1999 Region I AGO Convention
Worcester, Massachusetts    June 27-30, 1999


Hymn-playing Tips...

Tempo blues          Lethargic singers       Where's the beat?

by Will Sherwood, AAGO, ChM

It's a rainy Sunday morning, everyone seems tired,
the congregation seems to lag farther and farther behind the organ

Here're some suggestions for what you can as organist do to avoid the spiraling ritardando of singers lagging behind the organ, which leads to the organ slowing down to match them, then everyone gets even slower, etc.

The following are possible reasons for a lagging congregation:

Reverberation and echos can defocus the sound such that it's difficult for a singer in the congregation to hear where the beat is. They may be searching for the beat and thus lag behind as a group.

You may perceive that the singers are behind because of the time it takes for sound to travel back to the organ console. Thus from their perspective they're right with the accompaniment as they hear it, but you hear them later. Quite often we organists have to incessantly predict the future and anticipate the beat. Note that sound travels faster at colder temperatures and denser air (barometric) pressures-but that's no reason to turn off the heat or have the minister increase the sermon pressure!

The mood of the day, the nature of the hymn, the weather, etc. may all be important factors in how a congregation behaves as a group.

Now the prescription: accompaniment approaches that may help reinvigorate your service hymns:

Add a zesty fanfare or a spicey altered harmonization to re-energize your service's hymns.

Separate your chords, non-legato, such that the each note has a more distinctive beginning. Perhaps for an entire phrase, play detatched, and then once they're with you, gradually lessen the effect. Another idea is to detach only the hands or only the feet, when the lag is not too severe.

Add upper work or reeds to brighten the registration. Sometimes it's hard to hear the beat because the singers' tessitura (range) is the same as the organ fundamental ranks', and added upper work can soar over those frequencies to more easily be heard.

Bring out the melody on a solo reed or full plenum.

Demonstrate a bright tempo in the introduction or interlude. If your hymns are announced, ask the announcer person to be more enthusiastic.

Modulate upward a half step (but only between verses!)

Add moving notes to demonstrate the tempo you want: repeat (subdivide) longer notes, add passing tones, add bass octave changes (or pass through a fifth or improvise a la "Alberti bass" figures).

Nod in order to direct the choir to get with the tempo (but don't let them think you're nodding asleep!)

Add a few altered harmonies in order to get singers' attention and to add energy/excitement.

Hang in there and don't give up-keep after them to accelerate the tempo. Be steadfast in your convictions. They'll catch up with you, even if it's next week.

Happy hymning, and make it singable for all!


Will Sherwood is Director of Music and Organist at First Unitarian in Worcester, Massachusetts, and tries to avoid malox moments in hymn playing.


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