in Worship is Selah's occasional
newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful
articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational
P's and Q's for Organists
(Problems & Questions)
Sue Mitchell-Wallace, F.A.G.O.
Q: How do you know when to phrase in hymn
Playing hymns for successful congregational singing involves
thoughtful preparation. The first step should be to read the
text away from the keyboard to determine its mood, theology,
poetic meter and flow, as well as obvious breathing and grammatical
If the hymn has been favorably "married"
to an appropriate tune, our job as organists is made much easier.
When word and melody breathe together, rise and fall together,
then our playing can't help but enhance the good work of the
author and composer.
Phrasing problems begin when there are times
of conflicting interests in the hymn, such as
1. when the word stress falls on a weak melody
note or a short-valued note, such as an eighth note;
2. when the rhythm of the tune is contrary
to the stresses of the words;
3. when an obvious grammatical break falls
in the middle of a melodic line;
4. when an obvious musical phrase falls in
the middle of a textual phrase.
When such conflicts occur, the hymn can be
quite confusing to singers. Here are some basic rules to keep
in mind to avoid such conflicts:
1. most of the time the stresses of the words
should take precedence over the stresses of the music;
2. text phrasings should be suitable for normal
3. tempos should be determined by the number
of words or syllables to be sung and by the grammatical phrases
that can be comfortably sung during an average breath;
4. it is not necessary to breathe at every
comma: differentiate between weaker commas (which denotes a series
or parenthetical phrases) versus stronger commas (which denotes
Phrasings should follow normal breathing and
speech patterns. The rhythm of hymns must be consistent, but
not rigid. There must always be a sensitivity to the text and
to the taking of breaths, but never an ebb and flow of the pulse.
Sue Mitchell-Wallace is an internationally
noted recitalist and composer.