Hymns: A Harpist’s Guide to Playing Along

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hymns“Could you play along on these hymns too?”

It seems like a reasonable request. A well-intentioned choir director wants to take full advantage of having a harpist participating in the service. So now you find yourself with a sheaf of print-outs of the hymns with notes to “play along on verses 2, 4 and 5, whatever you feel like.”

Quite possibly you are clenching your jaw just thinking about this. You won’t be heard above the organ and the congregational singing. The pedaling is awkward. The written notes don’t fit well on the harp. While you’re happy to add beauty to the service music, this doesn’t feel like the right way. It feels like a waste of your time and talent.

You’re right. It is.

I used to feel that way too.

For a while I tried gently refusing to play on the hymns. Even when directors were sympathetic, though, I felt as though I were not really doing my best for them.

That’s when I determined to find a way that I could contribute in a way that made the most of the harp without sacrificing my musical sensibilities.

First, I had to acknowledge the brutal truth of the situation: the harp will never win on decibels. Of course, you can amplify the harp, but that doesn’t solve the problem if the sound of the harp is still buried in a thick texture of sound. The solution isn’t in merely being louder; the answer lies in the choices you make about what you play. And the trick is to make the right choices.

My first rule is never to play what’s written on the page if another instrument is already playing it. That’s the surest way to sore fingers as you try to be heard in the ensemble. Instead, you need to call on your instant arranging skills. So may I present…

My Quick Start Guide to Instant Arranging for Hymns

  1. Use the top register. Most hymn accompaniments are written where people will sing them, right in the middle of our range. While the middle register of the harp is rich and warm, it doesn’t always have enough carrying power in a church ensemble. The clarity and brightness of the upper register can cut through even the thickest texture and add sparkle to the hymn.
  2. Roll those chords. Lush rolled chords can be a wonderful addition to the music. You don’t need to add more than one or two chords per measure most of the time; use your musical judgment. You don’t need to play all the melody notes when just a chord will do. One lovely harp chord can make any hymn sound special.
  3. Fill in the holes. There are moments, usually every four measures or so at the end of a phrase, when the congregation and organ are hanging onto a whole note. These measures are your golden opportunities to add an arpeggio or a few chords to amplify the harmony. Filling in those musical dead spaces with harp beauty – that’s a fabulous contribution!
  4. Glissandos are magic. Why not add a glissando at the end of a phrase or a verse? Nothing is more harp-y, more exciting, more magical than a glissando. And the glance the director will give you the first time you play one will guarantee you the job next year.
  5. Ask for a solo verse. There’s no better time to be heard than when you’re playing by yourself. Be sure that you take responsibility for leading the congregation in their singing. You don’t actually have to sing yourself, although that can help you stay on track, but you do need to anticipate the singers and be prepared to lead them.

My favorite Christmas musical moment each year is playing the final verse of Silent Night as the sole accompaniment to the congregation’s voices in my home church. The organ has played softly with me on the first two verses and then I play the final verse on my own.

There’s a split second lurch, a moment when the congregation realizes that they are singing with the harp alone. In that instant there is discomfort as they can hear their voices; in the next instant there is relief as they can hear the harp. And following that realization, they sing with a depth of feeling that they never achieve on a usual Sunday. They are partners with me in the hymn, and the emotion in the church is palpable. I get goosebumps just recalling it.

That’s what I will be doing at midnight this Christmas Eve. I can hardly wait.

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