I can’t play this! I’ll NEVER be able to play this!! NO ONE can play this!!!

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I can't play this!

These thoughts go through my head every time I open a difficult score for the first time. How about you?

Background

This is the slow section of Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra #5, first movement.  In other words, the “piano” part is an orchestral reduction.

The right hand, when played by the orchestra, is divided between two string parts. Pianists, though, are required to perform gymnastic feats in the reduction, playing both parts in the same hand.

This section of the concerto is serene, slow, and quiet.  To achieve a murmuring sound on the piano is difficult, especially due to the fingers passing over one another and because the normally resulting accents must be avoided.  (It is not possible to play all the notes in the right hand while keeping the hand quiet, playing only five keys ((one for each finger)), and not moving to a different range on the keyboard several times.  In other words, don’t try this at home!)

Facebook comments

When I posted the above pic on Facebook, the following discussion ensued:

First, on 5/1:

[Photo caption]
The most recent addition to my catalog of Finger Busters.

[Discussion]

DG:  Finger busters is right!

AE:  What she said!

HW:  Dang!

MDS:  Wowser.

CBW:  Oh my!  :-(

Then, on 5/22:

[Photo caption]
Remember this? The “ack!” phase?

Aced it in today’s performance.
I feel a blog post coming on.

[Discussion]
CH:  Looks “Greek” to me Gretchen but I’m grateful there are artists like you that let those like me enjoy the music!

CBW:  OMG!!!
TP:  Makes my head ache just looking at all those notes!!!

GS:  Exactly. My 1st thought when opening a score is often, “I can’t play this… I’ll NEVER be able to play this… NO ONE can play this!”

And then I learn it.

TP:  Some people like a challenge and some are gluttons for punishment!GS:  And some find it necessary to freak out EVERY TIME. I don’t think child prodigies do that…

TP:  In my trade we call it it SIDS…self induced disaster, the process of psyching yourself out before you even know what you’re up against! lol

GS:  I b the expert!

SN:  So how did the tempo end up?

GS:  120 and 72. Felt reasonable, thank God…

GN:  A great feeling to have worked something out in practice and then play it in performance with no “hitches” . . . .nice work!

GS:  Thank you!

KC:  cool, still growing into the job, Gretchen, that is so great.

GS:  Oh, I have the same reaction every time I open music I haven’t played that looks difficult.

Reality check 

How long did it take to reach performance level with this piece?

Although my Facebook “bookend” posts were three weeks apart, I was busy when I first looked at the score.  There was no time to practice it right away.

After consulting my practice notes, I realized that I had learned the piece at performance tempo in 8 or 10 days.

Got perspective?

This is not an idle question.  I am genuinely curious.  This is an aspect of people’s careers that is rarely talked about, as far as I know.

I am well aware that many musicians learn music faster than I do.  One of the vocal coaching fellows at Tanglewood (there were 3 of us that summer) could learn even a newly composed score still in manuscript form and perform it in 3 days.  He had the enviable ability to skip the practice stage most of us need to get the music into his hands.  Currently head of the composition department at BU, he is a conductor, composer, wonderful pianist, and vocal coach.

My teacher at Aspen was practicing Hindemith slowly with the metronome when I arrived for my lesson one day.  She had never played the piece.  Four days later, she performed it flawlessly, much faster.  So I went home and learned how to practice slowly with the metronome, increasing the tempo in increments.

On the other hand, another teacher practiced Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” for an entire year before performing it.

What was Horowitz’s time requirement for mastering the repertoire he performed? Rubinstein?  Glenn Gould?  Myra Hess?  Clara Schumann?

A pianist who was interviewed on NPR, when discussing a recent CD release, let it be known that he had practiced one piece for 15 years before ever performing it!

So it seems that preparation time is highly variable.

First take

What do child prodigies say to themselves when first opening a score?  Have you heard anyone talk about that?

I suspect that my self-talk may stem from the fact that I was not a prodigy. While there was music in my family, many musicians I know listened to recordings and attended concerts from an early age.  Several had parents who were professional musicians.  They had mentors who connected them with effective teachers.  Good instruments were acquired early.  All of that makes a difference.  I’ve been playing “catch up.”

A childhood friend recently reminded me that, when I would be invited to go somewhere, my response would always be, “I can’t.  I have to practice.”

