About a month ago, I was visiting another church. After the service, I went up to introduce myself to the organist. I had to get in line behind a lady who was complaining that the hymns were too loud. Specifically the first line of the hymn introduction, which she said, seemed like a jolt.
When I got a chance I commiserated with the organist, who was quick to point out that she was really a pianist playing the organ. That's ok, I said. I got my start that way, too. I now consider myself an organist as well, but that's only been in the last few years. There are really two main differences between an organist and a pianist pretending to be an organist, and one is pretty obvious. It is familiarity with the pedal board. Most pianist-organists don't use their feet very often. Very well, there is a lot of literature that doesn't make use of the pedals much or at all--we'll explore that sometime. The other difference is in the handling of the organ stops, the registration. That comes with experience as well. Over the next several weeks we'll talk about that so that you who are pianists pretending to be organists will feel more confident handling the instrument. It really is a pretty terrific beast, and allows for a number of sonic possibilities.
The immediate problem, however, the one that the woman complained of, is pretty easily taken care of. There are two main approaches.
One is to recognize that most hymns in hymnbooks are written in 4-part harmony all the way through. They are not really intended as keyboard accompaniments. Sometimes they are rather awkward to play on pianos and organs. But it is not necessary to play all the notes all the time.
In fact, if you need to ease into a hymn, rather than jolting your congregation at the outset, here are a few things I do virtually every time I play a hymn.
I almost NEVER play a pickup note with full harmony. In the hymnal, the first note of the melody will be accompanied by a full chord. Leave it out. Save it for the downbeat of the first measure, at least.
Fairly often, particularly if it is a meditative type of hymn, I'll play the entire first line of the hymn with the melody alone. That's right, one note. Leave out the alto, tenor and bass.
When you get to the second line, you might add the bass, and just play the top and bottom voices. This way, there is a gradual crescendo of texture, throughout the hymn introduction. You can then save the full 4-part treatment for the last phrase of the hymn.
I've been assuming, of course, that you are playing the entire hymn through once as an introduction. There are other ways to do this. You might only play the last two phrases of a hymn. In any case, find ways not to do everything on full throttle, by leaving out some of the voices at the beginning.
Another way to provide tonal relief has to do with the choice of organ stops. I suggested to my organist colleague that she consider using less full registrations. Pianists who are not comfortable with the different stops tend to pull them all out a lot of the time. But the organ allows a great degree of dynamic control, and when I play a hymn, I rarely use the same stop combination for more than one verse. And I never use a full, robust organ sound except in the climactic verse of a hymn (which isn't always the last one, by the way).
I encouraged my colleague to experiment with different combinations of stops. Getting to know them well takes time, but over the next few weeks we'll explore this topic in detail. I find it quite interesting.
When I came to my current church, just over ten years ago, I remember introducing myself to members of the 8 am congregation. I went into the pews before the service and said, " Hi, I'm Michael Hammer, your new organist." And they would say things like, "Hi, I'm Bill don't play the organ too loud." "Hi, I'm Geraldine don't play the organ too loud." I noticed there seemed to be an awful lot of people with the same last name!
Fortunately, I've never gotten that complaint since I started. It may be partly owing to the practices I've outlined above. Also, the woman I replaced was a pianist, and may not have varied the organ registrations for the verses of a hymn. It is interesting: in my travels over the past couple of years I have noticed that I seem to be the only one who changes registration between verses (for which many members of my congregation have thanked me, actually!) and, despite what appears to be the prevailing wisdom, have not felt the need to provide a full organ sound for every verse of the hymn (and if the choir is in really good form that day, I've been known to drop out altogether and let the choir and congregation sing a verse without me!). It may not be that I play the organ any less loud than my predecessor, but that I don't play that loudly all the time.
If you are a pianist in an organist position, the good news is that it really won't take you that long to get comfortable with organ registration; you may even enjoy it! And it will help you sound like a "real organist!" So don't be discouraged. Take advantage of your weekly position to learn a little bit at a time, and be a little bit better every week. That's been my motto. It's taken me pretty far, so far.