Special music, part 3

When we called a new ward music leader and ward pianist, we wanted to see the music in our ward change. We very rarely had any special music in our meetings, and always from the same source. The bishop told me he trusted my judgment and the three of us sat down and started to talk.

Besides the abstract brainstorming I’ve discussed before, we wanted to establish what we saw as the purpose of church music. We purposely ignored the CHI, wanting to generate these ideas ourselves and then compare them to the guidelines afterward.

We decided church music should have two goals:

1. Music in church ought to help listeners have spiritual feelings.

2. Music in church ought to allow the musicians to make an offering of their talents to God and the community.

While the first goal is much more important than the second, we both felt that the benefit of the musician was significant enough to consider when making choices. It also allows for great performances without people worrying about the implied pride of ‘performing,’ or drawing attention to one’s self.

What could we do to meet those goals? One thing was to emphasize spiritual music from this country. While members are fond of the Mormon hymns (some more than others), it seemed to both of us that most of our congregation would connect to traditional Finnish spiritual music just as well, if not better. We have some members who know that music quite well, and they have started to perform in trios and quartets.

We also wanted more people involved in music, and as we started thinking about it and talking to people, we realized we had a wealth of musical talent in the ward…but little of it using traditional sacrament meeting instruments. So with the approval of the bishop, we went to people and said, if you can play your instrument in a way that will help people experience greater spirituality, we want you to make an offering to the Lord of your talent. And the results have been positive. We started by modeling: V and I did a muted trombone/trumpet duet of ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,’ and it was well received. Since then, we’ve had more muted brass instruments, acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments, even a harmonica: all have been used to produce spiritual music that edified the listeners. Most have chosen to play hymns, but some have done other religious music. We’ve encouraged musicians to preface their music with a brief explanation, educating the congregation about what was happening and the spiritual significance of the music if it was not clear. Visitors are surprised, but we’ve had few complaints. We had some unexpected visitors from Frankfurt on the day seventy-two year old Sister V popped out her accordion and played a mournful and sweet version of ‘I Need Thee Every Hour,’ and I thought for sure we’d get a warning, but the visitors praised her from the pulpit and privately.

Our next step is to have a meeting where the speakers are made aware of the theme and the music which has been planned to set the theme. In other words, at least in planning, the music is prior to the talks. It’s a nature/creation theme: we’ll have a piano & guitar duet of ‘How Great Thou Art,’ a quartet singing a simplified arrangement of Sibelius’ ‘Hymn to the Earth’ (Maan virsi), ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’ as a congregational hymn and back to ‘How Great Thou Art’ as the closing hymn. It will be interesting to see if the speakers rise to the occasion.

An interesting element of this process has been turning the decision making process of the church on its ear: rather than finding out what the authorities will allow in our meetings, we took it upon ourselves to exercise the judgment and, may I be bold enough to claim, the inspiration relative to our callings. We have a clear understanding of the relevant principles of the Gospel, and we have the ability to see how they can be best applied to our situation. Elder Packer’s talk from last October’s conference gave us confidence to continue on this course. The results have been unconventional, but always pursuing what we believe to be true and righteous.


  1. This is pure awesome. What a great example this is – thanks for sharing it.

  2. I applaud your course of action (i.e., seeking your own inspiration vs. focusing on what HQ tells you not to do), but it bothers me that you should feel a tension between the two in the first place.
    I’ve always thought that the CHI and the Worldwide Leadership Training have never absolutely proscribed certain instruments or musical selections. Rather, my reading has always indicated general direction to members to select instruments and music that invites the Spirit. For me, that translates into the pipe organ, but for many, I understand it might be otherwise. Even (gasp!) a guitar. Am I incorrect in this?

  3. P.S. I also love that you are involving more folks. It seems to me that if this model were followed more often, we might get past our fixation for being constantly “entertained” by music, and never actually participating in it. Bravo!

  4. One other goal of church music..
    to Praise God..to make the day…
    a Day of Praise.

    Great job!!!

    “…..SHOUT ALOUD FOR JOY.” (D&C 109:80) “I will make today A Day of Praise, Lift my voice and sing Your name, For the glory of heaven, The mercy of Your ways, I will make today A Day of Praise, I will make today A Day of Praise!”

