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Hymn Tempo


Guest delvin146
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Guest delvin146

I had some minor altercation with my boss this week regarding the general tempo of hymns. Has anyone else had a similar experience?

 

It was stated in correspondence to me, that for sometime the church has, (unbeknown to me), been working very hard to try to introduce some "bounce" into the hymns, (presumably in what is supposed to be a well-hearted but misguided attempt to increase the chances of, "more bums on pews" and part of the overall reductionism and dumbing-down of standards in our places of worship today.

 

The scenario is basically, that the church in question had Mission Praise when I arrived, but in a failed attempt for me to get the New English Hymnal we had to settle for Hymns Old and .. - which despite it's many many many faults perhaps could be seen as a slight improvement on MP.

 

I have a very small choir, basically adult sopranos and a female tenor, so basically repertoire is kept very simple.

 

When I arrived there was no phrasing in the hymns whatsoever, and also no cadences or breathing points! The third line of a hymn was generally speeded up... rather giving the impression of a racing car trying to get across the line first. There seems to have been little attention paid whatsoever to tone or word pronounciation. The result was a kind of half-hearted kind of gabbling of the words rather like a badly sung anglican chant. I saw this as a cop-out as the choir and congregation obviously didn't know the tunes properly, and when put into a stricter time it showed that they didn't know what pitch quite a few of the notes were meant to be. Of course, this annoyed them!

 

I really have worked exceptionally hard to try to select a tempo which means the quavers in the underparts are not muddled into some kind of scotch-snap, and to provide breathing points so proper phrasing of the line can be obtained. I also seek to provide a legato manual and pedal line (for the vast majority of the time, but not always), cadential pauses (hands off keys for breathing). Two beats rest at the end of each verse. Occasionally I do take some hymns quite slowly..eg. Sweet Sacrament Divine. When I survey etc, but naturally I tend to use the quiter stops on the organ as I find these more appropriate registrations for this type of thing, whereas for a tune such as Abbots Leigh, I go quite boldly roughly crotchet = 109, but with a very slight holding back before the octave leap in the treble part in line 3 for emphatic purposes of that octave leap. Would tend to use principals for registrations here.

 

I for one cannot stand understated old "Anglican" and dare I say, BORING styles of church music performance! No wonder church music gets a bad name as when I hear for some life to be injected into the music. It's hard to specify exactly what I mean by this, but I'm sure the kind of sound has been experienced by most. Think a dragging romantic performance of Handel's Messiah, or "village church" anglican chant. Of course, "old fashioned choral tone" is quite another thing than the overall performance style.

 

The problem is that I think I set quite a good pace for the hymns in a building with little acoustic and with an organ not terribly well placed for leading the congreation. I feel that in general, (unless on occasions I specifically want a slower tempo to match the words), I take the hymns at an appropriate speed which I aim to have life, expression, vigour, and all the hallmarks of something musically interesting and alive. Ok, they're not overly fast, but I've heard very much slower playing.

 

The congregation complain that the hymns are slower than they used to be. I'm not so sure that the tempo has changed greatly. Because there are now cadential points, a steady tempo throughout, and a two beat rest at the end of the verse they seem to be perceiving the use of silence and phrasing as a drop in tempo.

 

The outcome was that I corresponded back that if the congregation don't like the speed of the hymns they could always try a congregationalist church. Secondly that I had rarely had complains in 20 years or so of playing the organ, so I had no intention of altering my style now. I also pointed out that I do not try to dictate which eucharistic prayer is used, or whether we use NIV or King James for versions of the bible for example.

 

In general I get on well with my boss, so this incident was a shame and I hope it hasn't spoiled our good working relationship. I thought the line had been crossed when telling me what speed at which to play. Whatever next, printed directions for registrations?

 

"Hello, welcome to our service today, and welcome again! We stand to sing hymn number 456 "All things bright and beautiful" , the first verse will be played on The Great Principal Chorus up to 2'. The Second on Great 8' 4' flutes and on the final verse you'll hear the whole bally lot!

 

All requests for next weeks tempi and registrations should be with the organist no later than Wednesday of this week so that he has chance to set the pistons in good time. Requests will be allocated on a first-come first served basis.

 

Anyone else had anything similar?