Following my senior recital in college, a few friends came back to the recital hall from the distant reception to ensure that I was planning to attend.  They were afraid I would go back to the practice room immediately.  (I’m slow about packing up after a performance.)

B.B. King said it very well:

“It seems like I always had to work harder than other people. Those nights when everybody else is asleep, and you sit in your room trying to play scales.”

My audience!

 

And now I’d like to thank my audience, who listens attentively whenever I practice and never, ever complains.  And thanks also to everyone who commented on Facebook.

What do you say to yourself when you open a difficult score for the first time?  Do you have a panic response?  See it as a challenge? KNOW you’ll be fine even before you begin?  Do you have an idea about how long it will take you to learn a piece before you’ve even started?

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Are you heading into June without a teacher? Need fresh ideas to share with your students? 

My E-book helps you practice more effectively, teach students as individuals, and perform with confidence.

http://gretchensaathoff.com/e-books/e-book-goal-oriented-practice/

Thank you!

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How a piano technique book changed my playing forever

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Fingerrüsseltier

Image via Wikipedia

Would you like to improve your technique and feel more secure on the keyboard?  This free download will put you on the path to improvement.

(Reposted from 2011.)

Shortly after college, my teacher insisted that I work through Alfred Cortot’s “Rational Principles of Pianoforte Technique.”

It is no exaggeration to say that this book changed my playing forever.

Does this provide instant improvement?  No.  Not if you’re looking for the kind of results that come from calling the number on your television screen in informercials.  One commercial features a guy who promises pie-in-the-sky results.  Learn to play the piano in 5 minutes!  In fact, his method works so well, he demonstrates how to play with a red and white checked tablecloth thrown over the keyboard!

Cortot’s exercises, done daily for a few minutes, will have you playing so much better in 6 months, though.  That sounds worth the effort, doesn’t it?

Full disclosure:  I completed half the book in six months, opting not to continue.  I use what I learned every day, and it has been a long time since my first introduction.

Exercises

Cortot’s instructions indicate that the exercises begin in C Major, 5-finger position (one finger on each key, C-G).  After that, you do the same exercise in C minor.  As soon as that’s comfortable, you move up 1/2 step.  That, of course, immediately changes one’s perception of how easy the exercise is.

After becoming comfortable at C-sharp, you will continue moving up 1/2 step at a time.

After doing several exercises in this way, you begin to think that the C-sharp 5-finger position can be just as comfortable as C Major.

Results

Feeling in hands

Working on these exercises allowed me to feel the weight of my hands for the first time.  I had a new sense of where I was on the keyboard, and could feel intervals.

Finger independence

This book shows you how each finger can play independently of the others.  You learn that you can use combinations you never would have thought of.  And playing one part more prominently than others in the same hand is much easier.

Directionality

Passing the thumb under the right hand on the way up a scale is so much more than that.  I can now proceed in the direction of the line I’m playing.  My hands are no longer square with the keyboard at all times, and I can feel my arm moving.

Fingering choices

Any fingering you need becomes available to you because you develop so much more flexibility.  The fingerings indicated in the exercises make so much sense.

Sticking

Like a gymnast “sticking” the landing from a dismount, I feel like I can stick to the keys.

Security

Because of practicing scale and arpeggio passages in 2 groups, thumbs and everything else as a block of notes, I know where I’m headed and find each new hand position quickly.

Free download!

This book was $90 (or was it $100?) when I was in college.  It is now available as a free PDF!

Also available for purchase from Amazon for $15.54

Have you come across these wonderful exercises?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section!

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Are you heading into June without a teacher? Need fresh ideas to share with your students? 

My E-book helps you practice more effectively, teach students as individuals, and perform with confidence.

http://gretchensaathoff.com/e-books/e-book-goal-oriented-practice/

Thank you!

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Quotations to inspire us all!

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Quotation post

Inspiration is on the way!

Sometimes at the end of the semester, it’s difficult to find the energy to practice.  Who wants to learn notes, words, and fingerings after being sleep-deprived for so long?  Besides, didn’t we all just learn a ton of music?

Does this sound familiar?  I have felt this way many times.

Being consistent about practicing has its good points, though.  For one thing, it’s so hard to start over from nothing.

Hence the following.

*****

Quotations:

~ Winston Churchill

British Government - This is photograph HU 90973 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

British Government – This is photograph HU 90973 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied “then what are we fighting for?”

