The Art of Hymn Playing

Katrina DowlingMusic1 Comment

I heard some of our team of musicians chatting about how they map out organ registration in order to engage the congregation when we sing hymns, and I asked Michael Watkins to share some of his insights with us. Here is his response:

Playing hymns for congregational singing is an art form. Accompanying congregational singing is much more than playing the notes on the page.

Determining how to play a hymn is a bit like writing a Year 12 language analysis essay. I ask myself two questions:

  1. What is the hymn-writer trying to say?
  2. How would I (as the organist) like the congregation to sing this hymn?

Quite often, the answers to these questions will change between verses of a hymn, and will affect things like the tempo (speed) and sound quality. The aim of this is to assist and encourage the congregation to then find their own meaning in the hymns we sing.

Take, for example, the Brian Wren hymn “Let all creation dance” (Together in Song 187).

Verse 1 is as follows.

Let all creation dance
in energies sublime,
as order turns with chance,
unfolding space and time,
for nature’s art
in glory grows,
and newly shows
God’s mind and heart. 

By analysing the first line, we know this is a joyous hymn – we are called to dance. The second line talks of “energies.” As a result, I would like the congregation to sing with confidence. I would therefore choose a reasonably strong sound combination to encourage the congregation to sing out. This would most likely include the Great and Swell diapasons and flutes and normal pitch and one octave above.

Verse 2 is:

God’s breath each force unfurls,
igniting from a spark
expanding starry swirls,
with whirlpools dense and dark.
Though moon and sun
seem mindless things,
each orbit sings:
‘Your will be done.’

The opening words of verse 2 talk of “God’s breath.” This immediately suggests verse 2 will be much quieter than verse 1. This is supported by the second line, which talks of “igniting from a spark” – i.e. something very small. Consequently, I would like the congregation to sing more reflectively. I would therefore choose softer organ stops compared with verse 1, such as playing on the Swell manual only.

Verse 3 is:

Our own amazing earth,
with sunlight, cloud and storms
and life’s abundant growth
in lovely shapes and forms,
is made for praise,
a fragile whole
and from its soul
heaven’s music plays.

Verse 3 is interesting. Whilst it does refer to “praise,” this is not a verse to be sung with great gusto. The references to our “amazing earth” being a “fragile whole” and “heaven’s music” playing all suggest to me Wren wants us to stop and reflect on the beauty of the world around us. As a result, I would like the congregation to really absorb the imagery, meaning this verse should also be sung reflectively. I would make subtle changes only to the way I played verse 2.

Verse 4 is:

Lift heart and soul and voice:
in Christ all praises meet
and nature shall rejoice as all is made complete.
In hope be strong,
all life befriend
and kindly tend
creation’s song.

The opening line of verse 4 calls us to lift our “heart and soul and voice.” In the third line, we sing of nature rejoicing. The second half of the verse then talks of having strong hope. This suggests that the verse should be sung strongly, as a verse of praise. In accompanying this verse, I would choose stronger organ stops to encourage the congregation to sing louder – perhaps even louder than in verse 1. I would achieve this by introducing the diapason stop two octaves above normal pitch. This adds a sparkle to the music. For the second half of the verse, I would introduce the Trumpet stop to give some extra power in the lead up to the end of the hymn.

As you can see, hymn playing is much than playing notes on the page. Whilst it is very easy to become involved in a tune (and perhaps a tune engenders certain connotations itself), it is the words of hymns that are of primary importance, and determine how they should be sung.

In planning out how I would like a hymn to be sung, in the days leading up to a service, I always come back to my two questions:

  1. What is the hymn-writer trying to say?
  2. How would I (as the organist) like the congregation to sing this hymn?


Michael’s full registration for “Let all creation dance”

Verse 1:

  • Pedal: Subbass 16’, Gedekt 8’
  • Great: Principal 8’, Octave 4’, Rohr Flöte 8’, Flute 4’
  • Swell: Bourdon 8’, Flute 4’, Prestant 4’
  • Couplers: Great to Pedal, Swell to Great

Verse 2: as for verse 1, but play on the Swell manual only.

Verse 3: as for verse 1, except without the Swell to Great coupler.

Verse 4: As for verse 3, but add Fifteenth 2’, and then Trumpet 8’ for 2nd half of verse.

Join us to sing “Let all creation dance” among the festivities celebrating St Luke’s Preschool and blessing of animals at 9:30am on Sunday 23rd October 2016.

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