Special music, part 1

A few of us in my ward have been talking about the possibilities of church music. These posts have grown out of those conversations with the permission of the participants.

In sacrament meeting, a piano solo is announced. Brother H goes up to the stand and stops at the podium. He says, ‘ “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” is one of my favorite hymns, and if you would like, you could follow along with the words as I play the music. It’s number 136 in the hymnbook.’ And he proceeds to the piano.

He plays an arangement of the song once. As he starts the second verse, we hear a woman’s voice singing quietly in the congregation:

I know that my Redeemer lives;

She gets louder:

O the sweet joy this sentence gives!

She stands up in the middle of the congregation, singing so we can hear her clearly:

He lives, he lives, who once was dead;
he lives, my ever living Head.

Now someone else in the congregation stands up and joins her:

He lives to bless me with his love,

And a member of the bishopric stands and joins them:

he lives to plead for me above,

One of the young women:

he lives my hungry soul to feed,

And a man in the back row:

he lives to bless in time of need.

As the hymn continues, members of the congregation continue to rise and sing. The idea is that each member of the congregation would choose whether or not they wished to join the seemingly spontaneous performance, even if most discerning eyes would see that those first ten were planned. By the end of the hymn, hopefully, everyone is standing, singing together, giving a sense of being unified by the testimony of Christ … if not, the image of a choir spread throughout the room singing from the congregation rather than from the front of the room singing at the congregation would maintain the symbolism at a different level.

What would you think of that? Would you join in? Do you think a mormon congregation would join in without being explicitly invited? Is this emotionally powerful or emotionally manipulative? And is there a difference?


  1. John Deacon says:

    I think it is partially manipulative to “plant” members to stand up. I’m not entirely sure on this one. It does seem to be more of a performance that is taking place rather than a simple musical number and perhaps left to exercises outside of sacrament meeting.
    I remember a guy playing the organ as the postlode music and it was like watching Mozart on crack!! He was pounding the organ with an array of secular and non secular medlies which was very impressive but not suitable for a sacrament meeting.
    Personally I’m not one for spontaneity in these meetings! thats why I often cringe during testimonies!

  2. I would join in the singing if I didn’t have to stand up!

    I say go for it. I like things that are different, creative and interesting.

  3. Jonathan Green says:

    What happens the next Sunday, when someone feels touched by the sacrament hymn, and decides to stand up? Other congregation members feel they should stand up, too. Eventually the whole chapel is standing. Eventually the bishop has to call people into his office and tell them to knock it off. (Not hypothetical. This is what happened in one of my student wards, only without the original choir number to set it off.)

  4. I would be in favor of the congregation standing during every hymn, as is the case in most churches. The quality of the singing would improve. I’m not interested in the scenario above, however, which strikes me as manipulative.

    I hate to break it to you, John Deacon, but every musical number is a performance. It could be good or mediocre, humble or self-vaunting, appropriate or not, but it is still a performance. Same with playing the organ postlude – you could also think of it as a performance of a duty, and it’s one of the few callings in which slothfulness is excused and diligence is criticized.

  5. A gentle reminder from the MTC: “We do not stand for the hymns of Zion unless invited to do so.”

    While surprising and a break from the norm, this practice does have the potential for problems like the one mentioned above, with everyone standing all the time. Also, hymns can become more about the individuals singing them than about the Savior. Who will feel the Spirit strongly enough to stand first, and when? The practice can turn from spiritual to distracting and even disrespectful very quickly. These concerns are probably what prompted the rule at the MTC, and I think they are appropriate for church meetings as well. I know we crave originality sometimes, but I think there are better ways to find it.

  6. mapinguari says:

    I wouldn’t stand up because of my own cynicism, but I think that most of the congregation eventually would be cowed into standing. IMO, the whole idea reeks of manipulation.

