Baltimore Chapter of the American Guild of Organists
Enriching lives through organ and choral music

Dear John

John Walker, DMA is Artist-in-Residence at Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, having served earlier as Minister of Music at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and The Riverside Church in New York City. He is a member of the organ faculty at Peabody Conservatory of Music and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Organ at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, following previous teaching positions at Duquesne University, Manhattan School of Music, San Jose State University, and the American Conservatory of Music. His active performance schedule has taken him throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Dr. Walker has recorded frequently on the Pro Organo, Gothic, and JAV Recordings labels. As a student of Herbert Nanney, John Walker earned the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Stanford University, where he was also Assistant University Organist. He holds two Master of Music degrees cum laude from American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where he was later a member of the faculty. Dr. Walker was the 1984 alumni recipient of the Professional Achievement Award from Westminster College. A Fellow of the American Guild of Organists, John Walker was elected President of the AGO in 2014, having previously served the Guild in numerous other capacities including several terms as Vice President and Treasurer.

In our "Dear John" series, Dr. Walker answers questions from our Chapter members. An experienced, knowledgeable, and pastoral member, he has graciously accepted the board’s invitation to lead an “advice” column for our chapter newsletter. Many thanks to Dr. John Walker for taking up this challenge. If you have an organ, choral, or church music question, please use our contact form to submit your question to Dr. Walker. He will then choose one question to answer each month.

Effective Sonic Balance Between Voice and Organ (Part 3)

Dear Dynamically, if I might address you by your first name,

Last month I promised to suggest some basic organ registrations for hymn playing, likely the most important feature of our role as church musicians. The sentiment of most hymn texts can be successfully conveyed by using five or more pistons set in a graduated series similar to the following suggestions. (Study the texts to discern which registration appears to be most appropriate.):

General 1 -  All manuals: Principal 8’, with all manuals coupled at 8’
                       Pedal: Bourdon 16’, Spitzflöte 8’, with manuals coupled to pedal at 8’
General 2 – All manuals: Principal 8’ and 4’, with all manuals coupled at 8’
                       Pedal: Principal 16’ and 8’, with manuals coupled to pedal at 8’
General 3 – Great: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’ with Bourdon 16’; all manuals coupled at 8’
                       Swell: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’ with Nazard 2-2/3’, Oboe 8’ and Bourdon 16’
                       Choir: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’ with Nazard 2-2/3’, swell to choir
                       Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, 4’ with manuals coupled to pedal at 8’
General 4 – All manuals: Add reeds 8’ 
                       Pedal: Add light reeds 16’ and 8’
General 5 – All manuals: Add reeds 4’ and mixtures
                       Pedal: Add Bourdon 32’

Notice that mixtures enter only in the final combination, to be used only with robust and confident congregational singing.

Additionally it is frequently helpful to play the hymn melody on a solo stop or combination of ranks to provide greater clarity and leadership for the congregation.  To help the men in the congregation, it is most useful to build this solo melody at 16’ pitch level or to play the melody one octave lower on an 8’ rank, in the tenor range. Divisional pistons such as these may be employed to access solo combinations:

  1. foundation ranks at 16’ and 8’ pitch to accompany devotional texts;
  2. solo trumpet or tuba at 16’ pitch (or 8’ played in tenor range) to accompany more spirited texts; and
  3. solo cornet registration to vary the timbre of an interior stanza.

Obviously this brief survey is simply a beginning to the lifelong process of choosing registrations to encourage full congregational participation in hymn singing.  

As William Cowper wrote: Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings; it is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings.  I wish deep spiritual blessings for you and your congregation as you continue to explore the wealth of hymnody.

John Walker