Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some Words on Hymnplaying...

A disclaimer:  I took many years of organ instruction but have not played anything but hymns for mostly 25 years and I am by no means an accomplished organist -- a frustrated one -- but you know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing...

Tactus... the tempo of hymn playing... I wish we could teach it... It is really something to be felt.  You cannot get it from the time signature on the music or extrapolate from one hymn to another.  It is intimately connected to the text as well as the tune.  It is affected by the singing of the people in the particular place you are located.  It is a hidden component to the successful musical leadership of the congregation.

I was in Minnesota a few weeks ago and am still trying to catch my breath.  The tempo was way too fast.  Breath and you lost at least a couple of words and perhaps a whole musical phrase trying to catch up.  Still and all I like it better than the opposite.

I was at an event in Synod and a noted organist was on the console and, well, I could have been filing my nails while I waited for the organist and most of the people to catch up with me... It was way too slow and discouraged not only the singing but any appreciation of the text and tune whatsoever.

We have a wonderful parish musician.  He tends to play about right most all the time -- though he can slow down a bit for me (especially if he is uncertain how well the people know the tune and as the second service gets near the end).  But I am the typical Pastor with the loud booming voice trying to get the folks to keep up.  I am sure this bugs him some of the time (if not all).  But tactus, the sense of tempo, rhythm, and how the text and tune combine is the key here.

Perhaps the bad rap on hymns with many stanzas and hymn singing in general has more to do with bad hymn playing than anything else.  It is an art and it is not helped with the organist does not have the art -- and congregations are not willing to pay for their training to equip them to better assist the singing and probably do not pay them adequately in the first place...

It is a wonderful thing when the person on the bench knows how to make it easy to sing... last Sunday I felt it from the less known hymn Our Paschal Lamb, that sets us free... to the familiar The King of Love My Shepherd Is... to the beloved Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Me... There is no way to overvalue the gift and art of accompanying the liturgy and hymns... not with esteem or money... so parishes take note and people wake up...

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

(sung) Amen. Amen. Amen.

Sue said...

We were gifted for 60 years with a wonderful organist who had "it". She grew up in a very small South Dakota town, had 2 years of music lessons. When the church their needed an organist, her mother volunteered her. She moved here, and another organist was needed (duties were shared). He gave her pointers, and that was pretty much it. Always the right tempo. She would sometimes tell the pastor a hymn needed the alternate tune (and he ALWAYS listened to her). She would transpose if she thought the tune was too high for most people. Our current organist has a degree and advanced training and is very good, but still not as good as our dear retired organist, now 85 years old. God gave her (and us) a wonderful gift.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

I agree completely. This is the reason why it is often difficult to use recorded music as accompaniment. The organist makes a decision to transpose, vary the rate and tempo to aid the congregational singing. Thy dynamics of this can't be replicated with a CD or a MIDI.

God bless our church musicians, they have and are a gift.
PS: Sue, it is a credit to your pastor that he listened to his organist as well. Sometimes organists get a lot thrown their way and get little feedback unless it is negative.

NBeethe said...

I agree that much of the criticism of "traditional" services and hymn probably stems from people not knowing how to play the service well and in such a way that the congregation can sing. I especially see that in the South, where most Lutheran organists are untrained (and most are also probably pianists who have been drafted.) Just think what would happen if our District and Synod put such an extraordinary effort into training pastors and organists in how to conduct and play a service as they do into TCN? We don't realize the great treasures we have in the historic liturgy and hymns.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as your friendly neighbourhood organist, I would suggest if your organist is struggling with hymn playing, to send him/her to some decent hymn-playing workshops. Parishes should be investing in the training and education of their muscians! Especially if you are recruiting people who have never before played hymns. Hymn playing is completely different from repetoire playing. I was blessed enough when I was younger to have a music teacher who did send me to church music workshops to learn how to play hymns. (She taught Royal Conservatory, which doesn't teach hymn playing) and now to have a pastor who is also an excellent organist! :) The ALCM and the music program at Concordia, Fort Wayne all offer excellent resourses and workshops. The Good Shephard Instutite also has a conference every November. The benefits your organist and congregation gain from these resourses far outweigh the cost of the workshops.

Anonymous said...

As a church organist for 34 years (starting at 14 when no one else was available) I have always tried to play to help the congregation sing. At times I might be boring but the congregation always knows when to come in with the first verse since I rarely embellish the introduction. I sing along when possible to see if the tempo is singable. I don't wish to be a detraction from the service but support for it.

NBeethe said...

