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Keyboard skills – Accompanying hymns at the piano, Part 1

There are many challenges for the pianist and rehearsal leader in playing hymns, and these challenges can be amplified for those whose first study is not piano but who are tasked with leading hymn practices and singing assemblies. It is vital that for confident congregational and group singing, the accompaniment does its job in supporting the singers. So in this blog – and in parts 2 and 3 to come – I'll outline some of the steps that I follow in preparing hymns for rehearsal purposes, and how I teach students with elementary keyboard skills effective ways to approach the hymns.


Let's say it's time for our Monday morning Hymn Practice at school, and first up on the week's music list is the classic Advent hymn, 'Winchester New':

For the average organist, this kind of hymn is bread and butter – but if you are someone who has to be versatile in your work and doesn't just spend your musical life playing the organ, it's helpful to have some starting points for transforming this score into an oven-ready hymn accompaniment so that the session goes smoothly and doesn't cause unnecessary stress for you or the singers!


At first glance, the inexperienced player is met with a host of problems: There is no tempo marking, no time signature (although, in the majority of hymns, deciphering this is fairly straightforward!), the words are separated from the music, the music is four-part harmony in chorale style which is not particularly pianistic, there are leaps and awkward moments in the L.H, &c. The danger is that you'll busk your way through without making this a really musical realisation. But with a few handy tips, we can start to turn this into a useable accompaniment.


Stage 1: Score Preparation

In this first stage, I'll talking about preparing the score. Now the first few times you prepare a hymn and practise it in this way, it's worth setting aside a good hour or two throughout the week before to give it some attention. Yes: it's time consuming at first – but you'll quickly begin to find that the skills become unconscious, and before long you'll be playing from the original and adapting it 'off the cuff'.


My preferred method of playing is: 3-part harmony, with two voices in the R.H. and the bass line in the L.H. For those with average keyboard skills, this will provide an approachable and practicable method that plays to their advantage. That is, the L.H. in piano playing is accustomed to playing the bass, and the R.H., being stronger for most average pianists, can cope with the challenge of two notes in the treble stave, without jumping around from chord to chord in elephantine fashion. Reading in the treble clef is also stronger amongst many musicians and music teachers, so that's another feather in the cap. Here's a 3-part reduction that I've arranged, with some handy notes below to explain the key techniques:

a) Decide on a tempo in advance of playing the piece (especially important with hymns as there is usually no tempo given). A good way of deciding the speed is to sing a phrase and monitor the breath. When working with children, think about how they will cope when singing through the phrase, and adjust the tempo accordingly.


b) Decide on a suitable introduction. The introduction should typically conclude on chord I or V to give a clear sense of the tonality and stablize the opening entry.


c) The original bass note is a D natural (middle line of the bass clef). This is an effective change of harmony, but for the instrumentalist or singer whose first instrument is not keyboard, the leap of a 6th in the bass is an extra challenge in the reading. For this reason, the harmony has been adapted to reiterate the tonic chord, which, though simpler, is perfectly adequate.


d) Annotate your score to show where the singers will need to breathe. Practise giving a clear signal to the singers to breathe at a given moment. A click with the word 'release' works well.


e) Repeated notes in the melody should always be half value. When marking up your score, use a ' / ' in between the notes that you want to separate.


In the next stage, I'll go into more detail about execution and strategies for stylistic playing i.e. how can we refine and focus our technique on playing our prepared score in a way that best helps the singers. Keep an eye out for the next blog.



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