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William Phemister on Lively Piano Accompaniment for Hymns

Church pianists who apply William Phemister’s advice can introduce congregations to hymnody or more deeply immerse them in it. Typical worshipers may be surprised to learn that pianists don’t necessarily play every note as written in the hymnal—and there are good reasons why.

William Phemister is a retired Wheaton College professor of piano living in metro Chicago, Illinois. He has performed, taught master classes, and won piano awards around the world, has served churches as choir director, music director, and organist, and still teaches piano and is a church music substitute. Phemister also composes books of hymn arrangements. In this edited conversation, he talks about new and better ways for church pianists to accompany congregational hymn singing.

How did you get started as a church pianist?

I grew up in a household influenced by the Sunday afternoon radio broadcast of the “Old Fashioned Revival Hour.” Rudy Atwood was skilled at piano improvisation, and young pianists like myself tried to imitate him. He and his choir did the first half of the broadcast. Charles E. Fuller, cofounder of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, preached during the second half.

I started playing piano at age 14 in a Baptist church in Los Angeles, California. Like traditional gospel players back then, I’d fill every half note or whole note by running up and down the piano and using massive boom-boom chords. I got involved in big Saturday night Youth for Christ rallies and won a national gospel piano contest at Winona Lake, Indiana, a hub of evangelical conferences and conventions. But my formal training—at Juilliard, the Peabody Institute, and abroad—gradually changed the way I interpret hymns. I began to use more techniques from classical music.

What do church pianists do that most people in the pew aren’t even aware of?

A hymnbook is basically a vocal score for congregational singing. When the pianist starts with the exact notes as written in the hymnbook, it helps the inner voices (alto and tenor) find their parts. But when a congregation is singing many or all of the hymn’s verses, it’s boring if the pianist plays every verse in the same way. The same is true if an organist plays every verse on the same stops.

Pianists should vary what they play with each hand. They may play the upper three parts as a triad chord with the right hand and play the bass note or bass octave with the left. That could be reversed with the chord in the left hand and the melody in octaves in the right hand, especially to emphasize the melody on an unfamiliar hymn. Perhaps they could play broken chords in a creative way with no melody note, because everyone is singing a well-known melody. In a church with no choir to sing a descant, the pianist could write out or improvise a descant for the last verse. These are things that the typical worshiper never thinks about but just says, “That was lovely!”

What’s one way for church pianists to promote livelier hymn singing?

I was raised in a church where we always had a song leader. In some congregations, the choir functions as a song leader, perhaps singing the first verse alone to wake up a congregation at 9 a.m. worship. But in many churches, the pianist must now be the song leader. Pay attention to the introduction. For a short unfamiliar hymn, it makes sense to play a whole verse as the introduction. For longer hymns, it’s better to play fewer lines, but be sure to end on the hymn’s first chord. Use the same tempo and tonality in the introduction as you will use while you accompany singing. In every case, play with authority—not always loud, but with clarity, precision, and projection. A two-measure interlude between verses gives singers a chance to catch their breath for the next verse. This is very common in England.

And another tip?

Learn how to vary the sound for each verse so your accompaniment stays fresh throughout the hymn. The piano doesn’t have stops and registers like an organ does, but pianists can imitate stops by using high, middle, and low registers. Use different musical textures by changing whether or how you play the melody and harmony together. If, as in many churches in the U.S. South, the piano and organ play simultaneously, then decide ahead of time how you might vary the verses, such as piano and organ together (one on chords, one doing the melody two octaves apart), organ alone, and piano alone.

If you change the key for the last verse, then remember that current generations have been losing their high notes, and women’s voices are generally pitched lower now. So don’t go higher than E flat. Above all, remember that less can be more. Change keys on only one verse of only one hymn, and don’t do it every week.

How important is tempo?

Every hymn has its own correct tempo, depending on the original composition’s historical style, so play it in that style. Getting the congregation to sing at the right speed may require a detached, slightly aggressive attack, especially at the beginning. Do vary the tempo from hymn to hymn—but never within the same hymn. The exception might be if you want to play more broadly and expansively for the last verse. In that case, add more notes as you begin the last verse.

Keep your tempo congregation-friendly, neither dragging nor rushing. Use a metronome while you practice. If you play an “Amen,” play it with the same time signature and tempo as the hymn or doxology.

Should the hymn text affect how the pianist plays the hymn?

Yes! The text should reflect the way one plays. For example, many Christian funerals today focus on celebrating that their loved one is in heaven. But I recently attended a funeral where the pianist beat each song to death, even on sad songs with sorrowful texts. Remember that text punctuation is the basis for phrasing. Not all verses are alike. If you sing along while you practice, you’ll see where to give a rhythmic break, silence, or interlude so singers can breathe. Look at the meaning of the words to know whether to play louder or softer, firmer or lighter.

What’s special about your books of hymn arrangements?

Many books of hymn arrangements have a variety of titles with no explanation for why they were chosen. Nor do they usually include hymn texts. In my forthcoming Hymns of Creation, the texts are embedded in the music. That way the pianist can be more sensitive to punctuation breaks in how the text is sung and to pairing the emotion of the words with how the verse is played.

I have become completely involved in publishing theme albums of hymn arrangements. Besides doing books on Christmas- and creation-themed hymns, I’m working on tunes by William Howard Doane. Moody Bible Institute has its music building named after Doane, and most people know his composition for “To God Be the Glory,” for which Fanny Crosby wrote the text. Many of his hymns have gone out of circulation but are still worth hearing. I attend a Methodist Church and am struck by how many Charles Wesley songs are in our hymnal but how few we sing in worship. So now I’m working on arrangements for great Charles Wesley hymns.

Who do you hope will use your hymn arrangements?

I hope church musicians will use them as service music, such as for preludes, offertories, and postludes. Christian colleges have piano students who need to know about playing hymns, so they can obtain good ideas by practicing my hymn arrangements. Churches and college music departments can use them for special programs. For instance, I have a program based on my Christmas carol arrangements where I briefly introduce the story behind the carol, then play my piano arrangement, and then have everyone sing one or two verses of the carol. The same will be true for Hymns of Creation.