemies.

I am only vaguely jesting. This post was drafted a long time ago, but never sent. It happens that I live in a church community of British Seventh-Day Adventists at a time in which the standard of collective music-making and of technical musical awareness is abysmally low. I cannot go and fix all the problems that I see, but I can write something serious for those who choose to read. And as for those who choose not to read, that is not my problem.

So, this post is to a specific community of British keyboard players who attend the Adventist church in the British isles. But anyone else is free to scrutinise what I am saying. This is a public forum after all!

Let’s start by pointing out that we cannot tar everyone with the same brush. There is a wide continuum of skills, personal/cultural backgrounds, musical educational backgrounds and aesthetic preferences. Some of our keyboard players are quite articulate. Others less so. Some choose to say lots in public. Others less so.

Some know what they are talking about at times. Others have no idea, but some in that number genuinely fancy themselves as good musicians and wreak havoc in the liturgy every week. God help those churches!

Some don’t know that much, but want to be as good as they can be and will take any/every opportunity to learn.

Most don’t think with any real skill in conceptual musical thought – there is a classic ‘hit-and-run’ approach to both keyboard harmony and musical creativity in general. If this is all you know, then fine. But if you can know more, then why not try to do more?

Now we get to more complex categories. We’ve got some guys who are actually really good keys players in many ways, but virtually all of them simply do not think as musically as would be ideal. They make it more about where they are at rather than where the music is at. They listen to some of the finest music recorded and speak aspirationally. But the understanding of what would be needed to achieve anything in the direction of the world-class artists they admire – this simply does not exist. And the bad news? You could learn about the real standard by doing a degree course, but there are many music graduates who know less and are less intrinsically musical than those who have done no such advanced study! And in the SDA church, we have LOTS of those – which does not help matters.

So here’s the thing. In the final analysis, it simply doesn’t matter which make of keyboard you choose. You can either play, or you can’t. I don’t find the sounds on any of the more recent Yamaha keyboards especially inspiring, and I am decidedly underwhelmed by the Motif series. I remember the first Roland keyboard I really fell in love with – the old, discontinued RD-500. There was something totally glorious about the piano samples on that thing, and every time I played it I felt that everything was possible. The RD-600 came out and was nothing like it. The RD-700 SX and then GX came out, and eventually Roland devotees figured out the 700 series and that became a new industry standard. It took me a long time to get happy with the RD-700, but eventually I figured out that the Rhodes sounds and pads etc were better than the piano sounds and I should use those more. Since then, all is well!

But having thought that Yamaha could never produce a keyboard I really liked, I then had the opportunity to play an (again long discontinued) Yamaha S80, and I REALLY enjoyed playing that instrument. I found new things to play. When the S90 came out, I eagerly tried it out, but that wasn’t for me either.

But say the words “Yamaha S80” and I will grin broadly. And I’m a Roland man!

~

I say that, but the real truth is that I don’t care enough any more. Whatever it is, my job is to make it talk. And while I do everything in my power to avoid electric pianos these days so that I can focus on acoustic piano playing, whatever the keyboard at my disposal whenever I have to play one, my job remains the same.

I think that a goodly number of keyboard players have woken up to this reality in terms of the words. But we still want the technology to do for us what it can never do. We’re still fixated on our personal preferences and our egos still get in the way. We’re still light years from being able to witness to saving faith through our music, and our keys playing across the board is still stuff with learned vocabulary (runs and chords) and very little heart-felt and Spirit-led musicianship.

These days, when I see and hear people in church arguing about what is and is not the better keyboard, I know that there is usually no way for a balanced argument. Some keyboard players will read this and be confused. Others will be cross. Others will not care. Either way, classical and jazz musicians know that in the end, YOU are the sound. Only a handful of gospel guys have understood this, and gospel music remains spiritually weak and under-powered as a result. Wow, you’re a celebrity in the church! A church that celebrates choirs who don’t know the music properly and don’t blend, and whose praise teams are often not close to being musically on point, but where everyone is an expert. Secular people know the difference between gospel when people believe what they sing and play and when people don’t. But the church members? No idea.

Have you got a sound of your own? Or are you merely a shell of random notes, chords and runs? Does what you play actually mean something? Because if not, it doesn’t matter how fine your keyboard/s is/are – it means JACK DIDDLY SQUAT.

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