NPM Magazine Review 


A Catholic Organist’s Guide to Playing Hymns

Noel Jones, Frog Music Press, 2015, ISBN 9781516977932, 170 pages, paperback, $24.95

This method book, intended for beginning organists and those who struggle to play hymns in four parts, begins with a statement on the essential nature of hymn-playing skills for the organist, an informative overview of the development of hymns throughout the centuries, and Jones’s rationale in developing the method.  The introduction is rounded out by a very clear explanation of hymn meter, the marriage of text and tune, and a review of elementary rhythmic principles.

Steps one and two of the method address phrasing and rhythmic vitality by employing shortened note values.  The explanations benefit from clear graphic examples.  Following each step is a series of exercises - eleven hymn tunes notated both with traditional rhythmic values and with adjusted note lengths according to Jones’ s methods.

One of the most novel aspects of this volume is the unit on registration.  After a brief overview of the types of organ tone and pipe construction, Jones introduces a system in which the student can download an “organ stop spreadsheet,” fill in the stoplight for a particular instrument, and send the spreadsheet via email to Jones, who will the offer sample registrations (seven general pistons) appropriate for hymn playing, tailored to the student’s instrument.  The student is directed to for further information on organ voices (although that website was inaccessible in January 2016).

Basic pedal technique is then discussed, along with rudimentary music theory (principles of consonance/dissonance and  tonic/dominant relationships).  The same hymn tunes (all in F major) are next presented with two- and three-note pedal parts.  A third voice is then introduced, again using the same hymn tunes in F major and, later, new melodies in other keys.  The volume closes with additional instruction in working out more complex pedaling.

Jones’s method has many strengths.  As the principles and techniques discussed are mostly applicable to general organ literature, the resource would make a good first exposure to the organ.  The instructions on tempo, articulation, phrasing, and registration are sound.  The provided fingerings and pedal markings are good for the most part, and the creative use of some hew pedal symbols will be of help to the beginning organist.  Most of all, the use of technology (registering the book for updates, the unit on registration, etc.) is fresh and forward - looking.

That being said, the method does have a few deficiencies.  Jones’s instructions regarding repeated notes and shortened notes at the ends of phrases would work perfectly in a generous acoustic, but he makes no mention of tailoring the practice to the dry acoustics which plague so many American churches.  The introductory unit on rhythm instructs the student to use the “Stave Breakthrough” method, and while the student is directed to a smartphone app for the program, no further explanation of the method is given.  Some of the musical examples are inconsistent with their corresponding explanations (for example, the section on phrasing breaks and repeated note breaks), and the score engravings contain a number of minor errors.  When the author instructs the student to download the “organ stop spreadsheet” from “our website,” no website is given.  A search of the parent website ( did not yield access to the spreadsheet.  In addition to numerous typographical errors, there are some curious engraving choices, including the use of different systems of pedal markings without clarification.  In general, the work would benefit from greater clarity, focus, and attention to detail, all issues that can easily be rectified in a future edition. [editor’s note: Revised edition now available]

Where will the student find him- or herself after mastering this volume?  He or she will be prepared to play all of the hymn tunes in the book (most of which are in common usage in Roman Catholic parishes) as well as all of the tunes found in Jones’s companion volumes (see the following reviews), but there will still be much work to do before mastering playing hymns in four parts.  Jones rightly encourages the student at this point to seek instruction from a reputable teacher.

In the end, this volume will be a welcome resource to the beginning organist, the pianist-turned-organist, and teachers.  I’ve not come across a similar approach in hymn-playing pedagogy, and I look forward to the next edition of this method and to similar offerings from Jones.*

Nicholas Will

*The second, revised version is now available.