BCC guest blogger Sharon H. has a background in Humanities education and arts administration, and in her free time, she’s been organizing a pretty epic Christmas concert for the New York, NY stake.
I remember it was over a mediocre burger within my first week of moving to Texas. My colleague was being friendly, telling me about her church in case I needed one. As we were both music educators, she went into extra detail about her church’s music. She told how their previous music minister was a good Christian man but really impossible to work with as a director. But they had just hired a new minister and purchased a completely new sound system all built directly into the sanctuary—I should hear it—and this new music minister was full of ideas and was already asking her opinion for upcoming events. Exciting, I agreed. Had I found a church yet? I had, actually. Do they have good music?
Hmm. How to answer that question? Well of course we have good music. We sponsor one of the most famous choirs in the world with an orchestra and bell choir to boot. We host an annual Christmas concert series with internationally renowned musicians broadcast on PBS. But after listing these examples, I feel myself running out of steam. If we’re talking about our weekly worship services, then the answer must be that it depends. It depends on the ward or branch, on those who organize the meetings, on the given week, and, on what, exactly, is meant by “good.”
The LDS church is unusual in not having paid musicians or a music director, but I submit that where we’re unique is in not requiring or maybe even expecting those who take on music leadership roles or callings to have musical talent or experience at all. I realize that the vast majority of sacrament meeting accompanists have had some form of piano lessons, but haven’t we all heard the stories of the people who, bless their hearts, couldn’t keep a beat and a melody in the same room together, and then, lo, he gets called as the ward music chair, or she becomes the Relief Society pianist?
Plenty of these are regular Mormon Horatio Alger tales where she finds an encouraging instructor, begins her service by slowly plunking out the melody with one finger, and gradually improves to playing the entire hymnal competently.
Perhaps more common than these success stories, however, is the experience of “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today” played at the tempo of a funeral dirge. Especially lengthy hymns can test one’s commitment. I am reminded that I Believe in Christ and that I must endure to the end.
These examples illustrate some of the benefits and challenges of the church’s unique approach to music in our services. What follows aren’t comprehensive or perfectly articulated lists, but as I see it, some of the challenges include:
- Music played and/or sung badly. This happens. Still, I want to qualify this one: I’m a trained musician, and I prefer exquisitely rendered music to most things in this world. That said, I’m also an educator. Quite honestly, if I have to choose between an elitist culture around beautifully done church music and using forgiving ears as Sister So-and-so relives her bygone days as a soprano or as little Bobby rallies his courage to play a squeaky violin version of “Teach Me to Walk in the Light,” I’ll choose the latter. People need and get chances to learn and stretch through church music. They practice, pray, worry, and develop their talents. When I am at my best, I love them for it, and I believe their sincere offerings of musical worship are sacred. Of course, I’m not convinced we have to choose between the two extremes I’ve mentioned here…
- Lack of variety. A friend pointed out that in the wake of the correlation movement, the hymnal became the “manual” for music. We have 341 selections in the English-speaking hymnal, and while they cover a laudable range of styles in hymn/song formats, most congregations probably use fewer than 75 of them with any regularity. Add to that the fact that there are those among us who believe that if a piece isn’t in the hymnal, it shouldn’t be in our meetings. Consequently, we get a lot of repetition.
- Official music leadership who don’t understand music or, even worse, the work that goes into it. This happens a lot, especially because the manuals make it clear that at the ward and branch level, “The bishop and his counselors oversee ward music,” while those in music callings, are to “serve as a resource to the bishopric on music matters” (Church Handbook 2, 14.2). This policy means that often those putting in the most time, thought, prayer, planning, practicing, recruiting, etc., to actually produce the music don’t entirely have stewardship over it. Mismatched expectations and interpretations are inevitable. All the more reason for all parties involved to be kind.
But there are some benefits to our system of musical worship, too:
- A higher music literacy rate on average among church members. How many Mormons do you know who, at some point, have had music lessons? Or, even if they don’t exactly read music, many, like my dad, learn to follow and pick out other voice parts after years of sitting in ward choirs or listening to Bro. Holman sing the bass line.
- An increased sense of community surrounding music. We’re all in this together instead of the hired musicians as institutionally endorsed and therefore distinct from everyone else.
- More frequent opportunities for members to provide music for services. Even if a person doesn’t have a calling, there’s always a need for substitutes and special musical numbers.
- Greater familiarity with church music and materials (i.e., the hymnal and Children’s Songbook). Because many of us help provide the music and because we tend to stick closely to church-produced materials, we get to know the hymns and songs more thoroughly.
- Greater variety of musical and leadership styles. We tend to get variety that comes from regular calling turnover that we would miss if a music minister was hired and stayed in the job for years and years.
- Testimony trumps talent. Our system encourages (sometimes demands!) us to focus on the message of the music and on the intent, diligence, and testimony of the music maker rather than on the talent of the music maker.
Although I could say plenty more, for now I’ll raise one final characteristic of local church music organization without putting it in either list: the vulnerability of those who participate.
Especially if a person doesn’t necessarily have the skills for his or her calling as the primary singing time leader or organist, I’d venture that few callings in the church reveal a person’s inadequacies as readily and as frequently as music callings can. The whole ward can hear a fumbled note or missed entrance. Others feel vulnerable when they seem to be consistently passed over for musical opportunities. Even those who are more confident musicians can face criticism—for being “too good.”
Once in college, shortly after friends and I had presented an arrangement of “For the Beauty of the Earth,” a ward member glanced at me and then pointedly and loudly told everyone in the room that the feeling of wanting to clap after a musical number was a sure indication that the Spirit wasn’t there and that the people wanted to show off. Whether the Spirit was there or not, she misread our intention, and I found myself feeling embarrassed, misunderstood, and less inclined to sing again.
That one example of many explains why a priesthood leader I know maintains that music callings are not for wusses—precisely because people who serve in music are so often required to have thick skins and resilient testimonies.
Maybe this vulnerability actually adds to the music’s impact. At first somewhat embarrassed about his rocks, the brother of Jared walked away with God-touched perma-lights and a sure knowledge of the Savior. For all its messiness, some of the most moving music I’ve ever heard or performed has been in LDS worship services. Church music is where I learned to sightread and to overcome childhood shyness. It’s where I first learned for myself the genius of Handel and where I gained some of my dearest friends. It’s where I’ve known way deep down that God knew me, and it’s where I’ve laughed the hardest at church. Whether or not the music itself is good, it’s sure been good for me.