Thinking about the Text of a Hymn While You Play
So often, we church pianists can easily forget that we are a part of the worship in a music service. We mark our pages, plan our introductions and transitions, and then play three or four verses of the hymn as the congregation sings. The song ends, and we start the next hymn!
Do we even remember the lyrics to the hymn we played? Do we get so focused on where to add a fill-in, how many octaves our arpeggio should be, when to move the right hand up, and other technical “hymnplaying” strategies that we forget that we are in the service to worship as well?
Yes, we know “Amazing Grace” is in G, so do we really need to turn to page 57 in our hymnal and follow along with the words?
As pianists, our job is not just to keep steady rhythm or serve as a mere alternative to a cappella singing. We have the responsibility to call the congregation’s attention to the words, to help them think more deeply about the text, and to truly sing from the heart. That can really only happen when we play from the heart, studying the text ourself and being musically attentive to the words.
Hymn-writers like John Newton, Philip Bliss, Horatio Spafford, Isaac Watts, John Wesley, Fanny Crosby and the other “Greats” masterfully wove their stanzas together, usually building to a climax for the last verse.
Take “Amazing Grace” for example. Verse 1 opens with a beautiful explanation of Grace and a recognition of our sinful state before Grace came. Verse 2 speaks of what Grace accomplished. Verse 3 acknowledges that Grace has safely led us through trials and dark times of life and will continue. Then, Verse 4 is a triumphant reminder that a Life much greater awaits the believer, where we will continue singing His praises for ages to come!
How can the hymn player make each of those verses sound more reflective of the words? For beginner or basic hymn players, try changing the volume of each verse. For example, play the first verse forte (meaning loudly). For the second verse, move down an octave and play mezzo-forte (meaning a moderately loud volume; a confident sound). For the third verse, move both hands up an octave and have the left hand play more chords, rather than octaves. Then, for the final verse, move the left hand back down and play strong octaves and chords, while the right hand plays four-note chords (octaving the melody with the tenor and alto note in the middle of the melody notes).
For the more advanced hymn player, think of your congregational hymn-playing as individual sacred arrangements. Throw in chord substitutions (if they will work with what the congregation is singing). For the third verse, play open fifths in the octaves above middle C. At first, this will feel very empty and open, but you’ll find that often a sudden change in the music renews the attention of the congregation. Sometimes, “less is more.” Playing fewer notes or a sudden decrease in volume is a very effective strategy in both sacred arranging and congregational playing.
For the fourth verse, don’t be afraid to add a key change from G-A flat. The timing between measures makes it the perfect spot to move to an E flat 7 chord, which provides a bridge to the A flat. Then, use soaring arpeggios in your right hand and giant left hand chords to form a majestic backdrop to the beautiful lyrics.
I often change keys on the last verse. It’s amazing to hear how the congregation often starts singing more loudly and energetically on that verse.
While a hymn player should generally play the melody, departing from the melody to play something more artistic for a few phrases is an effective way to help the congregation think about the lyrics.
You can implement the same strategies into the following hymns (as well as countless others): “How Great Thou Art,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “Hallelujah, What a Saviour,” “There is a Fountain,” “At Calvary,” and “He Keeps Me Singing.”
Watch the video below for an example of thinking about the lyrics more deeply while you play for congregational music. I play three verses of “Amazing Grace” in an advanced congregational style, then a basic congregational style. I played the first, third, and fourth verse for each version.
Comment below and share some ways you add variety in your hymn-playing!