Monthly archives "February 2018"

TAO March 2018 – Bread and Butter

Back to the Basics, Part II

Bread and Butter

As a kid, I loved bread and butter sandwiches. As an adult, I still love them. Back then, cold pats of butter tore up my Wonder Bread; now, sweet creamery butter melts into the warm artisanal breads fresh from our local bakery. Life is good. With a little jam on top, life is great! While we do not live by bread alone, as the Good Book says, a little yeast in our lives certainly raises our spirits. Just like the music we make for worship.
Hymns are the bread and butter of worship, aren’t they? We play so many that it is easy to take them for granted. We do so at our own peril, friends, for hymns are one of the main ways a congregation expresses its faith. As their leaders, we have a great opportunity to influence the quality of our congregation’s worship, even as we lead them in their singing. The way we play hymns is a direct reflection of our own vision of music ministry. In this season of getting back to the basics, let’s at look the recipe for “our daily bread.”
If we are going to encourage the congregation to sing, we must be effective leaders. They are listening for clear, direct signals for how and when to sing. So, the priority in our playing must be to provide accurate notes in a steady rhythm with comfortable sonic spaces signaling when to breathe. As a teacher, I insist that my students prepare just these basics before adding any butter or jam to their presentations. Frankly, this level of confidence and fluency is quite an accomplishment. After listening to many auditions, I am convinced that most of us could benefit from reviewing the basics.
You would be surprised at how little information there is on this essential craft. Each of several organ method books offer some guidance. Ritchie and Stauffer’s Organ Technique: Modern and Early (Prentice Hall, 1992) looks at the basics, also considering stylistic differences among the historical traditions. Joyce Jones provides several written-out examples of hymn playing in her King of Instruments (MorningStar, 2000) along with her reflections on tempo, repeated notes, time between stanzas, etc. Manual on Hymn Playing (GIA, 1992) is David Heller’s full treatment of the topic with hymns graded according to difficulty. David Cherwien’s Let the People Sing! (Concordia, 1997) contains the basics along with a wealth of practical wisdom that will motivate explorations beyond the basics.
The AGO itself offers two resources, Margot Woolard’s Mini-Course on Hymn Playing and John Ferguson’s Mini-Course on Creative Hymn Playing. They are available from the national office. Each provides not only written examples, but also listening examples on CD. From what I can tell, hearing excellent examples is one of the best ways to absorb the ins and outs of hymn culture. Recently, our national website has struck out into a series of on-line mini-lessons, many of which will support your learning. Log on to learn more. This is one of the best ideas to come along in quite a while. As the number of lessons grows, I recommend that they be organized according to topic to make the library easier to navigate.
Two newer resources come from across the pond. The Church Organist, Vol. 1 & 2, Christopher Tambling’s two-volume The Church Organist: A New Method (Mayhew) does a fine job of preparing the organist step-by-step for service playing skills, including hymn playing. An even more comprehensive course of instruction is published by the Royal School of Church Music, The Complete Church Organist, Levels 1& 2 (Moult and Jones, editors). The RSCM also offers a long-distance learning opportunity if you are not able to find a teacher to guide you. I don’t have any experience with this program, but I hold out great hope for its appearance and for more just like it. More information is available at
Of course, hymns are more than accurate notes and steady rhythms. The organ’s sound must reflect the meaning of the words the congregation sings. Our work is to find the best way to play hymns so that the congregation is free to sing their faith. Reflecting on the text as a part of your preparation is essential to successful leadership. Considering what the hymn means to you is the tie that will bind you to the people who have come to worship. The artistry of hymn playing depends upon your personal investment in the experience. Cold butter tears bread, but warm butter melts into it, making two simple things one unforgettable experience.
Hymn texts influence everything in our playing–they are poetry, after all. Let each hymn’s text help you determine the tempo, the articulation, and the registration. What one word would you choose to describe its essential message? How can you bend your technical playing of the hymn to serve that message? Your understanding of the words will emerge in the way that you play its phrases. Play them as though YOU were singing, too. Let your response to the meaning of the hymn help you lead the congregation. The voice of the congregation is your duet partner—listen to it, help unify their singing, and shape the sound into a musical expression of praise.
