Singing a Solo in Church

When I was in law school at the University of Illinois in the early 80s, our student ward had a killer elders quorum. Our EQP was a grad student in music named Michael Hicks, who is now a professor of music at BYU. (Mike wrote a reminiscence of our quorum in his “A Quorum Memoir,” Sunstone 89 (September 1992), here.) One of our quorum activities was billed as “an evening with the Polysophical Society” (can you tell this was a university ward?), and at that event Mike and one of our choral students presented “The Soldier’s Tear,” which was one of Joseph Smith’s favorite songs. I really liked it; I thought it was haunting, and knowing its connection to Joseph made it special for me.

I used this song once in the priesthood session of a ward conference maybe 15 years ago when I was EQP. I put together a male trio (I had a couple in our ward that was very musical put it into a male trio format) and we performed it that way. It went over very well and was the hit of the conference.

So when our ward music chairman wanted me to do a special musical number for sacrament meeting, I decided to dust that song off and perform it. Almost out of laziness I decided to just do it as a solo a cappella so I wouldn’t have to find other people to do it and coordinate rehearsals and such. But this was a risk, as I don’t really consider myself as having a soloist’s voice (I have a good choir voice), and this was only the second solo I’ve ever performed at Church.

For the past month plus I’ve been practicing in my car while I drive to and from the train station on my commute. I always worry that when I stop at a light someone in a neighboring car will notice that I’m singing; I tried to make it look plausibly as though I was talking on a hands free cell phone.

I was feeling very nervous as I walked into church. I figured it was good for me to experience nerves on that level, so that I can empathize better with, say, recent converts who give their first talk.

I had two main concerns. First, since I was singing without accompaniment, I really had to nail the first six notes. If I got those right, I knew the rest would follow. So I didn’t sing the opening or sacrament hymns, as I was too worried about losing those first six notes in my head. I kept singing them over and over silently to myself. Thankfully, when I sang it the start went fine and I got off on the right track. Second, I was worried about becoming emotional, which would make it hard to sing. Since I relate the song to Joseph Smith and some of his experiences, it is touching to me, but I couldn’t afford to allow myself to become weepy. Again, I think I succeeded at this. I could feel the emotion rising just under my skin, but I kept it sufficiently under wraps so that I was able to get through the entire song without interruption. I kept my gaze just above the faces on the last row. I knew that if I actually looked in people’s faces and saw people crying, I would lose it myself.

I was very pleased with the performance. I got out of the gate just fine, and I thought my voice was strong and clear pretty much throughout. The song probably could have used more dynamics than I gave it, but I mainly just wanted to get through it without embarrassing myself, and I accomplished that. And I got a cold the other day, but the cold didn’t seem to adversely affect my performance.

I gave a little introduction to the song at the pulpit, which went something like this:

This little song I’m about to sing needs a word of introduction. There is a common misconception that Joseph Smith’s favorite song in life was “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” That is certainly the most important song we associate with him, and it’s a fair bet that it became his favorite song in the final hours of his life. But that song had only recently been introduced into Nauvoo, and it is likely that Joseph heard it for the first time in that upper bedroom of the Carthage Jail. And we have no record of Joseph’s reaction to the song; recall that it was Hyrum who asked John Taylor to sing it the second time. So if we bracket that song, what was Joseph’s favorite song in life?

With a lot of public figures who lived that long ago, we might not know, as people often did not think to record for posterity what their favorite song was. But in Joseph’s case we do have some insight. There is a very important historical source known as the Benjamin F. Johnson letter. This letter was written in 1903, which is almost 60 years after Joseph was killed, so it is late. But the important point is that Johnson was indeed a close, personal friend of the Prophet. And in this letter Johnson gives a list of five of Joseph’s favorite songs:

Wife, Children and Friends
The Battle of River Rising
The Soldier’s Tear
The Soldier’s Dream
Last Rose of Summer

I would like to sing one of these songs for you. And so, brothers and sisters, I give you The Soldier’s Tear, one of Joseph’s favorite songs

The words of the song are as follows:

Upon the hill he turned,
To take a last fond look
Of the valley and the village church
And the cottage by the brook.
He listened to the sounds so familiar to his ear,
And the soldier leaned upon his sword
And wiped away a tear.

