Red Alert—Pianist at the Organ!

Are you a pianist who has just been recruited to play the organ? Then you may want to  read the following ‘Emergency Procedures’ by Parley Belnap specifically developed for those unsuspecting pianists who are suddenly asked to step in at the organ:

Pianists who have had no training on the organ are often asked to play the organ for church services. It is sometimes assumed that all keyboard instruments are the same and that if you can play the piano, you can also play the organ. Although there are some similarities between the piano and the organ, there are important and distinct differences. Often the service of a pianist is needed to play the organ for church services because a trained organist may not be available.

Service to others is an important part of one’s personal commitment. Playing for church worship services is one way to serve others. Pianists should be encouraged to accept this responsibility and use it not only as an opportunity for service, but also for developing their talents.

If you (as a pianist) are called to play for church services, there are some things you can do quickly. These are considered stopgap measures and pianists should be encouraged to use them only as such. They should never become the norm.

Play the hymn as a duet, with two players at one organ

One person will play the soprano part with his/her right hand and the alto part with his/her left hand. The other person will play the tenor part with his/her right hand and the bass part with his/her left hand. Play the hymn in a smooth and singing style. Separate the repeated notes and make breaks at the end of phrases to simulate the taking of a breath. Play rhythmically. Pay attention to the words and feel the meaning and inflection of the phrases. Think and perform lines as a choir would sing them.

Play the melody of the hymn in octaves

Play in a smooth and singing style. Make breaks or simulate taking a breath at the end of the phrases. Play rhythmically as if you are part of an orchestra or other ensemble. Pay attention to the words and try to feel the meaning and inflection of the phrases.

Play the melody of the hymn with the right hand and the bass with the left hand

Omit the alto and tenor parts. Playing all four parts of the hymn on the organ in a smooth and singing style requires an adequate organ technique. Playing just the soprano and bass will sound different to you; but you will be able to project the rhythm, tempo, and the singing style much easier and smoother. Don’t hesitate to use the soprano-and-bass-only style. The rhythm and drive are very important to the success of congregational singing. This simplification will allow you to give your attention and effort to rhythm, tempo, and the singing style of the hymn.

Omit the Tenor Voice

Another possibility would be to play the soprano and alto notes with the right hand and the bass only with the left hand, omitting the tenor part. Playing three parts in a smooth and flowing manner with the hands only is easier than playing four parts. Again, the important point is the continuity, rhythmic drive, and flow of the hymn.

Manual Only Hymns

A useful resource for the pianist who is required to play hymns at the organ is Manual Only Hymns. For a free  download click here. It is also available for purchase from Church distribution centers and from http://www.ldscatalog.com. The benefit of this volume for the beginning organist is found in the simplified accompaniment which allows for smooth flowing lines.

After you make it through the ‘crisis’ be sure to check out the Pedal Point Technique pages, including It’s Not a Piano, Using Your Hands, Using Your Feet and Setting the Stops.

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