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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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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Extra Time to Fill After the Sacrament Hymn?


The sacrament hymn is an integral part of preparing the congregation to take the sacrament and renew sacred covenants. This portion of our sacrament meeting is very sacred--in fact, it is the very reason we hold sacrament meetings.  As organists we have the privilege to help prepare our congregations for this hallowed ordinance.

Sometimes, the sacrament hymn is concluded before the priests have finished breaking bread. When this happens, what should the organist do?

The most common practice in this situation is for the organist to continue playing until the priests are finished breaking bread.  While your Bishop may request for it to be handled differently (always follow the counsel given by your priesthood leader), if you are expected to play during this time, what do you do? How can you best invite the spirit and solidify the message of the sacrament hymn?

There are some sacrament hymns which almost always end before the bread is broken, such as hymn #184, Upon the Cross of Calvary. Then there are hymns such as #183, In Remembrance of Thy Suffering which seems to go on forever. Either way, it's good to have a plan for what you will do if you need to continue playing after the verses are sung.

Sing All the Verses

My first recommendation is: If there are additional verses printed underneath the music, talk to your Bishop about having the congregation sing them!  I remember how disappointed I was in my previous (very large) ward, when we finished singing three verses of hymn #187 God Loves Us, So He Sent His Son and the priests were still breaking bread. The organist continued playing the hymn through twice--the same number of verses that were printed below the music.  We could have continued singing the beautiful text that followed! The very last couplet is my favorite:
In word and deed he doth require
My will to his, like son to sire,
Be made to bend, and I, as son,
Learn conduct from the Holy One.

This sacrament doth represent
His blood and body for me spent.
Partaking now is deed for word
That I remember him, my Lord.
If there are additional verses, my recommendation is to sing them!  Fortunately, I have a Bishop who (while not a musician himself) loves music, and recognizes the value of singing all the verses, something that is encouraged in the "Using the Hymnbook" section of the hymnal.

If there are no additional verses, or if your Bishop does not want to sing them, what can you do?

Make a Plan

 As the sacrament hymn ends, the organist has to make a judgment call on the spur of the moment:  Are the priests finished breaking bread? How much longer will it take before they're done?  Is there time to play the entire hymn again or not? Sometimes, the organist will play the first chord of the hymn, and the priests will sit down.  Or the organist will think the priests are going to finish up any second, and then the priests continue to break bread for another long minute in silence.  Having a flexible plan can help with this transition, and subtly allow the congregation to review in their minds the words they just sang.

 1. What registration are you going to use? Your registration for the post verse should be different in volume and color from the congregational accompaniment registration. Please don't continue playing with the same registration on full volume! This registration should be very reflective, subdued, and allow for reverent preparation, similar to what you would hear in the temple chapel.  I've set a couple of my divisional pistons (the pistons that only affect the great, pedal, or swell manuals) specifically for additional sacrament time.  For example on all three #1 pistons, I have a soft solo registration on the swell, a very soft string celeste on the great, and a soft pedal 16' and 8'.  I can quickly use my hands and feet to select all three #1s and begin playing an additional verse immediately following the final verse of the hymn when needed.  I also set all three #3s as a contrast when needed.

2. What are you going to play?  Can you lengthen or shorten it? Mike Carson has a wonderful fughetta for hymn #184 that does not call attention to itself and works very well in this instance.  I use it almost every time we sing that hymn.  You can email him at mcarson [at] digis [dot] net to request a copy.  Daniel E. Gawthrop has a simple, appropriate arrangement of Jesus, Once of Humble Birth (titled "Deliverance") available on wardorganist.com that I use on occasion.  I've also taken an arrangement of There Is a Green Hill Far Away from Hymns Made Easy and transposed it to the key in the hymnal to play during this extra time, adding appropriate pedal notes throughout. If you are going to use an arrangement ask yourself: "Does this arrangement call attention to itself? Is it simple and humble?  Does it allow for reflection?  Is it in the same key as the hymnal?  Can it be shortened as necessary? Does it 'feel' right this week?" Remember, as organists we need to use this time to solidify the message of the hymn in the hearts and minds of the congregation, and to provide time for reverent preparation. Many times I will just use a soft registration and play through the hymn again, the last line of the hymn again, or I will solo out the soprano line on the swell, play the alto and tenor notes on the great, and play the bass notes in the pedals.

3. What will you do if the priests sit down right as you start to play? Do NOT stop after one note!  Play a short phrase that resolves and feels intentional. Music deserves to be present, and not be an afterthought.  Don't play the entire hymn through, unless your Bishop wants you to, but make sure your playing is intentional and reflective.  Figure out in advance how to play as little as possible to still make your playing feel complete, giving an "Amen" to what has been sung.

4. What if you stop too early? This past Sunday, I played an entire post verse for hymn #173 While of These Emblems We Partake, and one priest was still breaking bread.  Assuming he would quickly finish, I repeated the last phrase, and he was still going!  It would have sounded "wrong" for me to play something else at that point, so I stopped and allowed for some silence as he finished.  Don't feel like you have to continue playing if your preparations were too short, or if you misjudged the amount of time it would take for them to finish.  It's better to allow for silence than to detract from the spirit by scrambling to fill that time, or beginning again after stopping.

5. How are you going to lower your volume?  I've found that when I am sensitive to the organ's volume level, and take the volume down significantly for these post verses, the congregation audibly quiets, the spirit intensifies, and everyone is better prepared to partake of the sacrament. How are you going to accomplish this volume change?  Practice your plan!  Will you close your expression pedals?  Will you make the volume change solely through a registration change? Will you do both at once?  Make sure you are comfortable with the method you choose, and make sure you can make the change very quickly and seamlessly!

Always Remember

Remember, you are preparing the congregation to participate in the sacred ordinance of the sacrament. 

Remember, your Bishop has stewardship over how this extra time is handled.

Remember to prepare with the Spirit, "which showeth all things, and teacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom" (Doctrine and Covenants 39:6).

Remember, as we partake of the sacrament we promise to always remember our Savior.  Remember Him as you prepare to prepare your congregation to participate in this sacred ordinance.


Thanks for reading!


You may also be interested in this article: Real Life: Continuing to play after the sacrament hymn is over