Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Play Hymns

Helpful tips for playing hymns and other sacred repertoire

In this video, Robert gives you some helpful suggestions for playing hymns and other sacred repertoire on the piano.

Released on November 27, 2013

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome. I'm Robert Estrin here at and with the subject today, How to Play Hymns. I've chosen a Bach chorale. You know, it's an interesting thing, once you can play hymns, you can pretty much play all of them. But before your reading level is to that extent, you can't play any of them, and once you've reached that pinnacle. So what is the secret for being able to play hymns, four part choral writing, essentially, on the piano? Alright. Well, you know, it's not as easy as you think. But once you understand the structure it actually starts to click.

Okay, the first thing you must do, you must ascertain what key you're in. Look at the key signature closely so you could figure out what the tonalities are. It's kind of like detective work, analyzing these chords, and I'll show you an easy way to accomplish this so you don't have to break into a cold sweat and go, "No, not music theory." It's actually quite intuitive.

So you take this beautiful Bach chorale I have here and I'm going to play just a little bit of it so you can get a feel for what it sounds like.


Beautiful. This is actually just choral writing, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. On the hands, generally, you play two voices with the left hand and two with the right hand. But one secret is, often times, it's easier to play three voices with the right hand and just the bass with the left hand. Now, this is a little tricky. Why? Because if it's choral writing, then the soprano and alto part are always in the treble clef, and the tenor and bass are always in the bass clef, but because of the way choral writing is done, you always have a bigger distance between the bass and the tenor from the bottom note to the other three notes than any other voices. It's often times more than an octave. So redistributing the hands is one secret.

Another thing that you can do that is really valuable when you're first approaching a piece, let's say, you just can't read it. It's above your reading level and you want to learn this thing or at least be able to get some sense of it. Well, the structure of four-part writing is such that the melody and the bass are fundamental. The bass is the basic structure and the melody, of course, is the song. So listen to it if I just play the top and bottom lines.


Now, first of all, if you were playing at church and somebody asks you, "Oh, can you play these hymns with us," and you just did that and you had a choir singing, it would be supportive and fine. So that's one good news. But the, you know, better news is that once you understand the structure, because you know the bass and you know the melody, fleshing out inner voices is not so hard. So maybe you could play...once you're comfortable playing the soprano, the top voice, and the bass, the bottom voice, add let's say, the alto voice. That is the note just below the melody in the right hand, and just pay three voices leaving out the tenor line for now.


Now, once you have three voices, you can add the tenor line and it might not be too hard because you've already got a sense of the melody and the bass. More than that, when you're reading, it doesn't have to be like you're only going to play certain voices. You grab what you can. Make sure that you get the melody because everyone wants to hear the melody, and the bass is the structure. And then, add the notes that you can. If it's something quick and you can't grab all the notes, at least, get the skeleton of the chorale which is the bass and the treble. And as you get more familiar, I promise you, you'll be able to add more voices and get a lush sound, and be able to play any chorale in time.

Thanks so much for joining me. Robert Estrin here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Tom Moylan * VSM MEMBER * on March 28, 2022 @5:37 am PST
Thank you for your help. Please consider offering suggestions for improving one’s ability to play trills. Tom Moylan
Robert - host, on March 28, 2022 @9:26 am PST
Jim * VSM MEMBER * on October 2, 2017 @6:13 pm PST
Which Bach chorale did you play?
Robert - host, on October 3, 2017 @3:06 pm PST
That's a good question! I picked one out from the book and sightread it. I don't remember what it is called. If anyone out there is familiar with this Bach chorale, please feel free to chime in. Thank you!
Joshua on April 28, 2018 @3:18 pm PST
Please chime in someone!!
Ken Cory * VSM MEMBER * on March 24, 2022 @1:15 pm PST
Just saw this video today. The Chorale that Robert played is in Am, so that should narrow it down a bit for you. There are databases online that you can search for these pieces, but what is often a musicologist's playground it a student's nightmare. So good luck!
Sandra * VSM MEMBER * on September 13, 2017 @7:34 am PST
Hi Robert, I've played piano forever but still have trouble reading piano music. I'm very slow, which takes the fun away. How can I learn to transfer what I see on the music to my hands? How can I teach my hands to find their way around the keyboard better?
Thank you. I enjoy your videos on VSM and thought you might have some helpful input on this issue. I know I'm not alone with this problem.
Robert - host, on September 13, 2017 @12:03 pm PST
Sight-reading can take a very long time to develop. You must develop a connection between your hands and what you hear and keep your eyes on the music. Here is an article and video which describes how I went from being extremely poor at sight-reading to a path to becoming accomplished at sight-reading:
John Beach * VSM MEMBER * on September 13, 2017 @6:13 am PST
The bulk of German chorales or hymns was written before the advent of the pianoforte, namely, for the pipe organ, on which instrument, of course, there is a pedalboard. The use of both hands and feet facilitates the difficulty of playing the various parts of the chorale.
Emma * VSM MEMBER * on September 13, 2017 @5:37 am PST
Robert, this was simply brilliant!! I am now going to go through my books of Bach Chorales with new insight. This video alone is worth the price of my subscription 😃
Garry Corbett * VSM MEMBER * on December 15, 2013 @3:26 pm PST
Always good advice. Thank you so much. Do you have a catalog , book, video or lessons about bass and melody RIFFs ?
Robert Estrin - host, on December 16, 2013 @10:44 am PST
There are many tutorial videos coming. I will make a note of your suggestion!
Peter Ma on November 28, 2013 @2:11 am PST
You have just revealed a simple concept which is so important but which not all instructors know the significance of making a point.
Richard L Walker on November 27, 2013 @1:26 pm PST
Good suggestions. Thanks.
Ted Kasckow on November 27, 2013 @5:30 am PST
this was a good tip however it might have been demonstrated with the average church hymnal. Also how to play melody with chordal background. I know that you are revealing just the tip of the iceberg.
How does one arpegiate on the piano.
Richard L Walker on November 27, 2013 @1:27 pm PST
I'm dying to say "one note at a time."
Robert Estrin - host, on November 27, 2013 @1:36 pm PST
You may find this video on arpeggios helpful:
Robert Estrin - host, on November 27, 2013 @1:37 pm PST
Here is a video that covers how to play arpeggios:
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