  5. Bravo. What I appreciate most about this is your framing the musical numbers as “offerings.”

    I think we far too often and far too easily dismiss God’s concern for aesthetics–our reverence too often takes the form of officiousness and efficiency rather than beauty. As a result, we sometimes don’t set too high a bar for ourselves in the work and preparation we put into our contributions to meetings–this applies equally to mediocre talks as well as soulless musical numbers (not to mention half-hearted congregational singing!). What a simple but powerful message you’ve given to the musical participants in your meetings: do something that will be a musical offering to God–and not merely an offering of effort or dutiful task-doing, but of beauty.

    I’m currently engaged in research on the music and culture of Bali. One thing that I admire deeply about Balinese culture is that multiple times a day prayer and devotion there takes the form of offerings: not of goods, but of beauty. Little arrangements of flowers and leaves and colored rice paste, created for no other reason than to be beautiful. Music is the same way: regardless of context, the motivation for doing it well is to please God, because God appreciates beauty.

    As the Church spreads, I think it will become more and more important for local leaders to consider the spiritual needs of their congregations in applying the guidelines for musical numbers–even if doing so requires some judicious and thoughtful flexibility.

  6. StillConfused says:

    I like that the music and talks are (potentially) tied together. I think that helps intensify the spirituality of the service. Diversity (of music) is a good thing

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Hunter, my understanding is that you are correct. For instance, there is no rule against the guitar in church, but not one bishop in a hundred has the guts to buck the perceived convention against that instrument. Which is a damn shame. I would love, love, love to hear some acoustic guitar in a sacrament meeting!

    Great work on this, Norbert.

  8. What a wonderful approach, Norbert.

  9. Live One says:

    As a classically trained musician, I have often sought for spiritually uplifting experiences outside of the LDS Church rather than within it.

    I’m not sure why that is. Most musicians seek out other musicians whether they be members or non-members. There is a common unspoken language which is found in every performance art.

    As a new convert, I had no constaints on what had been the prevailing norm in LDS meeting music. So, when asked to provide music for the Sunday session of Stake Conference I gathered an ensemble of 16 string players comprised of both members and non-members. We used violins, violas, cellos, and a bass violin.

    The prelude was Pachelbel’s Canon in D and one member has written a string quartet on “I am a child of God”. It was played in lieu of the intermediate hymn.

    Members who heard the music ensemble mentioned that they had never heard such beautiful music or a string ensemble in any previous LDS meeting. Most never knew that some of the musicians were non-member Chicago Symphony players.

    My point is that members and non-members alike can feel when music is uplifting or not. I often wonder if the Stake Presidency would have chastened me for using non-members to perform at a Stake conference. My reason for including them was to keep the various amateur member-players in tune and to act as section leaders. In the end it was a spiritually moving experience and that’s what matters.

  10. Kristine says:

    Norbert, it’s interesting to me that, as far as I can see, nothing you’ve done violates the guidelines in the CHI, even though you have arrived at your rules independently. What most people believe are “prohibitions” in the handbook are actually carefully worded cautions that leave plenty of room for the kind of agency you have so thoughtfully exercised.

  11. Left Field says:

    I’ve heard a guitar played at least twice in sacrament meeting that I can remember. Most recently performed by my current bishop.

    Bagpipes only once.

  12. I was once involved in a musical number in sacrament meeting where my mother played acoustic guitar and myself and others sang. I don’t remember any controversy surrounding it. And trust me, the ward it was performed in was quite conventional. However, I must admit that I can’t recall seeing a guitar in sacrament meeting since that day!

  13. I’m ecstatic to see that others are setting aside traditional barriers and doing what the Spirit tells them is right.

  14. I appreciated Michael Dowdle’s comments (he’s a fairly well known LDS musician) during an interview he did with Stephen Kapp Perry. He’s decided to avoid using some instruments in sacrament meeting to help maintain a worshipful atmosphere for his congregation.

    I’d probably allow a broad variety of instruments in church if I were in a position to decide, so I thought a different opinion was valuable.

