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The Importance of Playing Hymns & Chorales

(in progress) In this article, Dr. Hall explains why all serious pianists and students of piano should spend more quality time practicing, mastering, and most important of all, enjoying, church hymns and Bach chorales. CLICK HERE for a detailed description of BachScholar's "Hymn & Chorale Project"!

THE WELL-ROUNDED PIANIST -- Instruction!

SIGHT-READING & HARMONY (BOOK) -- 220 Pages!

INTRODUCTION

In my opinion as a pianist and piano teacher, hymns and chorales are among the most neglected and overlooked musical style, which is unfortunate since they provide countless benefits and skills for pianists of all levels. Hymns and chorales should be a regular part of the pianist's practice routine from around "Grade 3" up to the professional, concert level. Nobody is exempt. Hymns and chorales are analogous to vitamins and minerals. The great 19th-century pianist Hans von Bülow (1830-94) was famous for proclaiming that Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier is the pianist's "Old Testament" while Beethoven's 32 Sonatas are the pianist's "New Testament." Robert Schumann (1810-56) proclaimed Bach's WTC is the "bread and butter" of piano playing. I proclaim to you here that hymns and chorales are the pianist's "vitamins and minerals"! Inherent in hymns and chorales abound many vital elements of technique, musicality, and pedaling that are absent in other styles or exercises. Scales and arpeggios, as beneficial as they are, are unfortunately "one-dimensional." Chopin Études, as impressive and highly touted as they are, are at best "two" or "three-dimensional." Hymns and chorales are "four" and even "five-dimensional" especially when artistic pedaling is thrown into the mix.

What exactly are hymns and chorales? In J.S. Bach's time, a chorale was a brief chordal-style chorus sung at the end of and often interspersed throughout a church cantata or other liturgical works. In essence, chorales were the 16th and 17th century equivalent to what we know today as church hymns. The main musical difference, however, between a typical Bach chorale and church hymn of today is one of complexity and texture. Bach chorales are invariably more harmonically complex and musically profound than today's popular hymns, which stem from a variety of church denominations as early as the 1700s beginning with the Methodism of John Wesley (1703-91). Chorales became the musical heart and soul -- the musical "battle cry" so to speak -- of Martin Luther's (1483-1546) Protestant Reformation that occurred mainly in Germany and northern Europe. This period of musical and church history spanned over 200 years, from 1517 (the year of Luther's famous "95 Theses") to the time of Bach's maturity, ca. 1730. Most chorale melodies Bach used in his cantatas were not composed by Bach, but rather by one of the numerous Lutheran and Reformation oriented song writers of the 1500s and 1600s. Bach's usual procedure was to borrow one of these popular sacred song melodies (some of which, surprisingly, had their origins as secular songs, such as love songs or drinking songs), and harmonize the popular song melody that was sung in the soprano voice with accompanying alto, tenor, and bass voices. To this, he would fill out the four-part harmonies with the text of the sacred song, often penned by the composer of the song or sometimes a separate lyricist, and the finished product would be referred to as a chorale.

The soprano-alto-tenor-bass (SATB) musical fabric has been the foundation of sacred as well as secular music since the Renaissance up to our time today. Pianists who are able to read and play SATB style music with proficiency are much better prepared and well-rounded as pianists. The reason Schumann's popular Träumerei is so difficult for so many piano students is that they have not yet learned how to play basic four-voice hymns and chorales. Conversely, piano students who have been well grounded in hymn and chorale playing will find the Träumerei not very difficult at all, at least from a technical standpoint. The piano student who can impressively toss off four octaves of scales in all the major and minor keys but has not learned how to play basic hymns and chorales will, surprisingly, not be able to play the Träumerei without much struggle. Playing hymns and chorales and polyphonic works like Schumann's Träumerei require special techniques and skills that traditional scales and arpeggio practice sadly do not accomplish.

Not only does successful hymn and chorale playing make a complete pianist, but Bach chorales have always been a favorite vehicle for music theorists. Even today, almost 300 years after Bach's death, Bach's chorale harmonizations are still used as the gold standard against which everything is measured. All the great composers after Bach studied Bach's chorales -- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Chopin, Wagner, and the list goes on. Walk into a university or conservatory music theory lecture today, and you are guaranteed to encounter Bach chorales. Bach's chorale harmonizations are just as potent and meaningful today as they were in the 1600s and 1700s. And the best part of all is that Bach composed all his chorales, and all his music for that matter, for the glory of God. The pianist cannot go wrong and can even greatly benefit by studying and re-studying quality church hymns that have stood the test of time as well as the gold standard of musical harmony and some of the finest and most rewarding music ever written in the history of music, Bach chorales. Soli Deo Gloria.      

