10 Tips for Spicing up your Hymn Playing – Dr Steven Nisbet

1:  Spicing up your hymn playing starts with getting the fundamentals right. It’s like cooking a healthy meal: assemble the basic ingredients first, and add the spices for extra flavour.

2:  The process of getting the fundamentals right can be summarised by three P words – Prepare, Practice, & Perform. The first two Ps have to happen during the week before the service, in order for it all to come together in the performance.

3:  Preparation includes thinking about the text of the hymn and how the music can support the interpretation of the text. It includes deciding on an appropriate tempo (speed), suitable dynamics (loud and soft expression), what to include in the play-over (hymn introduction), where the singers need to breathe, and how much time to leave between verses.

4:  Practice! There’s a classic story of a tourist walking around New York City, who asks a local “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The local responded, “Practice, practice, practice.” To accompany hymns, we need to practice everything about our hymn playing – correct notes (including correct rhythm and correct harmony), selection and changing of registration (stops), and the play-over.

5:  The play-over should not only allow time for the congregation to find the hymn in the book, but more importantly, let the congregation know clearly what tune is being used, and to signal the tempo of the hymn. The first and last lines are usually sufficient for this. This can vary in some cases. For example, in the hymn “We limit not the truth of God” (Together in Song, Number 453), it would be better to play the last half of the hymn as the play-over, to avoid a dull repetition of the first line.

6:  Interpret the text in musical ways. Recently I played the hymn “Jesus Christ is waiting” (TIS 665) at our church service. Each verse required special treatment. Verse 1 “Jesus Christ is waiting, waiting in the streets” needed to be played strongly (as with all first verses) to establish the tempo and provide a lead for the tune. For verse 2 “Jesus Christ is raging” I pulled out a strong reed. Verse 3 “Jesus Christ is healing” required a gentler sound. In verse 4 “Jesus Christ is dancing” I played very rhythmically with lots of staccato.  I played the last verse (“Jesus Christ is calling”) strongly, with a rallentando in the last line (“I will follow you”), and ended with a major chord as a positive sign.

7:  Select an appropriate tempo for the hymn. This is guided by singing the hymn yourself during practice and making sure it does not drag, and it’s not rushed. There must be a feeling of ‘line’ to the melody, with stresses on important syllables and notes in the phrases.

8:  Decide where it is appropriate for the singers to breathe in the verses, and provide a small break for this to occur. Allow singers to take a big breath between verses and provide a rest for this too.

9:  Match the dynamics of the music to the text. The hymn “Dear Father Lord of humankind” (TIS 598, previously “Dear Lord and Father of mankind”) presents a challenge. Firstly, it should not be too loud, but stop selection must still provide a clear lead. Try to have small variations of tone colours in verses 2, 3, and 4. In the last verse, there should be a crescendo and decrescendo to contrast the ‘earthquake, wind and fire’ with ‘the still small voice of calm’. This can be achieved with the use of the swell box as well as combination pistons.

10:  The final verse provides an opportunity to reharmonise, however this must be well prepared. There are books of reharmonisations available (e.g. by Eric Thiman, Noel Rawsthorne, Steven Nisbet) for starters. Then if you have the skill, write your own. The reharmonisation must be practised along with the whole hymn.

[Dr Steven Nisbet is an RSCM Member and the Director of Music at St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane.  He is also a committee member of the Organ Society of Qld.]