  7. Obviously, then, if I were the bishop, I would be inviting the congregation to stand every time. Or maybe issue a standing invitation. Or, maybe invite the chorister to do the inviting, although I probably wouldn’t have called anyone to that superfluous position.

    But I do agree that letting the situation remain ambiguous, where people might begin to judge their neighbor by his level of enthusiasm for participation in quasi-coerced crowd actions, would be asking for trouble.

  8. Peter LLC says:

    I don’t think one hymn is enough time for your average member to develop a testimony of standing while singing during every hymn. Thus, even if they do start to stand spontaneously, I suspect a word or two over the pulpit would nip the practice in the bud without destroying anyone’s faith.

    Bill does make a valid point that all performances are to some degree manipulative, as is most any human interaction. Still, I say go for it–do something different and let the consequence follow.

  9. Peter LLC says:

    Or maybe issue a standing invitation.

    Good one. 8)

  10. It feels really artificial and kind of reminds me of the way Campus Crusade and other groups try to use the dynamics of a group situation to get people up to the altar call at the end of a concert (etc.), whether they really want to or not.

    Also, sacrament meeting is not a forum for perfomance art, which this also kind of feels like.

  11. It’s interesting to me that we are singling out music as a form of manipulative performance.

    It has been my experience that church talks and sermons are much more likely to do this than church music.

  12. JA Benson says:

    I don’t like spiritual manipulation. In our ward we are are always instructed to stand for the rest hymn.

  13. SingleSpeed says:

    You just blew the surprise for us. Now when it happens I’m def not standing up.

  14. Kristine says:

    I want to attend Bill’s church :)

    I was in a branch once where a truly spontaneous standing up during a hymn occurred–it was May in Michigan (something only appreciable by those who have lived through a long Great Lakes winter) and we were singing “All Creatures…” It was magnificent.

    The faux version you describe, Norbert, sounds disgusting.

  15. Randy B. says:

    Yea I don’t like it either. It reminds me of the time the Primary President asked some of the primary kids to pray that the bishopric would be able to call a new teacher to a class that had been without for some time. A fine idea, except for the fact that the Primary President was already aware that the bishopric had recently extended the calling.

  16. Name (required) says:

    I’ve experienced this at a fireside once, but the song wasn’t as well known as ‘I know that my Redeemer lives’. Nobody stood up and sang along. It was an interesting, memorable experience though. I think that a fireside is probably a better place for this than sacrament meeting.

    Maybe its the apostate in me, but I really don’t understand why it is so evil to stand while singing (even if not specifically invited to do so). Is God that concerned about our physical position when we worship? Are leaders of the church concerned that standing while singing is going to lead to some sort of populist revolt against them? We sure have moved to the other extreme from the Kirtland ‘speaking in tongues’ meetings.

  17. John Deacon says:

    Bill:(I hate to break it to you, John Deacon, but every musical number is a performance. It could be good or mediocre, humble or self-vaunting, appropriate or not, but it is still a performance. Same with playing the organ postlude – you could also think of it as a performance of a duty, and it’s one of the few callings in which slothfulness is excused and diligence is criticized)

    I agree, but the problem comes when the performance is exuberant and is about the person playing the organ rather than the music being played. The emphasis for any sacrament meeting should be on The Saviour (as you know) not on someone playing 18th Century vibrant concertos, however beautiful they are. There is a time and place for such music. There is also a difference between diligence and being lavishly abundant.

  18. Kristine says:

    It depends a lot on the perspective of the listener, as well. Sometimes listeners need to exercise some diligence too, to learn about how hymn tunes get incorporated into chorale preludes, or how the architecture of Bach fugue is intended to glorify God, not the organist. Just because we’re used to and comfortable with incompetent musicianship in the church doesn’t mean that’s what God likes.

  19. I should point out that I am not actually advocating this: it was a wild idea someone had that we kicked around. I’m interested in this:

    Also, sacrament meeting is not a forum for performance art, which this also kind of feels like.

    Why not? Is there something about performance art that does not allow the spirit to be felt? How would we know?

