The Hymn Player's Secret

One of the problems encountered when playing hymns is that there are a lot of notes in a small amount of space. If we could somehow simplify what we read (i.e., cheat), then it would be easier to play hymns, right? Well, here is how we can do just that. We are about to learn a pattern which your left hand will follow, while your right hand plays the melody. These next few paragraphs will be the basis for all of our evangelistic improvisation.

We will be using something called the Octave/Chord Method to play hymns. For our first example, we will begin with the C Major chord. If you are not that familiar with all of the different kinds chords, then please visit the chords tutorial here.

Fig. 1

Now for the Octave/Chord: First, use your left hand to play an octave C, as shown in Fig. 1. If you cannot reach an octave, than play the lower of the two C’s rather than playing the full octave. Most adults can reach an octave, but, because it does not feel natural, they avoid doing so. If you practice, however, you will soon find that it feels more "natural" to reach an octave than it does to reach a smaller interval!

Fig. 2

The second part of the Octave/Chord method is for you to move your left hand up an octave and play the C Major chord (Fig. 2). The notes of the C Major Chord are C, E, and G.

We will now alternate between these two positions. This is referred to as the 2/4 pattern (pronounced two-four). Try it a few times. Another pattern used is the 3/4 pattern (pronounced three-four). This is accomplished by playing the octave once, followed by the chord twice. This pattern will take three beats to complete. Fig. 3 shows you how the 2/4 and 3/4 O/C cycles looks when written on the music staff.

Fig. 3
Listen to it


From now on, we will refer to the phrase "Octave/Chord" as "O/C".

Play the O/C a few times. Speed is not that important! It is more important that you acquaint yourself with the feel of the O/C’s, and that you keep a steady beat. At first your hands will feel clumsy and your forearms will tire quickly because you are exercising muscles you do not normally use. Don't give up!

Playing O/C’s is the most difficult aspect of playing hymns, therefore do not expect to play them perfectly tomorrow... or the day after that... or next week. It takes time and practice for your hands to grow accustomed to the movement. You will make mistakes today, and you will make mistakes tomorrow. Just remember to play steadily, with the beat. If you play a wrong note, don't stop! Rather, keep playing and correct it the next cycle. When you are playing the piano for a congregation, almost no one, including other pianists, will know about your mistakes as long as you keep the beat going.