The foundation of responsibilities of every church organist is hymn playing. Although solo organ music might be desired and even required during services, the majority of music performed at church is hymns. Hymn playing has its own rules, techniques, and traditions which the organist must know in order to perform them well. In this article, I will give you my advice on how to play hymns on the organ.
--> Choose the right tempo. Because hymn playing involves singing as well, perhaps the most important aspect here is tempo. How well you choose the tempo will determine the success of your performance and congregations’ ability to sing it with energy. Although there are many variables to consider, the general rule of thumb is such: Play a hymn in such a tempo that you could sing each of the lines in one breath loudly and with energy.
--> Play a short introduction. It is the norm to introduce the hymn before singing it. You can construct your introduction in many ways: if the hymn is short, you could play it through once. For longer hymns, you may want to play a few lines (the second half of the hymn; first and last lines, if they fit together; create a short fughette out of the opening line) etc. Whatever you do in your introduction, play it in the same tempo as that of the hymn and choose a different (not necessarily softer) registration.
--> Play hymns in time. Always keep the tempo steady and do not slow down or speed up. Start each line also in time. People will soon get confused if they don’t feel the steady pulse. I suggest that you try always to be aware of the meter and count out loud the beats, if you need to. Maintaining one tempo often also depends on how well you are prepared or how good your sight reading skills are. Remember this and practice accordingly.
--> Do not correct your mistakes. If you make a mistake, never try to correct it during your performance in public. Just keep going at the same tempo and forget the mistake. Otherwise you could make another mistake just because you are thinking about it. Keep your mind focused on the measure you are playing now.
This rule is as valid in concerts as it is in hymn playing. Many people who will be listening to you or singing together do not read music. Therefore, they are not likely to recognize every wrong note (if you hit not too many, of course). However, if you show them your mistakes yourself by correcting them and don’t maintain a steady tempo, then everyone will notice them.
--> Use good articulation. Playing with clear articulation is important because it helps people to appreciate the melody and the harmony of the hymn better. Look at the date of the hymn. If it was created before the 19th century, use articulate legato, or the ordinary touch. Make small rests between each note and feel the strong and weak beats of the measure. Articulate more before the strong beats. Do not make the notes too detached but with a cantabile or singing manner.
On the other hand, if the hymn was created in the 1800s or 1900s, the normal articulation is legato. Shorten the notes by a half only when you see repeated notes and at the end of the lines. However, whether you play legato or with articulation, always try to coordinate the releases – depress and release the chords exactly together.
--> The beginning and the end of the stanzas is important. The end of the stanza should propel people to sing the next one. There should be no confusion about when does the new stanza starts. Make it constant with every stanza. It often sounds best, if you add two extra beats at the end in the 4/4 meter or one full measure in ¾ meter. Note that the last beat should be a rest for taking a breath before singing.
--> Do not double the bass with your left hand, if you use pedals. This suggestion is very important if you want to develop hand and feet independence. For those of us who start playing the organ after some time of piano playing, the left hand naturally tends to play the bass. But if you play hymns in four parts and use pedals for the bass line, play soprano and alto in the right hand and tenor in the left hand. There are other possible dispositions for playing hymns as well but this is most common one.
--> Think about registration. It is wise to change the registration according to the meaning of text of the specific stanza. For certain texts Organo Pleno registration with principal chorus and mixtures works well, for others experiment with reeds or flutes. Gentle, joyful, sad, or energetic texts require adequate registration as well.
If you follow these suggestions, you will be able to play any hymn you want with confidence. Congregation will be much more eager to sing together when you will play the hymns in time, with good articulation, registration etc. People will know when to start new stanzas, if you finish correctly the previous ones. In turn, they will appreciate your organ and hymn playing on a much higher degree.
If you would like to know more about hymn playing, I highly recommend studying Organ Technique: Modern and Early by George Ritchie and George Stauffer. This method book has separate chapter on hymn playing with many important exercises.
Another great resource is Art of Hymn Playing by Charles E. Callahan. It has 250 Introductions, Preludes, Free Accompaniments, and Alternate Harmonizations. The pieces range from 2 part voicing to more complex. It is meant as a graded guide to hymn playing.
By the way, do you want to learn to play the King of Instruments - the pipe organ? If so, download my FREE video guide: "How to Master Any Organ Composition" in which I will show you my EXACT steps, techniques, and methods that I use to practice, learn and master any piece of organ music.
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