Well, we’ve survived another holiday season. The children have sung; the choir has sung. Instrumental music has been played. Participants have been complimented, and hopefully the spirit was invited into our meetings.
But I am interested in having outstanding music in church.
I’m not a subscriber to the philosophy of “Do your best; the Spirit will make up the difference.” I subscribe instead to the philosophy: “Learn your craft; practice like crazy; THEN do your best and the Spirit will make up the difference.”
This is not to say I only want to hear professionals perform in church. In fact, I don’t want that at all. Our music in church should, like the rest of the meeting, invite us to come unto Christ, not to come to faun over the soloist. Further, I understand that the only way to learn to play in front of people is to play in front of people, so young pianists (for instance) will hit some wrong notes along their way to becoming seasoned organists (and that’s one reason why beginning pianists may be better placed in Primary, Priesthood and YW meetings, rather than in Sacrament Meeting; I wish our YW, including my daughter, would actually PLAY the hymns rather than using the auto-hymn feature on the electric piano in their room). And I understand that not every ward has university trained musicians as ours does, and a ward needs to start with the talent and willingness of the folks available to participate.
While I love the music of the Restoration, I do not believe that it is the only music appropriate for church meetings. (Some of the hymns in our own hymnbook pre-date the Restoration, after all.) On the flip side, I don’t advocate our singing Ave Maria, but we need not be afraid of the outstanding religious music of our western civilization.
Unless we have well trained soloists, I would rather listen to a duet or trio or other small group (of singers or instrumentalists).
I’m thrilled when our choir director includes additional instrumentalists beyond the piano to accompany the choir.
I’m also thrilled when our choir director challenges us beyond Hymnplicity music for sacrament meeting. (I do agree that Hymnplicity has its place, especially where talent is emerging, but it’s wonderful to do more.) At the same time, I’m happy when choir directors don’t expect a ward choir to sing MoTab arrangements all the time (or replicate MoTab sound).
I’ve sung in a lot of church choirs, under many different directors. Some have been confident and well trained and taught us technique and music theory. Others have been less confident and relied on the choir to rise to the occasion without a lot of technical help. Both models have worked, and that is one of the miracles of church music, if you ask me. I prefer a choir director who leads rather than seeks consensus, but I recognize that sometimes that’s what we get, and I’d rather sing in the choir than not sing.
When we lived in Venezuela years ago, one week the women of the Relief Society sang a special number in sacrament meeting. The priesthood brethren asked for “equal time” the next week, and they sang a hymn (rehearsed once in opening exercises). My first counselor (who was conducting) joked that we should ask the children whose number they preferred, but he feared they would always vote for their mothers. (As I remember, there was no question that the sisters were better, but the effect of having all the sisters sing one week and all the men the next week was remarkable.)
In the same building on another weekend, Elder Hales presided at a Priesthood Leadership meeting. After we sang an intermediate hymn, he stood and told the brethren to sing it again – they’d all sung melody and missed the counterpoint written for basses and tenors into the chorus. So we sang it again, with gusto!
Our first months in that building, we had no piano (because it was out being treated for termites). In other wards we’ve had flamboyant organists. I don’t agree with Elder Packer’s suggestion that a piano is a better instrument for prelude music than an organ, but I understand why he gave that counsel in a priesthood leadership meeting I attended. (An organ prelude played “over” the din of the crowd will only encourage people to talk louder; a skilled organist can help manage the reverence during the prelude by how she controls the volume and stops on the organ.)
I’m grateful for ward music people who plan carefully giving thought to enhancing meetings rather than filling slots on an agenda. I’m grateful to parents who encouraged their children to learn to play pianos and organs and string and woodwind instruments that have later contributed to remarkable music in meetings I’ve attended. I’m grateful for angel voices that shout praises musically, and that once in a while I get to be one of those angels. I’m grateful for composers and writers who share their musical testimonies.
My lovely wife does not consider herself an outstanding musician, but she is. She is one of our ward organists and is well trained. She teaches piano and some of her students may well one day be organists in their future congregations. She has often commented that she would rather sing in a choir or play the organ in front of hundreds of people than speak in front of ten. Though she’s quite good at teaching the ten, I’m grateful that she shares her musical gifts as she does.
My sister-in-law is a trained opera singer. After hearing her sing a French song in sacrament meeting, I felt I understood better what it meant to be ministered to by an angel.
Lest you think I’m only impressed by high talent, I also love to hear the children sing. When I sat on the stand more often, there was nothing quite like sitting there on the front row as the Primary children filed up to sing – to see their energy and excitement (which sometimes led to interesting distractions from the task at hand). We’ve had some choice talent leading those kids sing in wards we’ve attended, and the kids have been delightful contributors. (Frankly, I’d love to serve someday as Primary Music Leader; I got to sub in that role just after being released as bishop a few years back, and it was a blast!)
And while I’m at it, I’ll also mention that I love congregational singing. I live in a large ward, and we sing pretty well (meaning loud enough that we can hear it). I had a bishop once back when the green hymnbook was new who asked that we limit “new” songs to one per meeting so most of the congregational singing was familiar. That made sense to me then and it still does.
I’m grateful for the songs of the heart, and I’m grateful for talented people who share their musical gifts with the rest of us.