Hymn Playing with Mrs. Ruth Brown

Throughout this interview, Mrs. Ruth Brown shares valuable insights about how to play congregational hymns to the glory of God by giving tips about hymn playing preparation, what to think about during the song service, and even more.

Who encouraged and helped you as you were learning hymn playing?
I started playing hymns in junior high, and I wanted to play for my school chapel service.  However, my dad thought I was too young to be involved. After my persistence, my dad gave me a list of 50 chorus titles, and told me that I could play for chapel once I learned the pieces by ear. Conquering this list helped me learn the basic chords in each key. Being able to play by ear is not a requirement for hymn playing, but it really helps and it CAN be developed.

In high school, I would listen to Mrs. Garlock play hymns at Southside, and then I would go home and try to play the fillers she played. When I got to college, I was able to study with her, and she so tenderly encouraged me and helped me hone my hymn playing skills. She was a wonderful mentor to me, and encouraged me to major in music. I was a speech major my first year; but, she asked me to prayerfully consider majoring in music. Mrs. Garlock was a huge influence in my life.

Why is it important to be able to play hymns well?
The primary goal of playing hymns well is to bring glory to God. The hymn player provides structure for the congregation as they sing. We become their metronome, we drive the tempo, and we play chords that are accurate so that the moving parts have support and not frustration. Excellence in hymn playing comes from careful work and deliberate preparation.

If you can play all kinds of fillers, but your chords are wrong or you aren’t following the director, you’re almost useless. If you know the hymns well, you can look up often. But if you’re playing in survival mode, you can’t focus on the song leader. Beware of being tied to your music.  Know it so well that you can watch the director.

What are some ways to prepare for hymn playing?

  • Learn chords and inversions well – this helps to quickly recognize chords in hymns for fillers
  • Practice octave scales with really loose arms
  • Learn your scales and cadences! This helps you feel at home in every key
  • Start by learning several hymns and fillers in one key – Once you are comfortable playing fillers in one key ( F major, for example), it is easy to transfer those fillers to other keys.
  • Practice following the director—get used to using peripheral vision to keep your music and conductor in view.
  • Practice hymns in different tempos so that you can easily play the tempo your conductor would want.

How does a pianist support the congregation?
A pianist can support the congregation by playing with a confident, authoritative, steady sound.  This confidence is contagious. If a pianist plays with a timid sound, many times the congregation will not sing as well.

What are some ways a pianist can support the song leader?
Something Dr. Budahl said was a wonderful analogy: “The pianist is like the engine of a tractor trailer. It’s the front compartment, the congregation is like the load, and the song leader is steering. The pianist is pulling the load, but someone is steering the pianist.”

Try to communicate with the song leader often so he feels like he can give feedback.   Assure him that you welcome feedback in order to be a good support to him.   Some ideas are included below:

  • Find out if he likes long or short introductions.
  • Ask if he wants modulations in between songs or if he would prefer you to completely stop and give a new introduction.
  • Ask if he wants you to play as he introduces the song or if he prefers you to wait until he is done talking.
  • During the song service, try to keep the song leader in your peripheral vision, and watch him for changes.
  • After a service, ask the song leader if he was happy with tempos in the singing.

If you constantly excuse a problem he brings up, he may stop trying to communicate.

Remember we are not there to lead the singing. We are there to support the song leader. Our goal is to do what he wants, even if it’s not what we would do if we were leading. Congregational playing has to be about supporting the song leader. Even if he goes to the wrong song or wrong page, I’m there. I’m not going to make any sign that anything has changed. The goal is to have a united front. My whole goal has to be to support the song leader.

Sometimes the introduction to a hymn gets blown off as, “it’s just the introduction.” Why is the introduction important?
It is crucial to “set up” the song well for the song leader.  The introduction provides the right tempo and implies the mood of the song.  Make your best guess for the most reasonable tempo and mood of the song.  Sometimes we guess wrong, so watching the song leader is crucial to make those necessary changes.

There are also differences of opinion on whether to use a ritardando on introductions. I interviewed nine seasoned song leaders across the country.   Seven said they would not want a ritardando because it takes the energy out of the entrance of the song.  The exception would be if the song ends on a half note measure (i.e. – “Trust and Obey” – there’s no time for a filler).

What are some things for a hymn player to think about as they play?
There are so many things that go through a hymn player’s mind:

  • Be constantly aware of tempo and keep a close watch on the song leader.
  • Keep the tempo steady but remain sensitive to the song leader for changes.
  • Try to avoid being predictable in fillers.
  • Continue to play with complete accuracy—different hymnals use different chords and you must be careful to adjust to each hymnal.
  • Try to think about the verse that is being sung – sometimes each verse calls for a change of mood. In the song, “Arise My Soul Arise,” each verse calls for a different mood. Play the verse that begins with, “Five bleeding wounds” much differently than the verse that begins with, “My God is reconciled.”

Your goal as the pianist is to help the leader thoughtfully lead the congregation in worship.

One time when I was in high school, my dad was leading the invitation, and I was playing and doing all kinds of fancy stuff in the background. He talked to me later, and told me that during the invitation we want the focus to be on what God is doing in their heart – not what I am doing on the piano. He reminded me that I can help them worship by being appropriate and not distracting.  This was a wonderful lesson for me.

How do you handle difficult hymns where the song leaders do long holds that aren’t written?
If possible, I would ask before the service where the song leader wants to hold, and ask if we can practice beforehand. It’s easy to ignore what the song leader is trying to do under the pressure of everyone watching; but, figuring it out before you go into the service tells the song leader you are committed to supporting his leadership.   If there is no time to clarify this before the service, my goal would be to stay flexible and watch him closely.

You often mention, “don’t be predictable,” to students. Why is this important?
If I play the same filler on every hold, it becomes a distraction because people get tired of it. People tend to stop listening and start picking on and wincing at the predictability of my playing. By adding a fresh sound in fillers and still representing the text, the hymn player can support the congregation’s worship without distraction.

What would you say to a church pianist who feels “stuck in a rut”?

  • Find ways to listen to other hymn players and get ideas.
  • Follow an available live stream where there is a good hymn player and listen for ideas.
  • Ask God to give you opportunities to stretch whether in a workshop, or in lessons from an excellent hymn playing teacher.
  • Approach a pianist who uses different fillers and share ideas.

How should a pianist conclude the hymn?
Generally I would end with a broad, confident sound. For every piece, ask “What mood is this asking of me? Military, active, devotional?” Every piece demands a different response – if it’s devotional, I’ll finish in a devotional way. I’ll still finish with confidence, but not the same as I would finish “Sound the Battle Cry.” Beware of always ending quietly. . . it can sound apologetic.

Do you have any closing comments?
Come to Maranatha!!  Here at MBU, we offer three hymnplaying classes (levels 1-3).  These classes are open to any students, not just to the music majors and minors.  We also offer personal enrichment private hymn playing lessons.   These lessons will help you take the next step forward in hymn playing.   College is the perfect time to focus on skills you will use for a lifetime.   We would love to work with you as you prepare for church ministry ahead!