Welcome to The LDS Organist Blog

The purpose of this blog is to help pianists learn to become true organists. Many individuals believe that if you play the piano you can play the organ, but the instruments differ greatly. While this blog is specifically geared towards members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, much of the information shared can be utilized by all. I hope that the information I share here will help you become an effective organist in your ward, stake, or other congregation.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Lesson 5: Interpreting the hymn text

Click here for Lesson 4: Hymn Registrations

In my opinion, this topic is one of the most important aspects of hymn accompanying, but it is so often overlooked.

As organists, we can inspire more congregational singing through our actions.


Have you ever been in the congregation when the hymn plodded along so slowly that you ran out of air after just a few words? Or where the hymn proceeded so quickly that you felt like Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance?

It's very important to play hymns at their proper tempo. In the hymnbook, a range is given. Open to hymn number 6, "Redeemer of Israel." The range given is 84-100. (If you're referencing Carol Dean's book, she recommends the tempo 108.) Congregations made up of younger singers generally prefer to sing the hymns at a faster tempo, while older individuals generally prefer to sing the hymns at a slower tempo. With large congregations, it is difficult to maintain a rapid tempo, so for stake conference the hymns will need to be played slower than for ward meetings, but the tempo needs to remain consistent.

Introductions should set the tempo of the hymn, and introduce the style and mood of the hymn. Avoid retarding at the end of an introduction, or your congregation will begin singing at that slower tempo. Keep the tempo consistent until the final verse, where a ritard at the end is appropriate.

Rehearsing with the music leader prior to the meeting will allow you to determine the best tempo for the hymns. This rehearsal will also allow the appropriate time for registration changes between verses, something we'll discuss in a minute.

Registration guidelines

As I mentioned in the last lesson, generally the 8' on the manuals and the 16' on the pedals should be from the principal family. Some organists feel that all hymns should be registered with a foundation of an 8' and 4' principal on the manuals and a 16' and 8' principal in the pedal. Others believe that any strong, non-reed 8' and 4' stops on the manual and 16' and 8' stops in the pedal will suffice. My philosophy is that since the principal chorus is the foundation for congregational singing, the 8' on the manuals and the 16' on the pedals should be from the principal family, but other stops that balance the principal can be used as the 4' and 8' stops.

The message of the hymn

Read through the text and message of the hymn to best decide on proper registration. What is the mood and message of the hymn? What does each individual verse convey?

Contents page

Let's refer again to "Redeemer of Israel." Turn to the Contents page at the beginning of the hymnbook. This hymn is found in the Restoration section and has a moving tempo. It speaks of Christ, delight, and praise.

Redeemer of Israel Hymn

Verse one reads:

1. Redeemer of Israel, Our only delight,
On whom for a blessing we call,
Our shadow by day And our pillar by night,
Our King, our Deliv'rer, our all!

I think of this verse as a joyful, worshipful piece. It references Exodus 13:21 when the children of Israel were led and guided, day and night, through the wilderness. Christ's constant presence is made known.

2. We know he is coming To gather his sheep
And lead them to Zion in love,
For why in the valley Of death should they weep
Or in the lone wilderness rove?

Again referencing the children of Israel, this verse expresses firm faith that Christ is coming. There is no need to weep or wander about aimlessly, without direction, for Christ has shown us the way.

3. How long we have wandered As strangers in sin
And cried in the desert for thee!
Our foes have rejoiced When our sorrows they've seen,
But Israel will shortly be free.

I interpret this verse as one of confusion and sorrow. The mood I feel when I read this is of longing--longing for the light of Christ which has been lost.

4. As children of Zion, Good tidings for us.
The tokens already appear.
Fear not, and be just, For the kingdom is ours.
The hour of redemption is near.

In this verse what was confused is now grounded with faith. This is a verse of knowing and looking forward to redemption.

Verse 5

5. Restore, my dear Savior, The light of thy face;
Thy soul-cheering comfort impart;
And let the sweet longing For they holy place
Bring hope to my desolate heart.

In this verse, a plea for the light of Christ to return is implored. Something missing needs to be regained.

6. He looks! and ten thousands Of angels rejoice,
And myriads wait for his word;
He speaks! and eternity, Filled with his voice,
Re-echoes the praise of the Lord.

The culmination of all the faith, sorrow, longing, and pleas is realized. Christ makes his presence known, and all heaven rejoices.

Registration for each verse

Now that we've established my interpretation of the overall mood of this hymn and the message found in each verse, it's time to choose the registrations that will best convey this message to the congregation.

In our registration decisions, we need to always ensure that the organ is at a good volume for the congregation—not too soft or too loud.

We will use text-directed changes of registration at ends of verses and/or before a chorus, but recognize that one is not necessary following every verse of a hymn. If the text fails to suggest a direction, it is common to either build upwards as the hymn progresses, or diminish the organ after the congregation gains strength, then build again for the final verse. One way to do this is to use manual-only playing as a contrast on the second-to-last verse, to heighten the impact of the pedal entrance on the last verse.

