Some observations on the Principles and Practice of Hymn Accompaniment

This article has been reproduced, with permission, from The Hymn Society Bulletin, No 284 (Vol. 21, No. 3), for the Summer of 2015.

Ian Sharp considers the role of the accompaniment of sacred song in a variety of contexts.Ian Sharp

Partnership in life and in music

We don't have to look far to find attributes of what it feels like to be accompanied. Being alongside someone or something is what makes much of life a comforting and dynamic experience. Horse and carriage, love and marriage; you can't have one without the other. This mutual support is found in many cultural and social contexts. In a play the actors need an audience, in a concerto a soloist needs an orchestra, and there cannot be much of an election without candidates. Of course, there are also situations where being accompanied is a relationship which is uneven or evolving; bullies and victims, servants and masters, pupils and teachers. Partnership can take many forms.

How do aspects of partnership and support relate to singers and singing? There are solo singers, singers who are members of choirs, and singers who are accompanied by instruments. Singing is not restricted to any one social group or age band, so it is not surprising that singing of all types is found in most religions, in both informal and highly structured liturgical observances.  Any consideration of what Kathryn Jenkins called the 'performative context' [Kathryn Jenkins, Redefining the Hymn: the Performative Context. Occasional Paper, Third Series, No. 4, The Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland (2010)] of communal sacred song should consider how singing is sustained and what are the challenges facing those who engage with it. 'Performance' might seem an awkward concept in relation to worship, but it need  not imply that performers are any less involved with the integrity of the religious experience than those whose participation is more passive. And if worshippers who sing are reckoned to 'pray twice', then the instrumentalists who accompany and support their singing might at the very least expect to receive some of those blessings!

The accompaniment of hymns and sacred songs

This brief article considers the role of the accompaniment of sacred song in a variety of contexts. What is there to discuss? One could assume that any accompaniment is merely taken for granted. Or an accompanist can be treated as the junior partner in a relationship. Indeed, the business of accompanying can often be unseen, or unheard. (But if an anticipated accompaniment is not available, we might then begin to notice what is missing.) Discussion of the accompaniment of hymns does not regularly feature in the pages of this Bulletin. One notable exception is an article by Marjorie Idle [Marjorie Idle, 'Hymns on my Travels, No. 2' in Bulletin 231, Vol. 16, No. 10, April 2002 (pp.242- 44), Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland (2002)] in which she recounts her playing experiences in various churches large and small and in women's meetings. Here she is describing her favourite organ place, the great west gallery of Limehouse Parish Church:

I used to take a duster up there on Sunday mornings, do a bit to the organ and then dust the ledge of the balustrade. Then I could kneel down and pray for the congregation below as they began to arrive. Behind me waited the glorious organ... There in splendid isolation I could still be one with my brothers and sisters below, helping them to sing the hymns. That, I think, is my definition of an organist.

Marjorie was not afraid to discuss the emotional side of being an organist, asking:

How do you cope, eyeball to eyeball, with the known and loved bereaved, across the narrow width of a neighbouring church's keyboard? With great difficulty, was my answer. I blinked away the tears, glad that my hands fell easily to 'Abide with me' in E flat.

Her account underlines several important aspects of the role of a church accompanist. The player has to have the capability to play the right notes at the right time, but, more importantly, the playing should be worship-centred, with the player linked to every member of the worshipping community in prayerful empathy.

And so, by way of a tribute to all those who act as accompanists, this leads me to ask what are some of the distinguishing characteristics of the accompaniment of hymns and sacred song, and how does this type of accompaniment differ from other skills which are required of a musician? I would suggest that there are three requirements for successful accompaniment of congregational song:

  1. technical competence
  2. the ability to accompany singing in the context of a liturgical celebration
  3. flexibility.

Technical competence involves the ability to play the music correctly and to control the sounds made by the instrument. Advanced technique is not necessarily required, but confident playing, with no hesitations, is absolutely essential. An accompanist also needs to develop the skill of listening to others. This can be quite difficult, as the player is not in unique control of the musical experience. Accompanists of solo singers and of choirs will be very much aware of these challenges to their musicianship. But what about the specific demands made upon the accompanist of hymns and sacred songs? It goes without saying that technical competence is a requirement, but the player might well have to use a certain amount of initiative to adapt the accompaniment according to the needs of the moment. This is where flexibility comes in. Unforeseen demands might be put on the player, who has to be aware of the liturgical context as well as the singing ability of a congregation. So, a successful accompanist has to be a competent musician with liturgical, spiritual and community antennae. He or she is both a leader and a listener; a real 'minister of music'.