    Is the problem with this scenario that the performance aspect of it is deceptive or that spontaneous response has no place in church? And if the latter is the case, what’s the problem?

  20. I fear some of you “sitters”, are on the wrong side of history on this.
    In the 1950s, we did not stand. But EVERY song was given as much volume as you could give it. Maybe the ‘music’ wasn’t too good, but the ‘Spirit’ was. It did not feel like a performance, more like a bonding.

  21. Latter-day Guy says:

    Like the idea, but I could never stand for hymn 136. I HATE that song (nice words, but the music makes me feel the urge to hatchet my ears off). Hymn 135, on the other hand…

  22. “Is the problem with this scenario that the performance aspect of it is deceptive or that spontaneous response has no place in church?”

    The problem is that the performance aspect of it is deceptive. At least, that’s my problem with it. That along with what the answer to this question is:

    “Is this emotionally powerful or emotionally manipulative? And is there a difference?”

    The answer is that it’s both, and there is a difference, but this performance would blur the distinction between the two, therefore leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

    Anybody who didn’t know ahead of time that the first 10 singers were plants would think that it was spontaneous. They’re then setup for this experience: “Oh, I felt the Spirit so strongly! Wait, the circumstances that surrounded that emotional experience were completely false? Then what I felt must have been false!?!”

    That’s the problem with emotionally manipulative experiences that are also emotionally powerful, I think…

  23. ungewiss says:

    Sounds like a great way to sell snake oil*, but it’d irritate the tar out of jerks like me.

    (* The similarity being the technique, not the product. I’m not trying to compare the gospel to snake oil.)

  24. No, I wouldn’t stand. If I found out that a deceptive technique like this used, I’d be upset. I don’t see much difference between faking spontaneity in this manner and fake healings by televangelists. It’s deceitful.

  25. Yucky. Definitely manipulative. We did this on Pioneer Trek, only it wasn’t used to fake out the kids, just as a way to get different areas of our group of 400 to join in at different times. It was pretty. Had it been of the manipulative sort I would have voiced my objection in planning meetings. I especially loathe contrived spiritual experiences for youth.

    “Oh, I felt the Spirit so strongly! Wait, the circumstances that surrounded that emotional experience were completely false? Then what I felt must have been false!?!”

    Ditto.This is confusing and potentially embarrassing for the three people that do stand up spontaneously and then find out it was a gimmick.

  26. DanceswithCokeFree says:

    Already been done…

    I’d like to buy the world a Coke….

    Reportedly the most effective advertising campaign in history.

  27. Before you know it, people will start saying things like “Can I get an ‘amen’ on that, brothers?” or “Mark it, Elder Rigdon!” in the middle of Sacrament Meeting talks, and pretty soon it’ll be cats and dogs living together, anarchy!

    And we just can’t have that.

  28. Norbert,

    Performance art is out of place in Sacrament meeting because sacrament meeting is to be a time of worship. Performance art is necessarily adds an element of artifice to the performance of worship, and therefore detracts from the spirit of genuine worship and response. Particularly when the performance of it leads to confusion among the members (why are these people feeling the need to stand up? did I miss something? should I join in?) I would feel the exact same way, if not moreso, about liturgical dance.

    More generally, it may be that some get board by convention, but the great strength of the standard sacrament meeting is that it provides enough flexibility and variability (in that different people give talks on different subjects, there are variously congregational hymns, choral hymns, and instrumental numbers) to make it more immediate and un-repeitive, but at the same time enough structure and constancy in approach and behavior that it provides a good framework for reflection and feeling the spirit. Above all, sacrament meeting shouldn’t be stressful.

  29. Sitting during hymn singing was not always the norm in LDS congregations. We actually have J. Reuben Clark to thank for the “opportunity” to remain seated. In a letter to Tracy Cannon (of the Church Music Committee), Clark wrote that if the Tabernacle Choir could sing to millions over the radio while sitting, congregations should be able to sing well enough without standing up.