REASONS HYMNS AND CHORALES ARE IGNORED BY TEACHERS AND STUDENTS

I have observed that piano teachers almost never assign hymns and chorales and piano students seem to have little interest in them. Aside from one or two simple "token" church hymns included in some of the older piano method books, hymns and chorales are virtually void from the leading piano methods and curricula today. But why? I think there are several answers to this question, which include:

  • Testing programs such as ABRSM, RCM, TRINITY as well as piano diplomas and competitions do not require hymns and chorales, making it pointless for piano teachers to assign them or students to learn them. This is a shame and is one of the most glaring pitfalls of these organizations, testing systems, and competitions.
  • Hymns and chorales are not "piano music" per se, but rather choral music transcribed to the piano. There exists so much piano music already that it is understandable why "non piano music" would seem of little importance to teachers and students; however, this is a poor excuse since all students are required to learn algebra in school, even the ones who will never use algebra for the rest of their lives. Algebra trains students to think logically just as hymns and chorales train pianists to become complete musicians.
  • Teachers do not assign hymns and chorales because they never were assigned them as students. This is also a shame, although it is unfair to blame it all on teachers who were themselves taught poorly. The way to fix this problem is to have bold piano teachers break from tradition, stand up for what they believe is right, and assign hymns and chorales to students. Otherwise, it is a self-perpetuating system of neglect and students will continue to be deprived of the most valuable technical and musical exercises in the history of piano playing.
  • Even if teachers assigned them, hymns and chorales often seem "slow" and "boring" to the majority of young piano students who would rather play "fast" and "exciting" music in order to wow all their friends and relatives. After all, hymns and chorales are not "fun" or "sexy" to play or listen to and for a 12-year-old to play Bach's magisterial Lenten hymn O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde groß at a party would most likely be extremely embarrassing for both the child and the young listeners. Most kids nowadays do not want to hear hymns or chorales. They like "fun" music. It is a completely different story for 65-year-olds, though. Yet, it does not have to be this way. When Bach was 12 he was already an avid fan of playing church chorales and elaborating (improvising) on them. Ween a young piano student on the great hymns and chorales of the past and he/she is virtually guaranteed to become an excellent pianist as well as take special interest in composition. The best training for young composers, hands down, is by instilling a thorough grounding in hymn and chorale performance and analysis.
  • Hymns and chorales are Christian and we live in a predominantly secular age today in which our language, thoughts, and music must be wiped clean from any references to religion. This is sad, and is the worst reason of all to not play hymns and chorales.
  • Hymns and chorales are difficult to play well and are much more difficult than they look and sound. Students and teachers generally avoid music that looks and sounds easy but is difficult to play, always preferring it to be the other way around. This is sad, and is the second worse reason of all not to play hymns and chorales.

BENEFITS OF PRACTICING HYMNS AND CHORALES

Now that I have listed the main reasons that hymns and chorales are avoided or ignored by most teachers and students, I would like to list the benefits inherent within. This list is simply staggering. No other style of music contains all these benefits all encapsulated within an average of only 16 or fewer bars of music. That is, the average hymn or Bach chorale of around 16 bars or fewer can be likened to an ultra-nutritious shake with as many as one-tenth the calories of, say, a Chopin Étude or movement of a Beethoven Sonata. I have witnessed students who can toss off major, minor, and chromatic scales with impressive velocity, yet simply crumbled and failed miserably at playing a 16-bar chorale by Bach. This can be likened to an orator who possesses great speed of mouth with no substance of mind. Consider the myriad of benefits that hymns and chorales offer pianists:

