Sooner or later, I teach all my organ students how to play four-part hymns. Contrary to what the average person in the pew may think, it’s not so easy for beginning organ students to play hymns on the organ. The top three voices (soprano, alto and tenor) are played on the manuals (with the hands) and the bass line is played with the feet on the pedals. Every line — that is, every melodic voice — is to be played legato — connected and smooth. But when notes are repeated, they must be lifted.
I usually start out by asking the student to play just the melody line (the soprano) with the right hand, making sure that all the notes are connected and legato within each phrase. Phrases are frequently indicated by commas in the text, so it is important to “breathe” (lift) after each phrase.
Next we figure out how to play the bass line with the feet. You’ve got two feet, left and right, and each foot can be played with either the ball of the foot (what organists call the “toe”) and “heel.” Again, though, each phrase must be played legato, and lifted at the end.
The next phase of the learning process is to play the tenor line with the left hand, and the most complicated part is to decide which hand will be play the alto part. Sometimes it will be the right hand, but other times it will be the left hand, depending upon the musical passage, and what notes are closest to the tenor and soprano lines. Above all, though, all four voices must be legato and connected.
Then you put it all together! At any given sequence of two chords, though, some voices are lifted (because they are repeated) but others must be connected. That’s what makes hymn playing so complicated.
The technical aspect of playing hymns is only the beginning, though. What makes hymn playing so difficult is keeping all four voices legato, especially the inner notes, and keeping the rhythm steady. With a chord change happening with every beat, many students find hymn playing extremely challenging. And my big bugaboo is to avoid unmusical hymn playing, what I call “chunk chunk chunk,” which is merely playing the notes without a sense of direction.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg in good and creative hymn playing. We can vary the accompaniment through alternative harmonizations, use a variety of registrations (change the stops) including solo voices on separate manuals, and find interesting introductions. Finding the right tempo to lead the congregation is also extremely important. Too slow — and the congregation will start to drag. Too fast — and the congregation will be breathless. But the important thing is to keep moving forward. I always tell my students that when they play the hymns, it’s like they must act like the crucifer — they are leading the procession.
So you can imagine how proud I was that one of my ninth grade students, Christopher, substituted for me at Iolani chapel while I was flying back from Seattle yesterday. From all reports, he did an exceptional job in playing the hymns, even the one with four flats! (Leoni; The God of Abraham praise) His prelude on Leoni (by Richard Proulx) and postlude (Toccata from the “Suite Gothique” by Boëllmann) were also most impressive. As I told Chaplain Simopoulos, by this time he should certainly be able to play hymns competently, as he has been studying with me since first grade!
Thanks, Christopher! Awesome job!