  15. Sam Kitterman says:

    As one who has been involved in music most of my life, choir;piano; trumpet & frenxh horn, I too salute you for taking the position you have with regards to your ward music progrom. I have to wonder why we as a community seem so quick to give the spoken word but when it comes to music, only a few will raise their voices with enough volume to be heard…..
    Indeed, it was somewhat astounding to see how many here in So. Nevada had unkind words of Sister Knight when shw first started her choir and how it took some months for general acceptance of her offering of music to her own LDS community.

  16. This is wonderful and I am happy to read this post and the approving comments.

    For those who are not aware, the Church Handbook of Instructions contains the following “guidelines:”

    Organs and pianos are the standard instruments used in Church meetings. If other instruments are used, their use should be in keeping with the spirit of the meeting. Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting.

    So, I will be very interested to see what, if any, response these actions will receive. I think that since you are in a relatively remote area of the Church, and because you are doing it quietly, you may not see any official reprimand. I sincerely hope not. With the good results you are apparently having, perhaps this will spread and eventually the policy will disappear.

    To me even a loud sound of brass and percussion can be most worshipful!

  17. Norbert says:

    With the good results you are apparently having, perhaps this will spread and eventually the policy will disappear.

    I’m really interested in this idea. If we all do what we think is right, could it affect a change in policy? This is the subject of a different post, but Elder Packer’s talk has me thinking in that direction (although I’m not sure he would appreciate being the inspiration for such a movement).

  18. “Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting.”

    …but completely appropriate for an angle that stands atop our temples. The shade of irony is comical!

  19. Researcher says:

    On the other hand, I would like to suggest that the music instructions in the Church Handbook are given for the weak and weakest among us.

    You can’t assume that people will seek inspiration in their church callings. A few basic guidelines will help guard against rock bands in sacrament meeting. Think Disney’s classic 1970s movie “North Avenue Irregulars” with Shorty and the Strawberry Shortcakes playing in the Sunday services.

    The thing that I find the most grating is when choir directors (I’ve seen it again and again in many different wards) choose pieces that are too difficult for their choirs and pianists. Much better to have a simple, worshipful, well-done hymn by the choir than a complicated piece that they don’t have the time to get right.

    I’m not arguing for use of hymns alone. For organ prelude music, I like to use pieces such as Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Bist Du Bei Mir (the Bach piece that always precedes the conference broadcasts), etc., that the members would find worshipful.

    One of the most amazing musical numbers I’ve ever seen in my life was a senior missionary singing I Wonder When He Comes Again and accompanying himself on the mandolin.

    Just like Norbert said. Worshipful. Well done.

  20. “An interesting element of this process has been turning the decision making process of the church on its ear: rather than finding out what the authorities will allow in our meetings, we took it upon ourselves to exercise the judgment and, may I be bold enough to claim, the inspiration relative to our callings.”

    Did you ever look in the handbook? Every one I have read asks leaders to seek personal revelation in applying the instructions. Look in the introduction. You are claiming to discover what is already there. The church is way ahead of you, even if other congregations don’t apply their exhortations.

  21. My question for the group is:

    Do you think you would get more heat from leadership for using non-traditional instruments playing from the Hymnbook, or using the Organ/Piano to play something not from the Hymnbook?

  22. Researcher 19, heh. My dad played the organ in sacrament meeting Sunday, and he played “Bist du bei mir” for the prelude and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” for the post.

    Did anyone read Orson Scott Card’s column in the Deseret Mormon News this morning?
    I share his discomfort with the coached “Brothers and sisters, aloooooooo-HA!” (although he didn’t mention the most irritating part of that particular ritual, the “I can’t hear you!” followed by a deafening shout of ALOOOOOOOOO-HAAAAAA!”), but otherwise, I think he carries his point to a somewhat grinchy extreme.

  23. #9: Wow. Right on.

  24. The flip side of the musical performances or offerings is how members of the congregation can and should receive them. I always feel uncomfortable not being able to acknowledge the beauty of a performance in sacrament meeting. If not clapping, how about an “Amen”?

  25. It is official. I am having ward envy. Love mine so much, but would love to have the musical expression of worship upped a bit. Our organist is a sweet lady who plays everything at 2/3 speed.

    Norbert, are you telling me that you had TWO brass instruments perform in SM and no one stood on their pews and clapped their hands above their heads? Wow.