Since this hymn sings of the Restoration and has a moving tempo, I chose to begin with a Principal chorus, using 8', 4', and 2' stops on the Great and 16', 8', and Gt-Ped on the pedal. I set 8', 4', and 2' flutes on the Swell, but I'm not coupling them yet.

Verse 2 speaks of perfect faith. I want to ground the principal and fill out the sound, so at the end of verse 1, I grab the D in the right hand with my left hand so that as soon as the verse cuts off, I can quickly couple Sw-Gt and Sw-Ped, adding the flute chorus to the principal chorus. If possible also adding 16' flute in the pedal will help balance this sound--it might be easiest to set a general piston with this registration.

Verse 3 talks of wandering lost. I want to remove some stops to signify losing the guidance of Christ that we've felt throughout the previous two verses. The flutes I'm using on my organ are strong and loud, so I'm going to remove my 2' and possibly my 4' principal stop(s) for this verse.

Verse 4 is again strong and full of faith, so I'll re-add the stop(s) I removed for verse 3.

Verse 5 prays for Christ's presence, so I again remove the 2' principal stop. Another option is to play the verse entirely on the manuals (or remove the bass coupler if you don't play the pedals), then re-add the pedal or coupler on the next verse.

Verse 6 is the culmination of all the desires of the hymn, so I add the 2' principal and the principal mixture for this final verse.

I've accompanied my ward with these, or a similar, registration changes. However, I will be playing this hymn for stake conference, and these registration changes will not adequately support that large of a congregation. For stake conference, I'll probably do something like this:

Verse 1: Principal 8', 4', 2', Pedal 16', 8', Gt-Ped
Verse 2: Add Mixture
Verse 3: Add light reed
Verse 4: Remove reed, couple flute 8', 4', 2' and Sw-Ped
Verse 5: Remove mixture, and/or remove 16' from pedal
Verse 6: Full organ--Gt mixture and Sw mixture, stronger chorus reed, re-add 16' pedals if removed

A softer hymn

God, Our Father, Hear Us Pray hymn

Let's choose a hymn from the Sacrament section of the hymn book. Turn to hymn number 170, "God, Our Father, Hear Us Pray." The suggested tempo is 69-84, and Carol Dean recommends 84. This hymn of one of supplication.

1. God, our Father, hear us pray;
Send Thy grace this holy day.
As we take of emblems blest,
On our Savior's love we rest.

This verse is a prayer in song, asking for grace as we partake of the sacrament and enjoy the love of our Savior.

2. Grant us, Father, grace divine;
May Thy smile upon us shine.
As we eat the broken bread,
Think approval on us shed.

This verse is very similar to the first, as we ask for His approval.

3. As we drink the water clear,
Let Thy Spirit linger near.
Pardon faults, O Lord, we pray;
Bless our efforts day by day.

Again, this verse is very similar to the previous two, asking for His blessing.

As this is a Sacrament hymn, I like to use a softer registration, built in a pyramid registration:

Verse 1: Great--Principal 8', Sw-Gt Swell--Flute 8', String 8', String 4', Flute 4' (or octave coupler instead of 4' stops) Pedal--Principal 16', Flute 16', Sw-Ped, Gt-Ped
Verse 2: Add 2' Flute
Verse 3: Add 4' Principal

This hymn is a good example of building upwards as the hymn progresses.

Pure and clear

We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet hymn

Sometimes I like to keep the registration simple, pure, and clear. Turn to hymn 19, "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet."

One registration option is to begin with the basic principal registration: 8', 4' on the manuals and 16', 8' on the pedal with the Gt-Ped coupler. For verse 2 add the 2' principal, and for verse 3 add the mixture.


Many beginning organists are uncomfortable making registration changes. One option is to only change the registration before the final verse. This registration change could be adding a 2' principal to the basic principal registration for the final verse, adding the mixture to the 8', 4', 2' principal stops, or adding a chorus reed to the 8', 4', 2', mixture principal chorus. Alternately, the Sw-Gt coupler can be used to add flutes.

Start slowly, and before you know it changing stops will become second nature in your organ playing.


Choose the music for a real or imaginary Sacrament meeting service. Begin with a "call to worship" hymn of praise. Select a Sacrament hymn. Close with a hymn that invites reflection. Study the message and mood of each hymn and each verse. Refer to Lesson 4: Hymn Registrations, and use the Spirit to guide you as you strive to inspire more congregational singing through proper hymn registration.

In Conclusion

As we cover organ technique we will study the hymn text in more depth. For those of you who will not be continuing on with the organ lessons, you now have almost all of the tools needed to successfully cheat on the organ. The last (and very important) component is covered in this Breathing article. Thank you for journeying with us! I hope you'll continue to visit to hear the Sunday Songs and to read the articles.

For those of you who wish to learn proper organ technique, continue on to Lesson 6: Breaking in Those Shoes.

1 comment:

  1. This blog is so immensely helpful. I am a good pianist but a terrible organ player because it is a foreign instrument. I just got called to be Ward organist and have stumbled through some presets on the organ but they aren’t quite right. I really appreciate you taking the time to write this out.