Choose one hymn. Imagine you don’t know it. Using the above recommendations, explore it as though for the first time. Rework the fingering and pedaling, mark all the breaths, reflect upon the text, let there be room for a new insight. Sing all the verses, find a new registration for each one. Each hymn holds its own special meaning. Find the best tempo and articulation to express its character. Even if you are an experienced organist, I urge you to commit yourself to the same exploration. You are sure to discover something new. Maybe your own faith will be enriched. The congregation will know it, for your faith is on display every time you lead worship.
Music leadership is more than technical achievement. Successful music leadership implies sharing the fruits of your own spiritual life with others. Inviting Spirit into your artistic life keeps worship from becoming a routine chore. “Lord, send down your Spirit and renew the face of the earth (Ps 104).”
Successful music leadership also means investing time and creativity in your weekly preparations. First, be sure your basics are solid: bread and butter have sustained many a family for a long time. Only then are you ready to put some jam on the table. Creative hymn playing is a natural extension of our Spirit-led search for fresh artistic worship expressions. However, I think creative additions to hymns should come with a warning label: “Danger, proceed with caution.” No one wants to destroy their hard-earned trust by confusing or intimidating the congregation with unclear signals or abrupt changes.
Regarding creative additions to our playing, the most important question we can ask ourselves is simply, “Why?” Why add this or that to a perfectly fine hymn? Don’t ever let yourself be pressured to add decoration to a hymn just for the sake of decorating it. Let your choices be guided by both your reflection on the text and the role of the hymn in worship. An opening hymn has a different flavor from a devotional hymn. The same hymn in different locations will take different treatments. Sensitivity to the many roles hymns serve in worship is essential!
If you are not one whose gift is to improvise while the congregation sings, take heart. There is help for us. Recently, our local grocery store remodeled, leaving its entire clientele lost in the aisles. I wondered at the rows and rows of jams and jellies as I wandered by on my search for garbanzo beans. Who knew there were so many choices? Sweet! The same can be said for the abundant creative hymn playing resources that are now available to us. Every publisher offers sets of intonations (introductions), interludes and modulations, reharmonizations, and codettas. When sheer volume overwhelms, confusion reigns. Regardless of the composer’s reputation, we must keep a critical eye on the prize—finding the best choice for any particular moment in worship.
It goes without saying that there is risk in building a library of resources. Some of them are terrific. I wish I could help you find them, but let’s save that for another day. There is something more important to think about: if hymns are so important, why is it so seldom we talk about them? Whom do you talk with about hymns? Most of us work in isolation, away from the very colleagues who are engaged with the same issues. While this may lead to self-sufficiency, too much solitude can lead to stagnation. Let’s enter into a dialog, confident that we will receive a boost to our own creativity by learning how others think about how the organ can stimulate hymn singing in worship.
Several gifted musicians have taken the time to write practical wisdom on the subject. I have already mentioned David Cherwien’s book. David spares no words in expressing both his enthusiasm for worship and his mastery of the art of hymn playing. Michael Burkhardt’s Creative Hymn Playing MSM 10-380) contains an excellent essay on hymn playing in the context of worship before launching into a series of exercises designed to lead into developing your own resources. Hal Hopson also has a fine volume out, The Creative Use of the Organ in Worship (Hope 8070). Hal also shares his perspective on hymns in worship, but is more interested in providing written resources than the other two. If you really want to enter the dialog, I highly recommend Stuart Forster’s Hymn Playing: A Modern Colloquium (MSM 90-44). What a rich conversation it is! Stuart invited eleven significant hymn players to share their thoughts on the entire spectrum of issues we all encounter from basic technique to musical concerns to worship philosophy. Reading this book will give you a very broad perspective on this most essential aspect of our craft. As you read it, invite one of your colleagues to share in a conversation about their best practices.
Hymns are not just earthly vessels filled with a bit of heaven. The Book of Revelations tells us that hymns are being sung around the heavenly throne. Let’s just hope that we will get to hear a little of that while seated there around the banquet table. And what will be served? I sure hope it’s bread and butter, with a little jam!