Playing Hymns Meaningfully

John KitchenEver since I began playing the piano for the Primary Sunday School of Coatbridge Congregational Church at the age of eight or nine, I have loved accompanying hymns and other liturgical items.  In those far-off days (we’re talking the late 1950s) it was ‘Hear the pennies dropping’, ‘Wide, wide as the ocean’ and ‘Jesus loves me’.  Sunday School, from 3-4pm, always ended with ‘Now the day is over, night is drawing day’, sung to Lyndhurst – even on a midsummer’s day when the sun was still blazing!

My far-seeing Sunday School teachers soon let me try out an organ – an unremarkable small two-manual instrument by Andrew Watt of Glasgow – and at the age of 10 (I think) I got to play a whole service on Christmas Day.  What excitement! I’d always been desperate to play the organ and indeed to have one at home; so much so that I remember attaching pieces of cardboard to our piano, drawing circles on them with old pennies and writing in the names of organ stops (which I didn’t understand).  I then pretended to pull out these ‘stops’.  (I now have a beautiful pipe organ at home, built specifically for me in 2003 by Neil Richerby.)

So that’s how it began, and to this day one of my biggest joys is accompanying hymns – more so, I have to say, than choral pieces, or playing voluntaries.  It’s all about responding to the words, enjoying the harmony, encouraging and (one hopes) inspiring the singers and making a really positive and vital contribution to the worship.

How is this done? There are a number of essentials: first, read the text and establish what the hymn is about, as this will give many clues as to its mood.  Choose a tempo which suits the prevailing circumstances – which means that there isn’t one ‘correct’ tempo for any hymn (any more than there is for any piece of music).  A large congregation in a resonant acoustic will probably suggest a slightly slower tempo; and the converse is also true.  Having established the best tempo, the playing should be rhythmic and steady, with a clear play-over at the same speed as the hymn is going to be.  (Too often one hears a quicker, apologetic-sounding play-over, followed by a slower speed.)  It used to be the practice to give gathering notes in every verse, but this is rarely done now and is not a good idea.  Having said that, we sometimes have to be just a little flexible at the beginning of a hymn; if you start absolutely bang in tempo and drive on relentlessly through the first line, with military precision, the congregation are likely to be left trailing behind and the result will not sound very musical.  So a little give and take is sometimes necessary, at least at the beginning.

To return to practical matters: longer note values, for example at the ends of lines, must be given their full value; beware of cutting these notes short – something people often do without realising it.  For example, in a simple tune like ‘Franconia’, the chord at the end of the lines 1, 2 and 4 must have its full three beats.  The registration should be bold enough to lead, but not all loud, and must have variety.  It’s always a good idea to begin boldly in order to get things off to a good start; then – unless the words are telling us to do something else – reduce the registration/volume in verse 2 and continue to vary it as the words suggest.  With regard to wedding congregations, who often don’t sing at all well (or indeed not at all): don’t play apologetically and do give them a strong lead! This is also true for funeral services, where sometimes people think they should do everything in hushed tones! Nothing could be stronger than, say, the last verse of ‘Abide with me’ – make this really stirring with a huge crescendo, as it was at the November 2012 Remembrance Day service from the Royal Albert Hall.  ‘Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee…’.

Playing hymns and leading a group of singers can and should be an enjoyable and indeed thrilling experience!

John Kitchen is Senior Lecturer and University Organist at the University of Edinburgh.  He is also Director of Music of Old Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh and conductor of the Edinburgh University Singers.