*****

~ Martha Graham

Martha Graham mit Bertram Ross in Visionary recital, aufgenommen von Carl van Vechten am 27. Juni 1961.  Source:  Wikimedia.  Public domain.

Martha Graham mit Bertram Ross in Visionary recital, aufgenommen von Carl van Vechten am 27. Juni 1961. Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

“We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.”

“Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

*****

~ Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein, half-length portrait, seated, facing right Inscribed on mat: Mrs. Eugenie Meyer zum Andenken an ihren Besuch in Caput [i.e. Caputh] am 15.VIII.31. Albert Einstein.  Source:  Wikimedia.  Public domain.

Albert Einstein, half-length portrait, seated, facing right Inscribed on mat: Mrs. Eugenie Meyer zum Andenken an ihren Besuch in Caput [i.e. Caputh] am 15.VIII.31. Albert Einstein. Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

*****

~ Beverly Sills

Beverly Sills sings “All The Things You Are” by Jerome Kern

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”

“You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.”

*****

~ B.B. King


“There are so many sounds I still want to make, so many things I haven’t yet done.”

*****

Or we could all try this!

~ Artur Schnabel

Artur Schnabel (* 17. April 1882 in Kunzendorf (Lipnik) bei Biala; † 15. August 1951 in Axenstein, Schweiz). Scan from Spemanns goldenes Buch der Musik. Stuttgart: W. Spemann , 1906.  Source:  Wikimedia.

Artur Schnabel (* 17. April 1882 in Kunzendorf (Lipnik) bei Biala; † 15. August 1951 in Axenstein, Schweiz). Scan from Spemanns goldenes Buch der Musik. Stuttgart: W. Spemann , 1906. Source: Wikimedia.

“When a piece gets difficult, make faces.”

(My personal favorite!)

*****

And there you have it.  

What do you do for inspiration?

 

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Please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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Will I Ruin My Musical Career If I Take a Non-Performing Job ?

GretchensPianos:

Think about it!

Originally posted on Dana Fonteneau, MM, MA, LMFT:

Waiter holding coffee cup

I overheard two young musicians speaking recently about what they would do after graduation.  One of them was overcome with worry about how she was going to pay rent.

 “I have a few gigs lined up, but I don’t think it’s going to get me very far.  I might have to take this job I was offered,” Jenn says.

Her friend Sarah asked, “What kind of job?”

 “Admin and telemarketing,” Jenn sighed.

“When are you going to be able to practice?” Sarah asks.

“I don’t know,” Jenn says.  “I guess at night if I don’t have gigs. I’m afraid people are going to judge me and think I’ve failed.  A month out of music school and I’m already giving up. No one’s going to think I’m a serious musician.”


STOP!  REWIND. What if the conversation could go like this instead?

Jenn: I’m thinking of getting a non-music related job.

Sarah: What kind of job?

Jenn: Admin…

View original 939 more words

Perfect pitch and relative pitch: how do they differ?

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Stamps of Germany (BRD) 1962, MiNr 380

Image via Wikipedia

This post went viral when it was first published.  Here it is again for your enjoyment.  Please contribute to the discussion in the Comments section!

Do you have perfect pitch?  Would having perfect pitch be useful?  Can it be learned?  Taught?

Please scroll down to Comment #50 for an expanded view on this topic.

Perfect pitch cannot be acquired ~ either you have it or you don’t.​  A discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of perfect (“absolute”) vs. relative pitch would be pointless, so I’m not going to go there.  Instead, this post will help clarify some of the ways in which the two types of pitch are different.

I don’t have perfect pitch, but feel fortunate to have very good relative pitch.

Someone with perfect pitch can:

  • instantly sing any pitch name​ when asked
  • always sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the original key, D Major
  • hear any music they know in the appropriate key
  • “hear” a score by looking at it, in the printed key
  • begin singing a song note-for-note with accompaniment without anyone giving the pitch in advance

A story!

In a class coached by Martin Katz, I partnered with a singer who had perfect pitch.  We were about to begin “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte when Martin whispered, “Give her the pitch!”

I chose to defy authority and ignore his directions.  We began the aria, the singer was right on, and Martin said, “Oh.”

Another story!

