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The Organists' Toolkit
A Guide for Reluctant Organists

|Hymn Playing| |Simplified Hymns| |The Play Over| |Voluntaries| |Filling In| |Other Pages|

Hymn Playing

A growing collection of simplified hymns is available HERE.

The accompanying of hymns constitutes the universal bedrock of what church organists do. The following comments apply also to simple service settings and other similar music you may be asked to accompany.

Unless you are familiar with them, if asked to accompany Anglican Chants, just say NO! They provide endless difficulties and problems which are hard to deal with if you are getting used to an unfamiliar instrument.

One serious problem for an organist, in all accompanying, is that  you both lead and accompany this singing. The comments below will talk about maintaining a sense of rhythmic flow and consistency but, ultimately, the congregation consists of a body of undirected singers, each with his or her idea of how things should be sung.

A skilled professional organist can deal with most cases of congregational waywardness, but this cannot be expected someone just helping out. Try to be rhythmically coherent, but listen to what is being sung and, if the congregation goes its own way, go with them. It may be a bit unmusical, but it's far better than a clearly audible death-struggle.

Most hymns are written for a four part choir and don't take the limitation of two hands into consideration. It becomes necessary to redistribute notes from the Alto and Tenor (middle two) parts across the hands according to how far a hand can stretch.

picture of redistributed parts

Alternatively, the bass notes between the brackets could be played an octave higher.

One of the greatest limitations that pianists find when transferring to the organ is the lack of a sustaining pedal: if you release a note, the sound stops. Whilst it is not absolutely necessary to maintain a strict legato (smoothness) at all times, it 's not so good if the music seems to be hopping from one chord to the next. One way of maintaining a better legato is to use finger substitution whilst holding a key down. Something like this:

It's actually quite hard to do this efficiently in all parts if the hymn is moving at a fair pace. As a compromise, you could aim at maintaining a legato in at least the soprano (top) part. But, bearing in mind that it is of absolute importance to keep the hymn flowing in an even tempo without fits or starts, and you find the above difficult, you could settle for playing just the melody and bass:

It sounds like this:

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The harmony may seem a bit thin, but you will be playing to two most important parts. Also, if you are using 8', 4' (and 2') stops, you are actually playing a lot more actual notes than your fingers suggest.

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Ideally, the gaps between the verses should not be random but be part of the rhythmic flow of the verses. Something like:

The above example gives the congregation time to breathe and gather their thoughts.

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This does not:

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If you are going to change stops between the verses, the two silent beats would be the place to do it.

If you are confident using a combination piston to do this, it's relatively easy to operate one in the gap. It's more risky when changing by hand, as one hand of the other has to reach out, change the stop(s) and then get back into position. It can be useful, on a final chord, to take that chord with one hand so that the other can be in place for a stop change the instant that chord ends.

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Simplified Hymns

Organists Online provides a growing repertoire of simplified hymn accompaniments. They can be accessed HERE.

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The Play Over

In most churches, a hymn is introduced by playing over the first line or couple of lines. This should be in the same tempo in which the hymn will be sung. The rhythmic gap you have planned to place between the verses should also be used between the play over and the first verse.

It's helpful to a congregation is first verse is a little louder than the playover. Something like this:

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If you are not confident about changing stops or manual, it's always possible to playover just the top line in single notes and then introduce fuller harmony for the verse. Something like this:

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Voluntaries

Strictly speaking, it's not absolutely necessary to play music before or after a service. However, it has become customary and is generally expected.

If you are a competent pianist, you will find that much of your Bach, Handel, or other Baroque repertoire will work well. (Things might not be so ideal with your Chopin √Čtudes.)

If, however, you decide to play voluntaries, but lack a suitable repertoire, there are some downloadable pieces to be found on page 3.

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Extemporisation
and Fill-Ins

In complex services, especially in Catholic or High Anglican churches, there are many moments when some liturgical action is covered by music. It is not absolutely necessary to provide these fill-in pieces, but if you are fluent at improvisation you can put your skills to good service here.

If you are not confident improvising, and you know in advance that certain places are going to need cover, you can play any of the pieces or sections of a piece from the repertoire list suggested in the previous section.

Harder to anticipate and of uncertain length are the gaps after a hymn or some such place. It's easy to cover these gaps without improvising skills just by using the music in front of you. (That is, just by repeating a verse of the hymn.) Just to make sure that the congregation doesn't think you have miscounted the verses, you could hold the last bass note for a bar or so before beginning the melody again. Something like this:

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If you are confident with manual changes and/or stop changes, you could introduce one or more echos at the end of each line, like this:

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You could even lengthen the notes of the last echo for the sake of variety.

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If you know that the gap to be covered is long, you could have another tune in a close key ready for similar treatment, and then return to the original tune:

Tune 1 (with echos) - Tune 2 (with echos) - Tune 1 (with echos).

If the gap is going to be really; long, you could daisy-chain several melodies.

Should you find that the liturgical action is nearly complete, it's easy to just play to the end of whichever tune you are on without elaboration.

Now, nobody is going to claim that this produces a high-value piece of music, rich in individuality and inspiration, but this is not the goal. The sole aim is to cover the liturgical action in a way that doesn't disturb the service, either with fist-fulls of wrong, improvised notes or a total absence of music. To be honest, most people won't be listening that closely to you anyway.

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Other Pages

The first page includes information about the organ, manuals, pedals and the mechanics of the instrument.

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The third page includes links to useful repertoire and books for further study.

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