Hymn Playing – Suggestions & Tips
Hymn playing on the church organ is the most important role of a church organist because, for many people, singing hymns is the most enjoyable part of the church service.
The scriptural and spiritual teaching that many hymns provide – as well as a good soul-lifting tune – can feed a congregation in the same way that a good sermon can – you are doing an amazing and important job!
Importance of bass pedals
The bass pedals give support to the choir and/or congregation’s voices – the pedals do make a huge difference and every effort should be made to include them ASAP!
Gathering notes and timed rests – intervals between the verses
A gathering note is a one beat pause on the first note of each verse to allow the congregation to open their mouths and take a breath.
A timed interval between each verse allows the congregation to take a breath or two and know exactly when to start singing the next verse. Each interval should be the same amount of beats.
However, for timed intervals, no gathering note is given as the time between verses is long enough for the congregation. When gathering notes are used, the timed interval between verses is usually shorter.
When listening to other church organists play hymns, check to see which method they use – if you are taking over from another organist this Sunday, the choir and congregation will be used to one or the other!
My Left Foot
There are some organists who only use their left foot when playing the pedals. High notes on the pedal board are transposed down an octave so that the left foot can play all the notes.
I don’t recommend this as a long term method because it is much easier (with some practice) to use both feet.
We don’t really want to become a right handed, left footed organist!
Getting the job done
Developing a very good technique is essential if you want to become an excellent player. However, if you do not have the time or aspirations to become excellent, leaving the church on Sunday morning with your dignity still intact may be your most important consideration.
Simplify the music
In this case, it is quite OK to simplify the music you are playing. Sometimes however, by simplifying, you can make your music even more difficult to play. Perhaps you are changing what you already had begun to learn, or maybe it’s the time it takes to prepare the music rather than the difficulty, so changes made should be done with care.
Ways to simplify:
- Change a hymn to an easier key, from Ab to G for example.
All Creatures of Our God and King (Lasst Uns Erfreuen) is easier to play in D than in Eb.
- Make a pedal part easier by changing notes up or down an octave – until you have learned to use both feet.
- Making the print bigger on a copier/scanner is another good way to make reading easier.
- Write chord symbols on the music page if it helps too. Thinking in chord progressions is a good way to simplify – once you get used to it!
See: Church Organ Pedal Breakthrough! simple exercises and tips for good steady progress – introducing the pedals.
Registration – The Stops
Registration is an important consideration when playing hymns.
Use at least three different registrations or sound settings and make each one available at the pull or change of just one stop. You don’t want to be pulling and pushing too much in the middle of verses!
These can also be soft, medium and loud settings which reflect the meaning of the hymn’s words.
Phrasing – don’t forget to take a breath
Phrasing is also a consideration when playing hymns.
Leave gaps where the commas come in the words to encourage the choir and congregation to breathe in the right places.
Remember, the congregation is following you and they’ll soon catch up if you leave them behind!
Control the tempo – we generally try to play the more difficult passages faster without realising (it’s called panic!) – making them even more difficult to play! Being aware of this can help.
Some organists play hymns on the slower side, some organists play their hymns quite fast and it’s difficult for the congregation to keep up! You decide on the tempo, but with so much to think about, try not to get faster, it is so easy to speed-up without realising.
As a sensitive musician, struggling to keep everyone happy is a big challenge. There will be members of the congregation who want you to play the hymns slower, or some faster – probably slower so they can show off their lovely voice. Don’t let them get to you – it’s you who is playing the organ and almost certainly, they couldn’t do any better!
For help with introducing the pedals into your hymn playing, see Organ Pedal Breakthrough.