Piano Pointers for Church Musicians (Newsletter 4-1)

Piano Pointers for Church Musicians
H. A. Miller

There is considerable criticism of the way hymns are often played in the church service. Some of the complaints are well founded, while others come from a lack of understanding of the instrument and the music played. In many of our churches a piano is used for instrumental support, both for choir and congregational singing. It is well for us to recognize the difference between the piano and the organ in hymn playing. There are no stops, couplers, or pedal boards to the piano. It will “speak” only where it is touched. From an organ much power may be secured by means of couplers, which add, so to speak, four or six hands to the two already in use. And it is nec¬essary to have plenty of instrumental support if you expect to have good congregational sing¬ing. Of course, if we judge the pianist’s atti¬tude at his keyboard by the same standard as we do that of the organist, we are bound to question the insertion of “extras.” There are no bellows but the arms for the pianists; there is no motor but his muscular power.

The hymn, as found in its usual form, was not written for piano accompaniment. The extensive organ mechanism overcomes this dis¬advantage which remains for the pianist to solve as best he can. The four voice parts (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), in which practically all hymns are written, are sufficient for the organist with his instrumental possibilities of building up the tone—two, three, or four layers of it. But these four “voices” are quite inadequate for piano support. They conform to all the rules of voice movement, harmoni¬cally and melodically. Thus they become to the pianist as four pegs upon which he must hang his instrumental support for a large congrega¬tion. It would be ridiculous to expect him to thump out those four tones in a vain endeavor to match the congregation’s voice power.

How much of added tone is it well for the pianist to use? A point of danger lies just here. No two have the same judgment; so in an attempt to match the vigorous singing of most of our churches, our pianists often step over the line of good taste. Too much “flour¬ish,” too much of the “pianistic,” cheapens con¬gregational singing. The time given to congre¬gational hymn singing is the only time during the whole church hour in which every individ¬ual can pour out his sanctified emotions of love and adoration in prayer and praise. There should, therefore, be dignity and power com¬bined in this act of worship. Handfuls of keys are in perfect order—provided syncopation and sweeping arpeggios are omitted. It is tempting, to those who can, to make the piano chatter from low bass to high treble; but this hardly seems in keeping with the dignity of the church service. There are a number of ways in which variety can be had without lowering the standard which church dignity demands. These are best learned by personal study and by carefully observing those who are able to perform well upon the piano. There is great need for those who can play hymns well.

How the Pianist Can Help

There is far more dignity to congregational singing without a song leader, provided, of course, the pianist is sufficiently strong to lead from the instrument. The pianist may do as effective work in directing church music from the keyboard as a visible song leader. Setting a proper tempo for the hymn, getting the con¬gregation to their feet, helping them to put meaning into their singing, leading them into singing softly an appropriate hymn stanza—all these may be effectively controlled directly from the keyboard. There is no need for congregations to shout their way through every hymn, regardless of whether it is a song of prayer or one of praise.

If you wish to maintain nobleness as you play the prelude to the hymn, do not trim it to a few measures. Play it all the way through, unless it is rather long; and then the chorus can be eliminated. The spirit of paring everything liberally is certainly out of harmony with the honor due any Musical part of the church service. Very few hymns are too long to sing all the way through. Congregations in many places have become so accustomed to omitting stanzas that there is confusion after the first stanza because they do not know which one or ones to omit. Isn’t a hymn worth five minutes? If not, then drop it out entirely. That would be better.

The tempo is set by the pianist. The content of the hymn will readily suggest this. If he needs time for thought in this, he should ask for the hymn numbers before he goes to the instrument. “I’ve Found a Friend,” for ex¬ample, is written in a bright key, and should be played at about seventy-two to the quarter note.

“I Have Promised” should move somewhat slower—it is a prayer. The usual fault is in playing too slowly. However, a hymn should not be sung so fast that the singers gasp for breath and chop off their words. A little thought and care will remedy almost all tempo ills.

In a short time a congregation can be trained to know when to rise. It is not safe to depend upon the preachers, for many of them do not know the appropriate time to stand. A slight pause, with a definite increase in power immediately thereafter, will bring them to their feet as soon as they know what the signal is. Usually this indication is best suggested by a phrase before the close of the piano prelude. A phrase (beginning with a capitalized word) may be considered the equivalent of one line of the poem.

If you are serving as both pianist and director, you must assert your leadership. Teach the congregation to depend on you, and then do not fail them. Fluctuations in tempo, holds, crescendos, etc., may be materially assisted from the keyboard. It is better to lead by keeping step than to thrust your instrument a half beat in advance. This evil is as objection¬able as to drag along with a sleeping congregation. Even during soft singing, like that expected in “Tread Softly,” the piano should be strong enough to be heard, or there is danger of singing off key. Be alert to the needs of the congregation; anticipate vocal situations and meet them successfully. Read the words of the hymn as you play. It is well to read one stanza ahead. You may wish to treat the next stanza differently, and doing this will give you advanced information as to its nature. An example of this change is seen in “Wake the Song of Joy and Gladness.” The first two stanzas are of praise; the last stanza is a prayer. The spirit of praise is quite different from that of supplication, which should be one of subdued tone and of slightly slower tempo. Following the last (prayer) stanza, the chorus may gradually gain its original spirit of praise, with a majestic retard at the close.

This change of stanza interpretation may be easily understood from a keyboard suggestion.

Hold the chord preceding the desired change longer than usual. This will keep the congre¬gation from starting the next stanza at the usual time, and also lead them to be a bit cautious. A deep-toned, firm chord of softer texture will tell the story of what you expect them to do. I have done this repeatedly with congregations with very effective results. Hymns are not to be run through a food-chopper—all executed with the same tempo, intensity, and interpretation. We do not ex¬pect the same results from the congregation as we do from a trained choir, and yet there are niceties that can be included which are not only effective in sound, but impressive in spirit.

It may be that parts of the stanza should be sung differently. “Live Out Thy Life Within Me” is a beautiful example of this point. The final stanza may be beautified by singing in a soft tone to the second half, where, with in¬creasing power from the instrument, the con¬gregation’s tone will increase to an intensity that will be felt and remembered by every singer.

Hymns are sung with very little thought’s being given to the meaning of the words. Ex¬pression insists upon thought, which encour¬ages the congregation to grasp the exalted theme of the poem. Anything that the pianist can do to lift congregational singing to a higher level will be well worth his effort. A choir’s assistance is invaluable. It can do much to guide a congregation in the way of harmony and melody.

H. A. Miller, Instructor, Southern Junior College

The above article, “Piano Pointers for Church Musicians” was written by H. A. Miller. The article was excerpted from www.ministrymagazine.org web site. September 2017.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”