Special music, part 2

‘E’ is 25 years old. She received training as a singer at the pop/jazz conservatory and sang with a commercially viable pop group and a prestigious Lutheran cathedral choir before her mission. She now serves as the ward pianist.

‘V’ is in his early thirties. He has worked in several performance-related fields, including arranging music for television and stage managing for alternative theatre groups. He plays several instruments and sings. He serves as the ward music leader.

‘N’ is in his late thirties. As a hobby, he plays the trombone, and he has played in a big swing band, a ska band and a jazz trio. He is the bishopric member responsible for music in the ward.

It was at a meeting between these three that the idea for the ‘choir planted in the audience’ concept was discussed. All three thought it was interesting because it broke down the barrier between the audience and the singers and because it encouraged a measure of spontaneity, both which seemed like opportunities for emotional and spiritual interaction with music. N thought it was too manipulative, but both E and V argued that everyone would know it was a performance and appreciate it from that level: but we all realized most Mormons, especially in Finland, would never spontaneously stand and sing. (V pointed out that men had to be told to take off their jackets in hot weather.) We agreed to sit on the idea and to perhaps split the two concepts of a congregation-based choir and the encouragement of spontaneous involvement. (I showed them the comments from the first post, and they laughed at how seriously people took the concept of standing up to sing.)

It was a brainstorming meeting, looking at how we might reinvigorate music in our ward. All ideas were open for consideration. Here’s a rough estimation of part of that conversation:

V: What about dance?
N: Are you kidding?
V: I think the movement of the body has an effect on the spirit. We generally think of it as negative, but why couldn’t it enhance spiritual feeling as well?
E: What kind of dance would be spiritually beneficial?
V: I don’t know: we could do some research , maybe, and get going in a direction at least. Maybe the Hindus have something long those lines…
N: But would they be conducive to the spirit for us, in our ward?
E: Primary kids have hand movements during their presentation in sacrament meeting. Why couldn’t an adult choir?
V: On my mission, it was trendy to sing and use sign language. Considering the signing wasn’t intended for any deaf people, isn’t that the same thing we’re talking about?
N: I can’t see it working. It would be so unexpected that the feeling of impropriety would drive the spirit away, regardless of how spiritually, um, suggestive the movements were.
V: That’s the same logic that’s used to require white shirts for passing the sacrament.
N: Yes, but there’s a difference between a deacon in a blue shirt and a bunch of people waving their arms in an aquatic fashion while singing, ‘Master, The Tempest Is Raging.’
V: So in other words, it is possible that people would benefit from dance in church, but we’ll never know because we can’t experiment in sacrament meeting.
N: I think we can do some new things, but that’s a bit radical, without any precedent.
V: I Guess we’ll have to wait for The Mormon Tabernacle Dancers.
E: I’m more interested in the blending and interaction between music and speakers in sacrament meeting. As a practice, we speak, then have music, then a speaker says something nice but generally meaningless about the music and moves on.
N: We do sometimes plan music that has the same theme as the talks.
E: Yes, but what about having them intersect and interact with each other in a more meaningful manner?
N: Speakers often quote a hymn or base their talk on the concepts in the lyrics of a hymn. Why not sing it or have it performed during the talk?
E: Something like that: having music embedded in a talk, or having a talk embedded in music.
N: I’ve seen some good examples of songs embedded in talks: there was a singing high councilman a few months ago, and it was really touching.
V: He’s got a great voice, and he sang songs that helped him feel close to God. But I’ve seen some terrible attempts at this as well — sentimental, not spiritual.
E: Does the difference have to do with the quality of the music, or the choice of music, or what?
N: I think those things matter. Maybe its also the depth of interaction between the talk and the music … when done poorly, the music pulls away from the focus instead of maintaining or intensifying it.
E: It would take a fair amount of planning to be done effectively I think.
V: Is there any official objection to it?
N: I don’t think so. It’s not different enough to distract people excessively, and as long as the performances follow our normal guidelines I can’t see the problem.
V: Most people think of a meeting consisting of talks with music as a break — it would be good to mix that up.
N: While I like the idea of embedding music in a talk, I’m more intrigued by the idea of embedding a talk into music. We should have a think about that.
V: (laughs) Maybe we could go further: you could construct a soundtrack for your talk, with music playing softly in the background matching the tone of the talk, changing with the talk as you go along…
E: (laughs) With back-up dancers, moving their hands in a spiritually edifying manner!


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Great dialogue. In how many wards is there this kind of thoughtful consideration of the music? Yet, as President Packer has rightly noted, improving the music in a sacrament meeting is the surest way to improve the quality of the meeting.

    As you know, there was dancing in the Nauvoo temple, so there is some precedent, but probably the most you can reasonably expect to get away with is the sign language accompaniment idea, which should be unobjectionable.