An organist I know also has perfect pitch.  During a wedding in which I collaborated with a singer, he proved it!  The last song before the processional was in the key of A-flat Major, transposed down from the original key.

The organist did not know what our program was, and I was as yet unaware that he had perfect pitch.  In addition, even if had known the song cycle we performed selections from, he didn’t know we were using a transposition.

Immediately following the final song’s piano postlude, I heard John playing the organ nearly imperceptibly.  He began in “our” key, in “our” dotted rhythm, modulating with a big crescendo to D Major, the key of the processional.

I was not only impressed ~ I knew I’d never be able to do that.

Yet another story!

At the wedding reception, John told me that prior to being hired for his full-time position, he was part-time with an additional job in a synogogue.  The Rogers electronic organ had a transposition function.  During one service, he decided to check it out!

He programmed the transposition he wanted and started playing.  When he heard the sound come out in a different key, his hands moved over!

That may be the flip side.  Perfect pitch makes transposing nearly impossible.

Relative pitch allows people to:

  • sight-sing easily by using interval relationships
  • transpose more easily than someone with perfect pitch
  • learn music quickly
  • “hear” a score just by looking at it, but the key may be incorrect
  • come close to singing A-440 (just now, I sang a “G” instead)
  • comfortably listen to music not exactly “at pitch”

When I was in college, a chorus I was singing in lost pitch during a concert.  The conductor looked at me to ask for a pitch for the next piece!  He must have though I had perfect pitch.

I gave him a pitch and hoped it was close.  (Having a discussion with the concert in progress didn’t seem like such a great idea.)

A few years later, everyone in Tanglewood‘s vocal program was required to attend sight-reading classes.  All of us were excellent sight-readers, so we loathed going to class.  It felt like a waste of good practice time.

So we took turns showing up, a few at a time.  After four or five days of this, we began getting notes in our mailboxes from Seiji Ozawa!  We had to go to class or be dismissed from the program.

To be fair, this was a class in sight-singing contemporary music.  The method used was fixed “do,” with numbers.  (“Do” was always “C,” so “C” was 1, “D” was 2, etc.)

Learning relative pitch

A person’s pitch can be improved through the use of solfedge and other methods.  (But again, perfect pitch cannot be learned.)  I have also found that when someone takes piano lessons, s/he can acquire a visual conte​xt that provides a consistent reference point.

Related articles

What is your story?  I’m all out.  Do you have perfect pitch?

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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I can sight-read. Why bother with fingering?

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Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

This is a question I encounter so often!  

Short answer:  Because if sight-reading is all you ever do, then that’s the best you will ever play.

Today, while learning a Mozart piano reduction (violin concerto), I had to stop myself from switching between fingers on a single key several times.

We have two options:  sight-reading and improving.  (One is more fun than the other!) The pic above accurately represents the way I feel when I have to write fingerings in my music.

The problem, for me, stems from three sources:

1.  Sight-reading (both music I need to learn and music that’s put in front of me in work situations);
2.  Organ playing; and
3.  Playing for chorus/opera/dance/musical rehearsals.

To elaborate:

1.  Sight-reading is a great skill to have!  Without it, there would be far fewer work opportunities.  The problem is that when one relies only on sight-reading, fingerings are random and so is the resulting sound.  The playing will be slower and have considerably less finesse.  In addition, when sight-reading is the only game in town, the music benefits from very little thought.

2.  Organs and pianos both have keyboards, but they are completely different mechanically.  To sustain a pitch on the organ, the key must be depressed. On piano, the damper pedal is available.  Organists are trained to play a key with one finger, then switch to another while still depressing the same key.  That’s how they navigate around the keyboard while playing legato.  Playing the piano in that manner, however, is not helpful except in cases where the fingering cannot be solved in other ways.

3.  When playing piano reductions (chorus, opera, and concertos where the pianist acts as the orchestra), pianistic fingering is not possible.  There are too many notes included in a piano reduction to fit under the hand. (Reductions are not “pianistic.”)  So “bad” fingering often results.  The object is to get to the next location on the keyboard however you can, ahead of time.

So, what is “good” fingering?

  • Good fingering is pianistic (comfortable);
  • Good fingering enhances the flow of the music;
  • Good fingering makes use of different parts of the hand for intended results.
    • The thumb is heavy;
    • The pinkie gets a bright sound;
    • The 3rd finger can imitate French horn;
    • The 4th finger is guaranteed to be softer; and
    • 2 and 5 are great for flute solos.