  • Hymns and chorales are all dedicated to the glory of God. What benefit could be greater than this?
  • Hymns and chorales represent some of the popular and greatest music of all time and chorales were the main emphasis of J.S. Bach who is arguably the greatest composer in the history of music. Other than glorifying God, what reason could be greater than this? 
  • Hymns and chorales are the best pieces for practicing sight-reading and music reading in general. This is because the pianist needs to be able to recognize and play three or four notes at a time, all as one unit as a chord, rather than just one note at a time. Show me a pianist who can sight-read hymns and chorales well, and I will show you a pianist who can sight-read well. 
  • Hymns and chorales are the best pieces for practicing polyphonic playing. The simplest hymns consist of three voices, while most hymns and all Bach chorales consist of a four voices. Since the pianist has only two hands, this means each hand usually plays two or sometimes three voices at a time. Traditional scales and arpeggios contain only one voice per hand, which is simple in comparison. This is why a pianist can have the fastest scales and arpeggios in the world, yet be unable to play a hymn or chorale decently. Polyphonic playing is a completely different skill than is required for traditional scales and arpeggios.
  • Hymns and chorales provide the best preparation for Bach's fugues. Most of Bach's fugues are nothing more than three or four-voice chorale texture with added passing tones. That is, Bach conceived his fugues "vertically" rather than "horizontally" since the vertically aligned chords function as the "bonds" that hold everything together. For this reason, the best preparation for playing Bach's fugues is by far the practice and mastery of Bach's chorales. Show me a pianist who plays a dozen Bach chorales with ease and fluency, and I will show you a pianist who is able to play a Bach fugue well.
  • Hymns and chorales are the best pieces for developing finger independence. Due to the polyphonic nature of hymns and chorales, each hand must control usually at least two voices. This requires each finger to have its own "brain" or to move on its own. For example, one finger may be held down while the other finger is held down and released, both at the same time. Show me a pianist who displays great finger independence in a hymn or chorale and I will show you a pianist who has great finger independence.  
  • Hymns and chorales are the best pieces for practicing fingering and fingering variations. Due to the independence of voices in hymns and chorales and the fact that there often exists more than one acceptable choice of fingering for each phrase or group of notes, the pianist must develop the ability to adapt to different fingerings. Trying out different fingerings and deciding which fingering one likes best requires an active mind and mature musicianship. Solving fingering problems is much like solving a puzzle and there are no better pieces for this than hymns and chorales. Show me a pianist who uses intelligent fingerings in a hymn and chorale, and I will show you a pianist who uses intelligent fingering. 
  • Hymns and chorales are the best pieces for developing control of rhythm and tempo. Due to their generally slow and deliberate character, hymns and chorales require a slower and more steady tempo than in virtually all other styles of music. Playing slow is more difficult than playing fast, especially for children and those under the age of around 25, and there are no better pieces to practice slow playing than hymns and chorales. Show me a pianist who is able to choose intelligent tempos and maintain a solid beat in hymns and chorales, and I will show you a pianist who is a mature musician. 
  • Hymns and chorales are the best pieces for practicing pedaling. Although the initial learning of hymns and chorales should be with the pedal totally omitted, the finished and polished product often requires very careful and refined use of the damper pedal. I know through experience that pedaling is perhaps the most difficult aspect of teaching piano. Special emphasis on hymns and chorales by both teachers and students proves to be the most efficient way to learn and teach pedaling. Show me a pianist who pedals hymns and chorales well, and I will show you a pianist who can pedal well.
  • Hymns and chorales are the best pieces for practicing voicing and cantabile playing. Bach himself wrote that he highly valued the keyboardist's ability to play in a cantabile or "singing" fashion and that this was the main reason for composing his Inventions and Sinfonias. Since hymns and chorales emulate human voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) all singing in harmony, this offers pianists countless possibilities with regards to voicing which requires the utmost control. For example, the pianist might play four notes at a time where one of these four notes, say, the soprano, is given extra emphasis and played a little louder than the other three voices. Then, there might be a series of notes in the alto voice that require extra emphasis, and so on. Pianists do not get as many opportunities to practice voicing anywhere else than in hymns and chorales. Show me a pianist who can voice hymns and chorales well, and I will show you a pianist who can voice on the piano well. 

HOW TO PRACTICE HYMNS AND CHORALES

Hymns and chorales require a special kind of technique and expression unlike that of most other styles of piano music. In fact, hymns and chorales are not "piano music" per se, but rather vocal music realized on the piano. For this reason in order to play hymns and chorales well, the pianist must develop a beautiful, singing tone and become sensitive to minute differences in tone, touch, and volume. The last thing one wants to do is to "just play the notes," which turns these beautiful gems into soulless exercises. This being said, however, it is permissible and sometimes necessary to omit the "expression" while in the stage of learning notes, fingerings, and rhythm, in which case the expressive nuances along with careful pedaling may be added in due course. The following lists the steps the pianist should follow in order to attain mastery. These steps shall be followed in order and none of them shall be overlooked; however, professional pianists or those experienced with hymn and chorale playing may skip to the final steps (#6-7). Two pieces are used as examples pertaining to this practice list, Amazing Grace and Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, both of which may be viewed in their complete four-part notation in Examples 1a-b.