Beside the cottage porch,
A girl had knelt in prayer.
She held aloft a snowy scarf,
Which fluttered in the air.
She breathed a sigh for him, a prayer he could not hear,
But he paused to bless her as she knelt
And wiped away a tear.

He turned and left the spot,
Oh do not think him weak.
For dauntless was the soldier’s heart,
Tho’ tears were on his cheek.
Go watch the foremost ranks in danger’s dark career,
Be sure the hand most daring there
Has wiped away a tear.

So have any of you ever sung a solo at Church? Were you petrified with fear the way I was? How did you manage your nerves? Did it go well, or did you muff it, and if the latter how did you deal with it? Will you ever do it again? Share with us your stories.

Comments

  1. I have sung two solos in church, both many years ago. The first was the music from Sarastro’s aria in the Magic Flute with other words added to form some kind of Easter cantata (Something like, “The way is long, the cross is heavy”). The other was the bass solo from Buxtehude’s cantata setting of psalm 96, Cantate Domino.

    On the other hand, I think I have probably accompanied somewhere around three hundred other solos over the years.

  2. I was much more afraid singing than playing. At the keyboard you don’t have to look at anyone. Of course, as you suggest, the skilled singer can pretend to be looking while glancing at no one in particular.

  3. Kevin, is there a way to get the music for this song? I am very curious as to how it sounds. Maybe you can make a recording and put it on youtube? ;) Just an idea.

  4. Never have and never will, but it was very interesting to hear your thoughts and feelings about it. Great post.

    On the other hand, I sing in the car all the time, and couldn’t care less who sees me.

  5. I’ve sung a few solos in church. The first time, I was 17 and terrified. I sang Consider the Lilies, which wasn’t really a good piece for me because I’m a soprano and the piece is more written for a mezzo. It was my first solo, though I had been in choirs (both church and semi-professional) since I was 13. I had a crush on the ward music chair, so it made accepting the assignment a little easier. (He was the one who asked me to do it, and he was my accompanist.) I believe that this invitation to sing in church was inspired. My father came to sacrament meeting for the first time in years to hear me sing. It was one of the catalysts for his eventual return to activity in the church.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 3 Sweety, you can hear a brief clip or purchase a complete download of someone singing the song for $0.99 here.

  7. Great, thanks Kev.

  8. Many years ago I sang not a solo, but half of a duet in the stake Christmas program. I’ve done music all my life but am not a soloist, and so I was nervous, and felt quite exposed in the large opened-up stake center. But our blended voices filled the hall, and it seemed like it sounded pretty good, judged by my ear. I hoped other people thought so too. Perhaps they would even warm my nervous heart with an appreciative comment. And indeed, after the program was over, one of the very nice ladies in the stake hurried up to me enthusiastically. “Oh my dear! — [pause while she grasped my hand] — You should wear that red dress more often!”

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, that’s a terrific story, gillsyk!

  10. http://www.songsbymike.com/index_files/Page1501.htm

    I’m afraid I’m not good enough to sing a solo, or even in the choir.

    Thanks for the pointer though, to the song.

  11. I actually sang a solo TODAY in church – something I haven’t done in several years.

    As a teenager living in St. George, UT I used to ‘ride the circuit’ (so to speak) for singing in friends and family member’s various wards. I was such a pro! (and so humble) I’d always have the sisters weeping by the 2nd verse.

    Having bounced around so many singles wards in the last 6 years, I haven’t stepped up to the mic in a long time.

    It actually went well today, and I totally relate with what you’re saying. My heart was about to beat out of my chest. I was sure I would crack on a note or something worse (the ultimate – my fly would be open).

    The last time I was that nervous was when I was 10 years old, and my coping mechanism was to rub the outseam of my pants between my index finger and thumb – all throughout the song. (I still have the videos…)

    So I guess we’ll see if my dating stock goes up now that I’ve been ‘outed’ – or if I’ll just be the weird dude who sings good.

    I would love to get references/links for any published copies of this song.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 10, that tune is a different one that the singer composed himself.

    I’ll bring the music to work tomorrow and scan it. I’ll either see if we can upload it here or, failing that, I’ll e-mail a copy to anyone who requests one.

