Thoughts on Service Playing Part IV: Helpful hints for accompaniment

May 30, 2017

David Herman, DMA, MusD, is Trustees Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Music and University Organist at the University of Delaware. The author of numerous reviews for The Diapason, David has enjoyed playing hymns in churches of various denominations for more than 50 years. His recent CD, Ein neues Lied+A New Song, includes choral and organ music by his teacher Jan Bender and by Bender’s teacher, Hugo Distler. The disc is available from the author ([email protected]).

This is the fourth and final installment in a series of articles that offer ideas for enriching service playing. (The first installment, on hymn playing, appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Diapason; the second installment, on transposition, appeared in the January 2017 issue; the third installment, on sight-reading and learning new music, appeared in the February 2017 issue.) These essays had their genesis in a series of articles written for Crescendo, the newsletter of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and are used with permission. This installment concerns accompaniment.


Accompanying choral music and solos

The good accompanist always plays the text.

Austin Lovelace1

In hymn playing, the emphasis is on leading; with accompaniment, the organist’s role is different. When accompanying, we are followers, sometimes supporters; and at other times merely in the background; occasionally, equal partners. In any case, as accompanists we make a very important contribution to the music. Just listen to recordings of choral music and note the deft playing that “makes” an anthem, a Howells canticle, or an Anglican psalm. As with hymn playing, on some occasions the accompanist joins with the singers in making magic happen! 

Accompanying is an art, of course, and, as with any aspect of our work, the more we practice it, the better we become. It is a worthy calling and good accompanists are highly to be prized—“More to be desired are they than gold,” to borrow from the Psalmist. Engaging in such collaborative work enhances our overall musicianship and usefulness and makes us better listeners. I regret that some advanced piano students, particularly at universities, ignore or turn away from opportunities to accompany, preferring instead to focus only on learning repertoire. That seems pretty short-sighted to me. Do they really think they are going to have careers only as soloists? Accompanying is not necessarily easier than solo performance; it merely calls upon some different skills. Following are a few thoughts on technical and musical aspects of effective accompanying, particularly as applied to working with choirs. 


Technical matters

Rhythmic playing is especially important in choral accompaniment. With all due respect to conductors, the stability of the choir is often in the hands (literally) of the accompanist, who helps keep the singers on track rhythmically, gives them confidence for their entrances, and generally contributes to the solidity of the ensemble.

We accompanists have an extra challenge. In addition to reading the map (music) and piloting the organ, we also have to keep an eye on the conductor. (Unless the conductor is you!) For those of us in middle age or beyond, the ocular challenges can be significant. We’ll leave that matter to you and your optical professional, but do remember that appropriate eyeglasses are among organists’ essential tools. Reading what’s on the music rack through bifocals is likely to give you a pain in the neck! If you require reading glasses, consider “half glasses,” so that you can look over them at the conductor. In addition to the visual aspects, careful listening to the combined sounds of organ and choir is musically very important. Constant monitoring is needed to ensure good balance between choir and organ. Relying on the Swell division can be useful in allowing immediate modifications in volume. (But see also the final paragraph below.)




Some accompaniments are written specifically for the organ, using two or three staves. These should be learned in the same way as organ literature and played as written. Other accompaniments are composed more generically, for “keyboard.” Those are sometimes a challenge to play on the organ. A growing number have tricky pianistic textures with lots of arpeggios and/or “oom-pah” left-hand parts—not natural to the organ. Arpeggios, really “unfolded” harmony, can often be played vertically, as chords. Although such accompaniments often have no pedal parts, using the organ pedals occasionally can make them a bit easier to play, helping out the hands and compensating somewhat for the lack of a damper pedal.

Many accompaniments are transcriptions, having begun their lives as orchestral music. Some are even twice removed from the original: think of Handel’s Messiah, for which we must take music written for orchestra, subsequently arranged for piano, and now play it on the organ—all at no extra pay! In these cases it is important to keep in mind that our job is making organ music, and thus we must often make some adjustments in the music’s texture in order not only to make it playable on our instrument but also to make it sound effective and convincing as organ music. This is an important concept, running as a common thread through both hymn and anthem playing: organists often are called upon to play something that did not originate as organ music. The late Erik Routley wrote convincingly of this in his book, Church Music and the Christian Faith


Service playing demands a great deal of imagination on the player’s part, and has very little to do with the fundamentalist obedience to a score that recital playing . . . requires. An organist must constantly edit a score. When accompanying anthems and service settings the organist gets no instructions about registration, and sometimes indeed has to play from a piano reduction of what was originally an orchestral score. The point here is that the organist must translate the . . . score into organ language [my emphasis] as he or she plays. This will be not a distraction but a reassurance for the congregation, especially if the organist’s chief attention is to rhythm and touch [again, those two magic words].2

Here are some specific suggestions for playing transcriptions:

• I often find it easier to first work out a transcription at the piano and then move to the organ. This helps in developing an initial understanding of the musical texture and expression, which then transfers to the organ.

• As with hymns, here the novice organist faces the question of “to pedal or not to pedal.” Try taking busy eighth-note bass lines with your left hand (instead of the pedals), or leave them out entirely. Consider the possibility of “pedal points”—the concept originates in organ music. Replacing a busy bass line with a long-held note often results in more convincing organ music. 

