One of my students recently remarked, “I’ve noticed that congregations really like to slow down the hymns, so I start really fast so by the time we get to the last verse it’s not dragging too badly.”
It’s true. Most congregations, left to their own devices, will slow the tempo of their singing significantly as the hymn progresses. My observant student had one strategy. But let me offer another. It’s kind of radical, though, so be prepared….
Don’t Listen to the Congregation! Allowing the congregation to control the tempo is like the train that slows down because the engine is too far in front of the caboose. If your congregation sounds like they’re too slow, stop listening to them. Focus on your playing. Keep a steady pace and they’ll follow you.
In a post about the phenomenon of sound delay, Vidas Pinkevicius asserts that the only cure to congregational drag is for the organist to look at the conductor and not listen to the sound. Vidas goes on to say:
Actually, [sound delay] is one of the major reasons we hear some church congregation members and some organists dragging the tempo when singing hymns. This is so natural—people listen to the organ and sing only when they hear the sound. The organist also listens to the congregation and plays on time but in reality – he or she is late. The cure for it is this: keep the constant pulse, and ignore the singing. In other words, you must constantly be in a leading position and not following.
Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive but listening to the sound in the room slows you down. What happens is that you press the key and wait for the [singing]. The sound is delayed by a second, and you feel like you can’t press the next note UNLESS you hear the [singing]. So it is a circle which slows down performance tempo.
It’s just like we sing in Do As I’m Doing “If I do it fast or slow…follow, follow me.” But you need to remember, that you are the leader…sort of…I mean, there is that person up there with waving arms…but we’ll get to the music director in a minute. Let’s start with the organist.
The hymn introduction gives the opportunity for the organist to establish the tempo of the hymn. My first organ teacher taught me to make the most of this ‘moment of glory’ by practicing the introduction as much (or more than) I practice the full hymn. She also encouraged me to use a metronome in practice and at the church service. Shortly before playing the hymn introduction I switch on my metronome (in silent mode, of course!) and keep it on long enough to get the pulse of the hymn in my mind.
Now to the music director.
Some music directors try to lead the congregation like they would a choir. But it’s no secret that most congregations will follow the organ regardless of what the director does. So why is the music director even there? Well, once the hymn starts, the director is the one to help the organist keep a steady tempo. A competent, confident music director will lead the organist and the organist will lead the congregation.
I realize that competent, confident ward music directors are hard to come by. But whatever the skill level of your director, do your best to work with him/her. Work together to ‘tune out’ the congregation—to establish and maintain an appropriate tempo and become the ‘musical engine’ that pulls that long train along at a steady, consistent and comfortable pace.