How to be an effective accompanist of hymns and songs

The practicalities of the accompaniment of sacred song will vary according to local traditions. One size does definitely not fit all! The following remarks apply mainly to contemporary liturgical contexts in Great Britain and Ireland. [For an account of the history of hymn accompaniment see Nicholas Temperley, 'Accompaniment', in the The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Canterbury Press, accessed May 17, 2015. One should also note that organ accompaniment in many churches in Europe and North America has developed distinctive stylistic and functional attributes.] My comments may well be relevant not only to musicians but also to singers and those who lead worship. It is assumed that the accompanist (in the first instance an individual keyboard musician) will be required to play for a variety of hymns and songs during the course of a service.

The choice of tune

It might be necessary for an accompanist to choose the tune for a particular text. This will require a sensitive understanding of the local situation. Sometimes the use of a different tune can be refreshing, but this might require special introduction and teaching.

The pitch of a tune

Having established which tune is to be played, it may be necessary to alter the pitch from that in a printed source. Most people, when asked to sing a tune, will pitch it far lower than the pitch originally printed in a book or song sheet. Having said that, congregational singing which is too low in pitch can be lacking in conviction and drive. The numbers of worshippers at a service can influence the choice of pitch, as can the time of day, the presence of a competent choir and the participation of other instruments. The ability to transpose even simple material is not one which most keyboard players will have acquired with a reliable degree of accuracy, so this is a skill which needs to be practised. Alternatively, it is possible to find books where tunes are pitched in different, usually lower, keys. Players of electronic keyboard instruments have the advantage of a button which changes the pitch up or down, by steps of a semitone.

The tempo of a tune

Generally, the speed at which traditional hymns are sung has increased over the years. Sacred songs are more likely to come with a tempo indication. The speed selected must be comfortable for the occasion, not too fast and not too slow. There must also be adequate time for breaks between verses. One word of warning; the tempi adopted in recordings might not be appropriate to the local situation.

How to start

This can be a problem! The accompanist of a Schubert song is given precise instructions by the composer. But the player of a hymn, and certainly a sacred song, has to make a decision about how much to introduce, to 'play over'. This might be the first line of the tune, or the last line (thus causing problems for uninitiated singers), or it could be a mixture of the first and the last lines. In any event, there must be no confusion. It is current practice to introduce a hymn or song at the tempo expected for the performance and to keep to a steady rhythm. (Until the 1960s organists often held the first chord for an extra beat at the start of each verse. Such playing would sound strange today.)

How much to interpret

It is the task of an accompanist to introduce and then accompany a tune in such a way that the meaning of a text is enhanced. Also, a congregation has to be given a clear lead. This means that the player has considerable scope when playing for most hymns. Sacred songs are more likely to have specific instructions for interpretation written in the score. The player has to avoid two extremes; the one is to play each verse exactly the same, the other is to interpret the 'birds singing sweetly in the trees', 'chariots of wrath', or the 'still small voice' with extravagant characterisation. In general, a confident and broadly interpretative approach works best. Many of these details can be anticipated and prepared in advance.

How much to enhance and change

An experienced player will know when to depart from basic printed harmonies, for example in a last verse. There are several books of last verse harmonisations, but one must remember that what works in a great cathedral might not be appropriate in more humble settings. Sometimes a mere redistribution of harmonies, with the incorporation of some notes from a descant, will be effective. Whatever is intended, it must be practised. And not all 'advanced' harmonies will necessarily enhance the singing. Sometimes it is appropriate to extend the last verse of a hymn, bringing its mood to an effective conclusion and linking to whatever is to follow in the service. This needs careful planning and skilful execution, but can be most effective.

Be prepared for the unexpected

However well prepared the accompaniments, one should always be prepared for the unexpected. Instruments can have malfunctions, performance conditions can be different from those anticipated, and hymns can be changed at the last moment. And there can be times, perhaps of tragedy or sadness, when an accompanist has to be available at very short notice to assist in a service. These are occasions when all the skills of the musician are put to the test.

Some pitfalls to avoid (many of which have been experienced by the present writer!)

  • Getting lost in a hymn, for example when the singing is very indistinct.

  • Not noticing that the words printed on a service sheet or on a screen are different from those printed in the hymn book.

  • Playing at an inappropriate speed for particular worship situations.

