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WORKSHOP #6: "25 Hot Hymns for Cool Organists"
A Guest Workshop by Peter Stapleton

[Peter Stapleton is a long-time contributor to and a BIG fan of hymns. I'd like to take this opportunity to recognize him and thank him for his contributions to the community. -Dan]

Bach had fun with hymns. Hymns are still fun. Use these strategies to make them more fun to play and sing.

  1. Feet First: Try using pedal points, passing tones, motivic supplements. Sometimes I'll play lots of eighth notes in a running bass line. People may not hum the bass line but it adds rhythmic interest and propels the tempo. If running eighths get tired, use some inegale and use dotted eights with 16ths. Use octave leaps when the score only calls for one note.

  2. Ornament: mordents, trills, sustained trills, and passing tones spice up a melody.

  3. Use marcato over sustenuto.

  4. Take out the melody and use big blocks of harmony under the singing.

  5. Take out weak beats and do big staccato chords on the strong ones.

  6. Transpose up a half step. Use an enharmonic change on the last tonic chord by playing a seventh introducing the new key.

  7. Alternate a single solo line for the first phrase, full harmony for the next. Continue this to the end.

  8. Devise a coda to fit the text and build it up to the full tutti.

  9. Play a short Chorale prelude from the Orgelbuchlein between verses. It doesn't have to be the same tune, but it should be in the same key. Just make 'em stand there and listen until they come in again.

  10. Orchestrate registrations that let you alter the mood of each verse according to text.

  11. Go wild, as in "He really went wild on that last one, didn't he!" If they aren't exuberant, you may have to be exuberant for them.

  12. Solo out the melody. If you're using a trumpet and ornament the line, you get a passable trumpet tune.

  13. Practice making up obbligatos and use them.

  14. Play up an octave for lighter singing, conversely add voices using a lot of fingers for a rumbling English support sound.

  15. If you have sub and super couplers use them. I love a full English swell achieved using all couplers and a 32' in the pedal, if you have it.

  16. If the text is about trumpets, use the trumpet. If you have a toy counter, use the harp in arpeggiated chords. If it's about bells, I sometimes draw the carillon and let it wash through the ensemble like change ringing.

  17. Omit the pedal on some verses. Most of us overpedal. What a drag.

  18. Don't overuse the above strategies. Sometimes people just want to sing it straight.

  19. Focus their attention and keep it. The big problem in hymn singing, in my humble opinion, is "Ho-hum," or "Here we go, another one." If they sound like they're phoning it in, they're not paying attention. If they drag, slap on staccato and breath pauses.

  20. Hymns can be prayer or praise or sometimes both. Figure out what sound goes with which.

  21. Breathe with them. I usually cut notes at the end of phrases to allow an eight rest for breath, so they'll come in on time.

  22. If you have a big house, e.g., Christmas. Use Strategy #21 from the start and stay consistent. It may be a tug between you and them, but you must win. If they win, nobody wins. Most congregations I've served never want "Silent Night" to end. It's a challenge. They must sing softly without losing pitch. To do so they must not lose tempo. You WILL win. The organ is bigger than the voice.

  23. Sometimes, if you work the choir beforehand, you can sing a Gregorian theme with no accompaniment. You better conduct, though. Play the hymn on a single line while they fumble with their books. Then let them come in with the choir. If you have a pretty good four-part choir, you can dispense with the organ on a carol like "Lo, How A Rose" for a verse or two. If the choir starts to go flat, sing with them at the next phrase, singing slightly sharp. Usually they'll come up to meet you.

  24. If you're doing a hymn sing, have men do a verse, women do a verse. You could even have a contest to see who wins. Then put them all together for a rousing last verse.

  25. Enjoy yourself; it's later than you think. If a hymn doesn't sound like fun, or drama, or sometimes tragedy, fix it 'til it does.
Hit those hymnals boys and girls. It'll pay off.

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