    Things have changed in the past 60 years, though. Now, since the choir doesn’t have to deal with radio microphones picking up noise from 300 people standing at once, and since the choir stands for its performances, and since we’ve all experienced the same lackluster congregational singing GA’s have complained about in conference talks, and since we’re spending so much time and effort showing other Christians how much we have in common, maybe it’s time to ditch Pres. Clark’s methods and take a stand for music in our church meetings.

  30. Sometimes, it’s okay to be manipulative, if you have a chance to process the event and discuss it. In the context of a sacrament meeting, if I found out that the first singer, or singers, were a plant, and nothing was said about it, I would be miffed.

    On the other hand, if the Bishop were to get up next, tell the congregation what had happened, and then employ that as part of his talk, then I might view it more favorably (from the school of “It’s okay to be used, as long as you tell me that’s what you’re doing”).

    I don’t mind standing up and singing in church. If there’s a congregational hymn between speakers, I’d vote for standing, but am fine with sitting for the majority.

  31. As the ward and stake organist, I can say that manipulation of the congregation via a simple 2- or 4-bar modulation from the key of E-flat to the key of E (for example) just prior to singing the last verse sometimes adds a lot to the feeling derived from the singing of simple church hymns.

    And that my Stake President seems to like it when I do stuff like that doesn’t hurt, either.

  32. Sometimes, it’s okay to be manipulative, if you have a chance to process the event and discuss it.

    Kevinf, that was my thinking as well.

  33. tesseract says:

    Blech. Emotionally manipulative to the max. So bad that it kind of makes me want to throw up a little in my mouth.

    Why not just tell the congregation at the beginning of the song that they are welcome to stand up and sing should they feel prompted? I’m sure people would probably do it on their own, and you could get a real spiritual unifying experience rather than a completely contrived, deceitful one.

  34. I don’t know if he’s still doing this, but a couple years ago my dad (a bishop in Minnesota) decided that to improve the quality of the music in his ward, he’d require the congregation to stand up for the intermediate hymn, and to sing without accompaniment. I saw this a couple times when I visited, and it’s actually really effective: it wakes everybody up, makes most people actually sing, and makes you pay a lot more attention to the sound of the congregation. I’ve heard the quality of the ward’s singing is vastly improved.

  35. I like it. Habit is the enemy of perception. Why not mix up a choir performance a little and be creative? Why do things the same day in and day out?

    As far as manipulation is concerned, we are all manipulators and manipulatees. And while you may feel church is the wrong place to do that, all talks, choir performances, etc., are designed to manipulate our emotions towards feeling the spirit. Aren’t they?

  36. # 34

    Yes, meems, but we normally don’t do it deceitfully.

  37. Spiritual manipulation: bad idea.
    But if we want to draw closer to other Faiths, we should be aware that they see/do things differently than Mormons: Black Baptists love to stand, clap, and dance when they sing. Pentecostals like drums and rock music in their worship, Evangelicals like to stand, raise their arms in praise, move, and be loud showing their witness of the Lord. None of them see disrespect or performance in their doing this.

  38. “Performance art” has no place in Sac Mtg? You better define that better, since “performance art” can bring the spirit into a meeting as powerfully as just about anything. There is no more spiritually uplifting moment in my life than when I heard a choir of mentally handicapped kids sing “I Am a Child of God”. I bawled like a baby for about 15 minutes. That experience was nearly 25 years ago, but I will never forget that “performance art” and the spirit that flooded my soul and testified that they were right.

    I HATE the idea of the example given, btw. If it was announced prior to beginning as a song by the ward choir, however, I would LOVE the idea.

  39. I don’t have any problem with spontaneous response in church. I don’t have any problem with standing during hymns. The problem with Norbert’s scenario here is the deceptive part: It’s _not_ spontaneous, but it’s pretending to be so.