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After about 9 years my congregation and Rector are only now getting used to the fact that I play mostly faster than the other rota organists. I am unapologetic about this - I feel that I am employed for my musical, liturgical and interprative skills and if the congregation think I am going too fast then maybe they could sing at their own pace without an organ at all - if they do not feel that this is appropriate then ultimately maybe I am not the organist for them!! Mercifully the Rector is an acomplished musician, he and I can share a joke about speeds etc. and the congregation and choir are appreciative of what I do - seemingly anyway! Seriously though - I see my musical role in the service to lead the congregation musically in an appropriate way for the liturgy - sometimes a democracy is appropriate but equally so sometimes is a dictatorship! The market around here is such that for all those who are not appreciative there are many more who do value one's efforts - at whatever speed.

 

AJJ

 

PS And if they want something slow for a meaningful reason they can ask - and more often than not they get what they want!

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After about 9 years my congregation and Rector are only now getting used to the fact that I play mostly faster than the other rota organists. I am unapologetic about this - I feel that I am employed for my musical, liturgical and interprative skills and if the congregation think I am going too fast then maybe they could sing at their own pace without an organ at all - if they do not feel that this is appropriate then ultimately maybe I am not the organist for them!! Mercifully the Rector is an acomplished musician, he and I can share a joke about speeds etc. and the congregation and choir are appreciative of what I do - seemingly anyway!  Seriously though - I see my musical role in the service to lead the congregation musically in an appropriate way for the liturgy - sometimes a democracy is appropriate but equally so sometimes is a dictatorship! The market around here is such that for all those who are not appreciative there are many more who do value one's efforts - at whatever speed.

 

AJJ

 

PS And if they want something slow for a meaningful reason they can ask -  and more often than not they get what they want!

 

I have found that you can't please everyone. I have altered tempi in the past when alerted to the needs of 'the congregation' only to find out that many other members were quite happy with things as they were. A victory for the vocal minority.

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After about 9 years my congregation and Rector are only now getting used to the fact that I play mostly faster than the other rota organists.

 

I also tend to the faster side of hymns. My current congregation often comment on the "renewed vigour", seemingly without a sense of sarcasm creeping in. I often sing along, at least for the first verse - that way I *know* if it's right or not.

 

I went and played (badly, I might add - I forgot to go to the 2nd part of the psalm chant, which wasn't good!) at Romsey the other week, though, and got berated by a certain member of this board for playing the hymns too quickly :)

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'Played under the influence of a double dose of Benylin day & night 'flu cure on Sunday - flower festival etc. The rather nice newish communion setting by our esteemed local cathedral DOM was decidedly more spiced with 'quasi Langlais' harmonies than usual and the tune Guiting Power for the final hymn sounded even more like something from the first night of an RSCM course than it usually does - at a reasonable speed though. The semiquavers of the final voluntary - even on my one manual - had a life of their own. Strangely the congregation and choir seemed unaware of all this and applauded at the end - although one did think that the piece was the theme from BBC's Casualty! Do any others have experiences of medication (or otherwise) induced services such as this? Only those that can be aired in public though.

 

AJJ

 

PS Before anyone starts a line about hymn tunes I actually think Guiting Power is quite a good tune - it just reminds me of the first night of RSCM courses - along with 'midweek evensong' type Mags. and Nuncs. and anthems by past and present cathedral organists that sound vaguely tudor with the wrong accidentals!

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Guest Andrew Butler
'Played under the influence of a double dose of Benylin day & night 'flu cure on Sunday - flower festival etc. The rather nice newish communion setting by our esteemed local cathedral DOM was decidedly more spiced with 'quasi Langlais' harmonies than usual and the tune Guiting Power for the final hymn sounded even more like something from the first night of an RSCM course than it usually does - at a reasonable speed though. The semiquavers of the final voluntary - even on my one manual - had a life of their own. Strangely the congregation and choir seemed unaware of all this and applauded at the end - although one did think that the piece was the theme from BBC's Casualty! Do any others have experiences of medication (or otherwise) induced services such as this? Only those that can be aired in public though.

 

AJJ

 

PS Before anyone starts a line about hymn tunes I actually think Guiting Power is quite a good tune - it just reminds me of the first night of RSCM courses - along with 'midweek evensong' type Mags. and Nuncs. and anthems by past and present cathedral organists that sound vaguely tudor with the wrong accidentals!

