Pipe Organ and Wire Harp A How-to for Your Church!

organ manuals sm

Almost every Sunday, unless husband George has to be away (substituting at another church, playing the carillon for Convocation or Commencement at either of his two colleges), he’s playing the historic pipe organ at our church. Preludes, postludes and hymns.

With, of course, wire harp accompaniment!

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Intricately painted organ pipes were once common in 19th century Vermont. Yes, these do speak, they are not just for looks!


If you happen to have a spouse, friend or otherwise happily willing organist in your church, you can play wire harp accompaniment on Sunday mornings to hymns.

Here’s how.

Let the organist lead. The congregation will enjoy (hopefully!) singing their favorite hymns. Check the key of the hymn in your hymnal at some point during the service and set your blades or levers in advance if you have them.

When the organist plays the first line of the hymn through, don’t accompany right away. You’ll join with the congregation. Note what register the organ is at: if there’s a lot of 8′ and 16′ Diapason, you’ll probably want to be at top most octaves of your harp (A5 to A4 strings). If the opposite, a lot of 2′ or 4′ flutes, let’s say, then switch. Go down to the lower end of your instrument: roughly E4 to E3. Please note these are approximations and are what I’ve found work on my harps; your mileage may vary. Experiment to see what is best for your acoustic environment, the voice of your harp and of course, how well your harp pairs up with the organ in your church. Like harps, pipe organs have their own unique voices too!

So having got that out of the way, what are you going to be playing? Answer is, it depends. Sometimes you’ll need to improvise a descant. Let your strings ring and sing. Othertimes, a sweeping gliss… the stereotypical harp sound people that people always think of when you say the word (congregations love these but don’t overdo them!).

Or sometimes folks just don’t know the tune very well and you need to help them (and your organist out). Rhythm harp is the answer! I actually sit right in back of husband George where I can watch his feet on the pedalboard – I do play organ some and fill in on the days when he’s away – and I’ll play a counter rhythm, fast and light on my harp. Triplets, Irish style, one-two-three, one-two-three on top of an otherwise duple meter can help bring a draggy hymn to life. It will also help get them back on track and singing again. Once they’re on board, some syncopated, jazzy rhythms, off beats here and there will keep them going. Generally people aren’t aware that you’re helping them, they’re just a bit more confident with the pulse of an unfamiliar hymn that they’re still learning.

There is a lot more to this subject, but this should help you get started. I will post more on this topic. Be sure to subscribe and check back often!