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Music in Worship is Selah's occasional newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational song

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?

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 breaks.

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 breathing patterns;

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 complete thoughts).

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.


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