 

What was the voluntary? Was it by an ex-St Alban's organist by any chance?

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Guest Andrew Butler
No - it was a piece from one of the Mayhew volumes - the piece was a Toccata by Robert Jones and the volume entitled 'Fiesta'.

 

AJJ

 

I'll have to look out for that. I just wondered, because (I think anyway) that there is a vague outline of part of the theme lurking in the last movement of Peter Hurford's "Laudate Dominum" suite.

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Speed in hymns is clearly subjective, but should probably in part depend upon the size of the accoustic and congregation that one is playing for. I certainly wouldn't welcome advice from the clergy on this matter - any more than they seem able to accept advice on the length of their sermons!

 

Personally I worry when I read about people who count a rigid number of beats between verses. I'm sure this is neither desirable nor correct. There is a natural feel that tells you when the next verse is due, if you get this right the choir and congregation have no problems. (If you really feel a need to count, the number of beats due must surely depend upon the number of beats in a bar and whether there's the verse starts on an up-beat - it can't always be two.) I don't think you can expect the congregation to be mentally counting "one two" in between each verse - if its not right for them its not right for the organist either.

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I never used to bother about keeping the beat going between verses, but over the years I've had to get into the habit and it's now second nature. As nfortin says, it's not necessarily two beats - it's all about maitaining the regular pulse. Congregations may or may not be conscious of what's happening, but the relatively short gap between verses does seem to keep them on their toes and those that are used to this seem much more prompt at starting new verses.

 

As for speed I can see the musical value of a good speed, so that, for example, hymns in 4/4 time have an easy-going two-in-a-bar feel to them (the word "bounce" makes me bridle - even when it's justified!) Such an approach works well. But my personal preference, at least in a generous acoustic, is for a rather more nobilmente approach - one that allows a good tune its due expansiveness (but obviously not so expansive that the masses start to wallow).

 

But I don't think you can be too rigid about this. Different words require different speeds. One tune I do take at quite a lick is "Monk's Gate". It's a trick I picked up as a kid from Richard Lloyd when he was assistant at Salisbury (that dates me!) - he took it at a fairly brisk two-in-a-bar and it was electrifying. I've done it that way ever since and it never fails to impress.

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Guest delvin146
Speed in hymns is clearly subjective, but should probably in part depend upon the size of the accoustic and congregation that one is playing for. I certainly wouldn't welcome advice from the clergy on this matter - any more than they seem able to accept advice on the length of their sermons!

 

Personally I worry when I read about people who count a rigid number of beats between verses. I'm sure this is neither desirable nor correct. There is a natural feel that tells you when the next verse is due, if you get this right the choir and congregation have no problems. (If you really feel a need to count, the number of beats due must surely depend upon the number of beats in a bar and whether there's the verse starts on an up-beat - it can't always be two.) I don't think you can expect the congregation to be mentally counting "one two" in between each verse - if its not right for them its not right for the organist either.

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Guest delvin146
Speed in hymns is clearly subjective, but should probably in part depend upon the size of the accoustic and congregation that one is playing for. I certainly wouldn't welcome advice from the clergy on this matter - any more than they seem able to accept advice on the length of their sermons!

 

Personally I worry when I read about people who count a rigid number of beats between verses. I'm sure this is neither desirable nor correct. There is a natural feel that tells you when the next verse is due, if you get this right the choir and congregation have no problems. (If you really feel a need to count, the number of beats due must surely depend upon the number of beats in a bar and whether there's the verse starts on an up-beat - it can't always be two.) I don't think you can expect the congregation to be mentally counting "one two" in between each verse - if its not right for them its not right for the organist either.

 

I think I replied in the wrong place, not used to these things.

 

I know what you are saying about 2 beats not being rigid and I totally agree. It's kind of an approximation and more of a general rule. I do at least try to keep them consistent within the hymn of the moment, but I hear quite a bit of playing where the organist seems to put fingers on keys at any old moment between verses. That said, on occasions I do like to wait a little longer in the final verse and drag the pedals just a little to create some grandeur.

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Guest delvin146

To divert just a little..

 

does anyone still use "gathering chords" :) I have some lovely examples on a particularly cd from the Cambridge area last century around Advent time.