  13. Roger Hoffman, who wrote “Consider The Lilies” is my mother’s next-door neighbor. We lived in her basement a few years ago, and sang in the ward choir. Roger was not at that point the choir director, but obliged when we sang his song at Easter time. Not only did he direct us in singing, but he told us the emotional process of writing it. Add this to the fact that he sang it at my father’s funeral, and you’ll understand why I will never again be able to hear or sing that particular song again without tears.

    /LDS music highjack

  14. Thanks for bringing this song to our attention. I am looking forward to hearing the whole thing.

    The Arlington Ward Priesthood in Boston in the late 80’s – early 90’s sounds like the one you describe. The sisters used to delay starting RS until after the a cappella hymn in PH opening exercises was done. We had every part covered, with 3 or 4 brethren improvising different parts each verse. It was an amazing experience to have the brethren be so much more musically gifted than the sisters, who were quite good in their own right.

    My first church solo was at my cousin’s missionary farewell. It’s been probably 4-5 years since my last solo. That’s the worst part of my callings the last few years. Nobody thinks of asking me to sing other than in the choir. I think they just assume I’m too busy.

    Otoh, I’ve been in small branches and groups (and an occasional ward) where I felt like I was singing a solo.

  15. I always thought that with enough hard work and practice, I could stand up in public and let them hear my shower voice, my trilling-in-my-bedroom voice, my I-made-Madrigals-my-sophomore-year voice.

    I finally got my chance some time in college. The song was “Sheep May Safely Graze,” one of my all-time favorites. I sounded wonderful as I practiced before the mirror. I sounded wonderful in rehearsal, my part in counterpoint with my roommate’s flute part. I could hardly wait for the big moment in our BYU lecture-hall sacrament meeting.

    I like how #11 said it, “my heart beating out of my chest.” Yeah, beating so hard it threatened to throw me forward into the pulpit. And where was that wonderful rehearsal voice? What was this struggling, chalky sound coming out of throat? See my friends looking down into their laps. And this song was only supposed to be four minutes. Why does it feel like it’s dragging on for twenty? And how hot is it in here, anyway?

    My next chance was more than a decade later. Sister So-and-so asked so nicely. I really didn’t want to do it, but how could I resist her?

    I dreaded the day for weeks. But, I thought, I’m more mature now, more experienced. All that youthful nervousness should be far behind me. If I practice in the mirror and if I have faith for goodness sakes, I should get through it somehow. Still, it felt like execution day loomed before me. And this gig was going to be on my birthday. Plus I was quite pregnant with my final child.

    Well, same hard-beating heart, same chalky voice, same hot, hot room.

    Wasn’t this like the movie “Broadcast News,” when Albert Brooks finally got to anchor the news? They told him that viewers called into the station, not to complain but because they thought he was dying.

    What a revelation for me to read about some of you who can get up and do this, whose voices “fill the hall,” who don’t feel like you’re dying up there. Well, maybe you do feel like you’re dying, but you deal somehow.

    As for me, the only thing I practice in the mirror is: Just Say No. I do it out of mercy for the congregation.

  16. Ray–Arlington is still much like that, and Pauld Dredge is still the choir director :)

  17. er, Paul, of course

  18. Kristine, Tell Paul that Michelle and I still regret her going into labor with our 2nd child less than two hours before the special musical night the ward had scheduled. If I remember correctly, we were supposed to be involved in 5 numbers that evening – and I think Paul stepped in and covered for me. Tell him we haven’t forgotten.

    Are you in the Arlington Ward? If so, please tell all of the members who were there before 1993 that we say hi. Tell them Ryan is going on mission this summer; Jeff will be ordained an elder in May; Sarah is a sophomore; and we have three other daughters now. I don’t when we will be able to get back up there, but we’ll never forget them.

  19. BTW, Kristine, does your last name (maiden name?) start with “L”? Jsut curious.

  20. I kept my gaze just above the faces on the last row.

    One more story: the most difficult singing assignment I ever had was for the funeral of a friend and young mother in our ward. As I mentioned, I’m not a soloist, but my spouse is, and consequently the husband asked us to sing their favorite song, All I Ask of You (Phantom of the Opera). Oh my. If this hadn’t been a dear friend, I would never have agreed to this; on the other hand, it was an uncommon opportunity to honor her life and what she meant to us. And to many, many people: there were hundreds at the funeral, from the neighborhood and school and church.

