Someone Asked The Question (#2)

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 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.


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).


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)


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.


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”.


Someone Asked The Question (#1)

I almost had a writer’s block today until a good choir director friend of mine asked me via email what more she could do to get her choir to learn their individual parts. She already sends lyrics, YouTube clips, and asks if there’s anything she can review with them during rehearsal (to which the answer is “No” most of the time). When I proofread the response I wrote back to her, I said to myself “Wow! This is definitely blog worthy.” If you are a choir director and dealing with the same thing (and the frustrations that come along with it) check this out and be encouraged:

The main thing that I can tell you is what it says in the B part of Ephesians 6:13: “…and having done all, to stand.” As a choir director/leader there’s only so much you can do and it seems to me that what you are already doing is exactly what a choir director/leader is supposed to do. I do the same thing with the choirs and groups that I work with and it definitely helps.

I think a large issue when choir members don’t want to do what they are supposed to do points to “choir culture”. If the choir is used to doing a certain thing a certain way and have been doing it like that for a while, then it’s hard to break the cycle regardless of how much or how little work you, as a choir director/leader, put into it. It works both in the negative and the positive, but the negative is definitely frustrating. In those situations, I’ve learned to adopt the motto “When you get serious about it, then I’ll get serious about it” because, in some cases, that’s where it has to get to before any real change happens. I can guarantee you that if you do the exact same lineup every first Sunday for a good 6-8 months, that will either get the attention of (1) the actual choir members or (2) the Pastor.

(and if you get the attention of #2, then #1 will get their act together QUICK)

I know that’s an extreme speculation, but the bottom line is that you can’t be effective doing your job if the choir doesn’t do theirs. Ultimately, they have one major job…

…one and only one major job…

…and that job is to LEARN THE MUSIC…

…and if they can’t do that, KNOWING that as a choir that’s what they HAVE to do, then why are they on the choir in the first place?

But I digress. For YOU I will say this: Continue to do your job in excellence because God honors that. The lazy ones will eventually weed themselves out, but until that happens I want you to keep this in the back of your mind:

“You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.”

And for as much as I agree with that quote, I want to add a little addendum to it just for you.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. However, if the horse gets thirsty enough, it WILL do something. Starvation beats stubbornness every time.”