  1. The standard, default mode of articulation (touch) in hymns and chorales is legato, since the aim is to emulate human voices. As a rule, successive notes that are different should be played connected while successive notes that are the same should be detached. Should the pianist adhere to this one rule, he will have mastered the most important aspect of hymn and chorale playing.
  2. When first learning a hymn or chorale, extract the soprano and bass voices (the outer voices) and play these as if it were a duet. Practice first hands separate then together and strive for fingerings that allow for the most ease and fluency with a smooth, legato sound being the primary goal. Playing the hymn or chorale as a duet will almost always require different fingerings than when all four voices are played, which is a good thing since it teaches pianists to be able to adapt to different fingerings. As a rule, Bach would begin with the composition of the outer voices in his chorales, to which he would add the inner voices last. Hence, it makes much sense for the pianist to practice to outer voices first so that the "outer parameters" of the piece may be properly absorbed into the musical conscience. A good analogy is that the hymn or chorale is like a sandwich where the outer voices (soprano, bass) represent the bread while the inner voices (alto, tenor) represent the delicious interior. Would you be happy if you ordered a premium sandwich in a restaurant that was served with cheap and flimsy bread with holes that not only tasted bad but fell apart upon your first bite? Thus, properly preparing the outer voices in hymns and chorales is of utmost importance in order to establish a strong musical foundation. Refer to Examples 2a-d. 
  3. After learning the two outer voices with both hands, the next step is to practice the two upper voices (soprano and alto) with the right hand only.  This will almost always require different fingers on the soprano note than when played separately (like in Step #2). The pianist should be attentive to all the separations and connections between the notes, becoming conscious of when to separate or connect successive notes. Refer to Examples 3a-d.
  4. After learning the two upper voices with the right hand only, the next step is to practice the two lower voices (tenor and bass) with the left hand only. This is identical to Step #3 but with the two lower instead of upper voices. Refer to Examples 4a-d.
  5. Be attentive to overlapping or crossing voices, which happens often in four-voice writing. Overlapping voices often require an alto note to be taken with the left hand -- that is, if it is unusually low and in the tenor range -- or a tenor note to be taken with the right hand -- that is, if it is unusually high and in the alto range. In other words, if a note is in the treble clef it does not necessarily mean that it must be played with right hand, and conversely, if a note is in the bass clef it does not necessarily mean that it must be played with the left hand. Unfortunately, traditional four-voice notation has no way of implicating which hands are to take which notes, which creates interesting challenges for the pianist. The pianist should always keep an open mind and constantly experiment and try out different options pertaining to division of notes between the hands. Refer to Examples 5a-b.
  6. After learning the upper and lower pairs of voices with the right and left hands separately (Steps #3-4), it is time to put it all together. If all the steps have been done in the proper order and the pianist has learned the skill of connecting some notes while separating other notes as well as playing in a predominantly legato fashion, this next to final step should not be very difficult; however, if the final step is too difficult then Steps #3-4 need to be practiced more until mastered. It is important that before adding pedal the complete hymn or chorale can be played with intelligent fingerings and all the proper connections; that is, never use pedal to mask insecure finger technique. The complete hymn or chorale may now be played with no pedalRefer to Examples 6a-b.
  7. If the pianist is able to play all four voices with both hands with good expression, clear technique, and control over the fingers with no pedal, the final step is to add pedal and to become more attentive to dynamic shadings. The better one is able to connect with the fingers, the less damper pedal will be needed; however, even in the case of exemplary finger legato and musical expression, virtually all hymns and chorales could afford to be sprinkled with a little pedal here and there while many benefit by full pedals on most chord changes. The general rule with pedaling is if all four voices can be played 100% legato with the fingers then pedal is not necessary. On the other hand, if there are jumps that are impossible to connect with the fingers or repeated notes that require separations, then the pedal should be used to help smooth out the rough edges. Proper and artistic pedaling in hymns and chorales is perhaps the most difficult yet rewarding aspect of playing this style of music. Often, a hymn or chorale will sound "dry" or "academic" with no pedal despite every effort to connect with the fingers, when simple dashes of pedal on most of the harmonies make the music much more enjoyable sounding. The complete hymn or chorale may now be played with pedal as marked below each stave. Refer to Examples 6a-b.

Still in progress.......