  26. Yes, I tire of the Aloha thing too.

    A few days after my sister had completed her mission to Copenhagen and was preparing to speak in sacrament meeting in our home ward, she was soliciting suggestions as to how to begin her talk. Mine, which she unfortunately did not use, was to step up to the podium and holler “ALOOOO-HA!,” wait for the congregation to answer back, and then say “That’s how the saints say hello in the tropical island nation of Denmark!” She was afraid she would hurt someone’s feeling. Pshaw.

  27. tesseract says:

    I’m the music coordinator for RS. I pick out the hymns, do a 5-min music appreciation moment every 2nd – 4th sunday, as well as play prelude music, the hymns, and short prelude. For the music appreciation moment I either explain the background or weird facts of the opening hymn or have the sisters sing a new song from the hymnbook. For the opening and closing hymns, I always try to pick songs that go with the lesson. I never know exactly which direction the teacher is going to go with their lesson, but I’m always surprised how well it ends up fitting together. Occasionally, if I can find the teacher beforehand, I’ll see if they have any hymn requests. A lot of people have commented how much it adds to the feel of the lesson, that everything goes together so well, and how much they notice the difference when I’m not there. It really makes me enjoy my calling, I feel like I make a difference but without being pretentious or feeling like I’m showing off. I really feel like I am “offering my talents” to God and the RS sisters in a way that all can be uplifted.

  28. Goes without saying, but I’d make sure that all traditional music is doctrinally sound.

    On a personal note, I’d rather hear a hymn on guitar than a trio of young women singing a Janice Kapp Perry/Michael Mclean/Kenneth Cope tune any day of the week… especially Sunday.

  29. Sam Kitterman says:

    Rather paradoxical regarding the CHI as to brass not being appropriate. I am at a rehearsal for “Savior of the World” here in Henderson Nv and we have a full orchestra, including brass AND percussion, to provide instrumentation for our testifying of Christ through this production.

  30. “Most brass” with “a prominent or less worshipful sound” – sounds like “some muted brass” is allowed.

    Sometimes parsing can be a real blessing. *grin*

  31. When I served as ward music chair, with the bishop’s permission, a focus of our special musical numbers for sacrament meeting was “worshiping through music begins with the family”. Each month a family was asked to share/perform a hymn or primary song they sang together for FHE. It wasn’t about performance or skill, it was about worshipping. We did have varying levels of ability and a couple of families asked another family to sing with them so they weren’t alone. Interestingly, it was only the bishop who was resistant to actually having to sing with his family. While his family is very musical he didn’t feel that he is. But it was lovely and other than the pained look on his face, added to the spirit of the meeting.

  32. Terrific!
    Your combined approach is an inspiration. Thanks for clearing a way for more trumpets to come . . .

  33. I sang in sac. meeting (ward conference, actually) and when I was done, the stake Pres. got up and said, “Tammy Wynette sings the hymns of the dispensation.” (i kinda sound “country”- but they knew that when they asked me) I felt bad.Like I ruined the meeting. However, Same stake Pres. asked me to sing in stake conference in June. Maybe HE felt bad over his comment.

  34. Darrell says:

    sher, perhaps the SP considered it a compliment. There are lots of folks that think Tammy Wynette had a beautiful voice. I would like to have heard her sing some of the hymns of the restoration. I don’t think he would have asked you to sing in SC otherwise. The song must have been awesome!

  35. Tammy Wynette’s voice is loved like Loretta Lynn’s. I also would have loved to hear your song, sher.

  36. I thought it would be cool to record a cd of hymns and primary songs in that country (but not corn ball) style. One of these days.

  37. Jonovitch says:

    I played acoustic guitar in Sacrament Meeting once, granted at a BYU ward (where an obnoxious amount of Mormon pop was also performed — sheesh!).

    The ward music person tried to convince me it wasn’t allowed, so I gave her and the bishop (a Democrat — tee-hee) a copy of the CHI page, highlighting in yellow the exact wording and noting that there is absolutely zero restriction on acoustic guitars in sacrament meeting.


  38. Interesting fact about the trombone: until the early 19th century it was primarily a church instrument.

  39. what about a harp? is that frowned upon? like the acoustic guitar? no acoustic guitars are allowed in my ward, handbook or no handbook!