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first published on April 11, 2011.

This has been a popular ~ and needed ~ post. I thought this might be a good time
to repost it, in advance of Holy Week
and Easter.  There is much hymn playing
to be done!

Sheet music for the hymn "Now the Day is ...

Image via Wikipedia

They look the same in the hymnal, mostly ~ women’s parts in treble clef, men’s in bass, several verses of text printed between the staves, additional verses at the bottom of the page.

They’re meant to be easily singable so the congregation can participate.

But does that have to mean that we use the same sound, same volume, and no variety in expression?

Does anyone want to hear equal quarter notes for 5 verses?

Of course not!  Hymns have words. When we speak, we don’t say everything the same way.  When we sing we shouldn’t, either.

Phrase like a singer!

If you have studied with a good teacher, you have heard this before.  “Phrase like a singer” applies to every musical endeavor.

How does this apply to hymn playing?

  1. Breathe as you play.
  2. Sing the words to each verse.
  3. Stop playing when you see punctuation marks.
  4. Carry the congregation over when there is no punctuation.  They may breathe anyway, but the words make more sense when you don’t.
  5. Allow time between verses, after fermati, etc., to end the word, take a breath, and resume singing.

Play variations from verse to verse

Use your imagination!  With a little practice, you can make decisions for every hymn in a service within 1/2 hour.  Look at the words for ideas.

Verse 1 should be played as written ~ the hymn may be unfamiliar to some in the congregation.

Listen to the congregation singing.  If they are singing 4 parts easily, you have more freedom.

From there, you can:

  1. Play one verse in unison octaves.
  2. Omit the soprano part.
  3. Play the bass in octaves.
  4. Add a descant ~ the alto or tenor part often provides a ready-made descant.
  5. Play the right hand an octave higher.
  6. Play main beats only.
  7. Change volume.
  8. Add a walking bass part.
  9. Play passing tones.
  10. Add ornaments.
  11. Arpeggiate chords on main beats ~ change ranges on the keyboard.
  12. Play melody in left hand for a change.
  13. Drop out for one verse!

While you are providing variety, remember to listen to the singing.  If it starts to sound shaky, return to playing as written.

You must sing every verse of each hymn.  This is the only way you can tell how much time it takes to breathe.

Last Sunday, we sang “Standing on the Promises of God.”  There is a fermata near the end (see score, below).  A lot of time is required to honor the fermata, finish the word, breathe (after a high note!), and start again.  I would prefer taking plenty of time to having the congregation be confused.


You can mark the hymnal in pencil (breath, no breath).  Post-its work well for verse-by-verse reminders.  My Post-its, the narrow kind, go to the left of the first staff.

Rehearse hymns with the choir

Even more variety is available when you enlist the help of your choir.

  1. The choir should always face the congregation when singing hymns.
  2. Alway ask the choir to sing the first verse in unison.  The congregation will sing much more confidently with their support.
  3. Verses can be alternated between congregation and choir (an easy way to indicate this is to print who sings what in the bulletin, with the minister directing people’s attention to the instructions when announcing the hymn).
  4. Sopranos can sing a descant.
  5. Choir can sing a verse unaccompanied.
  6. Two parts rather than four can sound very good as a contrast.
  7. Choir can sing an alternate harmonization alone.
  8. You can play an alternate harmonization, with everyone singing the melody in unison.
  9. Choir can cue changes in volume by the way they sing.
  10. The choir can be dispatched to various places in the sanctuary.  Their sound would then come from different places, adding all sorts of interest!
  11. Hymns often have more than one musical setting for the same text.  If your forces are up to it, you can do them both!  Just alternate verses.

Places to build on your skills

I strongly recommend going to hymn sings presented by professional church musicians.  Alice Parker, for example, leads hymn sings frequently.

There are workshops available at church-related schools, such as Westminster Choir College.  Look for weekend seminars and summer classes, often offered for a week or two at a time.

Another excellent resource is a large church in a major city.  Organists are expert at keeping their congregations engaged in worship, and creative hymn-playing is a major part of what they do so well.

How do you achieve variety of expression in hymns?  Please share your ideas in the comment section below!


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