Monday, January 7, 2013

Random Church Music Thoughts

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.

I have some strong views about music in church. I don’t know that they all track well with official positions, but I suspect I’m pretty close. I’m not interested in having rock bands sing pop Christian music, nor am I interested in providing a platform for professional musicians to entertain a congregation.

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.


  1. Wow, your thoughts are practically my thoughts! We are in the most challenging place I have ever lived including the little branch I helped open as a missionary in Florida over thirty years ago. One Sunday (here in Iowa) we sang "We're Marching on to Glory" a wonderful rousing hymn; but the chorister has one pace, funeral dirge, and it was painful to sing. I leaned over to my husband and said "This feels like we're on the Baatan Death March." He told me to behave. I have led choirs in four different wards and have always loved it. I love leading the singing. My first job in the church was at age 13 as the Junior Primary Chorister when Primary was on a weekday afternoon. I used to practice leading to LP's of the Mormom Tab Choir. It is my dream to actually lead them or an equivalent group, just once. Thanks for sharing, it was great to read the words of a kindred spirit.

  2. I'm especially excited about church music recently because I found out that we are having a British Pageant on the grounds of the Preston Temple this summer! HURRAY!!!

    I'm desperately hoping I can take part in some way (I'm a Soprano) and my 6 year old daughter has applied for the stage part of the little girl (yes, that's all I know so far).

    No matter what, we will be there to watch. I can't wait to feel the Spirit of so many Saints gathered together to sing about our Church history.

    And yes, I like what you said about singing in church, too. :D

  3. Ah... Church music.

    I have pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will probably always be a choir director in my wards. Which is okay. Because I really do love music, and I love directing a choir. Unfortunately, our current ward is a bit challenging. We have a lot of members with great voices, but their commitment to choir is ... nonexisitent? We get 5-10 members at choir practice on a good Sunday, and practice is right before Church.

    To compensate (especially for the lack of men), I frequently invite the men to sing as quorums. Last year I had the Elders' Quorum sing "Ye Elders of Israel". The EQP let me practice with them at the beginning of their lesson time on the first Sunday of each month for about 6 months, and then they sang. 25+ of them. It was amazing.

    For Christmas I had the entire Priesthood sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The bishop let me practice with them during opening exercises every Sunday between October and December, and 50+ men (I was honestly surprised that so many got up to sing!) sang for the Christmas program. It was thrilling.

    I basically have to commandeer time from the different organizations' meetings to get them to sing, but thankfully most of the presidencies are really gracious and let me do it (they like the music as much as I do, I guess).

    Because of the caliber of talent (almost all of our YW sing in one high school audition choir or another) and the lack of commitment, I have resorted to "telling" the organizations that they are going to sing, when they are going to sing, and then I just come in a practice. When I was practicing with the YW for Christmas, they all balked (we have a particularly hard group of YW, despite their angelic and highly-trained voices...) and the week before they were supposed to sing I told them at that point I had done all I could in teaching them the piece and training them. Now it was up to them. If they wanted to sound like a chorus of cats, it was up to them. If they wanted to sound beautiful, it was up to them.

    Guess how they sounded? ;)

    And congregational singing? Ha. Some day I will tell you about the time I mentioned the lack of congregational singing with our bishopric... and they asked me to give a talk about it. And after my talk, in which I quoted Elder Oaks who said that we need to at least crack open the hymn book during congregational hymns, there were still people who didn't even try to look like they were singing during the intermediate hymn... And doing choir & congregation pieces is more like me directing the choir with the back to them... we're trying to do more of that to get the congregation to figure out that they CAN and SHOULD sing...

    Any suggestions for promoting singing among the congregation?

  4. I am not a very well trained musician, but I do love music. I never touched a piano until I was 10, and then begged my parents for lessons. They told me if I practiced for a year using the piano at the church across the street, they would buy me a piano. I practiced, they bought me my piano, and when we got married that's about the only thing Doug and I owned - two pianos!