    In terms of integrating music and the spoken word better, when I do something of historical interest I like to give a little introductory talk explaining it. I picture myself as one of those old white guys with the fireplace in the background telling about the movie before it actually runs on Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Classics (or the BYU Film Society, for that matter). This wouldn’t have to be historical though; someone could speak specifically on the musical text, for example.

  2. Sounds like you have a really great ward, Norbert.

  3. meems, we don’t have a primary or any yw or ym, so we have time to do this stuff. For the same reason our SS is better than average.

  4. Hey, every other week we don’t have primary, yw or ym either (we’re remote and we travel to the “rest of the ward” alternate weeks)! Last week our 3 hour block lasted about 35 minutes. What a concept!

  5. Jennifer in GA says:

    When I was a teenager, the organist and her father gave a very meaningful performance (that’s not the right word, but I’m going with it) on Sunday. It was near Pioneer Day, so the speaker talked about the pioneers while the organist played a medley of hymns (Come, Come Ye Saints and The Spirit of God are two that I remember). It wasn’t hokey at all, and actually very touching.

    It helped that the speaker had written down his talk in a sort of script form, and it was timed with the changes in music just perfectly. The music didn’t take away from the words at all. With the exception of a primary program (the majority of the children sang softly in the background while another child spoke) I’ve never been in another ward where they have even attempted something like this. It’s a shame, too, because it brought so much to the meeting.

  6. we had a kid in our ward who sang every talk she gave (if my memory is correct) with a big Broadway vibrato. It was sweet if a little strange when she did it (she was a wonderful kid who just liked to sing), but I don’t know whether it’s reproducible in a healthy way in a more planned fashion.

  7. Glayds Knight gave a fireside at BYU a couple of years back (I think it was a CES Fireside). She would talk for a few minutes sharing her testimony and then break into a song. Talk a bit more and sing another song. She had someone sitting at the piano the whole time. He just followed her and played when she sang.
    It was refreshing to hear something different.
    (I looked for a link to it but I can’t find it right now.)

  8. Did you tape record this meeting or something?

    Maybe you could do a music testimony/sacrament meeting. Haven’t I read about this somewhere on the lds blogs already? People get up and talk about their favorite hymn? My brain isn’t working too well today, correct me if I’m wrong.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Susan M., try this.

  10. There is that classic MoTab performance of “I Believe in Christ” where the robust basso BRM busts out for one of the verses to read it.

    I love the accounts of dancing in the Nauvoo Temple. This one from the History of the Church (7:557-558) always makes me smile:

    The labors of the day having been brought to a close at so early an hour, viz.: eight-thirty, it was thought proper to have a little season of recreation, accordingly Brother Hanson was invited to produce his violin, which he did, and played several lively airs accompanied by Elisha Averett on his flute, among others some very good lively dancing tunes. This was too much for the gravity of Brother Joseph Young who indulged in dancing a hornpipe, and was soon joined by several others, and before the dance was over several French fours were indulged in. The first was opened by myself with Sister Whitney and Elder Heber C. Kimball and partner. The spirit of dancing increased until the whole floor was covered with dancers, and while we danced before the Lord, we shook the dust from off our feet as a testimony against this nation.

    I am typically a proponent of musical innovation (or perhaps expansion) in our general liturgy. Still, the idea of combing sermons and music or dancing just doesn’t do it for me.

  11. I could see the musical sac mtg concept changed a bit to be quite powerful. As the speaker talks, the organist or pianist could play the song softly in the background. As soon as the speaker ends, the organist could finish the verse or transition to the beginning – and the congregation could sing all verses or any specified verse(s), chosen by the speaker.

    I really like the overall conversation.

  12. Having said that, I have attended wards with very talented, trained musicians in these callings. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. One situation, in particular, was difficult. The organist “performed” the hymns, changing volume AND tempo randomly, according to however he felt in the moment. The poor chorister hated her calling, and the congregation sang softly and with constant hesitance – since they never could be sure that they would be singing together at any given moment.

    In another ward, the choir director wanted the choir to perform beautiful but extremely difficult arrangements. After about two months, the choir went from about 20 people to 6. Many wards don’t have much option other than singing hymns from the hymnbook, and, with focus and attention and heartfelt worship, that can be beautiful, as well.

    Again, I love the conversation and would enjoy a ward where such a discussion would work.

  13. Thanks Kevin.

    One ward I lived in (Molly Bennion’s ward in Seattle) had a music leader/organist who would often come to the mic and tell us something about the hymn we were about to sing. I loved that.

  14. I love music, but I’m decidedly against most uninvited solos from the pulpit. If you must, test the interpretive dance in a fireside setting — I know I would bust up laughing if someone started dancing in Sacrament meeting, no matter how “spiritually suggestive”.