• Pedal long notes, not fast ones, and add pedal at major cadences (musical punctuations—see example above).

• Simplify the texture when possible. Thinner is usually better than thicker. Remember that, especially in seventeenth- or eighteenth-century music, the outer voices of the texture usually tell all. Playing only these is very often enough; the organ’s registration fills in with other pitches and doublings.

• Consider using only a manual-to-pedal coupler instead of heavy pedal stops. This helps to keep rhythm and tempo from bogging down, and taking the occasional left-hand note with a foot helps with page turning.

These suggestions also apply when playing solo organ works that are transcriptions.



Avoid string and flute celestes in most instances unless specifically called for in the music. Although they can make an ethereal “wash” of sound, their pitch is vague by design, and their articulation is too imprecise for detail work. Keep in mind that the articulation in organ playing is equivalent to consonants in speech—enunciation. The goal is the same: clarity, so as to make the music understandable.

Light and clear registrations (8and 2flutes, for example) enhance early (pre-nineteenth-century) music, when accompaniments are often instrumental in origin. Rhythmic energy and pulse are essential ingredients in early music; a light registration makes this easier to provide. Save colorful registrations for nineteenth- and twentieth-century music, where they’re often called for.

• Use the swell box judiciously. In anthem accompanying, especially of early music, try setting the swell box and leaving it alone. This will simplify things and be more faithful to the music’s intentions. Although it is sometimes appropriate to close the box partially in order to achieve a good balance between organ and singers, it is generally better to leave the box open to allow easy egress of the sound. In pre-nineteenth-century music, one or two clear stops on the Great or Positiv are better than three or more on the Swell with the box shut.


Accompanying Psalmody


All Christian churches are impoverished if the psalms are withdrawn from their worship.

Erik Routley3


The Book of Psalms is a sweet and delightful song because it sings of and proclaims the Messiah.

Martin Luther4


The skills necessary in accompanying psalms effectively are essentially those needed for leading hymn singing (see September 2016 issue) or accompanying in general. Nonetheless, it may be helpful to offer suggestions specific to psalmody.

There are various methods of singing the psalms, of course: psalm tones; harmonized (Anglican) chant; metrical paraphrases (which would be played as a hymn); and “newer” methods, such as formulary tones and Gelineau psalmody. A keyword in hymn playing is “leading.” Its correspondent in playing psalms is “support,” and, for the most part, is in the background. A partial exception: there are responsorial psalm settings in which the choir or soloists sing the verses while the congregation responds with a refrain or antiphon. In this instance the organist is alternately leader and accompanist. It is helpful in such cases if the organist can give a clear signal to the people each time they sing, with an increased registration; by playing the antiphon’s melody as a solo voice; or by providing a firm “downbeat” in the pedal to serve as a springboard to the congregation’s response.

However, in most psalm settings of the “formula” type—various types of psalm tones, for example—the goal is to be quietly supportive but not “in the way” of the voice part, whose text-inspired rhythm must float in a free and flexible way. Harmonized (Anglican) chant, normally played as written, must be similarly supple in rhythm. In addition, organists who are experienced and comfortable with this medium have opportunities for discrete “colorings” by way of appropriate registration changes and/or melodic descants (but without changes in harmony).

In all chant-based accompanying, the organist must play the music from memory in order to follow and play the words of each psalm verse. In playing the psalmody of Joseph Gelineau, which employs a temporal system quite different from that in psalm tones, the organist again provides quiet support to the sung text, but within the framework of its regularly recurring rhythm. 

Following are some specific suggestions for accompanying psalm tones, Gregorian psalmody, or other “monodic” chant:

• Keep in mind that, in fact, no accompaniment may be needed at all. Historically these chants would have been sung without accompaniment. Or, instead of the organ try a few handbells, used to punctuate the phrases.

Use a discrete, quiet registration, preferably in a swell box to allow for subtle and immediate gradations in dynamics.

• Don’t pedal, or use a light pedal registration.

• It is not necessary to double the melody; providing slow-moving and somewhat thin accompaniment (alternately, a “wash” of sound, hardly moving at all) helps to encourage the requisite flexibility in singing.

In generating your accompaniment, think modally, not harmonically. No V7 chords or other traditional harmonic motion.


A final thought

The initial learning process of accompanying different types of psalm tones is not unlike mastering a spoken language; playing fluidly and supportively requires having the authentic “accent” in the ears. As with mastering a language, accomplishing the appropriate “sound” of, say, Anglican chant is enhanced by listening to examples. There are fine recordings available (on such labels as EMI, Hyperion, and Priory, among others), especially from English college chapels and cathedrals. Some British recording companies have committed to issuing the entire Psalter in Anglican chant, such as the recordings by the choir of St. Paul’s London, when it was under the direction of the late John Scott. ν



1. Austin Lovelace, The Organist and Hymn Playing (rev.) (Carol Stream, Illinois: Agape, 1981), 26.

2. Erik Routley, Church Music and the Christian Faith (Carol Stream, Illinois: Agape, 1978), 102 and 105–6.

3. Routley, p. 117.

4. Luther’s Works, Vol. 15; ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan (Concordia Pub. House, 1971), p. 273.