Reading from a Hymn Book
Dawn S., Michigan
I have a very motivated adult student who has nearly finished Time for More Music. She is able to figure out what most any piece of music says given enough time. She has a good grasp of intervals and knows what many of the notes look like on paper. However, she is becoming frustrated because her goal is to pick up her hymnbook and play songs for her family or her church. Does anyone have advice for how to help move her forward at a reasonable pace toward that goal without her being frustrated and giving up on trying to read they hymnbook.
Brenda D., Colorado
As an experienced church musician, I can say that playing hymns from a hymnal can be difficult for a beginning musician. I saw a couple of simplified hymnals available for sale at www.cokesbury.com. That might give her a way to get started learning to play hymns without feeling frustrated.
Beth S., Tennessee
A student shouldn’t have the expectation that just because they can now read, they can then open a hymnal to any page and play it. Hymns are written for vocalists, not pianists, and so in order to play them properly, it is necessary to go through a certain process of understanding how to play four-part harmony. In the end, it requires quick thinking and improvisational skills to play a hymn well. I take students through gradual steps which take a while to process, but in a nutshell it’s like this:
The RH will play a chord with the melody note on top. In order to do this, the student will need some fluency in inversions to be able to create the rest of the chord under the melody. Often time, you can’t determine just from the treble clef what the complete chord is, so the student must draw from the notes in the bass clef to determine the notes of the chord.
The LH can do all sorts of different LH patterns; i.e. octaves, octaves and chords, rolling octaves, etc, but usually you will look at the bass note to determine the octave.
I would start out with easy hymns in the key of C having few chord changes, like I, IV, and V. Silent Night in C is a good one.
Steps to process RH: 1) identify chords 2) identify passing notes 3) decide inversions to enable the melody to stay on top. 4) figure out hand positions for each move. 5) Practice the chords blocked to start with 6) add
variations like +2 chords, breaking up the chord like Honey Dew variation, broken chords starting at the top, add in extra notes or chord inversions at rest spots, etc.. 7) Process each variation on its own all the way through even though it may seem monotonous.
8) After each variation is mastered, then encourage the student to mix up all variations randomly so as not to be predictable.
Steps to process LH: 1) find bass notes 2) process different variations going through entire song with only one variation at a time; ie. the whole song with bass notes as octaves or bass notes as an octave then a chord inversion,
or bass note as the beginning note of a rolling octave 3) figure out places to put step ups and step downs
Put hands together.
The final test of accomplishment is whether or not a student has properly processed each variation to proficiency so that it becomes a “tool” on their “shelf” and they can then play a hymn and quickly incorporate all variations
randomly and improvisationally. No one likes to listen to a pianist play a hymn the same way from beginning to end. It becomes tedious not only to listen to but also to sing with. The first hymn takes a while like everything new, but the next ones start
going more quickly.
Sue C., Australia
You could get her playing hymns accompaniment style as a first and great step. Choose easy ones to begin with and together work out the chords and write them above the music score. If using split chords to add variation, use the LH note that is indicated on the music this will reinforce the value of the accompaniment program.
Let her know that she can add the melody in with RH when she has mastered the accompaniment by playing the melody note as the highest note in RH and playing other notes that go with the chord below the melody note or she may want to play melody with single note in RH and add an extra chord note/s with the LH.
Hymns are good to play as usually a steady rhythm and not too difficult melody.
Shamara D., Australia
Some hymnals are written out in 4-or-more part harmony, 2 voices per hand, with no chords written in. This could be handled by
1) starting with the RH as a stand-alone melody, then
2) adding the bass line. This is already enough for a family sing-along.
3) The harmony voicing could be introduced into each hand separately
(paying particular attention to vertical intervals: how they look on the page and feel in the hand eg parallel sixths as different from fifths) incorporating plenty of Nancy-Reese-style ease.
For example, RH melody with LH as written. Getting to this point with several hymns will be aurally satisfying for a singer.
This could sit on her playlist for several weeks to then
4) revisit and add further: RH as written with LH bass line only, and later again,
5) the music as written.
6) If the student wants to sing as well, she could add the voice after mastering each stage, first on one syllable like ‘NA’ (as in the word ‘gnat’) or ‘MUHM’, then with lyrics.
7) once each hand is mastered it can still be stressful to play at speed for several verses. To build stamina, different combinations of the above could be played for different verses.
Brianna S., Georgia
I had 10 years of traditional piano lessons, and still had a hard time playing hymns, even just playing exactly what was written without any improv. So I know, hymns are difficult.
However, I can really tell a difference after 4 years of Simply Music. I still have lots of room for improvement, but here is what I have been doing:
First, I go through and figure out from the notes, from the highest right hand note down through the lowest left hand note, what chord is being played. If it is a 4/4 song, I only do beats 1 and 3, and well as if it is a 3/4 song.
I have found that I don’t need to worry about the other beats in most cases.
For example, in my hymn book, ‘Tis So Sweet is in the key of G. I would first figure out the I, IV, and V (G, C, and D). Thus, I am going to expect to see those three chords.
Next, from top to bottom, figure out the notes. “Tis” is B, D, G, G. This is a G chord. Write it above the music. Beat 3, “sweet” G, B, D, G. This is also a G chord. “Trust” is E, C, G, C. This is a C chord. Look at measure 3: “at” is A, D, B, F#. This is D chord.
Again, do this process for beats 1 and 3. When you finish, notice that this hymn (at least on beats 1 and 3 in my hymn book) uses only the I, IV, and V!
Once you have the chords figured out, I play the chords in the bottom using various rhythms, such as the Alberti bass (Tear for a Friend), BMTM, or C, G, octave, G.
In the right hand, right now I am just playing what is written, or sometimes just the melody note, depending on the difficulty of the hymn or my own familiarity with it.
Let me know if you have any questions. I would be happy to talk to you through it on the phone if you don’t understand.
Before Simply Music, I had no idea how to do this. I have now written down the chords to about 100 hymns, and have found that almost all of them only use the I, IV and V!
1. encourage your students to learn their chords really well,
2. to understand that E, G, C is a C chord just like C, E, G is,
3.to really grasp the concept of I, IV, and V in any key
Also, all of the left hand rhythms that I use have come from one SM song or another.
Also, another plus to writing down the chords is that you can then use it as only accompaniment if you want.
Mary R., Michigan
I agree that sight-reading hymns is a very high-level skill. I noticed that the large version of my church’s hymnal that sits on the organ has all the chord symbols printed in it. Makes me think it would be possible to order such a version of most standard hymnals from the publisher. Hymns are almost always SUNG, and as we know, just playing chords works perfectly as an accompaniment for singers.