    I vote to just put D. Fletcher on the piano and see where he takes us. Best Mormon church music ever, and the most spiritual meetings I’ve ever attended. D. definitely deserves the “most sorely missed” Niblet in my world.

  15. Our ward does a Favorite Hymns sac mtg every year, and it’s much loved. Each person speaks for just a minute, then all sing one verse of the hymn. Like D. Fletcher on Kevin’s original post, I will own that just one verse is a compromise; yet the overall effect is still powerful.

    Ray, you have to do it WITHOUT playing the hymn softly while the person speaks. Sounds like a good idea, but it’s much too distracting. People know the hymnbook well enough to do fine.

    A California friend was asked to perpare a whole Sac Mtg on music. Talked about the history of our hymnody and had people sing along as the meeting went, including some hymns not in our hymnal. Again very very well received.

    My sister recently was one of two Sac Mtg speakers in her ward on the topic of music and singing. The effect was somewhat marred at the close when the organist accidentally played the opening hymn, Sweet is the Work, instead of Come Follow Me. The chorister, who does not read music, simply sang Come Follow Me to that melody (it fits–try it) — for all 6 verses. My sister said it was all they could do to not burst out laughing; afterward a sister at the back of the chapel was heard to say, “Can you believe that–an entire Sacrament Meeting on how important it is to sing, and then neither one of the speakers opens their mouth for the closing hymn!”

  16. BTW I understood that the CHI said speakers should NOT sing as part of their talks (or at least at one time it did). Anyone know if that’s really true?

  17. I know that the favorite hymn sacrament meeting has become quite common. I think its a shame that the meeting has to be about music to have music play a more prominent role. I would also like to model some things that could be a part of a normal meeting that other members might want to try.

    There is also a big difference between someone singing ‘I Am a Child of God’ during testimony meeting and a planned interaction between a talk and music.

    What strikes me when we start talking about expanding the role of music, or experimenting with the structure of sacrament meeting at all, is how set the form of the meeting has become. We have a liturgy based on the lack of liturgy — but maybe that’s a different post.

    Susan M: Of course … We record all of our meetings. Doesn’t your ward? Actually, this is a stylized approximation of the conversation (had at at my kitchen table while listening to the Greatest Gospel Choirs album). I was actually much funnier, but I gave V and E all the best lines. I’m a giver.

    gillsyk: We’re ignoring the CHI. More about that in part 3.

  18. “We have a liturgy based on the lack of liturgy.”

    It really is striking, isn’t it?

  19. I feel sad that we have such a limited number of instruments to choose from for SM. I love it when we get a violin, flute or harp going, but that’s about as far as they allow it to go. My man plays the hymns so sweetly and reverently on the trumpet, a banned instrument. I can’t help wishing they’d branch out a little.

    Then again if you let a trumpet in one week, it’s a tuba and a snare drum the next. It’s all downhill from there. Next thing you know people are holding up lit lighters and swaying in the aisles. Anarchy. Chaos.

  20. I feel sad that we have such a limited number of instruments to choose from for SM.

    Jami, you’ll want to read part 3.

  21. Struwelpeter says:

    We had a mandolin/piano duet of “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” a few weeks ago.

  22. Dance is very common in black churches. I must admit, though, that no matter how graceful the movement, how poigniant the accompanying slideshow of Christ, or how edifying the music being danced to, I have a hard time feeling the spirit or viewing it as worship. I willingly admit this is due to the mind/heart/body disconnect of 21st century first world living.

    What about having choirs sing from someplace other than the pulpit? Is that verbotten? To have them stand in the aisles or singe from behind the congregations or in lines along the sides? It seems that, used occassionally, that could be a way to connect the singers more with the congregation.

  23. 19 & 23: What’s interesting is that I have a much easier time feeling the spirit in those sorts of meetings than LDS ones – and I’ve been a member my whole life. I love visiting the evangelical churches of my friends and family members because it is always an amazingly worshipful experience for me (complete with dancers, guitars, snare drums and clapping.)

    In my ward growing up we had a youth speaker (a very lively African American teenager) who gave his talk about Nephi getting the plates in the form of a rap. It was very well received. Admittedly, my home ward was less orthodox than most because our bishop (my dad) was pretty open minded and focused on the spirit of the law, so I don’t see this taking over as an accepted form of talk-giving any time soon.

  24. Oops, that was directed to ESO’s post 22, not 23.

  25. A few years ago in General Conference, Elder Nelson turned the time over to the choir (I don’t remember whether it was in the middle or at the end of his talk) to sing a hymn he had written (actually it was new words set to “O Home Beloved, Where’er I Wander” … I think it started out “We pray to thee, our Heavenly Father”?). I thought that was the coolest thing and wondered why more of the apostles didn’t take advantage of having the Tabernacle Choir at their disposal. I mean, wouldn’t you?