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21 Christmas Hymns Played on the Piano

Cory Hall

Recorded on December 2, 2013, on my beautiful and freshly tuned 1929 Steinway, these twenty-one hymns are intended to be listened to from beginning to end, providing the listener with nearly 30 minutes of traditional Christmas music. Many of these hymns may be familiar to most listeners; however, some are lesser known and a couple of them date back as early as the 1500s. I play two verses of each hymn with no additions or improvisations. I love purity and nothing is as musically pure as traditional four-part hymn writing. The father of modern music, J.S. Bach, considered four-part hymns (or, "chorales" as Bach knew them) the foundation of music. I play from the 1989 edition of The United Methodist Hymnal. I hope you enjoy these hymns and hope you will listen to them from beginning to end with no interruptions; however, should you wish to select certain hymns timings are provided so that you may fast-forward to that track in the video. God bless you all and I wish you a pleasant listening experience! PLEASE NOTE: Piano teachers and students please scroll down past the video to read my article addressed to you.

1. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel [0:05] 2. Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates [1:46] 3. Savior of the Nations, Come [2:35] 4. Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming [3:43] 5. Away in a Manger [5:09] 6. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear [6:09] 7. What Child is This [7:21] 8. Angels from the Realms of Glory [8:49] 9. In the Bleak Midwinter [9:40] 10. Good Christian Friends, Rejoice [11:11] 11. O Little Town of Bethlehem [12:13] 12. O Come, All Ye Faithful [13:40] 13. While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks [15:02] 14. Angels We Have Heard on High [16:13] 15. Silent Night, Holy Night [17:34] 16. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing [19:26] 17. The First Noel [20:47] 18. Joy to the World [22:22] 19. O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright [23:12] 20. Once in Royal David's City [25:16] 21. We Three Kings [26:40]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjtdGMMUqaE&w=560&h=315]

Dear Piano Teachers and Students

Having played piano for over 40 years, taught piano for over 30 years, and served as a church organist for 11 years I remain fully convinced to this day that hymn playing has become a lost art. Pianists and students of all levels should practice hymns and chorales on a regular basis. Hymns and chorales are, from a practical standpoint, much more important and beneficial than Chopin etudes. Yet, ask any piano teacher or professor if he/she assigns hymns to students and the answer will most likely be "no." Many piano students have fantasies of playing virtuoso etudes as fast as possible, yet few can play a simple hymn with any sort of expression or control or with clear pedaling. Few pianists can sight read simple hymns, which is unfortunate. I really wish this attitude would change. Teachers and students: Take heed!

In order to demonstrate pure hymn playing, I have selected 21 hymns from the 1989 edition of The United Methodist Hymnal. I am using this hymnal because I was an organist in the United Methodist Church and I am most familiar with these particular harmonizations. Pianists who wish to practice hymns need not use this particular hymnal, but rather, practically any church hymnal will do (i.e., Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist). One could also find an edition of Bach chorales, although they are usually more difficult than standard church hymns. The only drawback and complaint I have with church hymns is the layout. Due to the insertion of text between the clefs, there is often too much space between the treble and bass clefs. This creates a visual problem unless one is accustomed to the standard layout of church hymns. Nevertheless, one easily gets used to this extra space between the clefs after playing about a dozen hymns.

The most important aspects of hymn playing on the piano are: fingering, finger legato, finger substitutions, voicing, pedaling, tempo. I will address these points briefly here.

Fingering: Fingering hymns is difficult to explain to students and is really not an exact science. The general rule is to choose fingerings that allow one to play as legato as possible. One should not get in the habit of always practicing hands separately, since very often voices overlap and can be taken with a different hand than indicated. Just because a note appears in the bass clef (like a tenor note) does not necessarily mean it should be taken with the left hand. Similarly, just because a note appears in the treble clef (like an alto note) does not necessarily mean it should be taken with the right hand. Finger substitutions is a technique more akin to organists than pianists; however, in my view piano students should learn and practice them much more often than they appear to do. Very few piano students these days even know what a finger substitution is. Nothing trains a pianist to play finger substitutions better than hymns and chorales. It is not an exact science, but once one can play finger substitutions with ease and naturalness one has gained considerably more control over the keyboard. I use finger substitutions often -- not just in hymns, but all piano music -- and I never write them into the score, but rather, memorize them and have the ability to change them on the spot if I have to.

Voicing: Perhaps the greatest benefit piano students will walk away with after practicing hymns is gaining the ability to control four voices at a time and project or "voice" them to varying degrees. As a general rule when playing hymns like these it is a good idea to voice the soprano or melody line over the other three voices. I remember I used to have a professor in college who always emphasized "projecting the tops," and he said that pianists should make the melody more audible than the harmonies or accompaniments because this is what most people automatically hear. Listen carefully to my video and you will hear that I almost always make the melody line a bit more projected than the other three lines below. A good introduction to this technique is to play a four-voice chord like C-G in the bass and tenor with E-C in the alto and soprano and then practice voicing one note over the others while playing all four notes simultaneously. Pianists do not learn subtleties of voicing and chord control by practicing Chopin etudes. These are skills that one can really only learn by practicing hymns and chorales. Bach was correct when he referred to chorales the foundation of music!

Pedaling: The general rule I use with pedaling is to learn the hymn without any pedal and then only later add pedal for special coloring or connecting. Some teachers say the pedal should not be used for connecting but only for coloring, but I disagree. Even if one has an excellent legato fingering worked out, hymns often need touches of pedal to "fill in the gaps." Pedaling, like fingering, is not an exact science and many hymns do not need much pedal; however, some hymns can be used as an excellent means of practicing pedaling. In fact, hymns and chorales are in my opinion the best vehicle for students to learn pedaling. For example, "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" is an ideal pedal study in itself. Teachers would gain much by assigning this beautiful hymn to students as a study in pedaling as well as finger independence and control.

Tempo: I have a special system of tempo that is much too involved for this article. It is a system I developed while researching Bach's music that is based on logical "tempo levels" that are distinctly different from each other. These levels are in beats per minute and from slow to fast: 36, 42, 48, 54, 63, 72, 84, 96, 108, 126, 144, 168, 192. These are the primary tempo levels used by Bach and that apply ideally to all other composers and styles as well. (Bach's most common or default "allegro" speed was 84 beats per minute.) They work perfectly for hymns and chorales. In a nutshell, when I determine a tempo for a hymn I select it from this tempo array. This way, there is no guess work. When I record a hymn I make sure I play it as close as possible to my selected tempo. Unlike fingering, pedaling, or voicing, I seem to have tempo down to an exact science!