What every organist everywhere needs to, for the love of all that is good and right, STOP DOING

A few posts ago I wrote about certain problems common to leaders of musical worship, and I pointed out that organists are just as vulnerable to some temptations as are praise bands. Today I’ll write about another temptation peculiar to organists that I’ve noticed an awful lot.

That is the temptation to play any given hymn, response, musical setting, or other piece of music waaaayy too slowly.

If you’ve ever attended a church service that featured organ music, you’ve probably heard what I mean. Sometimes the “waaaayy” of “waaaayy too slowly” is an exaggeration, sometimes it’s not, but the “too slowly” is almost always present.

True story: When I was thirteen and my immediate family moved to a new state, we tried out a bunch of churches in our new town so we could decide which one we wanted to call home. We couldn’t just pick one from our old denomination, because our old denomination was Presbyterian (PCUSA, if you wanted that detail) and our new town was in New England, where Congregational churches abound and Presbyterian churches are few and far between. We eventually settled on our local United Methodist church for a variety of reasons, but one of the minor reasons was that it was the only one whose organist played the hymns at their proper speed.

Anyway, yeah, too often, organists play too slowly.

Sometimes I complain about this problem to a certain friend at my current church, who always counters that the organist is trying to play in a “stately” manner. In fairness to my friend, organs excel at playing in a stately manner, and the organist probably is trying to take advantage of that fact by giving every hymn, response, musical setting, and so on an air of stateliness. She may not even realize she’s doing it.

But there are at least two problems with taking that approach, and therefore at least two reasons I’d like organists everywhere to knock it off.

The first problem is that not every hymn, response, musical setting, or what have you is meant to sound stately. Sometimes a stately is just plain wrong for a given piece. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” for example–or anything else set to the tune “Nettleton“–should sound sprightly, not stately. “Nettleton” can be lively or mellow, though it should be played at the same tempo either way. But it just plain doesn’t have the gravitas you need if you’re aiming for stateliness, so for ol’ John Wyeth‘s sake don’t slow it down.

Try this, organists: Take the lyrics to any given hymn and sit down with them, or better yet stand up or go for a walk or something, and try singing them without an organ or any other instrument, at the tempo that feels most natural and right for that particular hymn. Then, when you return to your organ, play the hymn at that tempo instead of the one you usually use. Your congregation will thank you.

The second problem relates to a general principle of leading musical worship, which is that nothing kills a congregation’s enthusiasm like a song that drags on too long because it’s being led too slow. (This principle also holds for worship bands, youth group guitarists, and anyone else who leads group singing of any kind in any situation ever.) Even just a little too slow, so little you hardly notice if you’re the one leading the singing, can stretch a heretofore lively song out into an utter dirge once you multiply the slowness by three or four verses. When that happens, the congregation feels trapped in the song, and they stop thinking about God and start thinking about how the worship leader really should be playing faster. They stop closing their eyes in joyous rapture and start looking out the window to watch the glaciers whiz by.

The best tempo for any given hymn or musical setting or whatever is whatever tempo is proper for that hymn or musical setting or whatever. Usually that’s whatever tempo feels most natural, absent the limitations of the congregation or the instruments or whatever else might affect the way you lead singing. But I found, in my years leading musical worship for my college fellowship (yup, I was once that guy), that when you’re actually up there in front of the group, sometimes time distorts itself so the tempo that feels right to you then is actually a bit too slow.

The remedy is easy: Err on the side of playing a little too fast. Don’t race through it, of course; that doesn’t work either. Just play a little faster than you think you should. Sometimes that’ll mean that the song or hymn feels a little too fast, sure–but more often than not it’ll mean that you actually get the tempo just right. And your congregation will thank you.

Just please, please, please stop playing everything too slowly. Yes, this means you.

Thank you.


One comment on “What every organist everywhere needs to, for the love of all that is good and right, STOP DOING

  1. Tim says:

    My cousins and I used to lovingly (though critically) refer to this phenomenon as “magestifying” the hymn. Our organist growing up was a chronic magestifier of the final verse.

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