    Standing and singing that song, I looked at the family. And it was a “tender mercy” to be able to get through the music. But here is the point: singing and music are not about us–any more than speaking in church is about how nervous we are or what we were doing when the bishop called. Singing is sharing a gift of the spirit. Just as the best talks are when people speak from their heart (not their notes), I think our musical offerings are best when most direct and least self-conscious.

    Easier said than done, I know. I got a boatload of self-importance knocked out of my system at an early age when my music blew off the stand while playing organ for a BYU convocation (separate story). Horrible experience, but it did have the commendable effect, ultimately, of putting nerves and self-consciousness into a much healthier perspective. I say: look them all in the eye!

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    I could never sing at a funeral. I’m not really sure how anyone manages to pull that one off. I just cry too easily. (Not something a man likes to acknowledge!) I was lucky I managed to make it through the song today without losing it.

  22. The only time I have completely lost it during a solo was singing a song called “Oh, God, Where Art Thou?” – based on D&C 121 (Joseph in the Liberty Jail). When I got to “My son, peace be unto thy soul” . . . I simply lost it.

  23. Ray, nope. Haglund is my birth name.

  24. That’s what I thought, Kristine, but I had to ask.

  25. Suprisingly, I’ve only sung 2 solos in church. But I’ve played literally dozens and dozens of piano solos; directed several choirs; sung in many groups and choirs myself, etc. etc. It’s fair to say that I’m a musician, although not a professional one.

    Since I’ve been performing in one way or another my entire life, I have kind of gotten used to the nerves; but not entirely. What you did was perfect, Kevin. Not allowing the emotion to overtake you is key –I once got to crying and couldn’t see the music in front of me; luckily it was a piano solo, so I could kind of fake it until the tears dropped and finally cleared my vision.

    I’ve also made many, many mistakes. But I try hard not to dwell on them. But I do have a story that touches my heart:

    I was the choir director in our last ward, and it was Christmas. I had a sweet, sweet 13 year old girl singing a solo (she was one of many). She was to sing the verses, and the choir would join in on the chorus. Of course, I can’t remember the name of the song right now…but I do know it was about Jesus as a baby boy. She was standing to my left; I was facing the choir, and she was facing the congregation. Her solo started nicely, but then suddenly I heard a choking sound. I looked over and she was just bawling her eyes out. Knowing her very well, I immediately recognized that she was overcome by the Spirit –it wasn’t nerves. I wasn’t sure what to do and the choir looked at me in concern. Within seconds, I went to her side, put my arm around her and helped her sing. The choir did fine coming in and such without my help and we got through the song easily. I was grateful to a seasoned accompanist who didn’t stop! But the best part? The Spirit permeating every part of that room; it was an amazing experience, and even though she felt embarrassed afterwards, there wasn’t one person in the congregation who left untouched by the experience.

  26. I’ve sung a lot of solos, and accompanied even more. Singing is much more scary for me — I always feel very vulnerable. And, like you, keeping the emotions in check is often an issue when I have strong feelings about the song I’m performing or the situation. Funerals and weddings and situations where I’m worried about tearing up I just can’t look at people. I have to focus just over their heads so it appears I’m looking at someone behind them. And there’s sometimes a little bit of emotional distance that I have to feel so I don’t get overcome. But, like Cheryl’s experience (#25), sometimes when the emotion forces its way in, the Spirit takes over and leads to a more powerful experience, while the music itself takes a second seat. I’d love to see the music to this piece.

  27. It’s been a very long time since I sang solo in church. The last time, I did “Sweet Hour of Prayer”. I love to sing, and love more to sing solo, but I’m not “the greatest” singer, so I don’t get many chances to do it.

    The pop tunes I write aren’t sacrament-appropriate. The lyrics are OK, but they sound too “pop” too “contemporary”. I wouldn’t feel comfortable singing them. Still, I occasionally do youth combined activities and youth conferences, etc…

    MRKH

  28. Um, I have done several Church solos, and I don’t have a solo voice, either. I only do it because I’ve been trained not to say no. I would much rather give a talk. (I love giving talks!)