  • Playing too loudly, particularly in recordings where it is imperative that the words should come across to the listener.

  • Giving an indistinct opening lead. This can be a problem with tunes such as WOODLANDS which start with an extra note in the accompaniment.

  • Not anticipating the different metrical structures in tunes such at SLANE.

Accompaniment by groups

When an accompaniment is played by more than one person there are several practical issues to be considered. Obviously, there has to be understanding and co-operation amongst the players. This should involve the preparation of instrumental parts and rehearsal by the ensemble. Even in the organisation and direction of a music group of, for instance, flute, clarinet, guitar, keyboard and drums, knowledge of the principles of musical arrangement is essential. [Some practical issues are covered in Ian Sharp, Using Instruments in Worship, RSCM (1984)]. It is not fair to most instrumental players to expect them to play from a hymn book or song sheet. There can also be the added complication that the printed notation of many worship songs is not always straightforward to decipher, with many repeats and other idiomatic features such as syncopated rhythms and varied word patterns.

Having dealt with these practical concerns, the overall sound of even a small ensemble can be most appealing, especially if modest amplification is used to balance the sound.

One potential difficulty of the accompaniment by groups of instrumentalists is that the larger the ensemble, the less the flexibility. This applies to both the choice and the use of the repertoire. When several players are involved it is risky to change hymns and songs at the last moment, and without careful planning and preparation it is difficult to obtain that attention to the nuances of a text which an experienced solo player can provide. There certainly are large ensembles which are capable of sensitive and relevant accompaniment. The All Souls Orchestra, the orchestra of the world-famous church in London's Langham Place, is a fellowship of Christian musicians which is both highly professional and worshipful in its approach. [The Langham Arts Trust and the All Souls Orchestra]. Under the inspired leadership of Noel Tredinnick this orchestra has, since 1972, played for services in All Souls and at various Prom Praise events throughout the country.

However, large orchestral groups are not always so successful. The present writer recalls a time, many years ago, when one of our great symphony orchestras gave a concert in a cathedral, in the era when an orchestra was also required to play for a congregational hymn. The result was, after a verse or two, complete chaos, as the conductor had no understanding of what was required in a large building. The tempo was wrong and there was no clear introduction to the singing.  In this instance, the addition of more instruments made for less musical certainly. An individual musician, the cathedral organist, would have had no problem in providing a suitable accompaniment.

The social dimensions of group music-making should not be overlooked. Consider the case of Thomas Hardy's fictional musicians in early nineteenth-century Mellstock. [See the author's Preface in Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree (various editions, 1872/1903)] These players were 'ecclesiastical bandsmen' who, whatever their limitations, were united in their purpose and used their skills to 'thrive in musical religion'. But when supplanted by a new-fangled organ, played by a single player, 'an important union of interests disappeared'. Social cohesion, a notable attribute of most choirs, can be equally strong in an instrumental ensemble. The establishment of music groups in recent years has given more singers and instrumentalists the opportunity to participate in worship. It is, perhaps, significant that many music groups are solidly undergirded by prayer and bible study, and their playing is seen as an important aspect of their Christian faith and discipleship. As for repertoire, music groups are much more likely to take part in the accompaniment of worship songs than traditional hymns and carols, thus creating a distinct style of interpretation, performance and worship.

The advantages and disadvantages of recorded accompaniments

What, though, if there are no instrumentalists to act as accompanists? Help is at hand in the form of digital technology. One leading company offers a product which encompasses thousands of traditional hymns and worship songs as well as incidental music. The product includes easy to use indexes, as well as technical devices which can transpose accompaniments into other keys, alter the pitch or play with different instrumental colours. Electronic hymnals and backing tracks can be used not only in churches and schools but also in locations as diverse as retirement homes and cruise liners. Clearly, there are many advantages in the creative use of such recordings. They can provide high quality sounds and a variety of accompaniments, and also enable hymn singing to take place even where and when there are no musicians and instruments to support the singing. Is it, though, churlish to point out the obvious, that such accompaniments are, however professionally produced, inevitably de-personalised? They lack the elements of spontaneity and flexibility, and even those well-meaning inaccuracies, which can characterise 'live' playing. Pre-recorded accompaniments cannot breathe at commas or interpret the shades of meaning of individual words and phrases, and even if they include optional vocal parts, karaoke-style, they are inevitably one stage removed from real worshippers. That said, there are many situations where the advantages of electronic systems clearly outweigh the disadvantages, and the 'problem of no accompanist' can indeed be solved.

