Jun. 29, 2016

Hymns, Part IV

(con't from Part III)
Because of it's size, its tremendous range in terms of pitches and timbres, and its ability to sustain a note indefinitely, the organ is the only musical instrument ideally suited to lead and support congregational singing.
Organists therefore never "accompany" the hymn; they lead the hymn, and they learn to play the building at the same time.
Leading the singing of hymns or Odes is a significant part of an organist's duties, and it's a set of skills completely separate from basic technique, sight reading, transposition, improvising, or playing repertoire.
An organist may be able to play from memory a major Bach prelude and fugue, the Widor 5 Toccata, or a concert medley of traditional songs, popular music, or jazz tunes, extremely well and still not be skilled for leading hymn singing.
The aim of leading hymns or Odes is to make them singable in a way that brings out the meaning of the words; an organist should therefore be willing to practice hymns and Odes as for any other music to be played in public, even though this may have to be done in solitude.
Sometimes a pianist or person of limited ability is pressed into service as a reluctant organist.
They soon learn the difference between an organ and a piano.
Pianos has have sustain (damper) pedal which, when depressed, allows the hands to leap from one place on the keyboard to another and retain a legato.
The organ does not.
Whenever the organist's hands leave the keys the sound stops and the break is thrown into immediate high relief ... which requires the organist to learn a number of glissando and substitution techniques to obtain a smooth legato.
When the worship space is very dry acoustically and there's little or no "bounce" it may be found helpful to tie any repeated notes in the hymn as they're printed in the hymnal to keep the hymn playing from sounding choppy.
This would not be done in the top line however, which carries the hymn tune; here, whenever there are 2 notes the same, the first note loses one half its value [See blog, Repeated Notes].
In other words, the release is exaggerated by holding the first note for only half its written value in order for the ear to hear both notes clearly (if the first repeated note happens to be dotted, it loses the value of the dot).
It's not a bad idea to have no more than one new hymn with an unfamiliar tune in any worship service or meeting, to have a good reason for adding it, and to "play over" the whole tune immediately before the hymn is performed (such as by quietly preluding upon the tune).
When the organist "plays over" the hymn to introduce it, set the key, set the tempo, and get the congregation more familiar with the tune, this can range from playing the first 2 lines of the hymn (or just the first line, if this is adequate) to playing the whole tune (a few hymns will have their own introductions which should be used instead of a play over).
Everyone should stand, if not already standing, as soon as the play over starts; hymn books should already be opened to the proper place.
In practice, this is often not so, and the play over covers page turning and shuffling to the feet.
The practice of playing over the last line of the hymn, or maybe just the last two bars, is discouraged in some precincts to fit with the idea that the congregation should never be in doubt as to when they start singing.
In practice, playing the last two bars, when it's a very well known hymn or Ode or anthem, seems to be sufficient, and the congregation jumps right in.
Hymn playing must be rhythmic, but not metronomic, with room for breath; the organist needs to choose a tempo for everyone and be very sure that a tempo is chosen that doesn't drag and yet doesn't leave the congregation out of breath.
This tempo should be maintained between verses but the tempo should be elastic, with subtle nuance introduced at the beginning and ending of phrases.
There should be no long and irregular gaps while the organist changes stops; there should also be a clean break between verses that still fits into the continuing rhythm.
Setting the tempo ought to be done at the play over, as it's almost impossible to change a tempo once the hymn has started; this tempo needs to remain steady; any tendency to play more slowly in quiet passages (or faster in loud passages) must be consciously resisted.
It's the organist who sets the tempo (unless there's a separate conductor who directs the choir); well meaning members of the religious seated up front, in the absence of a choir, are ill-advised to stand up during the hymn singing, face the congregation, and start waving their hands as a conductor to speed things up to suit their own sensibilities.
This is a big no-no; it distracts the congregation from their devotions and usurps the organist's authority to set the tempo.
Each person has a voice, and in the absence of a choir the organ can lead it.
Therefore the organ MUST lead.
Microphones for preachers and other officials should be switched off during the hymn playing, as an amplified voice (even if musical) ruins the effect of hymn singing (this does not apply to microphones used to amplify the choir, nor to silent microphones used to make recordings or to assist those with hearing aids).
The organ must lead.
Almost all congregations wait to hear the first note before singing it; if the organist waits for the congregation or choir to sing, the hymn or Ode or anthem risks becoming too slow, as the organist and congregation keep waiting for each other.
In practice, this will often feel to the organist like the playing is a bit too fast.
We might believe that a hymn is being rushed, but we'll be surprised at how slow it is when we listen to a recording of it.
A small compromise has sometimes been employed known as a "collecting note"; with this, the organist waits until the congregation starts to sing the first note of the tune before playing the second note.
An alternative (and now abandoned) approach adopted during the 19th century is for a "thump"; this is a loud note or chord played on the previous upbeat.
Some hymn tunes, such as "Sine Nomine" (For All The Saints) have such a note written in; otherwise this practice has now died out.
An organist should NEVER slow down to meet the speed of the congregation; this is leading from behind;
The congregation should never be leading the organ.
If the congregation is dragging, the hymn can be played louder, or with brighter stops, or the touch can be switched to broken, which will typically cause them to quicken the pace.
In a pinch, if they get more than one beat behind the music, the organist can stop at the end of a line and wait for the congregation to catch up before resuming the same tempo; in this case, it should not be necessary to do it a second time.
(con't in Part V)