A Note to the Service Musicians
All worship service musicians must remember at all times that their purpose is to support the congregation in singing praise to the Lord. This can take a variety of forms, but should include an accurate and fluent performance of the pitches on the page, performance of the hymns and psalms at a tempo at which the average untrained singer can sing through one phrase of music in a single breath, a knowledgeable awareness of the text of the hymn or psalm, performance of the hymns and psalms at a tempo that reflects the character of the text, and a sensitivity to the singers’ need to breathe.
Accompanists should practice until the notes of the hymn can be played accurately and without stopping. For some hymns, this may mean only a few repetitions, while for others it may mean many repetitions—and for pianists and organists, perhaps some hands-separate work. The tempo at which the hymns should be sung may vary slightly according to the text and character of the hymn, as well as the size of the room and the instruments involved. But in every case, care should be taken to ensure that the singers in the congregation have a tempo at which they can comfortably sing a clause of text in one breath. When performed too slowly, the hymn becomes maudlin and the congregation struggles to stand, hold their hymnals, breathe appropriately, and comprehend the text they are singing. In addition, it can cause people to dislike singing hymns and psalms in praise of the Lord. Alternatively, hymns performed too quickly, and notes and rests not given their due (e.g., not holding a whole note in common time for four beats), may seem rushed and irreverent, discounting the value of the words. Choose the tempo for the hymn carefully.
An awareness of the text must include the subject matter of a hymn, its emotional tenor, any narrative that takes place within the scope of the text, and punctuation. The subject matter may be of one general tone, as in “Silent Night,” or it may change from stanza to stanza, as in “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven,” or it may progress gradually from one affect to another, as in “Man of Sorrows! What a Name.” In order to assist the congregation in letting the word of Christ dwell in them richly (Col. 3:16), a sensitive and well-prepared accompanist will alter the dynamics, articulation, and perhaps other musical elements to reflect the character of the text. “Silent Night,” for example, might be led in a soft, calm, and smooth manner throughout. “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven,” might alternate dynamics and articulation according to the stanzas (note particularly the feebleness and gentleness of stanza 3, compared to the progression from frailty to endurance to high praise in stanza 4). By a gradual increase of dynamics throughout the hymn, and a slight broadening of tempo at the end, “Man of Sorrows!” might reflect the progression of emotions from the sorrow, shame, and scoffing of the early stanzas to the exaltation and glorious enthronement found in the final stanzas.
Accompanists must also be sensitive to the punctuation of a hymn in their performance of it. To be able to sing with comprehension (1 Cor. 14:15), singers must be led to follow the natural flow of the words as they would be spoken. Breathing often takes place at different points in different stanzas, if we observe the poet’s punctuation. In the final line of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” for example, the different punctuation of the stanzas might call for different choices of articulation in order to indicate to the congregation where to breathe as they sing the text. This also promotes comprehension in singing.
Finally, when a new song is introduced, one might begin by playing the new tune in the preludes and offertories in the weeks prior to its use in congregational singing. All musicians know that to learn new music, we need repetition, with time between the repetitions. Members of the congregation, many of whom don’t read music, deserve this aural preparation to help them in worship. Encourage your pastor to provide the hymns and psalms to you well in advance of their use in a service. Work together with your pastor to help your brothers and sisters in Christ in their singing.
Timothy and Lou Ann Shafer
Musicologist and Music Editor, Trinity Psalter Hymnal