Book: Mini-Course on Creative Hymn-Playing

John Ferguson. New York: American Guild of Organists. 815 Second Avenue, Suite 318, $20.00.

John Ferguson, organist at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, has composed this excellent course for church organists. Published in cassette -with-workbook format, the mini-course presents refreshing ideas to stimulate congregational singing. Ferguson's approach is practical, vital, and entertaining—- accessible to organists already trained in the basics of hymn playing (as described in standard methods such as Harold (Reason's Organ Method and Roger Davis's The Organist's Manual) as well as to beginners. Building on simple techniques, Ferguson approaches hymn playing not as a perfunctory duty, but as a creative improvisatory art that can be learned by an organist willing to practice.

Communicating an energetic forward-moving style, the course is illustrated with hymns in which Ferguson often recommends placing the "tactus," or rhythmic pulse, on longer note values than those implied by the time signature: 4/4 then receives two beats per measure, and 3/4 and 2/4 may be felt in one beat per measure. Considerations of acoustics, size of congregation, a hymn's spirit, tune, and harmony, and so on, all contribute to finding the right tempo. Ferguson emphasizes "singing-thinking" a hymn through before playing it.

In the recorded examples Ferguson—employing a fine-tracker pipe organ and, later, a trained, youthful choir in a small recital hall—may seem to play a bit fast. It is important to act on his excellent suggestions in the context of one's own situation (church acoustics, congregation size, organ, etc.), rather than just aping illustrations. In my opinion, feeling the pulse in longer units than notated may create tempos that are too fast for strong singing, particularly in large congregations; it is more difficult and challenging to enliven slower tempos that allow ordinary congregations to breathe and sing confidently and powerfully with unhurried majesty. Ferguson affirms that tempo stability and predictability produce congregational confidence in an organist. He suggests that the organist sing "silently," breathing and exhaling with the congregation, so that he or she can still hear the people singing. Organists will also be interested in his ideas on selectively tying repeated notes in alto, tenor, and bass (never the melody), enhancing the rhythmic pulse of hymn playing.

In addition to standard organ registration schemes at three basic volume levels, Ferguson suggests a variety of solo combinations, including principal chorus, cornet, and trumpet stops that bring out the tune. To reinforce and support male singing, Ferguson recommends playing the tune down an octave or actually playing the tune in right-hand octaves (in tenor and soprano range) on a strong sound. He also gives appropriate registrations for women or men singing alone. These ideas vastly expand the limited repertoire of sounds employed by many organists and encourage expressing the meaning of a text (in a quiet hymn, for example) through varied, colorful sounds, found even on small organs. Study of the tune and text is fundamental to unhackneyed, creatively varied hymn accompaniment.

Taking the mystery out of improvisation, Ferguson proceeds to describe eight easy steps that can be applied in varying degrees by most organists. Specific techniques, many illustrated in the workbook, include (1) playing the melody on a solo registration; (2) playing the solo melody in (right hand) octaves (tenor and soprano range); (3) filling-in leaps in part writing with passing tones (interestingly, when Ferguson illustrates this, the tempos relax and seem less rushed); (4) combining solo registrations with filled-in leaps; (5) creating a walking bass in the pedal; (6) dramatically alternating unison with harmony accompaniment; (7) delaying the down beat (the "Paul Manz kick"); and (8) applying pedal points. Most of these simple departures from the page can be applied without changing the printed harmonies, making it possible to provide accompanimental variety without disturbing the part singers.

For the organist who has mastered 1-8, Ferguson offers some additional suggestions. He illustrates (9) relocating the tune (to the tenor or bass) and (10) completely reharmonizing the hymn—two advanced techniques that presume practical music theory preparation by the organist. (He recommends programmed theory texts, inadvertantly left out of the bibliography.) Published free harmonizations (by T. T. Noble, Gerre Hancock, Ferguson, and others) may be employed, or, better yet, used as models for one's own efforts—always played with a secure sense of rhythmic and harmonic direction.

Ferguson's suggestions for applying these ideas for varied congregational singing are particularly important since they emphasize employing a balance of simple straightforward methods with a few "special" techniques, moderated by a sense of liturgical propriety and good taste. Exciting performances of complete hymns ("Crown Him with Many Crowns" and "At the Lamb's High Feast") with a beautiful Dobson pipe organ and the St. Olaf College Chapel Choir are models of restraint and creative variety.

Most important are Ferguson's admonitions to organists to communicate with their ministers, committees, and congregations in order to encourage congregational involvement in vitalizing hymn singing. Sample bulletin and newsletter announcements are provided in the workbook.

Ferguson is at his most creative in his suggestions for improvising hymn introductions. Since he feels that the purpose of an introduction is primarily to give pitch (not the tempo!) and spirit of a text and tune, he encourages accomplished organists to experiment, using their own knowledge of harmony and motive development. For short introductions to familiar hymns, Ferguson illustrates fanfare ideas, sequentially repeated motives, and motives derived from a tune; ostinato motive (also tune-derived) and ritornello technique (with a newly created tune recurring between phrases of a hymn) provide the means for making longer preludes. He recommends study of the published repertoire and improvisation as mutually beneficial.

The techniques for making short introductions are the same as those for making interludes (with or without modulation)— not discussed in this mini-course. Rather, Ferguson recommends the use of the "organ stanza," a setting of a hymn stanza played organ solo in a manner that reflects the meaning of the text, which the congregation is invited to contemplate while listening. Given Calvin's insistence on fully active congregational participation, musicians in the Reformed tradition might quibble with the organ substituting for actual congregational singing. They might tend to disallow choral and organ substitutes for congregational responses—even if an alternate setting expresses the text. Calvin's doctrine is, after all, the major reason for the historic development of vigorous and powerful congregational singing in Reformed churches. Hand-in-hand with that development has gone the flowering of monumental organ building and the art of Gene-van-Psalm-based organ improvisation, particularly in the Netherlands.

In spite of that hesitation, this superb mini-course deserves widespread dissemination: church organists at all levels of accomplishment can learn from it; ministers and congregations would enjoy the clear exposition of the organists' art, delightfully illustrated in sound; and churches may wish to purchase it for their lending libraries. Remembering Ferguson's advice to make these ideas your own ("it is not enough to copy!"), organists will be encouraged by this model of how to stimulate and accompany congregational singing with greater subtlety, sensitivity, and imagination.


One of my most humorous memories of our meetings is of Cal Seerveld silently waving his white handkerchief in surrender as Tony Hoekema made a case to retain a hymn that had been temporarily deleted.
—Dale Topp (PH)

My greatest wish is that the new hymnal will be such that all of the hymns are used by most of the churches.
—Calvin R. Malcor (TH)

I'll never forget the first meeting I attended after recovering from heart surgery. Opening devotions for that meeting started with Psalm 108: "My Heart Is Fixed, O God."
—Jack Van Laar (PH)

I hope simply that the hymnal gets a fair try in the churches. If it cannot stand on its own feet in a fair trial, then loyalty to the church ought not to require any congregation to use it.
—Dale Topp (PH)

Rudolf Zuiderveld is professor of music at Illinois College, Jacksonville, Illinois, and organist at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield.


Reformed Worship 4 © June 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.