Try playing Mozart.  Unintended accents will be immediately disruptive. Making good fingering decisions is the shortest route to playing appropriately.

Schumann, Verdi, and Prokofiev sound distinct from each other when played by good orchestras.  Why not play them with different sounds on the piano, too?

Why spend valuable practice time eliminating accents produced by the thumb when you could find a better fingering?  Practicing for hours attempting to produce an accented downbeat with the 4th finger is similarly a waste of time.

What do you think?  Is fingering important to you?  How many practice sessions do you spend playing the same music before writing in fingerings?

How do you get around the keyboard?

Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

Please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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Happy birthday, 6-year-old!

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HB6

How could I have missed it? The bizzies, I guess.

My blog turned 6 years old last month!


Rautenberg-Saathoff Duo
Lisa Rautenberg, violin
Gretchen Saathoff, piano
Music of Eduardo Toldra, Clara Schumann, and Bernard Heiden

The juries for which I played (finals for musicians, in which students perform for faculty) were yesterday. Makeup lessons were before that, preceded by subbing for colleagues, and the expected end-of-school year additions and changes. You get the idea.

I have three concerts to go, to be followed by reading actual books!  John Grisham tops the list.

New post coming soon!

Special thanks to each of you for being here.

Gretchen

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

Please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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How can we improve congregational singing? Part VII

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Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

Are you looking for alternatives to standard hymns?  Here is a list of some resources you may want to try:

Alice Parker

Good Singing in Church
Creative Hymn Singing
Alice Parker’s Melodious Accord Hymnal
Alice Parker’s website
 newsletters, workshop information

American Guild of Organists

Mini-course on Creative Hymn Playing
AGO website workshops, resources pertaining to service playing, recordings

Recommendation from a cathedral organist

Hymn Playing:  A Modern Colloquium by Stuart Forster

Joe Kenney

My friend Joe Kenney likes songs by Michael W. Smith and Rich Mullins.  They can be found on YouTube.  Joe makes his own adaptations for solo voice and guitar, sometimes adding a percussion instrument.  I find them quite effective.  The lights and orchestra in the videos are not required to have a positive experience.

Andrew Remillard

Mr. Remillard is in the process of making piano recordings of the entire Presbyterian hymnal.  He says he is about halfway there, and has posted his work on YouTube. Listen to the way he approaches tempo, moving forward when the words demand it.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but I hope it is helpful.  My recommendations include visiting a variety of church services, adapting hymns and worship songs to fit your congregation’s abilities, and thinking outside the box.  By making only a few simple changes, people’s interest and participation can be sparked and congregational singing improved.

Comments and suggestions welcome!

Please see previous posts in this series.

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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How can we improve congregational singing? Part VI

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Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

The following conversation, in response to Part V of this series, took place on Facebook:

  • Contributor Hi Gretchen, what’s your suggestion making sure the congregation doesn’t get thrown off when using alternative arrangements to accompany congregational singing (as opposed to using them when the choir is singing a hymn as an anthem)?
  • Gretchen Saathoff  Hmm… I’ll think about it! At Riverside, it’s not a problem. Have the choir sing the melody, disperse the choir throughout the congregation, try the Hymn of the Month approach, Try practicing the alternative arrangement for 2 minutes with the congregation, then use it in the hymn. Use the traditional harmonization for all verses except the last. That way, the congregation has been singing the tune for several verses already.
  • Gretchen Saathoff  And try not to go too far afield with the alternate harmonization. The green Lutheran hymnal that replaced the red one had so many funky arrangements, they made very little sense. So why would anyone want to sing them.
  • Contributor  Thanks, Gretchen. Good advice here. There is a new red Lutheran hymnal, the ELW, that kept some of the old arrangements from the green LBW, and has lots of new hymns without harmonization, just melodies. So that helps. (But they left off the time  signatures, which leads to confusion.) But if the hymn is new, even if only the melody is printed, the alternative arrangement still challenges the ear. And about the funky arrangements, people who can sing parts, oftentimes can sing even the funky ones, and some need to do that, because the melody is too high for them. I like the idea of practicing the alternative arrangement with the congregation – hadn’t thought of it as a possibility before!
  • Gretchen Saathoff  No time sigs? Not especially helpful, I’d think.
    Also, there is no need to use only the arrangements in the book. Change it so it works. Keep some parts and not others. Write a new one. If the melody is too high, something needs to change, such  as trasposing down or maybe singing the melody an octave lower. The congregation needs the choir to sing the melody in unison on alternate harmonizations. When they can hear it, they sing better.
  • Contributor  Great advice!
  • Gretchen Saathoff  There are lots of alternative harmonizations out there: volumes of hymns for organ, choral anthems, hymnals from other denominations, AGO website, etc. Plenty of hymn improvisations can be heard on YouTube.
  • Gretchen Saathoff  Free association, you understand… and now it’s time for dinner! Back later.