    DH once heard a widow sing “Our Savior’s Love” a capella at the graveside as her husband was being lowered into his grave. Now he tells me that is what he wants. All I can say is good luck because there is no way I could sing in that kind of situation. When I cry, my throat closes up, my eyes swell, my nose turns red and runs profusely, and I make horrible sounds while struggling to breathe. It is not pretty.

    Kevin, please put your solo on YouTube! That would be so awesome!

  29. I have a decent bass/baritone choir voice, but not much volume, and don’t really have the dynamics to sing solos. I love singing in the choir, and have done several small group numbers, such as a male quartet.

    My real love is guitar, and I’ve done more of that. When my second oldest son got married a couple of years back, I played acoustic guitar accompanying my daughter, who has a really nice voice, and sang harmony vocals. It was scary, but fun. I’ve also played my guitar and sang quite a few times at ward and church youth outings, and seem to be much less intimidated behind the guitar. I really appreciate folks with great voices, and who are willing to sing those solos at church.

  30. The closest I’ve come to singing a solo in church was a couple of lines of a duet where I was the only voice. Oh, and when I was primary chorister and the half dozen children in the primary (none of whom was over the age of six) didn’t start singing for our primary program. All my friends laughed about that one, but I have to say, an unexpected solo where you don’t actually face the audience really doesn’t elicit the same kind of nervousness.

    If you can’t put the scanned music for “The Soldier’s Tear” up on the site, I’d love a copy of it.

  31. I come from a completely unmusical family. I play no instruments, I sing in no choirs, my musical expertise consists of knowing which FM presets to punch on the radio in my car. Yet I too have sung a solo in church.

    On my mission in Chile I was happily seated in the congregation with a few investigators when the teenaged chorister stood up to do the practice hymn (pre meeting consolidation). She said, “Today’s practice hymn is #nnn, I’ve never heard this hymn and I have no idea how it goes” and no one in the branch, including the two missionaries, played the piano to let her know how it did go. “So, I’m going to ask Elder C to come up here and sing it for us.”

    The entire congregation turned and looked expectantly at me and I gamely walked up to the front and sang my one and only church solo.

  32. My wife will only sing solos or an occasional duet. Since our ward choir sings every week (even fast sundays), it limits her church singing to ward events outside sacrament. She always nails it, even though the past few years she’s always had a cold when she performed. I don’t know how she does it. She says she just feeds off it.

    I am a self aware man and refrain from singing apart from hymns in sacrament meeting.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    I have a scan of the song now. I would prefer to avoid sending out individual e-mails to a whole bunch of people, so if someone would be willing to put it up somewhere and post a link to it here, that would be ideal. (Normally another perma would do this for me, but they seem to all be out of pocket right now.) E-mail me at klbarney at yahoo dot com.

  34. I’ve sung in a few choirs and been part of 3-4 people singing from the pulpit, but no solos for me. My brother and I arranged 3 hymns for two guitars and played them as a special musical number in sacrament meeting once. We did O Home Beloved (#337, one of my favorites), Love One Another (#308), and Lead, Kindly Light (#97). I have to admit that I was pretty nervous, as it was the first time I’d ever played guitar at church before. I still get nervous playing in front of people, though I haven’t done it in years outside of my home…

  35. Kevin Christensen says:

    Back when I lived in Bountiful, before I got married, I did a solo for Father’s day, announcing that I would be accompanied by the Orchard Second Ward Infant Choir.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  36. Here’s the music for the song:

    The Soldier’s Tear

  37. Awesome post, Kevin. I was on the edge of my seat reading it. I’m glad it went well.

    I have sung in many small groups in sacrament meeting, including in a duet with my sister at my friend’s missionary farewell. I managed to get through that one without my voice shaking even though my friend and his mother started crying about 3 bars in; I think it’s because it was a corny song and I was able to compartmentalize.

    I have a great choir voice, but I become terrified if I think anyone can hear me. Or, because I am a sap, I choke up too easily. How do you put across the emotions to the congregation while walling them off from yourself? Or is it possible to allow yourself to feel them and still be able to sing? Maybe I’m just hopeless.

