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Fine Arts Friday: Hymns

The mention of hymns often gets a lot of backlash. “Hymn singing is old fashioned, passe, and totally without value. Get with the 21st century!”

First, those people can get off my lawns.

Second: Shakespeare, Mozart, Renoir, Pope, Homer, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Austen, Virgil, da Vinci. Need I go on? We don’t discard art from the past because it’s old. In fact, we recognize that the art that lasts, lasts for a reason. We realize that beauty, truth, and goodness transcend time.

But what does learning hymns have to do with education in general and fine arts in particular?  As a Christian, I believe that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Education is incomplete without a firm foundation in Christ. Hymns are more than just songs to be sung, they hold theological truths. In keeping with Miss Mason’s philosophy of transmitting knowledge in “literary language,” hymns teach us (and our children) deep truths about God through beautiful words and music.

Additionally, hymn study gives us the opportunity to learn the rudiments of reading music, even if we don’t play an instrument. Singing in the car to the auto-tuned pop star singing the same 7 words 11 times is fine (cringe), being able to follow enough music to lift up our voices in harmony in praise to God is priceless.

Stepping off my soap box.

So, teaching hymns. The Ambleside rotation has one hymn a month if you’re looking for options.  You won’t like every hymn choice they offer, so don’t feel tied to their selections if you think it will dissuade you from pursuing hymn study. In fact, I think the best way to start is to choose a hymn with which you are familiar and which you like. (Confession: I’m not overly fond of this month’s selection.)

Some hymns or their authors have wonderful and moving stories. The back story of “It Is Well with My Soul” is heartbreaking and inspiring. If the song or author does have an interesting story, share that. (However, you don’t have to have an in-depth history of every song you sing. And even if the song/author does have a great story, you aren’t required to dig that up and share it. Hymns are for singing.)
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Many Charlotte Mason educators suggest you get a family hymnal or group of hymnals. Now I’m going to get off their lawns, because it is indeed the 21st century.  We just find what we want online since most hymns are in the public domain. My favorite tool to find sheet music for hymns is Timeless Truths Free Online Library, and there are many others as well. That being said, if your church uses a specific hymnal, it might be helpful to use that.

Because none of us are accomplished piano or guitar players — although the girls are working on it — I generally use Youtube to help us with the music. Although the great choral arrangements are lovely, I’ve found they can be they’re harder to follow. I try to find the clearest, simplest version, which we play through our television and sing along.

For example, for “It Is Well with My Soul,” I’d print out the sheet music (also available in German and Russian!) and we’d sing along to this version that’s a simple piano accompaniment. For a hymn we aren’t as familiar with, I’d find a version with vocals.  This is a nice version of the same hymn with vocals.

I am not totally opposed to modernizations of hymns. In fact, I think that quite a few are very well done. What does irk me is when an artist changes the rhythm or words to such an extent that it is impossible to sing along. One of the great things about hymns is their universal renown; the fact that you can find believers everywhere that know and can sing with you.  The familiarity is unifying. But when hymns are altered past knowing, you lose that familiarity.

Hillsong United seems to do a pretty good job of updating hymns, keeping the familiarity but adding their own twist. Here’s their version of “It Is Well with My Soul.”

Happy singing!

2 responses to “Fine Arts Friday: Hymns”

  1. Cindy Watson Avatar
    Cindy Watson

    Love hymns!! and I do own hymnals! I even pick them up at library book sales when I can. I have passed this love onto Colin at least and all my kids know them. Colin even used two, I think, at least one, spontaneously for Sunday worship during the service. It was wonderful!

    1. April Avatar

      Old hymnals smell like pews. (I mean that in the best way!) I think it’s important to keep the old art even as we make new art. I’m glad Colin is doing that. Impressive young man you’ve raised!

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