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To divert just a little..

 

does anyone still use "gathering chords"  :) I have some lovely examples on a particularly cd from the Cambridge area last century around Advent time.

Fortunately I've never encountered this practice in the flesh. However, not so long ago a "reluctant organist" assured me that he'd been told to use a gathering note in the pedal for each verse. Evidently his mentor wasn't much of an organist either, but clearly the practice still lives among such people.
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Fortunately I've never encountered this practice in the flesh. However, not so long ago a "reluctant organist" assured me that he'd been told to use a gathering note in the pedal for each verse. Evidently his mentor wasn't much of an organist either, but clearly the practice still lives among such people.

 

Hi

 

Sadly, gathering chords are only too prevelant! I find it annoying in the extreme (it's the norm at one of the churches I preach at regularly). Interestingly, I've also played there when their regular musician hasn't been available, and the congregation cope with no problem with proper introductions and breaks - no gathering chords, just straight in to each verse in tempo. There might be a slight hiatus on the first verse of the first hymn, but that's all.

 

I was once taken to task for not using them when I deputised for a friend - strange, because I never heard him use them either! I was taught one bar silence between verses, no gathering chords, no rallentandos except perhaps at the end of the last verse - and introducions at the speed you're going to sing the hymn at. (I don't always stick to the one bar break - sometimes it's just 2 long and 1/2 bar feels better - depends on the hymn)

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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Guest Andrew Butler

I eavesdropped at the crem a few weeks ago, over a cup of coffee, on a service for which an elderly friend (actually my predecessor on the "rota") had been asked to play. His accompaniment method consisted of pressing the "all enclosed" piston; selecting an f registration and playing it like a harmonium using the swell pedal for dynamics. Each verse was preceded by a held treble note (haven't heard that since I was a boy in the early 60's!) with the "box" closed, followed by a crescendo into the 1st chord. No wonder people prefer cd's!

 

This probably belongs in the "Crematorium Organists" topic, but I was once the subject of an official complaint - a lady said I played the hymns too fast, that she had seen me getting my music ready for the next service during the current one, and that my hair didn't look as though it had seen a pair of scissors for at least 6 weeks! :)

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.....but I was once the subject of an official complaint - a lady said I played the hymns too fast, that she had seen me getting my music ready for the next service during the current one, and that my hair didn't look as though it had seen a pair of scissors for at least 6 weeks!

 

At one of my previous schools, a local 'worthy' wrote an official complaint to my headteacher because I had conducted the carol service wearing white socks.

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I find that, as a punter in the pews, that Hymns are generally played too fast. For an example of excellence in Hymn Playing visit York Minster and listen to JSW.

 

 

A habit that is irritating beyond belief which can be found at All Soul's Langham Place is a last line play over after every verse !!

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There is no definitive answer as to what is the right tempo for hymns. It all depends on the hymn, the acoustic of the building and personal preference. I do find that if hymns are played too fast then it robs the music of feeling and passion; if too slow then it can drag and become druggy. When people complain about “old fashion” hymns it is often down to a too slow tempo.

 

:D

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
Hi

 

Sadly, gathering chords are only too prevelant!  I find it annoying in the extreme (it's the norm at one of the churches I preach at regularly).  Interestingly, I've also played there when their regular musician hasn't been available, and the congregation cope with no problem with proper introductions and breaks - no gathering chords, just straight in to each verse in tempo.  There might be a slight hiatus on the first verse of the first hymn, but that's all.

 

I was once taken to task for not using them when I deputised for a friend - strange, because I never heard him use them either!  I was taught one bar silence between verses, no gathering chords, no rallentandos except perhaps at the end of the last verse - and introducions at the speed you're going to sing the hymn at.  (I don't always stick to the one bar break - sometimes it's just 2 long and 1/2 bar feels better - depends on the hymn)

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

 

 

[if you're asking, I'm a two-beat man, but I extend or shorten the last note of the preceeding verse in order to make this work.]

 

Of course, the most vital point in this topic is that God's Local Representative has to be indulged from time to time. However, as organist you do have the obligation to make hymns vital and congregation-friendly. This would include (in my book) not playing them in a high key unless you are all in truly festive mode. I have heard it suggested that playing hymns slowly allows (particularly) older singers to breathe better, but it also lengthens the phrases doesn't it?!

