This afternoon, we went live on our Instagram page, @beautynblacknwhite, for a Q&A session on hymn-playing. These tutorials are so much fun for me! I absolutely love answering your questions about hymn-playing on such a wide range of topics. When we ended, I couldn’t believe that we had been live for more than 40 minutes! The time flies by when I’m sharing about something I love so much!
A couple main points from the video:
For a beginner hymn-player- aim to play three or four notes in your right hand as quickly as possible. Identify the chord you’re playing, play all three notes, and octave the melody, giving you four notes. If you’re not ready for that octave, play three notes of the chord in your right hand.
Octave the left hand as soon as possible as well. Don’t think “octave-chord” pattern all the time. Think of ways to connect your left hand notes with octave scales, outlining the chord (explained in the video), and some chording as well.
Use a different style for invitational hymns. Play lighter and softer. Use more of a rolling pattern in your left hand- broken chords, slow arpeggios, etc…
Learn to read music. Even if you’re an accomplished pianist who plays by ear, discipline yourself to learn to read the notes. Basic hymn-reading will serve you well.
Parents, if your child demonstrates an ear at a young age, foster it, but continue making them develop a strong theoretical music foundation built on good technique and note-reading. Let them play a little by ear for fun, but make sure they understand that developing a strong foundation is essential! 🙂
There’s just something special about a capella singing…especially when it combines rich family harmony with the incredible acoustics of an old chapel in the woods. This past Saturday, on the way from a family breakfast in Sevierville, Tennessee, we stopped and visited the Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains. While there, we visited the old Palmer Chapel, built in 1903 and decided to sing a few hymns to test out the acoustics. It was incredible! Such a beautiful little sanctuary…
I’m often asked, “How does a person learn to play by ear? How can you hear what to play without seeing it? Isn’t that just something you’re born with?” While it is true that some people have a more natural gift for playing/singing by ear, I believe that many more people have the ability to learn the basics and be a confident member of their church’s music ministry in a capacity that doesn’t require reading sheet music all the time.
One of the best ways to develop an ear for music is to listen to music and sing a harmony part. Sing A LOT! That’s a great way to develop the ear. Think about it, if you can hear an alto or tenor harmony while you’re singing congregational music, then you could find that note on the piano. If you can figure out one harmony note, you could probably identify the other note in the chord. Once you have those three notes, you can likely identify what chord you should play. Practice playing by ear while listening to your favorite song. Don’t try to play every note you hear the instrumentalists playing. Just try to play the main chords.
Identify what the rhythm is. Should you be playing an octave-chord-octave chord pattern with the song? Or should you be using a rolling bass pattern (for example, eighth notes in a 1-5-1-2-3 pattern, with each of those numbers representing scale degrees)?
Play around with it! The best way to be able to play by ear is to practice playing by ear!
Here is our informal and impromptu concert in the beautiful Palmer Chapel. Enjoy!
Of all the questions I receive about hymn-playing techniques, how to do arpeggios tops the list. This beautiful, flowing piano technique can add so much to your hymn-playing, but many hymn-players feel overwhelmed about knowing when to add arpeggios, how to make them clean (instead of sloppy), how fast to play them, how many octaves, and more.
While arpeggios are challenging to master, they are well-worth the effort. They add so much to your improvisational technique.During the video below, I recommend that you practice your scales along with arpeggios. The most thorough scale book I have found is The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios and Cadences. Here’s a link to purchase it on Amazon.
While practicing technique may seem tedious, it is vital to developing good finger control and mobility while playing. In addition, learning all of your chords and cadences will help you be a versatile musician, confident in all keys.
Take time to learn to read the music. If you primarily play by ear, get a good beginner method series (some are written for adults, and move along quite quickly), and master the notes. Committing 15-20 minutes a day to practice will be key to your success.
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!
I just uploaded two new tutorials to my YouTube channel, “Natalie Raynes.” These are conducted as live Q&A sessions on our Instagram page, @beautynblacknwhite. So, while they’re very informal, they’re very informative! Viewers ask questions about key changes, left hand patterns, key changes, arpeggios, good sources for sacred music, and more.
We’ve also posted a couple live videos on Facebook recently too, as Dad and I play viewers’ requests. These sessions are so much fun. We really enjoy the interaction. The sweet comments are so encouraging!