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And a followup Facebook Message from yours truly:

During services in various denominations, I sometimes would play an alternative harmonization from a funky organ collection (The Sunday Morning Organist, I think). Just leave out the whiz bang awful parts when they don’t work.

Similarly, there are plenty of anthems that work, for the most part, but also have spots that don’t.  One example is asking the choir to hold the last note for 8 bars.  Does this make the ending better?  Does singing a high note improve the message?  That all depends on the choir, what else is going on (i.e. the keyboard part might be just fine on its own).  Sometimes a “festive” ending will be tacked on that isn’t really needed.  When the rest of the piece works well, I omit the parts that don’t work.

There may be one stanza of an anthem that splits into 8 parts, for example.  When you have 6 people in your choir that Sunday, you have to think on your feet and find something that works.  What do you have to keep?  The melody and the bass line?  Is the alto part more interesting than the tenor, or vice versa? 

If one stanza is too elaborate for your circumstances, then sing the rest of the anthem and omit that one.

If the printed introduction is too long or too short, or is confusing to your choir/congregation, then by all means change it!

Thanks so much to my contributor, who prefers to remain anonymous.

Which approaches have the most success in your church?Comments and suggestions welcome!

Please see previous posts in this series.

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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How can we improve congregational singing? Part V

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Femme_accordant_son_luth; Gerard van Honthorst (Gerrit van Honthorst) (1592–1656); Source:  Wikimedia

Femme accordant son luth; Gerard van Honthorst (Gerrit van Honthorst) (1592–1656); Source: Wikimedia

How can we introduce new hymns and worship songs to our congregations?

People attend church for many reasons.  Among them are:

  • to seek comfort and stability
    • through ritual (liturgy, order of worship)
    • through familiarity
  • to hear compelling sermons
  • to listen to the music
  • to participate in making music
    • by singing hymns
    • by singing in the choir
    • by playing in the bell choir

We need to respect the desire for comfort and stability when introducing new hymns. Important factors include:

  • Accessibility of the music
  • Clear, inviting introductions
  • Familiar hymns must be used in any service that includes a new hymn
  • Remember that congregations in most churches are comprised primarily of non-musicians

Congregational Seating

If congregants are seated with large spaces between them, such as empty rows, encourage them to move forward and sit closer together.  This builds community and encourages people to sing.  They will hear each other much better and feel supported.

Hymn of the Month

This is an excellent way to give the congregation time to become more familiar with something new.

Including a different new hymn in every service is a good way to discourage participation. People feel overwhelmed and stop participating.  One new hymn or less per month is plenty, in my experience.

Rehearse with the Choir

  • Yes, rehearse new hymns with the choir (and familiar ones, too.)  It makes a huge difference when the choir understands the words, sings with an emotional connection, and shows enthusiasm.
  • During the service when a new hymn is being introduced, disperse the choir within the congregation.  Ask them to sing the melody until the congregation becomes more familiar with the music.  Part-singing can be added after a week or two.
  • Avoid singing at the congregation or singing instead.  There can be a perceived gap between congregation and choir regarding ability which results in a reluctance on the part of congregants to try singing.
  • In my organist/choir director positions, I have enjoyed using something familiar as an anthem from time to time.  One way to do this is to use an alternative harmonization for one verse.  A descant could be added, or the parts could be sung in different combinations (S and B, S and A, asking the tenors to sing the melody in T B, or making the alto or tenor part into a descant).  We invited the congregation to join us on the refrain of each verse.  The idea was to encourage participation, sparking interest and confidence and fostering inclusion.
  • When a hymn is printed with two tunes to the same text, they can both be sung, alternating verses.

