Solos for the Sanctuary

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For any who are unfamiliar with Glenda Austin’s work, she is a prolific composer and superb arranger from Missouri USA, whose work is published by the Willis Music Company, distributed by Hal Leonard.

With vast experience as a church musician, Austin has been making arrangements of classic hymns and worship songs since she was a teenager playing in a small Baptist church. Today, she continues to play for the United Methodist Church in her hometown, Joplin.

Austin’s Solos for the Sanctuary series launched with Hymns and a Christmas collection more than a decade ago. Aimed at “the Church Pianist”, these books delivered arrangements suitable for advanced players (around UK Grades 7-8) to include as musical interludes in services as appropriate.

Further collections soon appeared, becoming a popular strand of Austin’s output alongside her educational work. Spirituals (2011), Worship (2012), Gospel (2014) and Hymns 2 (2019) have now been joined by Seasons (2023), prompting this review looking back at the series.

Hymns & Christmas

Introducing the first book of Hymns, Austin recalls her younger years:

“My older sister and I were ‘volunteered’ by our mother to play the little spinet piano and the Thomas organ. I must admit that together we had a lot of fun coming up with different twists and variations to the hymns and spirituals we grew up with.”

She goes on to outline the vision which underpins the series:

“With the Solos for the Sanctuary series, I am very happy to share with you some of my favourite piano arrangements that I’ve compiled over the years and have recently tweaked for publication. Many of them have a little twist of the Southern Baptist/Methodist favour that I hope you and your audience will enjoy.”

Certainly, Austin’s choice of material reflects this background, and is broadly traditional. The first book included the following titles:

  • Amazing Grace
  • Be Thou My Vision
  • It Is Well With My Soul
  • Jesus Loves Me / He Keeps Me Singing
  • My Jesus, I Love Thee
  • Shall We Gather At the River? / On Jordan’s Stormy Banks
  • What A Friend We Have In Jesus

What makes this and subsequent books so special is Austin’s creative flair and musicality in arranging beloved hymn tunes as modern piano solos, equally inspired by classical techniques and repertoire and by jazz harmonies.

Similarly distinctive, the Christmas collection delivers Austin’s take on:

  • A La Nanita Nana
  • Angels We Have Heard On High
  • Away In A Manger
  • Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabell
  • Christmas Celebration Medley
  • The First Noel
  • Go, Tell It On The Mountain
  • God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
  • He Is Born
  • Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
  • Sing We Now Of Christmas
  • What Child Is This?

Both these books, and those which followed, have an understated and classy presentation, with sober cover design, staple binding and white paper within. The notation is generously spaced, easy to read, but players should note that fingering suggestions are not included.

Spirituals, Worship & Gospel

Austin expanded the Solos for the Sanctuary series with a collection offering seven new arrangements of Spirituals, bringing a more overtly jazzy flavour to the mix with these titles:

  • The Gospel Train
  • Joshua (Fit The Battle Of Jericho)
  • My Lord, What A Morning
  • Rock-A-My Soul
  • Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
  • There Is A Balm In Gilead
  • Wayfaring Stranger

For the next collection, Worship, Austin turned to more contemporary material for inspiration, noting in her introduction,

“Included in this contemporary genre are songs that I truly love. All have been carefully and thoughtfully chosen because I believe each and every one has real staying power… Pianistically, I did my best to arrange these fairly predictable songs in a way that is a little more creative and unexpected, yet still pleasing to the ear…”

There’s certainly a diversity of musical sources in evidence here, from Michael W. Smith, through Integrity’s Hosanna Music and the Vineyard’s Eddie Espinosa to the UK’s own Stuart Townend.

Austin’s joy in the music is very evident; she delivers wonderfully inventive arrangements of these titles:

  • Above All
  • Change My Heart Oh God
  • Give Thanks
  • Great Is The Lord
  • How Great Is Our God
  • How Majestic Is Your Name
  • In Christ Alone
  • There Is A Redeemer
  • You Are My All In All

Next came the Gospel collection, about which Austin wrote,

“This compilation contains some of my very favourite “pop” songs of the church. Age-wise, they are in a grey area: despite being around for ever (and most likely they will be around for many years) they are not quite public domain.”