    If you say ahead of time, “Please feel free to stand up and join singing at any point in the song if you so desire” and you’ve asked some people to stand up so that if anybody wants to they won’t feel like a dummy singing on their own, that’s fine. If it deliberately appears to be spontaneous but isn’t, that’s where I have a problem, and that’s where I think you’ve crossed the line into deliberate deceptive emotional manipulation.

    Yes, we’re all manipulated all the time. But most of the manipulation that happens at church isn’t deliberately deceptive.

  40. Ray, though I am loathe to point you to wikipedia, it will have to do for now: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Performance_art
    There’s a difference between performing arts and perforance art. Your example is performing arts.

  41. Carol F. says:

    Whether the singers are planted or not, I find this idea incredibly manipulative and cheesy. As the ward music chairperson, I would probably remain seated. Part of the reason would be out of deference for the pianist who I would not know if he was bugged or not.

    I agree with those who say it would be much better if the opportunity to stand up was announced beforehand. But I would still feel it was cheesy. It would be like Girls’ Camp where they say you have the “opportunity” to bear your testimony but after 15 weepy dramatic girls I do NOT feel the Spirit but I still feel incredibly obligated to take my turn.

  42. When I was singing with the Methodists, on a Pentecost Sunday, there was a presentation of Acts 2. One person started reading in English, and after a few verses someone joined in French, then Spanish, then Japanese. A cacophony of voices, reading through verse 12, then finishing with verse 21 in English in unison: “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

    It was awesome. Obviously a performance, but (I thought) a wonderful illustration of what happened.

    It’s my impression we can’t do stuff like that, which seems like a shame to me.

  43. TMD, you are talking with someone who has been performing in public for almost 40 years. Wikipedia . . . never mind.

    My example was performance art. I didn’t take the time or space to give all the details. It was performance art, and the spirit was POWERFUL and led to a deep feeling of worship. It was that aspect that my comment addressed.

    I am not advocating performance art in Sac Mtg – at least most of what generally would be considered performance art and not performing arts. Performance art does not detract automatically from worship by “add(ing) an element of artifice to the performance of worship, and therefore detract(ing) from the spirit of genuine worship and response.” *Most* performance art might detract; not all does. There can be worshipful and deeply spiritual performance art.

    We probably need to agree to disagree on this one, since I’m certain neither of us will change the other’s mind.

  44. Ann, I have experienced similar presentations in Mormon meetings. Fwiw, I think the main reason we don’t see it more often is simple inertia – plus a general lack of musical expertise at the local congregation level. There is much that can be done within the general restrictions of the CHI – even if the music is limited exclusively to the hymnbook, which is not required.

  45. I know your example, Ann, wasn’t musical. My first sentence in #42 addressed non-musical presentations. “It” in the second sentence went back to musical performance art. Sorry that wasn’t clear.

  46. Anyone else looking forward to “Special Music, Part 2?”

  47. #41: “It’s my impression we can’t do stuff like that, which seems like a shame to me.”. When BY was building the Salt Lake Temple, he sent missionaries to Europe, to find out how they ‘pulled it off’. Maybe this is something that can be learned from others?

  48. “Anyone else looking forward to “Special Music, Part 2?””

    I am!

  49. This sounds like something these guys would do:


    Something akin to The Best Gig Ever.

    which makes it seem inappropriate for Sacrament Meeting.

  50. Kevin Barney says:

    (I know I’m late; I just found this thread.)

    I think this would be cool if it were simply a choral performance without any expectation of the congregation joining in. (Because, frankly, that it had been staged would be so obvious that I sincerely doubt most congregants would stand up; they would assume other individuals had been assigned the task, and would simply wait for the performance to play itself out. I don’t see how it’s obvious that you want the entire congregation to stand and join in.)

    But if this were simply the choir sitting in the middle of the room and not on the stand, and if they started out joining in one at a time so that there was some momentary disorientation among the people in the pews, I think it could work.