Teach New Hymns to the Children

  • This can be done with your children’s choirs or religious education classes
  • Children are quick to pick up new tunes
  • Children will encourage their families to sing
  • As the children become older, you will find the hymn repertoire expanding in the congregation.  So keep on keeping on.

Introduce New Hymns With Children Present

  • Children often leave the sanctuary partway through the service to attend classes. Why not include them in introducing new hymns?  They love to sing!
  • Children sing in other places as well.  When they go home, they will be singing the same music.  Their families, then, will learn it faster.

Hymn Leader

  • Be prepared.  This cannot be overemphasized.  When the leader is unprepared, people stop participating.  Know what pitch to start on, know the tune and the words.  If you are unsure, enlist the help of the church musician(s) or someone in the choir.  If you are playing an instrument, learn the part ahead of time!  When you stop to correct missed notes, people can’t tell where you are, and they stop singing. Enthusiasm is not enough.  You need a plan and the preparation to carry it out.
  • Welcoming.  Leave the guilt trip at home.
  • Inviting.  Enjoy this with me!  Not, I’m going to show you how this goes.
  • Non-operatic.  People hear an operatic sound, feel that they can’t do that, and drop out.
  • Be non-judgmental.  Don’t criticize people for not singing!  Look at the situation instead. Why are they not singing?  It may be due to a lack of clarity, not shyness.
    • Since I am a trained musician, it helps me to think of myself in other situations, for example going into a hardware store.  I know nothing, and always ask for the manager.  Congregants who are not musically trained are also at sea.  It doesn’t mean that they’re stupid.
  • Consider using banjo, guitar, autoharp, or piano, not always organ
  • When organ is used, register the melody louder than the other parts and avoid mixtures.
  • People need to hear an entire verse before singing something new.  If the leader is the only person in the room who knows the song, patience, clarity, and repetition are crucial.  Expecting a group to learn something after hearing it once is not realistic. You might think the song is easy, but in reality you have probably been singing it for years.

I recently participated in a sing-along that used material from Pete Seeger’s wonderful book.  A banjo player who attended would have been an excellent song leader.  The banjo has a timbre that can be easily heard.  His voice had a distinctive quality that would be heard over a group.  He had good rhythm and a great sense of style.  

What he lacked was a method of introducing songs.  He would begin playing, and people had to jump in somewhere if they wanted to sing.  Inexperienced singers have no idea how to do that.

My thought was that, given an appropriate situation with music he was comfortable playing, I would practice with him to find an introduction that worked.  After a few minutes of collaboration, he would have rocked the house!

Hymn-playing on the Piano

Leading hymns from the piano requires a specific way of playing.

  • More percussive than a solo piece (i.e. Schumann), in order to be heard during the singing.
  • Voiced so the melody stands out.
  • Prominent bass line for support.
  • Every note must be heard.  This may seem unmusical to the player, but when a focused sound cannot be heard, the result is a lack of clarity and easily-perceived rhythm.
  • Using less pedal is very effective in maintaining the tempo.  Congregants may not know how to count rhythm, or be unsure about when to sing next. Sometimes people will wait for someone else to sing first.  When that happens with enough people in a group, the entire group slows down. Acoustics influence the way people hear the tempo as well.

Using Percussion Effectively

Drums and other rhythm instruments, when used to enhance the singing, can be wonderful. But a word to the wise:  don’t drown out the singers!  Your job is to impel the rhythm, not obliterate the sound.  It’s not a percussion solo, you are part of a group.

If you hand out hand instruments to untrained congregants, you could suggest a rhythm for each person to play.  It only takes two seconds, and the results tend to be more successful than random efforts.

Special Events

  • Church dinners, presentations, and gatherings other than services can include singing a new hymn along with several familiar ones.
  • Perhaps one service per month could begin 1/2 hour early for the purpose of singing a new hymn.  Introduce the hymn at the stated time and allow time for coffee.
  • Some churches have a Music Sunday once or twice per year.  A new hymn could be introduced at that time and repeated on subsequent Sundays.

Are you hearing progress?  Are you able to tell?  Ask for feedback!

  • Ask people how they feel
  • Distribute a questionnaire
  • Record the event.  You will always hear so much more on a recording than you can when participating.

What do you think?  Comments welcome!

Please see previous posts in this series.

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