Here we find,

  • How Great Thou Art
  • My Tribute
  • Sweet Sweet Spirit
  • Soon And Very Soon
  • Mansion Over The Hilltop
  • Victory In Jesus
  • The King Is Coming / We Shall Behold Him
  • How Excellent Is Thy Name (medley)

After the unmitigated fun of these more jazzy and contemporary collections, Austin returned to the hymnody of old for Hymns 2, bringing us her arrangements of these enduring favourites:

  • Blessed Assurance
  • Great Is Thy Faithfulness
  • Holy, Holy, Holy
  • Jesus Paid It All
  • Just As I Am
  • Nothing But The Blood
  • Praise The Lord! Ye Heavens Adore Him!
  • To God Be The Glory
  • Trust And Obey
  • Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus / Softly And Tenderly

Introducing this collection, Austin tells us that,

“All the hymns included in this book have been ‘tested’ as preludes, offertories, postludes, or special solos.”

It is also worth underlining a point that she makes in all these collections: Austin encourages us to go beyond the music as presented to include our own creative interpretation, using her arrangements as we see fit or feel appropriate.

And this brings us rather neatly to Austin’s latest addition to the series, Seasons, in which she makes this point even more explicit:

“About the arrangements, it’s very difficult to notate exactly how these should be played. I want you to play them as you feel. My directions are very general, so you’ll need to put yourself in the music and play from your heart. Be creative! I very seldom play something the same way twice. Often, I have to read from my own music to play exactly what I notated! And if you want to add a ritard, please do. If you want to play louder, softer, slower, faster, please do! And if you find that some of the chords are a bit large for your hands (like me), please feel free to omit a note or roll them. I do that frequently.”

Seasons of the Church Year

This new collection differs to the previous titles in the series in notable ways.

Whereas the first Hymns collection offered 7 pieces in a 32-page book, Seasons brings us a generous 23 arrangements in a 64-page book:

  • Advent Carol
  • All Hail The Power of Jesus’ Name
  • Come, Ye Thankful People, Come
  • Doxology
  • In The Garden
  • Jesus, Keep Me Near The Cross
  • Let Us Break Bread Together
  • Living For Jesus
  • Meditation 1
  • Meditation 2
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful
  • O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
  • O Little Town Of Bethlehem
  • The Old Rugged Cross
  • Open My Eyes, That I May See
  • Patriotic Medley
  • Spirit Medley
  • Sweet Hour Of Prayer
  • There’s A Song In The Air
  • This Is My Father’s World
  • We Gather Together
  • Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?
  • When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

The key concept of this book is that it delivers music that can be incorporated into themed services throughout the seasons, covering key events in the church calendar. These are helpfully listed at the front, alongside suggested titles. In addition to Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, the book includes material for Epiphany, Pentecost, national holidays and general communion services held throughout the year.

In general, the arrangements are slightly shorter in this collection, and more accessible (some could be attempted by the late intermediate player, around UK Grades 5-6). This is not to say they are less inventive however; on the contrary, Austin’s gift for bringing together classical, jazz and gospel influences has only matured with time, and these are superbly enjoyable arrangements.

You can hear the music in this playlist, compiled by the composer on her YouTube channel (where you can also hear her engaging performances of the previous collections):

Of all the books in the series, Seasons places an emphasis on practicality and utility within the life of the church musician, and I think this new collection will be very warmly welcomed by fans of the series old and new.

Closing Thoughts

Glenda Austin’s Solos for the Sanctuary series obviously stands apart from the music I typically review on Pianodao. These are special niche publications whose particular audience seems obvious, and for whom they have been superbly put together.

However, I think it would be a mistake to forget the extent to which hymnody, spirituals and gospel music have contributed to our broader musical culture, and the educational value of the series surely amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

Austin’s arrangements, too, offer their own masterclass in how to take a simple melody and create an engaging piano solo, rich in musical substance and influence. These really are unimpeachably good versions of these songs, and even beyond their intended use I think they will find ready and warm acceptance. Thank you, Glenda!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.