If you are an organist, you’ve probably spent countless hours developing your legato technique. The pipe organ has no damper pedal to “glue” the notes together; when a key is released, the sound stops instantly. So we practice finger substitutions, thumb glissandos, and other tricks that befuddle and amaze our pianist friends. Our playing of 19th and 20th century organ literature is rich and seamless, with lusciously long melodic phrases that are possible on no other instrument.
This kind of organ playing is marvelous for certain styles of literature, and nearly useless in hymn playing. Our assemblies need to breathe, and they need to have a very clear sense of pulse and forward motion. For that, a more baroque-style, detached playing method works best.
How do we provide this clear sense of pulse? To begin, we want to emphasize the tactus, typically (but not always!) the first and third beats of a 4-beat measure, or the downbeat of a 3-beat measure. A very slight accent on these beats is helpful. On the piano, this is easy, we just play that chord slightly louder. The organ, however, will sound the same no matter how hard we press the keys. (Yes, I too sometimes find myself pounding on the keys when I want more volume, to no avail!) So articulation on the organ is achieved by lifting the voices just before playing the note or chord that we wish to accent. That slight bit of silence tricks our ears into hearing the sound that follows as being slightly louder.
Many of the hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship appear in 4-part harmony. These are essentially very simple choral scores, designed for singing. Some adaptation is required to play them on the piano or the organ. There is often a new chord on every beat, and each part may contain successions of repeated pitches. If these hymns are played with every chord receiving the same accent, they will sound choppy and unmusical. The keyboardist must make decisions about which notes to emphasize by slightly detaching them from the preceding note, which ones to play legato, and which repeated notes might be tied together. Deciding when to break and when to tie always is informed by the tactus. For example, in 4/4 time, we are probably more likely to tie a repeated note in an inner voice from beats 1 to 2, but break between 2 and 3.
Practice the hymns carefully every week! Not just a fancy introduction and concluding stanza, although those can be a lot of fun. Practice every stanza, thinking about how you will provide clear rhythmic support to the assembly’s singing. Think about the text; will you play one stanza differently from another?
Practicing articulation for good hymn playing can be mind-boggling and challenging. To those who play repertoire at a high level, it may even feel like taking a step back. But it is of immeasurable importance for the energy of our assemblies! Start slowly. Write out what you will do by marking ties and places you will lift the voices. Record yourself. Listen, both to your playing and your assembly’s singing. In time, this will become second nature. Even when it does, continue to practice. You will be richly rewarded.
For more on this topic, see the following terrific publications:
Musicians Guide to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ©2007, Augsburg Fortress
Leading the Church’s Song, ©1998, Augsburg Fortress
Let the People Sing! (David M. Cherwien), ©1997, Concordia Publishing House
Note: This topic and much more are addressed in a workshop, “Leading the Assembly’s Song” that is available for ELCA synods to sponsor. For more information, contact Scott Weidler, ELCA Program Director for Worship and Music, at firstname.lastname@example.org.