There is one inevitable query about the use of any recorded material, whether audio or visual. Is there a sense in which the actual worship experience is less real in a recorded than in a live liturgical context? If we listen to Choral Evensong on the radio can we participate in the worship just as fully as if we were sitting in the actual pews? The answer should surely be 'yes', but is there just a lingering suspicion that involvement 'in the flesh' can induce a more satisfying and immediate reaction? Theologians will undoubtedly have a term for situations in which the worship of Almighty God is aided both by technology and by human interpretation. Without wishing to sound flippant, one can observe that just as the bread and wine of the Eucharist are made by human hands, so the sounds made by instruments can be played by human fingers, whether on the keys of an organ or the buttons on a computer. What matters is the genuine response of the believer, however it is stimulated.

Educating and supporting our accompanists

Back now to real life musicians! There are many ways in which accompanists can be helped. For instance, publications for keyboard musicians, such as Hymn Tunes in Lower Keys (pub. Kevin Mayhew), 'the book to grab when the congregation complains that the hymns are too high' (players on electronic keyboards only have to press a button to facilitate a different key!); and Anne Marsden Thomas's The Organist's Hymnbook, The Organist's Collection (Vol.3) (pub. Cramer). The Royal School of Church Music's programme, Church Music Skills, has training materials for Organists and Music Group Leaders. There are also local schemes to help church musicians. The RSCM now publishes 'Instrumental Praise', with parts for music groups, and the website for All Souls, Langham Place has a selection of instrumental parts for sale.

Young and aspiring church accompanists need our encouragement and practical support, for playing any accompaniment, whether in a large or intimate setting, can be quite a daunting prospect, even for a player of the standard of Associate Board Grade 5. As indicated earlier, although the actual notes can be learnt in advance, the experience of playing for a service is something which can only really be learnt on the job. Every church and school should aim to have a scheme for supporting young musicians so that local talent can best be used in the community. Inevitably, there will be financial considerations, and these should be budgeted for. A musician is worthy of his or her hire.

Playing in the spirit and with understanding

We have noted from the outset that it is not necessary for singing to be accompanied; but when an accompaniment is provided it should have a positive and enhancing effect on congregational song. We have acknowledged the many challenges facing accompanists in the interpretation of today's varied musical styles, and we have seen how an accompanist, however modest his or her accomplishments, can with careful and prayerful preparation make a very real contribution to worship. Of course, it is not the accompaniment itself which matters, but rather the nature of the spiritual experience of each and every member of a congregation. Any accompaniment is an enabling agent, helping us mere mortals to experience something in our worship of the greater glory that is to come.

So, here is a plea to all those who have the responsibility for organising worship. When you find that your singing needs to be accompanied, do give the musicians the courtesy of acknowledgement and support. Instruments might not have souls, but those who play them certainly have. Playing, just as much as singing, can and should be accomplished 'in the spirit and with understanding'. Some words from Elizabeth Cosnett's hymn, 'Praise the Lord with sound-waves', [No.12 (pp.34-35), in Elizabeth Cosnett, Hymns for Everyday Saints, Stainer and Bell (2001). The tune, SOUND-WAVES, is by Ian Sharp] can serve as a Credo not only for singers but also for those instrumentalists who accompany our sacred songs. As we seek to 'amplify the gospel to the human race' may all accompanists continue to 'play with heart and soul'.

Praise the God of nature
For the gift of grace
Amplify the gospel
To the human race.
Sing with understanding
Play with heart and soul
For a God whose silence
Makes our music whole.

Ian Sharp is currently Executive President of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland. A member of the Society for 45 years, he is an Emeritus Senior Fellow in Church Music at Liverpool Hope University (formerly S. Katharine’s College), where he taught Music and Education Studies, retiring in 2003 as Foundation Dean. He was educated at Lincoln College, Oxford (Organ Exhibitioner) and at the universities of Birmingham, York and Liverpool (PhD). He is a Fellow and Choirmaster of the Royal College of Organists and a holder of the Archbishops’ Diploma in Church Music. He is the composer of a number of hymn tunes, many of them to texts by Elizabeth Cosnett, herself a previous Executive President of the Society. Ian was awarded an Honorary FRSCM by the Royal School of Church Music in 2014.

The Hymn Society produces Short Guides on different aspects of hymnody which may be of interest and use to anyone with a love of hymns, but in particular to those who have responsibilities for choosing, leading or teaching hymns, whether clergy or lay.