One of the great joys of a traditional local church is the congregational hymn singing. This is a time for the members to bring praise to God and to edify each other, and it is so enjoyable! The pianist can be a great help or a hindrance to this experience.
A few of my piano teachers taught me a little about hymn playing, but I really progressed the most in my hymn playing by actually doing it. It’s an interesting thing, this hymn playing. A student can receive a lot of information, some good techniques, and great advice, but there’s really no comparison to sitting at the piano with a congregation waiting for your support in their singing. I appreciate so much those gracious members and song leaders of my church who suffered through the early years of my hymn playing on Wednesday nights, because it gave me that needed experience to be able to do better each time.
For those of you who are piano players, beginners or advanced, I want to encourage you to continue playing for your congregation! You are keeping a good and worthy tradition alive and playing a major part in the edification of the saints. I still have much to learn, and the education process is never ending. Along the way, I have learned some basic concepts that I hope will be a help to beginner hymn players. I wish I had known some of these things early on in my experience. If you can implement these into your hymn playing, you will be well on your way to excellence in this area.
If you are an experienced hymn player, please give us your tips and advice here too! Let us know what helps you both in the practice room and in the auditorium. We all need to sharpen each other and glorify God through excellence.
1. The melody is king.
The purpose of congregational hymn playing is to get the congregation to sing! It’s not a time to show off. This is a time for corporate worship. In other words, make it your goal to help the average non-musical member in your church to be able to sing the melody easily. Just keeping that mind-set will set the tone for your playing.
2. Embellish sparingly.
In the same spirit of the last point. When the congregation is singing, that’s their time to shine. Runs, arpeggios, or fill-in chords are best used between word phrases as in whole note pauses or between the verse and chorus. An exception to this rule might be in a situation where you are not the only accompanist. If an organist or church orchestra is dutifully playing the melody, you might have the freedom to create your own counter-melody or further embellishment. Most often in my experience, the less I draw attention to my skill and the more I play in a way that actually helps the folks sing, the more the congregation enjoys singing. Most church members are very thankful for that.
3. Follow the director.
This includes song-leaders of any skill level. The song leader is the one in front of everyone, and their eyes are on on him, not on you. You are in a supportive role. I know this is easier said than done if the director is hard to follow, but do your best to follow his lead. It is very difficult for the director to get the congregation to do something different than what the pianist is doing. So don’t do that to him!
4. Keep the tempo up.
This may seem contradictory to #3, but you will need to find a way to do both. The reason I mention tempo to the pianist is because, like it or not, the pianist has tremendous control over how the song will go. You can be a great help to an inexperienced song-leader in this area. Usually if a director is inexperienced he will rely heavily on the pianist, so don’t let him down. Ritardandos are for the end of the last chorus, not for the introduction or the end of each verse. If you begin a song by slowing it down, it will be very hard to speed it up again, and slowing down the end of each stanza is counter-productive as well. Looking and thinking through a song before you begin will help you in setting the right tempo from the outset rather than trying to adjust as the congregation is singing. The only exception to this is if you are playing for a VERY large crowd. The larger the group, the slower the tempo needs to be because of the lag in sound accoustics.
On the other hand, don’t speed things up too much either. You want the hymn to be “singable.” I tend to play “Praise Him! Praise Him!” too fast. The first two measures sound good, (Praise Him! Praise Him!…) but then we’re rushing through the next line (Jesus our blessed Redeemer). And there are songs like “It is Well” or “Holy, Holy, Holy” that are sung a bit slower, and it would be distracting to play it too fast. Keep a nice happy lilt if you can, but this can also lend itself to playing too fast. A song like “Heaven Came Down” can be easy to sing fast, but there are a lot of words in that song! Let everyone be able to keep up.
5. Keep the tempo steady.
Remember too, to keep the tempo steady and easy to follow. Many songs in our hymnal can be sung as a solo, or perhaps you like to sing them at home in your own way. Songs like “Now I belong to Jesus” and “Amazing Grace” are easy to play with rubato, but in a congregation setting…keep it steady. Remember, we want to be easy to follow…not more difficult.
6. Be accurate.
Wrong notes are distracting. If you are a beginner in hymn playing, just focus on keeping the tempo and playing the correct notes. That really is the most important thing.
7. Just do it.
As I said before, there’s really no way to learn except to do it. Find opportunities to play with a group of people and practice these concepts.
In the Practice Room…
1. Play through your hymnal for familiarity and to see if you can sight read the songs if you need.
2. Sing while you are playing to help you know what is actually a good tempo for a particular song. It’s a good skill to learn anyway.
3. Learn to sight read. Does your church do the “Favorite Song” service? Yep. Learn to sight read.
4. Practice the fermatas. Will you do a run? Will you add just a couple extra beats with chords? Think about how your church normally sings a particular song, and fit your embellishment to that. Ask the director how he wants it done ahead of time if you can.
5. Practice for practicality. Rather than practicing showy runs, practice pick-up notes and ways to “bring in” the congregations to their beginning notes.
6. Practice in different “moods.” Can you play in a simple, contemplative mood for the invitation? How about the march-style songs like “Marching On” or “When We All Get To Heaven”? How would you play a triumphant verse? Think of the gospel song, “It is Well.” It begins with a nice normal mood and then progresses through a somber mood and then to the triumphant return of Christ. Most congregations will really try to sing that last stanza with gusto, so help them out with big chords. The chorus itself begins very quietly and simply, and then it ends triumphantly. Practice how you would do that. Hint: The more notes you play at once, the fuller it will sound. So learn those chords and fill in the missing notes as much as you can.
I hope this give you some ideas whether you are just beginning hymn playing or if you are just seeking new techniques. God bless you as you support our congregations in singing praise to our God and in the edification of the saints.