Featured Recording: Analyzing Accompaniment

Featured Recording

Even with URC Psalmody’s 187 videos on YouTube and hundreds of other psalm-related videos from other channels, picking a Featured Recording each week can be surprisingly difficult.  Usually I try to pick a recording from which I can make a related point, or at least offer some helpful thoughts for reflection.

The candidates for today’s post included a video I just put up yesterday of my home congregation singing “Be Thou My Helper in the Strife” (Psalter Hymnal 60, from Psalm 35).  I was unconvinced; it’s a six-and-a-half-minute long video, much longer than the average congregational song, and it’s far from perfect.  For my own part, I wasn’t too confident about the way I had played it, or the merits of the recording in general. But I did start to think about some of the challenges and unique aspects of a song like this one, and came to believe it could make for a thought-provoking Featured Recording post after all.

My pastor had chosen this song from Psalm 35 to accompany a sermon on Luke 20:45-21:4—and it was a very appropriate choice, I think.  He also decided to split the psalm setting in half, having the congregation sing the first four verses before the sermon and the last four after it.  I combined the two halves on the recording for continuity, but you can still pick out the splice.

As I mentioned, the challenges inherent in this case were many.  Our second service is slightly smaller than the morning service (which isn’t large either), so the entire congregation usually sits on one side of the sanctuary.  When I’m scheduled to play, I tend to prefer the piano for this smaller group.  This gives me more musical freedom, since I’m still no master of the organ, but it also means I have to work extra hard to musically lead the congregation.  Thankfully the tune of this psalm setting is that of the familiar hymn “He Leadeth Me,” so they were able to hold the melody line without much trouble.

Then there was the interpretation of the psalm itself.  Psalm 35 is one of the most violent imprecatory songs in the entire Psalter, alternating between exultant highs and the darkest of lows.  Reflecting this in my piano playing was incredibly difficult; while I should never dominate the congregation or view the piece as a performance, I try to at least reflect the overall mood of each stanza for their benefit as I play it.  (It doesn’t help that “He Leadeth Me” is a generally uplifting tune in the bright key of D Major!)  To accomplish this I used a few techniques such as melody in octaves, changes in register, or limited harmonization tweaks.

Finally, there was the typical variety of technical obstacles to overcome.  Settling into the right tempo can be challenging, and if anything, I usually tend to speed when I’m playing piano.  The phrasing of this Psalter Hymnal arrangement also threw most of the congregation for a loop; unlike number 463, this setting includes only one fermata, at the end of the second line.   And through it all I had to rein in my urges to improvise and keep one and a half ears on the congregation.

Were my attempts at properly accompanying #60 successful?  Honestly, I’m still not sure.  At the very least I think my amount of musical communication with the congregation was deficient, as evidenced by the fact that I managed to throw them off on nearly every stanza.  I haven’t yet made up my mind whether piano or organ works better for congregational accompaniment, especially for a small group like this.  And I’m not sure what level of musical freedom I should allow myself.

So, although this Featured Recording lacks a thesis or points of application, perhaps it can still serve as a springboard for discussion.  Fellow musicians, how do you accompany your home congregation?  How do you bring out the themes of the songs you play?  What solutions could you offer to the problems I’ve mentioned above?  Your thoughts will doubtless be valuable to me and anyone else eager to learn how best to assist the church in singing praise to its Lord!


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

3 Responses to “Featured Recording: Analyzing Accompaniment”

  1. 1 Kathy B May 24, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Thoughtful post, MRK. In regard to accompaniment speed, etc — I have a comment that may not be recognized by most accompanists in reformed congregations. After playing in a big band where we used monitors, it was easier to “lead” because we were not dependent on a responsive cue from the voices of the congregation. If you were on stage in a big band, the drummer would have a metronome located next to him — and the speed would have already been pre-determined by the leader. (and that speed was not always right either.) Speed is often relative to preference.

    What I mean by this is: there is a lag time when sound reaches the ears of the accompanist — it occurs when the people sing and it the time it is heard by the accompanist. If you depend on the congregational response, the tempo still may not be quite right because of this “lag” time. Absolutely, each congregation has a mood/tempo — and it can be heard while we play….but….

    I’ve found it much better to sing while I practice — and indeed, to sing under my breath as I play. If I cannot get a breath, (esp. on moving alto notes), the speed may be too fast. If I have to take too many breaths, I may be too slow, as well. Each song has a unique tempo, as you know. It’s a very difficult skill to be a good listener of congregational voices while trying to discern an appropriate tempo. Sometimes the loudest voice in the congregation is not the one you want to follow 😉 That also might include the pastoral singing voice 🙂

    In the end, it is an imperfect science — but I wanted to share the concept of a lag time with you. It doesn’t mean we lead too far ahead — but that we recognize that as sound travels back to us, we should not let it distract from a solid, steady tempo. The trick is setting a nice singable tempo right at the get-go 🙂 If it is an uplifting song, the tempo should be uplifting. If it is thoughtful, our speed and style of playing should reflect this. Anyway, just some thoughts from the peon gallery…..

    • 2 Michael Kearney June 2, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      Thanks so much for these insights, Mrs. Bergman (and sorry for the shameful amount of time it took me to reply)! The challenges in picking that right tempo based on (but not entirely dependent on) the congregation’s abilities/habits are one reason why at this point I’m much better at accompanying on piano than I am on organ. The “lag time” problem was especially evident when I played at Dordt College, because not only did the sound of the 800-strong audience take a surprising amount of time to reach me, but the mechanics of the pipe organ meant that there was about a half-second lag just between the time I pressed a key and the time the pipe spoke!

      Singing along is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard (from multiple talented church musicians including yourself, I might add!). The problem is that my congregation has a definitive preference for a “New York” kind of tempo, while I tend to favor a “Michigan” tempo (though not quite as slow as an “Ontario” tempo…). It is quite interesting how not only different congregations but different regions have their own speed preferences. I love interacting with these differences when I visit various churches.

      Anyway, thanks again for the comments…they are always appreciated. 🙂


  1. 1 Featured Recording: Psalm 79 and Young Organists | URC Psalmody Trackback on May 31, 2013 at 7:02 am

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