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3 Tips for Playing from a Hymnal

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

For the last 20 years I've been the Music Director at a small United Methodist Church near my home. I actually went to a job interview when I was 7 months pregnant and told the committee that my first baby was due on December 29th. Christmas is sort of a big time in the church calendar, so when they hired me anyway, it felt like quite the statement of faith in me. My daughter, Katie, arrived on December 22nd and we spent that first Christmas together in the hospital. Volunteers in the church covered for me and I went back to work in late January. Since then, the dear people at Summit United Methodist Church have become part of our extended family.

But, my personal church music story begins a long time ago. I played my first church service at 14 years old, guided by my dear teacher Mrs. Markiewicz. She was an amazing church musician and writing in the chords in hymnals was a regular part of our lesson time.

For pianists who have never played from a hymnal, church music can be a weird experience. Hymns are generally written in 4-part harmony, designed for singing. You can play what's written, but it will feel block-y and not terribly supportive for the average singer.

A few tips for playing from a hymnal...

  1. Bring out bass notes by playing them in octaves in the left hand. Very often this simple move will give more stability to your playing. If you need to leave out the tenor part to do this, I say go for it. Sometimes the tenor part can easily be slipped into the right hand.

  2. Write in the important chords. If you're new at hymnal playing this is a great exercise. Don't feel like you have to account for every passing note. Just determine what key you are in and search for the I, IV & V chords. Now you have a great framework.

  3. Don't be afraid to shift octaves. Take the left hand down, move the right hand up... it's totally your call. Treat the hymnal kind of like a leadsheet once you have written the chords in.

What else do you wish you knew about playing church music?

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