Congregational Singing, Part I: Accompanying

I recently found a site that has a lot of great information for pastors and music leaders in churches regarding congregational singing.  I’ve decided to post some of the thoughts I’ve found on that site, with my thoughts interspersed.

It has long been my contention that we run into problems in worship when we let things go on “automatic pilot,” not thinking about why we do what we do, or caring how it’s done.

Worship is an audience with the King of kings.  ‘An audience with the king” means that we have been summoned to appear before him:  it does not mean that we are “the audience” in the sense that the term is used today.  It means that he is the audience.

That means that “phoning in” our worship is never OK.  This goes for every person in the pews.  It goes for the minister.  And in certainly goes for the accompanist.  Those who accompany congregational song must take that job very seriously and prepare themselves, and their music, accordingly.

Here are James Sydnor’s guidelines for those who would accompany congregational song, from Hymns and Their Uses.  (My additions are in parentheses.)

1. Use firm leadership. The congregation needs and appreciates this.  (Play with authority.  Accompanying congregational singing is not for the namby-pamby.)

2. Do not “barge” through the hymn with no regard for where the people are.  (The words matter!  Sing along, in your head, along with the congregation.  Do not play the thing faster than people can sing and understand the words.)

3. Accompanying a congregation is not like accompanying a soloist. The organist/pianist must LEAD but be sensitive to how the congregation is following. LISTEN. If there is a song leader, the accompanist should WATCH and follow the tempo set by the leader.

4. Play accurately: sustain long notes.  (If you are not counting, many people in the congregation are, and it is annoying as heck to try to sing when the rhythm is unreliable.)

5. Keep a steady tempo. Don’t hurry eighth notes.

6. Frequently practice with a metronome. (Make that, “Frequently practice, and always with a metronome.”)

7. Don’t play too fast or too slow. A general rule of thumb:

— quarter note gets the beat, qn = 112 – 120
— compound time (6/8; 9/8), dotted qn = 60 – 80
— half note gets the beat, hn = 60 – 80
— no meter indicated, determine the underlying subdivision and keep it steady throughout
— the character or mood of the hymn determines the tempo.  (This should go without saying, but so many church accompanists have not a clue as to how this works.)

8. Extend the last chord of a stanza somewhat to give the congregation time to breathe. Then have a rhythmical break in the accompaniment to cue the congregation for the next stanza.  (To quote K. Lee Scott, “One beat to release, one beat to breathe.”)

9. Appropriate instrumental introductions include:

— play the whole hymn.
— play just the last phrase or two.
— play the first phrase and then creatively “modulate” to the final phrase.

(An entire stanza is preferable if it is not a well-known tune or if it is a particularly short tune.)

10. Use free accompaniments occasionally. Generally, these should only be used on the final stanza and probably work best on FESTIVE occasions or on the final hymn of the service.  (In other words, not on the last stanza of every hymn, please, except maybe on Easter.)

Keyboard people (and others), any additional thoughts?


About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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6 Responses to Congregational Singing, Part I: Accompanying

  1. Mo says:

    Hear, hear!

    or would that be

    Play, play!

  2. Eeyore says:

    Those are really good suggestions. I’m not a keyboard person, but I’ve sung in church choir for a long time.

    I remember our choir director when I was in high school finding it very irritating when the organist listened too much to the congregation, as they have a tendency to drag the tempo slower and slower if left to their own devices. So that suggestion to keep a steady and strong tempo are apt.

    My pet peeve, though, goes back to the church in my college town. The choir was good, the director also, and the organist was a renowned one. I think it likely that they were all music majors. Hence my problem with them, especially the organist. He couldn’t make it through a hymn without lavish embellishments or without changing keys after every verse. While that is sometimes effective, it really doesn’t work to keep going up the scale when the hymn is already too high for anyone but a soprano to sing.

    And besides that, it loses the whole point of worship when it becomes a showy concert, done for all the wrong reasons.

  3. RevJATB says:

    Eeyore, I agree about the alternate harmonizations and modulations. I think it’s fine to do that on ONE hymn every week, and only on ONE stanza, or maybe sometimes on the last stanza (only) of the first hymn and the last hymn (as the article says, on festive occasions, not week in, week out), but every week? Every hymn? Every stanza? Talk about overkill.

    Interludes, alternate harmonizations, and modulations are to hymn-singing (and playing) what spices are to cooking. A little paprika is nice if it’s sprinkled on the top of your deviled eggs or potato salad, but you wouldn’t want to fill a big bowl with paprika and eat it with a spoon.

  4. Pingback: Congregational Singing, Part II

  5. Mo says:

    I resonate strongly with the admonition about keeping the tempo through long notes. Few things irritate me more … and destroy a sense of confidence in the congregation more completely … than to have the accompaniment jump ahead out of time whether in the middle or going from end of stanza to beginning of next.

  6. RevJATB says:

    Morris, Amen! I remember singing “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” (to CORONATION) at a gathering not too terribly long ago. The accompanist in question must have found those measures with nothing but half notes in them (as in the first “and…crown…him…”) too boring, because all of them got cheated, a lot. We lost a good beat per measure. I wanted to start counting out loud.

    That kind of thing should just go without saying if you’re dealing with someone who is studying formally or has studied formally, but it doesn’t. Why don’t/can’t people count??????

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