Learning Hymns on the Piano—A Piano Teacher’s Perspective

Learning to play the hymns is one of the main goals for many LDS pianists-in-training (or their parents, at least). As a piano teacher for over 15 years, I have learned a thing or two about how students can learn the hymns with the least amount of frustration.

Your children’s piano teacher may have their own method for teaching hymns. My guess is, however, that most teachers (especially those who haven’t studied piano pedagogy specifically) don’t have a systematic approach. Feel free to share this post with your child’s teacher. There may be some resources here that they are unaware of!

My Method

I like to introduce hymns when a child is about finished with level 2 of their method book (Faber, Alfred, Bastein, Piano Pronto, etc.). By this point the student has experience playing harmonic intervals (two notes at the same time). Because hymns require a pianist to play two notes with each hand simultaneously, previous experience with harmonic intervals is essential.

I don’t particularly like using simplified hymnbooks. While they contain arrangements that sound like the hymn, they lack all of the actual hymn playing technique that a student will need in the future. Once you get a feel for playing the four parts of a hymn at once, learning future hymns becomes much easier. If you are using simplified versions you lose this benefit entirely. The same goes for the simplified arrangements found in the Friend magazine. I only turn to these when I have a student who is very motivated to learn a particular song (for an upcoming baptism, primary program, etc.). If they really want to learn a song but they aren’t ready for the real thing yet, then I will consider a simplified version. These simplified versions are often not really that easy. They include difficult finger crossings and unstylistic awkwardness that is better avoided altogether.* Alfred came out with a Mormon hymn series this year that I think is the best resource for simplified church songs. It is not a replacement for learning the actual hymns, but these arrangements† can be fun supplemental songs that are easy to learn.

There are plenty of hymns that your child can learn straight from the hymnbook. The following list comes from this site. It also has lists of intermediate and advanced hymns (not exhaustive, just 25 of each).

25 Beginner Hymns

(Music Reading Level 4-5 US, Grade 3-4 UK)

These hymns are in easy keys, have few hand position changes, fairly simple rhythms, few accidentals, and slow to moderate tempos.

142 Sweet Hour of Prayer
302 I Know My Father Lives
116 Come, Follow Me
309 As Sisters in Zion
239 Choose the Right
152 God Be With you Till We Meet Again
38 Come, All Ye Saints of Zion
106 God Speed the Right
294 Love at Home
92 For the Beauty of the Earth
144 Secret Prayer
306 God’s Daily Care (As I Watch the Rising Sun)
3 Now Let Us Rejoice
304 Teach Me to Walk in the Light
19 We Thank Thee, O God, For a Prophet
301 I Am a Child of God
241 Count Your Blessings
131 More Holiness Give Me
100 Nearer, My God, To Thee
98 I Need Thee Every Hour
125 How Gentle God’s Commands
339 My Country, ‘Tis of Thee
67 Glory to God on High
94 Come, Ye Thankful People
204 Silent Night

Specific Teaching/Practice Techniques

Your child’s individual teacher will hopefully have specific techniques for your child. In the case that your teacher doesn’t teach hymns or needs a few ideas, I will list a few of my favorites here. I always tell students to start working hands separately—especially when they are new to hymns. We go through and identify all of the different harmonic intervals. Using Sweet Hour of Prayer as an example, we will first identify what a third looks like and then (on a photocopied or printed version!) mark all of them with a highlighter (erasable highlighters make this activity really fun). Then we look at the first line and try to figure out how on earth you are supposed to get your fingers to cover all of those notes and write in the hand shift that’s required. (If a student has a hard time identifying intervals, I have found nothing better than ABC Papers for help with that.)

We work slowly through the hymn, identifying intervals and patterns. When I have a student learn an entire phrase, I always have them go to the downbeat of the next phrase before they stop playing. This helps eliminate the huge gaps that so often find their way into the transition areas of songs (at the end of a line of text in the case of a hymn). I also make sure that the student keeps a steady beat. Some students really struggle with this. Here are some exercises from my website Sing Solfa that are designed to help them find the beat: here, here, and here.

The last thing I do before I will pass off a hymn is have the student play while I sing along. They really hate this because it’s much harder to play when someone is singing. It requires them to not only play the right notes, but also keep that steady beat and not have gaps between lines. With a beginning hymn player we will sometimes pass off one phrase at a time (with the student playing through to the downbeat of the next phrase). It doesn’t take long before they are able to sing along with themselves. That is a sure sign that they have that hymn learned thoroughly! (I don’t require them to sing along, but some wish to.)

In summary:

  • Hands separate
  • Identify the intervals
  • Write in any tricky fingerings/hand movements
  • Reinforce a steady beat
  • Sing along while the student accompanies

Tips for Parents

I recommend that you sing your chosen hymn as your monthly hymn before your child tries to learn it on the piano. Hymns are difficult and not as immediately gratifying as other, easier songs. If your child is familiar with how it goes, their interest wanes less. As your child works on the hymn, please try to avoid yelling things like, “That’s wrong!” or “B-flat! B-flat!” from the other room. It is your child’s piano teacher’s job to correct the mistakes—not yours. While it may seem like you are preventing your child from “practicing in” a mistake, you are really just frustrating them and making the teacher’s eventual correction that much more difficult.

Further Reading

  • *For those of you who are using a simplified hymnbook, here is a post about which ones to start with
  • A post about why teachers should (and often don’t) assign hymns

Additional Resources

Jessi Vandagriff graduated with a masters degree in music from BYU. She has taught music at BYU and been on the music faculty at BYU-Idaho. She’s currently teaching piano and bassoon lessons out of her home studio in Provo, Utah. She runs a variety of websites, including this one. Her free, Charlotte-Mason-inspired website for teaching children to sing can be found at www.singsolfa.com.

One thought to “Learning Hymns on the Piano—A Piano Teacher’s Perspective”

  1. I’m so glad to read your comment about simplified hymns not being all that easy and why. I’m an older adult just starting to learn, and that’s exactly how I felt about the simplified hymns. So I’m going to be guilt-free about doing what I wanted to do — go to the standard hymnbook. Thanks.

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