SOPP279: Perhaps it is a good idea to help beginning organists by instructing them how to accompany a singing audience during a church service
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 279 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Rob. He writes:
Perhaps it is a good idea to help (beginning) organists by instructing them how to accompany a singing audience during a church service. Not everybody know how to accompany singing hymns etc. during church services.
V: That’s a nice question Ausra.
A: It is, yes. Actually I think it’s a very common difficulty to accompany singing choir or singing congregation. It’s actually a true art that’s much different from what you do when you are playing solo.
V: You can see a big difference sometimes when people normally play hymns and when you attempt let’s say hymn service, special hymn festival even, right, when guest organist comes to town and directs the congregation in singing hymns and that person is an expert in leading and improvising on those hymns so it will be like a short interactive concert, but interactive in a way that the congregation joins in too.
A: True. It’s a big difference for example if the protestant church sings or catholic church sings because let’s say in Lithuania there are very few singing churches in general and usually it’s organist responsibility not only to accompany hymns but also to lead them. It means that organist plays himself and sings himself or herself at the same time and it’s really difficult.
V: I guess this is more common in European catholic churches.
A: True. In America it is a little bit different.
V: So what do you do for starters if you are a beginner? I guess if you cannot play the hymns with your hands and feet maybe the feet are not that crucial for starters, right?
A: Well yes and no because if you are leading a big congregation then I think that pedal is crucial because the foundation of 16’ in the pedal is very important because that way everything sticks together much better that playing without the pedal. But anyway, if you are accompanying other people or choir or congregation you need to know your hymns extremely well. That’s no question, you have to be able to play them technically without any difficulty because all your attention during the real performance will be focused on listening to the congregational singing or choir singing.
V: Yes, and if a beginner is in a situation like when they have to accompany a big congregation I guess it’s not really normal because people with experience have to accompany large congregations, right? I guess it’s more of an emergency sometimes like when you have to jump in and substitute when an organist is not there. So, it’s a big stress for a beginner to do this with pedals. I would recommend not playing four voices right at the beginning and just playing soprano with the right hand and the bass with the left hand but using full principal chorus registration meaning you have principals 8’, 4’, 2’ and a mixture plus 16’ in the manuals. What do you think about that?
A: Yes, that’s true. And also another thing that helps me to accompany congregational singing or choir, I sing together with them, not necessarily physically, but in my mind. But I would know text good, I would know where the end of phrases are, where the congregation or choir has to take a breath, that way my accompaniment will breath too.
V: Umm-hmm. You are right Ausra, you have to sing, breath together and it takes a lot of preparation for the beginner. It’s simply not feasible for a beginner organist who never played in front of an audience to jump in and just sit down and sight-read a two-part hymn like soprano and the bass as I talked earlier. It’s not realistic at all, right? People will get stuck and have panic attacks most of the time. So I guess it takes a lot of work. How much work, Ausra, does it take to prepare one hymn for a beginner, in two parts? Imagine yourself if you can.
A: I don’t know now already because I am not a beginner. It’s hard for me to tell how much time but you need to take as much time that you would feel comfortable with a certain hymn. For somebody it may take half an hour, for somebody maybe an hour, maybe even more.
V: More, most likely more.
A: If you are a regular church organist, beginning will be hard, but then after a while hymns will start to circulate sort of and you will come back to the old ones and you will build your own hymn repertoire and it gets easier and easier with time. So it’s just a matter of time and practice and experience.
V: You know what I found sort of instructive; I did an experiment a few years ago with the Gigue Fugue by Bach (BWV 577). It was the first time basically I learned it and I counted the number of repetitions. How many times do I have to repeat this piece, in a slower tempo, in a faster tempo, it was varied tempo for me before I could play it in public. You know what the number was?
A: I don’t know, tell me.
V: One hundred.
A: Wow, that’s a lot.
V: That’s a lot. That’s a more or less virtuosic piece, or course.
A: Yes, it is. Hymns are not so virtuosic.
V: But you see, I was an advanced organist playing virtuosic music and it was basically my level of repertoire, right? Maybe. When beginners play two parts, what we call bicinium organ settings, organ hymns, that’s also their repertoire, one part in each hand and they can do this. So I guess this is kind of similar situation. If people sometimes don’t know how many times they have to repeat each hymn, make it 100 so then it would be more realistic and if you fail after that in public performance it means you are not failing because of lack of repetition, but because of something else. Maybe lack of focus, right Ausra?
A: Yes, and another thing which I think is very important when accompanying hymns is taking the right tempi. So always think about tempi and in order to take it you need to sing that hymn yourself to see if it’s not too slow or not too fast.
A: So text is very important in helping decide what kind of tempo should be.
V: So if you get called to accompany congregation the next Sunday and if you are a beginner, and priest or pastor gives you how many, four, five, or six hymns for a service to prepare in seven days.
A: Start right away.
V: Start right away as Ausra says. But also, be realistic because four, five, six, let’s say six hymns that would be like normal protestant church number of hymns that you will need, so six hundred repetitions you would need with these and of course, you will be practicing much slower than concert tempo or public performance tempo which means that one verse will last more than one minute. Usually one verse lasts one minute, right? And there you will play for two or even three minutes. So three minutes times six hundred. How many minutes do you have to do this.
A: You see how different we are. I never count the number of repetitions. How many times I have to repeat my piece and he just loves to count everything and to plan everything. You know for one hymn you may have to do all those repetitions, for another maybe not. Maybe it will be easier.
V: But I’m trying to save people from disaster during public performance, from the stress that they will say “I will not play in church ever again.”
A: But you know somebody after they listen to your Podcast all those big numbers of hymn repetition, I’d say “Oh no, organ playing is not for me. I won’t be able to do all these things.”
V: Wait a second. Three minutes per verse in a slow tempo times six hundred repetitions means one thousand eight hundred (1,800) minutes. How many hours is that Ausra?
A: I don’t know. Math is not my friend. Stop scaring organists!
V: In a week you have to do, that’s a lot, maybe thirty hours. Could be.
A: Yes. I think you just need to know that playing solo and playing accompaniment is two different things.
A: And they will give you different experiences but they both feel wonderful. I think the feeling of accompanying a congregation is really wonderful. I really miss working in a good protestant church and accompanying congregational singing. We don’t have that so much in Lithuania and that’s what I miss about the United States so much.
V: Right. Yes, we calculated and it is thirty hours.
A: Vidas calculated and it is thirty hours.
V: (laughs) I called myself we, yes, very nice. So guys I’m pretty confident if I take a beginner at the organ and this beginner organist perseveres for thirty hours per week, he or she could play six hymns the next Sunday. What do you think?
A: Well, if you will practice so many hours I think in a month or so you won’t be a beginner any more.
V: But just in a week, with six hymns, and two parts, not four parts and without pedals. So that’s realistic but you have to stick to that rigorous schedule and not to many people can do that. My Hymn Playing Workshop will be helpful here. So as Ausra says, there is another way to do minimum required work and simply enjoy playing, enjoy your practice, right Ausra?
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: Because when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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