@Anonymous I do not know if you were responding to something I said, but I did want to clear up something I did not say clearly: I was not trying to rip on untrained organists. I deeply appreciate those who are willing to help lead the congregation's song. I was trying to refer to the unfair position those organists are put into. That is why I try to encourage and be a resource for those I come into contact with around the district. It's not that I have all (or even most) of the answers; I just want to help them feel confident in what they are doing and help them to lead the congregation as effectively as they can.

My apologies is what I said previously came off sounding harsh.

Anonymous said...

As organists, it is our job to help lead the congregation in corporate worship. Singing along with the hymns is a very good idea. I do that when I practise, not only to get the right tempo and to know when to breath, but also to learn the text. Our settings need to compliment the text as well. You wouldn't want a full organ on "The Lord is My Shepherd" but you do want an earth-shaking setting for the Sanctus....just as it is described in Isaiah! :)

Anonymous said...

NBeeth, you didn't come off sounding harsh at all! Nope, nope, all is well. You are right in saying that many organists are put into unfair positions by their parishes. And for the most part, it seems to be unintentional. Most of our parishioners are not muscians and have no idea how much work goes into planning a worship service. We had two of our elders come to our last muscian's meeting and they were amazed at how much work we actually do! Many of my fellow parishoners are surprised at how much time I put into practising as well. But then I explain how important our hymnody is to the service and that the hymns are chosen to support the readings and the theme of the day. (We don't just pick a hymn because it is pretty.) And so are my preludes and offertories. And I also tell them that when we sing our liturgy and our hymns we are singing and sharing God's word with each other. And it is so important that it is done well! A lot of our members listen to really bad country gospel and think that is fine music for church. And up to about 5 years ago they used to sing stuff like "In the Garden" Ack! So hence the gentle explinations. You are right in doing everything you can to support and encourage your organists. And you are right in saying that our Synod needs to invest in more training for our pastors and muscians!

NBeethe said...

@Anonymous Amen and Amen!

Janis Williams said...

Coming from Southern Baptist churches I know what a hymn cum funeral march is all about. Unfortunately, nBeethe, the Baptists "corrected" this by switching to CCM and Praise Choruses. I am so thankful for a pastor who is stands firm on singing the hymns!

As for Tactus, tempo, rhythm, or whatever you choose to call it, I believe this is why so many people do not know the words to hymns. Music SHOULD facilitate memorization (why else is the Catechism set to music?), not prevent it. This is one of the functions of tactus. We truly do have a great gift in our organist. Another way of helping neighbor!

NBeethe said...

@Janis, it's interesting that Baptists "fixed" the problem of people not being able to sing hymns because they were too slow by replacing them with songs that were meant for solo singing and don't work well in a congregational setting..."fixing" one problem by inserting another...

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Thank you to all the musicians who have posted, here; thanks for your faithful service.

I would also add that along with training for your organist I would encourage congregations to keep their instruments (not appliances) in good condition. Nothing tells a volunteer you really don't care about their work than ignoring their pleas to fix a malfunctioning stop, or a dead key.

Say thank you every service and give them encouragement.

Vix said...

I have to say, every Lutheran church I've ever visited had the tempo just right, and I love their hymns (one lcms was all CCM--yuck). The problem I am finding across the board is the LOUDNESS of the organ. Lutheran organs are so loud than you can barely hear the voices, or your own self. Then after the service as everyone's leaving and chatting... organ is even louder. Ugh.

Erik said...

"the tempo of hymn playing... I wish we could teach it... It is really something to be felt. "

Explaining a musical concept in common language is difficult, but please allow me to attempt to explain what I believe to be the "right tempo."

Good texts have a natural pulse of strong-weak syllables. The speed of the music should be in the "sweet spot" where the meter could be two different meters (ie, 4/4 or 2/2). Let me attempt to explain in an example:

o GOD our HELP in A-ges PAST.

Played in strict 4/4, we emphasize every syllable, which makes us feel slow and ploddy.
Played in 2/2, we rush through the text faster than our mouths (and minds) can process it.

In the "sweet spot", it could be felt in 4/4 or 2/2. The sweet spot is adjustable for the accoustic, but even so, I've found that good tempi in cathedrals and parish are really not that different.

For a hymns in 3/4:
EARTH and all STARS, LOUD rushing PLAN-ets.
the sweet spot should be between being in 3 or 1 (1 conductable beat per measure)

even slower hymns like Rockingham Old:
when I sur-VEY the WON-drous CROSS,
can be succesfully felt in a slower 1 - but once you start waltzing, people will breathe every 2 bars and the proper speed is lost.



That's my attempt to define the "right" tempo.

Sue said...

