I was contacted by a former student of mine who wanted to know about hymns. He is an awesome smooth jazz pianist with two CD’s under his belt, but recently he has started playing for churches in my area. The churches that he’s playing at are small, Baptist, and stick close to “The New National Baptist Hymnal” (aka “the red book”). The conversation started off with him wanting to learn at least five new hymns, but it ended up in a much different place because church hymns are a very large part of who I am as a musician. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:
THE MAIN THING TO KNOW ABOUT HYMNS
The main thing to know about hymns is that the accompaniment is not difficult at all. The majority of hymns follow some type of pattern that generally uses the I (1), IV (4), or V (5) chord in some combination. Sometimes it will use the iii (3) or the vi (6), but not all the time. The lead line (i.e. “the melody”) is probably the most difficult part of a hymn, but once you have a firm grasp on how the song goes, everything else falls into place.
HYMNS IN THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN BAPTIST CHURCH
Church is all about culture not just from church to church, but from race to race and region to region. Diversity is the name of the game and no matter what church you go to, you’re going to fall into the culture of that church (which is just an honest truth). In African-American Baptist churches, hymns move a lot faster and incorporate chord substitutions, moving bass lines, and drums which, ultimately, leads to more improvisational hymn interpretations. In fact, the younger the church culture, the faster the hymn (making the reverse true as well).
FIVE GREAT HYMNS TO LEARN
The red book has over 500 songs in it (much like other hymn books), so to whittle it down to a good five to learn can be difficult, but don’t think of it as reducing 500 to 5. Think of it as starting with 5 and moving up to 500. Here are a good five to start with.
1. What A Fellowship (Page #211, moderate tempo–but can go faster)
2. At The Cross (Page #79, moderate tempo–but can go faster)
3. Doxology (Page #527, moderate tempo–a must-know-hymn in the Baptist church)
4. Spirit of the Living God (Page #124, short and slow)
5. Sweet Hour of Prayer (Page #333, short and slow)
THE BEST WAY TO LEARN A HYMN
Obviously, the best way to learn a hymn is to read it, but if you are an on-the-go musician (like my student), then carving out the time to sit down and read can be challenging. Therefore, the second best way to learn is to LISTEN. This is where the almighty YouTube comes in. Search for your specific hymn and find the most choral version of that hymn. Usually that will be the correct version.
MAKING A HYMN YOUR OWN
If you’re like my student, he has a smooth jazz piano background. While hymns are different, they follow the same rules as all other music on the face of the planet. What I suggested to him was to map out a hymn (or “transcribe” for my jazz heads out there), write down the chord progressions, learn the lead line, and BOOM you have a “hymn leadsheet”. After that, you can apply all of your appropriate jazz voicings, chord substitutions, and turn-arounds. As my cookbook often says, “Season to taste”.