As organists, we have the opportunity to invite people to worship, to help them call upon the choirs of heaven, and help them join their voices in an experience of spiritual outpouring. In order to do this, it requires us to do more than just rely on some presets and a quick run-through of the hymns.
We need to be prepared, or we can't help our congregations worship! In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord said, “The song of the righteous is a prayer unto me.” If you are not LDS, you might instead be familiar with a saying often attributed to Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, “He who sings, prays twice.” It is our responsibility, as organists, to inspire our congregations to sing, and facilitate this communion with Heaven.
A New Experience Every Time
Something I learned in the past that's really stuck with me is that we need to make singing the hymns a new experience for our congregation every single Sunday--a new experience every single time they sing a hymn.
I attended an organ workshop some years ago, where I heard a similar introduction to this hymn, and it was a changing moment in my life. I remember it very clearly, and it was in a registration class of all places. I had never before felt that much excitement about singing a hymn! As the organist played I found myself sitting up straighter and experiencing this well-known hymn for the very first time. (I linked to the sheet music here.)
And now I desire everyone to have that same experience. It literally changed my life! So I'm sharing this message with all who will listen.
In his forward to Festive Hymn Introductions, Dale Wood writes:
“Hymn playing should never become a routine and commonplace thing. A conscientious organist must continually inspire the congregation and not allow the singing to become monotonous and prosaic.”
If we do not prepare ourselves for each and every Sunday, instead relying on our past experiences in playing the hymns, how can we expect the congregation to be able to have a new experience each and every week?
It doesn't have to be very difficult. The introduction I just shared doesn't have to become the norm for your congregation. In fact, if it did, it would lose its impact. So let's explore are some techniques that will help inspire our congregations to sing. These first seven items are foundations that I've mentioned before, but they are so important that I wanted to mention them anyway. Work on these first, before proceeding to the additional techniques:
- Find love and joy in your calling as organist. The spirit in your heart is conveyed through your music.
- Be prepared! Practice the hymns, spend time studying the hymn texts, and select appropriate registrations, then play with confidence.
- Play appropriate, well-prepared prelude music. This is not the time to quickly run through the congregational hymns. Prepare the environment for congregational singing.
- Play hymns at their proper tempo. Invest in an inexpensive metronome, or download a metronome app for your phone. Hymns should not drag!
- Adequately support your congregation with the organ's volume. If you're too soft, the congregation will feel uncomfortable singing out. If you are too loud, they won't be able to hear themselves sing. (But when in doubt, err on the loud side!) If you're unsure, ask those who sit in the back to give you feedback on the organ's volume following the service.
- Change registration to follow the mood of the hymns and to follow the hymn text. Don't use the same registration from week to week or from hymn to hymn.
- Be sensitive to the hymn text: Breathe—or don't breathe—with the text. Keep the message of the hymn intact, and read or sing along with the verses.
Again, these things are important and build the foundation, but they're not the focus of this article, so let's jump into additional ways we can beautify hymn singing, to be used in moderation:
- Alter the introduction. It doesn't have to be anything huge, just do something a little bit differently to help prepare the congregation to sing. Make sure it is very clear to the congregation when to begin singing. Some options include:
- soloing out the melody
- accumulating the voices (start with soprano alone)
- utilizing pedal point
- adding suspensions and/or passing tones
- beginning with a fanfare
- using something based on a published arrangement
- Play all the voices on one manual during the second-to-last verse, or play the pedals but remove all 16' stops. If you generally don't play pedals, remove the bass coupler for this verse. Add the pedal, 16' stops, or bass coupler back for the final verse, which increases the impact of the deep pedal tone.
- On a soprano/alto section of a hymn, mirror the soprano an octave lower on a verse, or use a pedal point on a verse to support those men who continue to sing the melody.
- Utilize a reed or other solo on a different manual, such as the fanfares in God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand.
- Solo out a voice of the hymn:
- solo the soprano, especially on an unfamiliar hymn by using use the melody coupler, a publication like The Organist's Upper Hand, or writing it out;
- solo out the tenor (loco or 8va) on a hymn with a beautiful tenor line;
- raise the alto up an octave to highlight a nice alto line.
- Change keys prior to the final verse. Make sure the congregation will hear and recognize the new key before beginning to sing. A quick way to change keys up ½ a step is to step down with the pedal from the tonic two whole steps, playing the V7 of the new key on the second one.
- In appropriate places during one verse of a hymn add non-chord tones such as:
- passing tones, which “fill in” the space between two primary notes;
- neighboring tones, tones that step up or down, then back to the chord tone;
- suspensions, which prolong a consonant note while the harmony changes, usually on a strong beat, and then generally resolve down by step to the third of the new chord;
- Add a pedal point. A pedal point is either the dominant (usually) or the tonic, played in the pedal and sustained throughout harmonic changes in sections of the hymn.
- Use a different version of the hymn from an old hymnal, such as the chorus of There is Sunshine In My Soul for one verse (watch out for different key signatures).
- Add an end of phrase fanfare or elaboration in an upbeat hymn throughout a verse.
- Utilize a short interlude between verses—begin the interlude before the congregation would feel the need to sing.
- Use a free accompaniment on the final verse of a familiar hymn. Announce in advance for the congregation to sing that verse in unison. See Don Cook's handout here.
Don't immediately rush in and start playing a free accompaniment every week! Make a small change here and there, always evaluating whether or not it was effective, if the congregation responded favorably or not, and what you could have done to better share the Spirit of each hymn.
Make sure that you don't draw undue attention to yourself, or detract from the hymn itself. Everything you do as organist should be to share the message of the hymns more fully with your congregation. Nothing should be showy or unnecessarily elaborate, or the members of the congregation will focus on the organist instead of the music. Again, always be well-prepared. If the organist is not well-prepared, members of the congregation will feel unsure about singing.
Alexander Pope said in the 18th century:
“Some to the Church repair, not for the doctrine but for the music there.”Let us strive to make music the crowning element of each of our worship services. May we enhance the music so that we can help the members of our congregation better worship our Savior through song.