    I’ve often had the experience Ray describes in #14. Pretty much any time I attend another ward, in fact. Invariably children will turn around and stare at me with looks of astonishment. (I don’t have an outrageously big voice. It’s just that, you know, the few people who do sing in these wards do so timidly and with their faces directed down into their hymnals.) I just want to say, “Yeah, it’s called singing, you’re invited to do it too!”

  38. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks so much to KyleM for posting the scan of the music.

  39. Matt Thurston says:

    So, if you do this in three-part harmony, someone sings the melody, someone sings the bass, and does the third person sing the alto or tenor?

  40. Kevin Barney says:

    No, this isn’t the three-part version; that was a special arrangement a couple in my ward created many years ago. This is the one I sang yesterday in Church.

  41. Thanks for the story, Kevin. Maybe you should make it a point to sing in public more often so that you can take the edge off your anxiety.

    I first ventured into serious, all-alone-on-the-stage public singing in my late twenties. I have video of my first performance at a summer “local musicians in the park” type of event. I was absolutely terrified as I took the stage with my guitar. I was to do three songs, all my own compositions, and I knew them very well, but that didn’t keep me from completely forgetting to sing the middle verse of the first song! I was mortified when I realized it, but I just kept playing/singing, and made it through the set. The crowd politely applauded, and I sat down, half relieved and half embarrassed at having forgotten part of my own song.

    Later that night I watched the video my wife had taken. What struck me immediately is that I wasn’t near as bad as I imagined myself being when I was up on the stage. It actually sounded pretty good! And you couldn’t even really tell I had messed up the first song, because I didn’t really give any outward indication that I had forgotten anything. So, that was a real revelation to me. It somehow made me realize that, no matter what happens, I’m always going to be my harshest critic.

    Since then, I have performed dozens or hundreds of times in different venues, from summer music festivals to open mike nights at the local record store to family funerals. The funerals are probably the hardest, especially when it’s someone close. Ironically, it’s not the actual performing of the songs at a funeral that makes it hard. It’s looking at the reaction of the people in the audience. So, whereas I like to make contact with the crowd in normal situations, I’ve learned to avoid it at funerals so as to facilitate a good performance. The hardest was probably singing Bridge Over Troubled Water at the funeral of my younger brother who died an untimely and unnecessary death. He and I used to be asked to sing at funerals together. We would often sing that song; he would sing the melody and I would craft a harmony part a third/fifth lower. It would always leave the whole audience weeping. There is something special, I am convinced, to the harmony created by siblings singing together . . . unfortunately, at his funeral I was left to sing the song alone. That was hard.

    Anyway, congratulations on a good performance, Kevin. We’ll look forward to hearing about your future performances as well.

  42. hey kevin, i have sung quite a few solos in my church. i started with the church choir when i was 29 and a year later after being asked i sang my first solo. i was so afraid that i would mess up and my palms where cold and clamy and my mouth was so dry no matter how much water i drank and then the anxiety attacks started with those doubting little voices in my head telling me that i wont be good at it. so i prayed that god will use me as his instrument to bring his message across to the people in the congregation,and as i continued this prayer over and over until it was my turn to sing, i felt more calm and confident.besides i thought what is the worst that could happen. the organ started playing and my knees where shaking, but i knew i had to do this. and from that point on it went. i dare did not look at any faces out of fear that i would loose my place on the sheet.i just put my heart in it to carry it through the best i knew how. to my amazement people seemed to have liked it and that gave me confidence to consider doing it again.i thought a voice lesson would be good and after having my first session i wondered how i ever did without them. the lessons taught me so much especially how to get out of a vocal problem while singing. i am far from exellent and there is so much to learn but its so much fun now, although the nervousness never goes away before each performance, i have learned that it is a good tool to have to help me stay on track. i have a solo coming up this sunday “o rest in the lord” in german from mendelsohn and a duet for o death where is thy sting in 3 weeks. wish me luck and say a prayer ,i sure can use it.thank you for your post and i am sure you did wonderfully. sincerely erika.

  43. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us, erika.

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