    My first few years of lessons were from someone who was really just trying to do whatever she could to help her family out, but she wasn't very proficient at playing, let alone teaching.

    Then I offered to clean house in exchange for lessons with a better teacher. She fixed a lot of things for me, but I'm still not a very technical player, nor do I know much about theory. Good thing I have my husband, who used to live and breathe this stuff. He's still pretty passionate about it, which I find amusing and inspiring at the same time.

    I am SO grateful for a fantastic piano teacher for my kids. They definitely have a much better start then I did!

    I also SO agree with you about that piano in the YW room. I wish they'd move it somewhere it else and make those girls play! :) There are several who do play, and need to do it in order to learn to be the future ward organists of the world! Getting in there and doing it is really how I learned.

    I think ward choir director has been the most challenging calling I've ever had, mostly because I know there are MANY in our choir who are much more trained than I am. I do love the music though, and I try to do the best I can with it. The day I get released from that calling I will not be terribly sad, although I've enjoyed it and I'm grateful for what I've learned.

    Thanks for being such a great member of our choir (and your daughter and wife too!), and for the amazing piano teacher who resides in your home. I personally am very grateful for each of you and your gifts you share with us.

  5. So many personal experiences with music! I know I have sons who simply didn't sing in church after about age 12 -- something about some teenage boys, I suppose. (I was not that way, and even sang all through my froggy voice-changing period.) I sit near people in our congregation who have beautiful voices but for whatever reason do not believe they do.

    My SIL (the opera singer and now voice teacher) has taught me a lot about accepting people where they are. She talks about how some of her students are doing well to get the "arc" of the melody right.

    Church service is, of course, and interesting thing. Like playing piano in public, we learn all of our callings in front of others, and in each calling we are often stretched to the point that we know we cannot do it alone and must rely on the Lord for help, just as it should be. Whether that help comes in technical assistance and training or in learning how to motivate a congregation to sing, it is still needful for us to seek that divine guidance, isn't it?

  6. "Any suggestions for promoting singing among the congregation?"

    I guess this is where I get to toot my own horn a bit.

    As our ward's organist, I think it's important for me to occasionally throw in a brief interlude between verses of a hymn, and maybe even a key change. Part of art is the element of surprise, and when the organist modulates into a different key, it pretty much forces the congregation to sit up and take note (so to speak, pardon the pun). The effect this has on at least some members of the congregation is, in the words of a visiting friend of our choir director, that "the organist helps us sound like the Tabernacle Choir". That is, of course, overstating things a bit, but it does help the congregation feel that something out of the ordinary has taken place, and I think the enjoyment for singing the same old hymns from the same old hymnbook goes up at least a half a notch. Which beats the heck out of the "here we go, singing 'How Firm A Foundation' again, in the same old way, for the 433rd time in my lifetime" feellng.

    Just like anyone else, the ward organist should give some thought to what it means to magnify that particular calling.

    1. Mark, thanks for that tip! You demonstrate one of the reasons there's such value in our holders of music callings to become as proficient as they can in those callings!

      One of our organists is taking lessons again (as an adult, after taking them at the university years ago) and she's introducing some interesting innovations in her playing -- simple changes in stops and volume that cause people to, as you say, take note.

      We lived in one ward with an exuberant organist who loved to play the fourth verse with those 32 foot pedal stops, which was awesome for the congregation (if a little tough of those of us seated on the stand right in front of the speakers...a unique feature of that particular chapel).

    2. Our Stake Center has a Rodgers organ with a 32 foot stop, but out little chapel, alas, does not. I am the Stake Organist as well, though, so I get a chance a couple of times a year to play with the fun stuff on that organ (provided I take some time in advance to make sure I know what I'm doing).

  7. Such an amazing presentation and perfect voice! I heard that lots of people were really like it and I want to have an update when will be their next presentation.

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