Hymnbooks are for singers - ’A Catholic Organist's Book of Hymns" is for organists.

Why is hymn singing weak in most Catholic churches?   Why do so many people stand for hymns without opening a hymnbook, standing mute in the pew?  Many experts blame the organists, saying that their poor hymn playing fails to support and encourage people to sing.  And they are right, this is a major problem, but the blame does not lie with the organists.  Instead,  it’s the publishers of hymnbooks that are at fault.

All traditional hymnbooks show the hymns, arranged to be sung by a choir or quartet of singers, using a format that originated at Bach’s time and which remains almost totally unchanged since that time.  It shows exactly which notes are sung to each syllable of each word.  And that’s all.  

That’s the first problem for both singers and organists, because there is nothing that tells the singers where to stop and take a breath.

But that’s not all.  Composers of hymns write them with the same exact note being sung word after word - not a big deal for a singer, but a major stumbling block for organists.   Musical rules for hymn playing, which are taught to organists at an advanced stage of organ study, must be applied to playing hymns to make them singable - and remember that phrase “advanced stage of study”.

But there is another element that organists have to deal with - repeated notes.  When the same note in a voice (and there are 4 voices at a time singing/being played in a hymn) is repeated, the organist has to cut the first note short to be able to let the key come back up before playing it again.  That’s referred to as articulation.  It adds a nice pulse to the music - that’s a major part of hymn playing - if you get a nice pulse or rhythm going, people are much more apt to want to sing.

There’s another problem, though.  For example, if there are repeated notes in all the voices, the organist should repeat the melody note only, the uppermost note, while holding the lower voices as if they were one long chord.  The held notes give a solid foundation for the repeated notes in the upper voice to bounce along, creating a rhythm with a strong foundation.  If this sounds complicated, it is, and since (back to that phrase “advanced stage of study”) many organists never reach the point in lessons where they have mastered “legato” (holding keys down for the full length and almost overlapping the sound of the next note they are to play) they never get to the stage where they learn to shorten, “articulate,” repeated notes.   The result is muddy, uninspired,  hymn playing, through no fault of the organist.

Why not write hymns out exactly as organists are supposed to play them?  Why not put rests in to let them know when to let go of a note,  when to lift their hands and let the people breath; and write out the long held notes, with ties, to replace repeated ones?

It has to be fault of publisher’s that this has never been done.  Look at it from their position.  Spend money typesetting and engraving a hymnbook for a congregation and  sell hundreds and even thousands to each church, one for each member?  Or spend the exact same amount of money, and print a book of hymns for the organist to play from to sell only one per parish?  It’s hard to convince a board of directors to publish a book with such a small chance of breaking even, much less making money.

Many church organists today were drafted right out of the pews. “You play piano, don’t you?  Come and play the organ!”.    Having never had a lesson in playing the organ, they valiantly attempt to apply what they learned at the piano on the organ.  Should only rich, wealthy parishes with full-time organists who’ve had the opportunity to study organ with a professional have a chance at having great hymn singing?  Is there a solution to all of this.

Well, there’s a simple solution. Create a book of hymns with all the notes for the organist to play from right on the page.

And while you are at it, include the stops settings - a list of sounds - for that hymn that work best for singing.  And also, include a 3-voice version of the hymn for organists who are learning to play or do not have time to practice.  Three-voice hymns are much easier to play than 4-voice hymns since the left hand only has to pay one note at a time.  

A Catholic Organist’s Book of Hymns by Frog Music Press does all this and more.  It’s an electronic book.   You can even play it from a tablet or an iPad, quickly searching for hymns as needed, and printing them to put them in a binder.  In the near future, printed versions will be available as well.

As an electronic book it can grow without restrictions, so those who subscribe to the publication and use it are invited to suggest hymns that belong in the book.

It is created and edited by Noel Jones, AAGO.  Visit or call 423 887 7594 for more information.