Guide for accompanying Mass

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Guide for accompanying Mass

Post by dmu3tem » Mon Nov 26, 2012 11:48 am

In the Liturgy section there is a useful thread with this title discussing the issue from a liturgical perspective i.e. such things as what to select and where to put it in the service. What I suggest here is that we have something to match it on a purely musical plane. There are several aspects to this: so I will start by simply throwing out some ideas about how one can go about accompanying a congregation on an Organ (or, for that matter) a keyboard.

I hope this will encourage others to follow suit with their own ideas derived from hard experience too.

[1] Introducing a hymn: Two schools of thought here (a) play over the first few bars (b) play over the last few bars.

(a) Has the merit of giving the congregation the first few notes of the tune, ideally in the tempo at which it should be taken. Generally when I do this I try to keep the switch from introduction to the actual singing in strict time.

(b) Has the merit of taking the congregation straight into the first verse. The snag is that if the congregation don't know the tune very well they can be a bit baffled.

Generally speaking I like to be consistent. Unless there are compelling reasons otherwise I think one always use one or other of these approaches and not chop and change from one to the other: that is a recipie for confused expectations amongst congregations.

[2] Registration for the introduction and then the main verse.

[a] Frequently I find it pays to boldly present the melody in bare octaves (the organ I use has a useful Oboe stop which I sometimes use), especially if I think the congregation does not know the tune very well. This can sound bald and banal, but there is no doubt about what they should sing.

[b] If I use the four part harmony setting in my introduction I generally do it with light stops on the Swell manual. I then switch to the Great with pedals for the congregational entry. Even if I play the introduction on the Great, I almost never use the Pedals. Merely adding the Pedals after this to the main verse with the same registration I usually find sufficient to give the congregation their cue.

[3] Starting the first verse with the congregation:

Generally I just wait slightly on the first chord before moving off to enable the congregation to start up. I find that if I just play off in strict tempo the congregation immediately fall behind or get confused.

[4] Moving through the verses I try to vary the registration. For this purpose I find it pays to look at the text. For instance with verses that talk about death I tend to use a severe Oboe stop. For each verse I write down the basic selection of stops with indications about how I will move from one setting to another. The key thing with this is not to have enormous pauses between each verse whilst hunting for new settings. When changing registrations like this I find it pays to have sharply contrasting set-ups between each verse because this helps give congregations a clear lead. A key thing to avoid when switching to quieter set-ups is to imply that this is a verse that they should not sing.

I am sure there are more ideas - and aspects - of these topics that can be covered; especially given the fact that what I have written so far only pertains to a Pipe Organ.

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass

Post by JW » Mon Nov 26, 2012 8:46 pm

Thanks for this thread, Thomas, I believe it could be very useful. Personally, I agree with you entirely on (1) but not entirely on (2), (3) & (4)
It could be added that some pieces (Mass settings, 'Here I am, Lord') have well known introductions which are often preferable to a playover.
Introductions should not be unduly brief. I've heard many hymn/song intros consisting of only a couple of bars. This does not give people enough time to find the music in their hymnbooks or sheets, let alone adjust to the speed, rhythm and melody that they are going to sing. Intros should be at least 4 bars, and there is nothing wrong in playing over a whole hymn if it is short, e.g. This is my Body, When I survey, etc.

Regarding the comments on registration (2):
(a) I nearly always introduce using the harmonies as chord structures and progressions are vital in music, helping the listener to Harmony is a key feature for the listener and helps him/her unconciously to grasp the melody. In the unlikely event that you have a four part choir, then you need the harmonies in the introduction. Of course, this does not apply to Gregorian Chant which can be well introduced with melody only. But it does apply to some other chant styles such as Taize and others influenced by Western harmony.
(b) I normally introduce with the same registration as the first verse, minus pedals. Almost invariably this will mean the Great Open Diapason as a minimum, to give a strong lead. Softer stops can be used, as appropriate, later in the music.

Regarding the comments on starting with the congregation (3).
If you wait for the congregation to start, the pace of the hymn tends to slow. I always start in strict time, but add an extra bar or half bar before the start and in between verses. This extra bar is completely silent. So everyone is bursting to get going. Incidentally, I've been unable to convince our folk musicians to add these silent beats and we have more trouble starting together when they are playing than when the organ is playing.

