For many organists who come to the organ after some years of piano studies, playing hymns poses certain challenges. One of the most obvious problems is being able to play independent tenor part in the left hand. This is because for pianists the left hand very often symbolizes the bass line which on the organ is usually performed in the pedals.
In other words, this skill requires hand and feet coordination which beginning organists naturally have not yet fully developed. Therefore, they may get sometimes frustrated how difficult is to separate the left hand part from the pedals and they start doubling the bass part in the left hand. If you find yourself in this position, this article will show you how to overcome the left hand and tenor problem while playing hymns on the organ.
Never double the bass in the left hand. I understand that this might seem as the easiest fix to this problem. Even some of my colleague organists still play the hymns this way sometimes. They basically play two voices in one hand and two voices in the other plus they add the bass line in the pedals.
Some of them even know that this is incorrect but they claim that it is faster to learn new hymns this way. And of course, if you have reasonable sight-reading skills on the piano but very little or no practice time on the organ, you can even sight-read the easier hymns on the spot. But you have to understand that this kind of playing will not lead you very far.
You see, while practicing playing the tenor part in the left hand and the bass part in the pedals you are developing hand and feet coordination. On the contrary, while practicing doubling the bass line in the left hand part you are developing the skill of doubling which is not useful. The longer you play the bass line both in the left hand and the pedals, the longer it will take you to develop hand and feet coordination in organ playing.
You don’t always have to play the hymns with pedals. This might seem like a strange suggestion coming from the organist but it is true. The hymns sound perfectly fine even without the use of the pedals. Of course, you have to add the correct articulation, interesting registration, and other things that are specific to the organ (I have written an article earlier about hymn playing which you might find useful).
The use of 16’ in the pedals while playing the hymn adds the gravity to the sound. On the other hand, if need more juice you can add 16’ in the manual (if there is such a stop on your organ). So if you feel like you have not enough time to prepare for the service properly, just play all parts on the manual.
Start with just one pedal hymn per service. In the beginning, when you are new to the organ or when it is still hard to coordinate the left hand and pedals for you, prepare just one hymn using pedals. This will save you much of your time. If you can sight-read the hymns reasonably well on the piano, play them through a few times on the organ a week before service without using the pedals.
Then choose one hymn and practice it with the pedals over the course of this week. Gradually, when your skills will become more developed, add a second hymn and prepare it with pedals. With time, you will notice that it gets easier and easier to coordinate the left hand and the pedal part in your organ playing. Then you will be able to sight-read them all using pedals effortlessly.
Practice the hymns as real organ compositions. Although hymns are short and may seem very simple, you should treat them as organ compositions while practicing. You see, even though the texture is straightforward, rhythms are simple, melody is easily recognizable, very often the bass line is the second most developed voice in hymns. This is because the bass part is the foundation of harmony (chords and their relations), just as it is in concert organ pieces.
Therefore, learning the bass line may take the same approach as learning solo organ music. I have written earlier about how to master any organ composition which you can refer to here. In short, I suggest that you subdivide the hymns into fragments according to the lines of the stanza. Practice solo voices separately, then two-voice combinations, later combinations of three voices and only then the entire four-part texture.
If you follow my suggestions and take practicing the hymns seriously, you will notice that you are on the right track. Just be patient, practice regularly, slowly, and wisely, and know that the day when you will find no trouble playing hymns is not very far.
By the way, 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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