David Nevue - on Playing & Arranging Hymns

On February 17th, 2014, David was sent a list of questions by a college student who was assigned a research project for his music education courses. The subject of his research: the modernization of hymns. A fan of David's solo piano music, the student sent David this list of questions about his hymn arrangements and his overall approach to arranging them. We hope you enjoy it. If you find this interview interesting and want to read others, you'll find links to many more here. And now, to the questions...

What drew your attention/interest toward hymns?

I grew up singing hymns in the church... but as a kid I never liked them much. I remember one of my early piano teachers trying to teach me how to play hymns and I completely resisted... I didn't want to be a "church hymn player." Of course, I was twelve at the time. In my late teen years, I discovered an album (an LP, remember those?) in a used record store bin called The Vigil by Kemper Crabb. I just loved the album artwork, and so bought it unheard. That record became one of my favorite records of all time. Included on the record was an arrangement of Be Thou My Vision that just really spoke to my heart. And that was when the tide started to turn. I created my own arrangement of Be Thou My Vision for my third CD, The Last Waking Moment. That was the first "hymn" arrangement I recorded. In fact, it was the very first song I ever released that was not my own original composition. And my fourth album, The Vigil, was conceptually inspired by Kemper Crabb's album of the same name. That's how much that record impacted me.

How did the form and structure of original hymns influence the harmonies and structure of your arrangements?

To be honest, I'm not sure that "hymn form and structure" had any influence on me at all... I've never thought about the songs that way. For me, it's all about the melody. And of course, the melodies of the great hymns, well, they have lasted for generations for good reason. The melodies are incredibly memorable and instantly recognizable. And when arranging hymns, the melody has to be the main thing. You can deviate a little, and you can take some creative liberties, but the substance of the arrangement... it really needs to hang on that melody. Otherwise you start to lose touch with the heart and voice of the original hymn.

Did the text of the original hymns influence your writing?

Yes and No. No, in that I don't think the text of the hymns had any influence over how I arranged the songs, per se, but YES, in that that text did impact how I approached the songs on a spiritual level. While working on them, the words of hymns drew me inward toward God... almost like moving closer and closer to His throne. So there is a seriousness, an awe and a reverence that goes along with that. I have really come to view the hymns as sacred... the words are so deep, so passionate and they resonate with my Spirit. They 100% speak the truth unashamedly and there is no holding back. They are a deeply felt response to God's grace, forgiveness, and Christ's death on the cross and resurrection. With the classic hymns, there is no sense of "let's make this song palpable to the general public." When you compare modern contemporary worship music to the great hymns, there is simply no comparison lyrically. Not to knock contemporary worship, I love a lot of the modern songs, but they are basically lyrical fast food, and for the most part, they don't require us to think too deeply. Whereas the classic hymns... well, dwell on those words, really consider them, and they penetrate your heart on a deeper, maybe even life-altering level.

What was your inspiration for your piece Eden Again ?

My belief that the day is coming when God will redeem all of his creation and return it to its original state, uncorrupted by sin and the fall. Essentially, "Eden" again. The song looks forward to the events spoken of in Revelation 21 and 22, when God dwells with us here on Earth once more. Just as it was in the Garden of Eden, when God met and walked with Adam and Eve, so it will be then when God dwells with us (Rev: 21:3).

Why do you write for solo piano?

Ultimately, it's because as a solo pianist, I have complete control over the output. I don't have to rely on anyone else to do their part. When I was young and in college, I played in a few rock bands. Nothing came of those years (aside from some great friendships!) but I did discover one of the problems of working with others to create music... there are lots of clashes of opinion and personality. Those clashes can result in some amazing music, but it's also very volatile. Musicians, you see, are generally very sensitive people. We're insecure, subject to ego, and emotionally tied up in what we create musically. So during my "band years" I struggled with all those things. I didn't want to feel that my musical success was dependent on other people. So... that was when I first started composing for solo piano. I found the process much more peaceful. Less angst. And the only person I had to worry about playing a part perfectly was myself. And as a bonus... it's much easier (and less expensive) to record a quality solo piano album than it is to record an album featuring multiple personalities and instruments.

In regards to your albums, how do you decide the grouping of your songs?

Generally speaking, I am telling a story with the music... not only with the songs, but with the album as a whole. So the scope of the story I am telling over the course of the album will determine, to some degree, the order the songs appear in. Key signatures and the general feel of the songs affect the song order as well. All of those elements play a big part.

Why do you have some albums that are specifically dedicated to hymns while other albums have hymns interspersed?
Adoration: Solo Piano Hymns

Well, when I started composing, I never had any intent to record hymns at all. That wasn't in the plan early on. I mentioned earlier the story of Be Thou My Vision and how that came about for my 1997 album The Last Waking Moment. That was just a one-off thing. I did it because the song spoke to my heart, and I was drawn to it. The next album that I put a traditional hymn on (if you don't count my Christmas album or my arrangement of Jesus Loves Me on my album Sweet Dreams & Starlight) was Overcome. That album, released in 2005, was dedicated to my father, who I had lost to cancer in 2003. My father was a great man of faith. He was a pastor, evangelist and missionary, and in composing the album in his honor, I felt led to include a couple of hymn arrangements that were his favorites... so there are two hymns on that album, plus three praise song arrangements. During the process of arranging the hymns for Overcome I dug out my hymnal and really started to read the words of the hymns for first time. I started flipping through the pages and memories came flooding back... memories of singing those old songs with my family in church. And it was at that point, that I really fell in love with the hymns. That's when I started reading the words and realized what a treasure they are. And those moments at the piano with the hymnal put the desire in my heart to sit down and arrange some of my favorites. And that led to next album, Adoration: Solo Piano Hymns, which is entirely made up of hymn arrangements. The following album, Revelation: Solo Piano for Prayer & Worship, contains five hymns, ten praise song arrangements, and a couple of originals. Revelation was a complete accident. Most of the album was improvised and recorded during the Adoration sessions. So again, that album really was the work of the Holy Spirit. Not something I planned... total a God thing. After that, the only hymn I've recorded was For the Beauty of the Earth for my most recent album Open Sky. I heard the tune, got an idea for arranging it, and it fit very nicely within the context of the album... so I used it. So that's the story of the hymns so far.

Where is your preferred location to write your music? Do you take a keyboard outside (I noticed that a lot of your pieces are titles reflecting nature)? Take a photograph? Or do you just imagine the location you are writing about?

It's all in my head and in my heart. I compose the music on my piano in my living room. However, I also arrange the songs in my head when I'm out and about and especially just before I go to sleep. I hear the tunes in my head and I work on them, and then I'll take new ideas to the piano the next day when I'm at a place where I can sit down at the piano.

And there you have it. I hope you enjoyed the interview!