Regarding the comments on registration changes (4)
Registration changes must NEVER interfere with the tempo of the music. The extra bar in between verses helps the organist to change stops in strict time. If one cannot do this in strict time, then I'm afraid registration changes are best avoided. It should be possible at least to go from Great to Swell in strict time, with a little practice.

The question of practice brings me to say that the ideal is that every hymn should be studied beforehand: you should know exactly what introduction you are going to use, what registration to use and what registration changes you will apply. My (and my church's) full music hymnbooks tend to have pencilled marks all over the place!

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass

Post by dmu3tem » Wed Nov 28, 2012 11:41 am

Many thanks for this. Just what is needed, as I am sure different people have worked out different strategies to deal with their particular situation. In any case, on a thread like this I tend to write 'on the hoof' and only afterwards realise there are things that should be said, or said more carefully, or modified.The more practical advice/experience can be shared the better, and then people can judge for themselves which options to take up.

Moving onto a slightly different angle, I will just share some of my experiences when introducing music using [1] a keyboard other than a Pipe Organ and [2] an instrumental group - with or without keyboards (though I realise there are differences between the two).

[1] Using another type of keyboard - here I am primarily thinking of a Piano, or at least an electric keyboard with a sustaining pedal. Electric keyboards without a sustaining pedal obviously are a bit different.

[a] Introducing music: More or less the same strategy as with a Pipe Organ. Either use the opening few bars or the last few bars.

On the whole, despite what has been suggested above, I prefer to simply state the melody without harmony or use bare octaves. This hands the tune to the congregation in no uncertain fashion.

Harmony, of course, helps if you have a choir joining in harmony for the first verse, but generally, if I have a choir, I prefer them to sing unison first time around, to ensure that the congregation gets a firm lead on the melody. After that they may switch to harmonies, descants etc and the preceding verse, hopefully (not always of course) will give them their starting notes (or at least the harmonic context).

Another point is that, with the Piano especially, the only way you can differentiate between the introduction and the first verse (apart from playing louder) is by switching from unison melody to harmony. You cannot alter the registration or add a pedal board. With electric keyboards, it is slightly different, because here you may be able to change the registration (provided you do not delay proceedings); and some electric/digital keyboards have pedal boards.

With the piano, in the absence of any ability to change registration, I sometimes consider rearranging the music to differentiate between verses or even between the introduction and the opening verse. Here are some basic strategies I employ - but there are many more than this:

(a) For introductions place all the harmonised material up an octave - sometimes in a reduced form (2-3 lines instead of 4). This can though produce a rather 'tinkly' sound. One can also play the same trick more easily if using bare octaves or just a single line statement of the melody.

(b) For 'darker' verses indicating the use of only male voices, consider an arrangement an octave down - probably again with a reduced number of harmonic lines to avoid a turgid texture. This is quite a controversial move and it can throw congregations 'out of their stride' if they are not prepared for this.

(c) I also, as appropriate, change the rhythmic texture of the accompaniment according to verses. For example: Great Is Thy Faithfulness can be sung in a slightly faster more sweeping waltz time instead of the usual very heavy chunky style that is so often used. Similarly, instead of using a straight 4 part harmony texture, I might use arpeggiated figuration; though note that this usually requires a simplification of the harmony - you are moving from roughly 4 different chords in a 4/4 bar to two or perhaps just one. Also this works best with unison singing. If you have a choir singing harmonies this approach needs careful arrangement.

[2] Introductions and verses using an instrumental group.

The key point to note here is that because you have several players, tempi are more rigid to ensure coordination.

For introductions, apart from the above you have two other choices if a keyboard is part of the group. Either, you do as you would without a keyboard i.e. get a melody instrument to state the opening (or closing) bars. This gives a very firm, clear lead to the congregation and it is simple to play. Or, you get the keyboard to do the same (a) as a single line melody (b) in octaves or (c) in harmony. Generally I prefer the single melody instrument statement as the direction to the congregation is generally (not always) clearer and the signal to the congregation to come in with all the other instruments in the opening verse is more sharply defined; but the 'keyboard only' strategy usually works perfectly well.

