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L'organiste Marie-Claire Alain à Saint-Donat

Marie-Claire Alain, the masterful French organist, prolific recording artist and teacher, passed away last month. 

Marie-Claire Alain’s NY Times obituary

She approached every composer whose music she played with great integrity, as one of her many former students says:  “…she always regarded the composer, of whatever period, as the ultimate authority.”

~ Daniel Roth

And isn’t that what all of us need to strive for?

Speaking of the organ works of J.S. Bach, which Alain researched and recorded extensively, she said:

“…You can’t play a Bach chorale… without knowing the liturgical text on which it is based, without knowing why it was written.”

We also must translate texts when they are in a foreign language!

Now let’s take some of Alain’s wisdom and talk about congregational singing.

  • How well is your congregation singing?
  • What can we do to enhance the singing?

Some moments in last Sunday’s service have stayed in my mind:

  1. An unfamiliar hymn;
  2. A sung response to a reading;
  3. A well-known hymn; and
  4. A fun moment!

Unfamiliar hymn

My choir suggested that I play an entire stanza rather than a shorter introduction.  That encouraged everyone to sing out.

Then I made a poor choice.  I played the second stanza much softer.  The congregation sang considerably less well as a result.

The third stanza went much better.  I changed registration, but made sure to play louder.  The congregation should never be drowned out, though.

Sung response

We sang a response that included a 3-note keyboard introduction.  A low pedal note came first, followed by 2 melodic notes leading to the congregational entrance (forming a 3-note scale).

We rehearsed the response in choir rehearsal before the service.  Things went well!

During the service, I played the 3-note introduction and everyone had trouble with the sung entrance.  That gave me a few seconds to figure out what to do.  (The response was interspersed with spoken text.)

Second try:  I look over toward the choir and nodded my head when it was time to sing.  More help was needed.

I hate playing an introduction with a ritard at the end or a fermata on the last note.  Both approaches result most often in a slower tempo.  Accelerating during the singing only works a fraction of the time.

Third try:  I added a breath!  So everyone heard the 3-note introduction with the last note cut off.  It worked!  Everyone came in confidently, right on time and singing the right pitch.

When there is no sound, everyone knows it’s time to sing!

Well-known hymn

Since everyone was so familiar with this hymn, a member of the choir who plays piano decided to play with me (I was playing the organ).  But we weren’t together this time.

The hymn was “Guide Me, O thou Great Jehovah.”  The words demand that it be sung out.  When untrained singers do that, they tend to run out of breath.  And once people feel short of breath, the effect can be cumulative as the music  continues.

As the hymn progressed, I listened to the congregation (always do).  They needed breathing time, often in the middle of a line.  The pianist kept going with no breaths.  And then, when there were words that could go on (phrases that belong together), the pianist played quarter-note chords as they appear in the hymnal.  Vertically.

Next time we’ll have a brief rehearsal together.

Hymns are deceptive that way.  The look alike oftentimes.

Looking at the words is crucial!

Practicing hymns

Sight-reading hymns during the service invites poor outcomes, detracting from the service.  To enhance the service, this is what is needed:

  • Sing the hymns out loud while playing.  This is the only way you will know how much time it takes to breathe.
    • Are you running out of breath?  Then the tempo needs to be faster.
    • Are your words unclear in fast passages?  It takes time to get words out.  Adjustment needed!  Slower tempo or give more time to certain passages.
  • Look at the words of every verse.  You can change registration to enliven the text, play some parts and not others, play only the tune, cut out completely, etc.

A fun moment

We sang “Let Us Break Bread Together” just before communion.  I decided to play this one on the piano, since improvisation comes to me more easily there.

At the end of the last verse, someone in the congregation began harmonizing above the tune.  I found myself adding time to honor the harmony.  The congregation was also listening, and everything worked out perfectly!

For a previous post on hymn playing:  Creative hymn playing

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