@Pr. Bergstrazer: yes, we had a smart pastor! But when a new pastor came, he informed the organist she could end the hymn when communion was finished, even if there were several verses left. She politely informed him this is HER ministry, and she is not cutting off the hymn. Smart man: again, he listened! We are blessed with a beautiful organ, about 15 years or so old now. When our organist's husband died, an organ fund was started. When it was finally installed, my son who was about 10 or 11 then wanted to know what was the first thing the organist would play on the organ. so I asked. She said, whatever hymns Pastor chooses for that Sunday. I said no, first time you sit down at the new organ: what do you play? Oh, she said, that's easy: Jesus loves me! Easy to play one-handed while you fiddle with and learn the new stops. Plus it says it all.

Mrs. Bombie said...

I was going to say...one of our organists sings with the songs and can't keep up the already slow pace... a pet peeve of mine... Sorry if I have hurt anyone's feelings. Now, our other organist is starting to do it too..., but she is our daughter and we can fix that... :)

Robbie F. said...

Alas, one person's Tactus is another person's tackiness. I used to play the organ for a pastor who frequently told me, "I couldn't have picked a better tempo for that hymn." I have also played for people who found fault with everything I played -- too fast, too slow, next to unsingable, etc. I suppose we all have good and bad days, but at the end of the day the organist has to trust his/her own judgment!

Robbie F. said...

One more note - I don't find singing along as I play to be helpful. I tend to make more mistakes when I'm trying to follow the text. Plus, acoustically speaking, the singing the organist hears will usually to have a time lag built into it, the time it takes the sound to bounce off the front wall & back to the organ bench. So, by singing along, the organist may unintentionally cause the tempo to drag. And finally, in canticles such as the "Te Deum" it behooves the organist to listen to the people & attempt to strike a balance between responding to their pacing & keeping the tempo moving forward. That's hard to do when your voice (from where you sit) is all but drowning them out.

Steve said...

This is so true!

It's always frustrating in many ascpects. From an orgainst's point of view I always get discouraged when I hear people say "speed it up." I always struggle with trying to figure out where they are really coming from. Are they just in a hurry - don't want to take anymore time than we need to? My personal stance on the entire hymn playing is the tempo needs to be REFLECTIVE of the hymn itself. You can't just GENERALIZE the tempo and play at one fast or slow tempo.

I personally feel when we sing too fast - we don't even have time to THINK about what we are singing. And in that case......why sing? Just cut it out completely. Well, obviously that isn't what we want to do. People spend more time trying to keep up rather than expressing thier faith and gratitude in song. On the other hand, play TOO slow can have the same effect as well. You spend more time on being frustrated the tempo is too slow and become distracted that way.

It is the organist's responsibilty or should be to set the tone for the hymn setting. This includes tempo of course, but also registration of stops (or sounds)and volume. It creates TEXTURE to the music and then reflects it's message in the way it was intended.

Obviously, we cannot beat up those who play organ and struggle with "just playing." That's a hard one for some organists. Becuase they are either thrown into playing due to a lack of musicians. They spend more time playing the hymn MECHANICALLY and actually don't hear the congregation or even thier own tempo and pace. They are focused on hitting every note correctly just as if they were taking a test. And what we as the congregation is actually hearing is thier nervousness. That is just a lack of experience and/or confidence. Those are the musicians/organist's that need the support and encouragement - it will get better.

Then you have what I like to call the "performance artists" on the organ. While that is certainly entertaining if they don't mix that gift of the ability to play with that true reflection - it again defeats the purpose of singing a hymn of praise. It's just a "nice tune" well played. But we've lost our purpose in singing that hymn all together.

Those again, are the organist who really weren't trained liturgically. And honestly, a lot of times they just don't understand or get it. They again are just playing mechanically.

At the end of the day..........I always walk away with this in mind, and I pray other's may as well. Realizing that taking the appropriate time to slow down and actually sing or play our hymn of praise to God won't hurt us. We really only spend ONE HOUR on the average per week doing so. WHAT IS ANOTHER 5 minutes going to hurt us all in making that hymn really come from our hearts? We have plenty of time for other things in our life - we can't give God an extra five minutes? Are we then really doing what God expects from us and we should want to do in return?

May we continue to ask God to help guide our hearts as we continue to honor Him with the respect and reverence He is due in our hymns of praise. May we ask Him to teach us to sing from our hearts and not just our lips. We also need to ask as organist/musicians that he guide us to play from our hearts as well and not just our fingers [and feet! :o}]

Remember.....we're all in training here.....We await to sing in the heavenly choir one day! We can only imagine the sound......

Mrs. L said...

How do we respond to an organist who seems unable to play without a time signature as printed in the LSB?