Occasionally I have had introductions done by more than one instrument, usually to make things sound more 'artistic' (not necessarily a compelling reason in church). This needs more careful planning, not just in making the arrangement, but also requires a bit of prior rehearsal. However, it can be very effective, and it gives scope for your creativity and the skills of your more proficient players. Again, you have basically two choices: present the melody in octaves (or even in a stentorian unison - choose you instrumental mix carefully here - Oboe and Clarinet are a very effective powerful combination - also, where appropriate, in thirds) or present it with one instrument delivering the melody, a second giving an accompanying line. More instruments and lines of course can be added, but this weakens the contrast between introduction and verse.

Using a single instrument with keyboard accompaniment can work equally well as an introduction; but one needs to remember that ideally you need more instruments to join in at the verse. Without this they may not be sufficient differentiation between the two for the congregation to 'get its cue'.

With many folk groups I notice introductions are sometimes just done as a strummed series of guitar chords. This can work provided the congregation knows the tune well, 'knows' how many bars strumming there will be, and there is a good cantor or leading singer to give them their cue. Some 'folk' material is also designed with this in mind. However, as the other caveats imply, the strategy can be risky resulting in uncertain congregational entries. On the whole, it is better to use one of the other strategies outlined above if keyboards or other instruments are available.

Proceeding from verse to verse, with instrumental groups, there is a stronger case for varying the arrangement between verses than even with a Pipe Organ. This is because, by altering the arrangement, you are not just taking advantage of the varied capacities of your players but, more importantly, you are exploiting the great asset that such groups have - differentiation of instrumental colour. In addition it enables you to 'rest' players between or within verses - an important consideration if you want to avoid wearing out the lips of your Brass and Woodwind players. However, there is no doubt this requires rehearsal, some skill in arrangement, if you have a choir their parts - and rehearsal needs - need to be taken into account, and the congregation have to be sufficiently confident to deal with the various changes that are flung at them. Just sticking with the same arrangement each time round is the 'safer' course, but if you have several verses, this can get a bit dull.

I am sure there are lots of other points etc people would like to make: so I will (for the moment) sign off here

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass

Post by musicus » Wed Nov 28, 2012 12:56 pm

An excellent and very useful thread! Thank you, Thomas.
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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass

Post by alan29 » Wed Nov 28, 2012 1:29 pm

Pianos and strophic hymns ......
Another way to vary a piano accompaniment is to transfer the inner parts to the right hand and play the LH in octaves. There is a particular problem with playing traditional hymn tunes on the piano - if you repeat all the repeated note from chord to chord you quickly get a very clunky sound which is hard for a congregation to sing against. Much better to tie across chords wherever possible.
If you are up to it, it can be a good thing to change some of the harmonies in a verse or two, especially final verses. I sometimes omit the tune altogether in final verses and go a bit "Rachmaninov" on the last line.
Guitars and keyboards.......
Remember that guitars sound an octave lower than written. Try not to have both occupying the same couple of octaves.
Try to persuade strummers to finger-pick instead ...... we don't all want to join Michael in rowing his boat ashore.
A decent guitarist gives the KB player the chance to reduce his/her part to a single line, which could be something other than the tune.

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Re: Guide for accompanying Mass

Post by JW » Wed Nov 28, 2012 4:42 pm


Its worth remembering that tuning alters with the atmospheric conditions of the church - so a flute or guitar tuned at A 440 for the Gloria may have altered by the Sanctus. The tuning of different instruments reacts to atmospheric conditions differently, so they are unlikely to stay in tune with each other.

The organ is unlikely to be at exactly A=440 so, if other instruments are to be used with the organ, they need to be tuned to the organ.

Most singers, including yours truly and including those who have passed exams, also don't sing every note exactly in tune, though many don't realise or acknowledge this and its difficult to tell them. The problem is often a tendency to flatten on descending semitones. Get your choir to sing 3 verses of a hymn unaccompanied and then show them where the final chord should have been - they could have dropped by as much as a tone!

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