 

Deputising once at St.Chad's in Shrewsbury many years ago, I was given to understand that the congregation were only capable of singing hymns if indulged with gathering notes. No chance! I wasn't going to take any prisoners - follies of youth etc. etc. In any case, I might have got ahead of them in the first verse of the first hymn, but they cottoned on after that and we had a really good evening. I have maintained this policy everywhere I've ever been. Congregation-power (in rhythmic terms) is self-destructive.... don't go there!

 

Cautionary tale to support my views:

I once stayed on in the loft after a Sunday afternoon recital in Westminster Abbey and watched the Organ Scholar (exact name now forgotten) as he accompanied the congregational service that followed on. [bear in mind that the W.A. console is placed quite some way away from a congregation either in the choir or the nave.] To my alarm, he proceeded to follow the congregation to the extent that every hymn got slower and slower. Even in a small building, because the congregation appear to be singing slower than you're playing, you may feel guilty and decide to follow them instead. No! You have to ignore any such impression and stick to your guns.

 

Mind you, I firmly recommend the advice I saw printed in a fairly recent hymn-book that the organist should also (virtually) sing along, to ensure that enough space is left for people to breathe. Even the most rhythmic hymn playing has to allow for an appropriate pause at certain points... even add an extra whole beat if required.

Nun Danket would be a case in point.

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[if you're asking, I'm a two-beat man, but I extend or shorten the last note of the preceeding verse in order to make this work.]

 

Of course, the most vital point in this topic is that God's Local Representative has to be indulged from time to time.

 

The problem here is that many of my colleagues have no idea at all musically - and all too often don't want to know or change their own ideas.

 

However, as organist you do have the obligation to make hymns vital and congregation-friendly. This would include (in my book) not playing them in a high key unless you are all in truly festive mode. I have heard it suggested that playing hymns slowly allows (particularly) older singers to breathe better, but it also lengthens the phrases doesn't it?!

 

Deputising once at St.Chad's in Shrewsbury many years ago, I was given to understand that the congregation were only capable of singing hymns if indulged with gathering notes. No chance! I wasn't going to take any prisoners - follies of youth etc. etc.  In any case, I might have got ahead of them in the first verse of the first hymn, but they cottoned on after that and we had a really good evening. I have maintained this policy everywhere I've ever been. Congregation-power (in rhythmic terms) is self-destructive.... don't go there!

 

I thoroughly agree - that's what I've always done and I've never had any problems with it. As you say, get the first verse over and the congregation soon cotton on and do it right.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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There is no definitive answer as to what is the right tempo for hymns.  It all depends on the hymn, the acoustic of the building and personal preference.  I do find that if hymns are played too fast then it robs the music of feeling and passion; if too slow then it can drag and become druggy.
I suppose personal preference is likely to be everyone's staring point, but it can be spectacularly misguided. At my father's funeral I asked for "The day thou gavest" because it was one of his favourite hymns. The organist played it like a dance - virtually one in a bar. He wasn't going to have any sentimental wallowing, not on your life he wasn't. Knowing the gentleman concerned I have no doubt that he thought he was being terribly vital and musical, but everyone else was unanimously disgusted.
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I tend to err on the side of speed, too. After practicing "Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire" at a "flowing" tempo with the choir and polishing it up, I was very annoyed to have to take it at 2/3s speed with the congregation on Sunday and it started to drag...

 

My congregation is extremely vocal and ultra-sensitive on the topic of hymn tempo - I usually get feedback if there was a deputy who was a bit slow or if I took one a bit quickly. On one occasion, there was a deputy who took "Living Lord" with the pulse as crotchets rather than minims, which was deadly and provided conversation over coffee for 3 weeks...

 

One thing I suggest is to record yourself playing a hymn and playing it back to see whether the tempo is right - I often find that the tempo I imagine I'm playing at and the tempo I'm actually playing at are 2 very different things...

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On one occasion, there was a deputy who took "Living Lord" with the pulse as crotchets rather than minims, which was deadly
Ah, a man after my own heart! Not only do I take it in crotchets, I also play it with four-square Victorian homophony. It's a sort of protest, you understand. ;)
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