10 Tips on Hymn Playing – Dr Robert Boughen OBE

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Mat.7:16

…and while it is highly admirable to be able to play the latest brutally difficult piece without making a mistake, there is a much more subtle and comprehensive skill in not merely playing a hymn tune (simple though that might seem at first glance) but in leading and energising a congregation to an advanced spiritual awareness of the text.  But first…

A)  HOW TO CARVE AN ELEPHANT

  1. Take a block of marble
  2. Remove therefrom everything that does not look like an elephant.

B) HOW IS ALL MUSIC PERFORMANCE LIKE PEANUT BUTTER?

It varies from oily-smooth to crunchy. Yes, all this is relevant to hymn playing.

In A) one needs to have at least a mental image of an elephant and in hymns, one needs to have a sonic impression of how it (words and music) should sound. If you are not energised by quality examples live (But where shall wisdom be found? Job 28:12)  then there are many examples on the internet. Don’t merely listen but dissect analytically. P is for plan, persist, paper (for jotting down discoveries) and prayer so read James 1:5 plus verse 14.

In B), from choir training (no not merely choral conducting for almost anyone can stand up and wave their hands around) to playing every instrument, there must be, where the texture demands it, contrast between the ultra-smooth and the short, detached style: to paraphrase the Bard, “A surfeit of the sweetest (SMOOTHEST) things a loathing to my stomach brings.” [A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 2 Sc.2]

Here are some basic tips for beginners.

  1. A hymn tune is written for a four part choir and needs to be arranged for an organ. Tie together all repeated notes except in the treble and in the bass from a weak to a strong accent. This basic legato style is vital but NOT if that is all. At times, to move a congregation along, I have for a short time, played every chord staccato. To give an accent, let there be a sliver of silence before the sound, the more ‘martial’ the words and tune, the more silence to give the effect of an accent on the unaccentable organ!
  1. The introduction must be played in the tempo of the hymn WITHOUT ANY SLOWING DOWN. Often the first phrase, then the last phrase can be used.
  1. Be consistent for in doing so, you will gradually train your congregation. Only slow down at the end of the last verse and nowhere else otherwise the whole hymn will get slower and slower and end up going backwards!
  1. There is no one ideal tempo for a hymn, it depends on the time of day, acoustics, the instrument, the liturgical season of the year etc. Try to be consistent in the way you finish a verse, breathe, then start the next one. I like to continue the (silent) musical pulse and this helps the singers to anticipate the start of the next verse.
  1. In all of this, the words are the most important so be aware of the overall ethos of the poem, the places where this will change and phrase (and alter the organ sound) accordingly. Play the words and not merely the music.
  1. If the tune drags, use higher pitch stops (4’2’mixtures) rather than more mere decibels, bullying the singers instead of gently leading “those who are with (out)…”Be aware of the places where it is difficult to snatch a breath in strict time, and allow a little elbow room of tempo variation without distorting your basic pulse.
  1. It is far, far easier to lead from the console if the organ is large with a wide range of tone colours and not mere volume. This is easy on the seven-manual monster in St.Abinadab’s Abbey-On-The-Hill (above) and very difficult on a harmonium (a wheezy little excuse for an organ) (below) or the staggered two-manual baby electronic with twelve sticks underneath. Believe me, I’ve tried them all!
  1. The introduction should be played on clear, incisive stops and at times, even the melody only at this time, is a welcome breath of fresh air. Then, firm without being belligerent appreciating there is a difference between Good Friday and Easter Day!
  1. If you cannot play the pedals, then don’t!
  1. Be daring, experiment, ask for feedback from the singers. Dominus vobiscum.