Special Music: Redux

About a year ago, I posted about our ward’s experiments with music here, here and here. Since two members of the music committee are leaving the ward, it seemed like a good time to report.

First, our successes: the music has been good. Since the end of the summer holidays, we have had one or more special musical items (dare I call them performances?) in nearly every meeting (excepting most fast and testimony meetings). While there is a core of  musicians who perform regularly and an a capella quintet who perform every month as a mini-choir, there has been quite a variety of music. We’ve had violins, kanteles, four-handed piano, an upright bass, guitars, muted horns, an accordion, and the list goes on. While pieces from the current and past LDS hymnbooks have been prominent, classical and traditional Finnish religious music has gotten a lot of play as well. The quality has sometimes varied, but not the sincerity. Here are a few other things we’ve done that have gone especially well:

  • Beside the Christmas program and upcoming Easter program, we have had two other special musical sacrament meetings: one about nature and creation and another about faith, hope and charity. They were, by all accounts, uplifting and meaningful for the congregation, the speakers and the performers. After the one we did last April, for the others we announced the program months ahead and people came forward with ideas about what they would like to perform to fit the theme, which were screened by the music committee.
  • The ward music leader has started emailing speakers and asking them if they would like to request a specific hymn to be sung before or after their talk. Often they don’t, but knowing what the talk is about, he can sometimes choose an appropriate hymn. Because our ward has a tradition of speakers choosing their own topic, it creates some continuity to the meeting without being overwhelming, especially as he exercises a soft touch in choosing  hymns. In a  bit of turnabout, a few speakers have called him and asked what the hymns might be to help them think about topics for their talks. This kind of interaction between music and speakers is less intrusive than the experiments we were considering.
  • In the earlier posts, I shared some of the more outrageous ideas we considered, none of which we did. However,  one experiment went quite well. The Relief Society had a poetry night for Enrichment, and there were several members of the ward who wrote poetry. So we thought, what if we chose a hymn and invited members to write their own lyrics? We went with ‘I Need Thee Every Hour,’ and four ward members wrote their own quatrains, vetted by the bishop. The congregation sang the first verse, and then each poet read or asked someone else to read or sing their verse, and the congregation sang the refrain after each one. My Finnish isn’t good enough to appreciate the poetry, but it was well-received.

There were some things that we thought about and didn’t do:

  • At some point, as we talked about the music we found spiritually sustaining and uplifting, I kept coming back to certain pop songs, like ‘Lean On Me.’ I know, I know. We are Mormons. It’s not us. But why isn’t it us? I argued that hearing a song like that with a reverent setting would put certain Christ-like attributes in a different light and help us see them afresh. While it has no deep doctrine in it, there are plenty of hymns that are even less doctrinal. (I’m looking at you, ‘Love At Home.’)  We never really considered doing an adaptation for sacrament meeting, but we had some interesting discussions about why we couldn’t or shouldn’t.
  • The three of us who have been most involved in this process all have an interest in jazz, and we kept thinking about the use of some of the techniques of jazz in church music. Our potential model was something like Jacques Loussier’s treatment of Bach. It was clear that syncopation would be seen as irreverent by many of our congregation members, but what about improvisation? We set up a piano and guitar duet of ‘The Lord is My Shepherd,’ but as they rehearsed, they found that their  improvisations always went toward syncopation, through a sort of instinct. We thought about doing a fireside of jazz-flavored spiritual music, but the stake was not very enthusiastic. So we’ll see.

If I think about regrets, I can’t think of any. There were a few musical numbers to which we said no, and we may have erred on the side of caution once or twice. (Maybe the saxophone trio would have been great.) There was a time when the meeting might have become too performance-oriented, and we decided that having someone come in and perform just because they are very good didn’t make sense. Most of the performers who were not members of our ward performed with ward members in small groups.

Perhaps the most interesting element has been the reaction of the congregation. Our ward members have enjoyed the music immensely: some members felt uncomfortable at some point that we were breaking some rules, but the bishop patiently explained that we weren’t, and over time they have enjoyed the music as well. Visitors have not always been so enthusiastic. We have had complaints and denunciations. I’m fairly sympathetic: many of these visitors are from the States, and they come to Finland on a Sunday and find what looks to them like institutional apostasy. The patient explanation usually does the job, but there have been threats of letters to the First Presidency. (So if there’s a letter read in a meeting reminding about reverent music, that may be our fault.) I suppose what makes the difference is the context of the ward itself. We know each other and, in this situation, we trust each other. At least for me, sacrament meeting is meaningful as an interaction of the local religious community before it is an expression of a larger institutional culture. What appears to be a violation of the institutional culture can make perfect sense within the community of the ward.

Take Sister V and her accordian. She is in her 70s, and she has never been much of a church participant. Now, about once a month, she sits on a chair  just below the podium and plays a hymn on her instrument, sweetly and full of love, tears welling in her eyes by the end of the first verse. Knowing her and hearing the music, it’s tough to see unorthodoxy before seeing the spirit of her holy offering.


  1. Norb,
    What a fantastic ward you have. Supreme kudos for this.

  2. That image of the sister and the accordian got me. I’m impressed principally by two things: the amount of work everyone put into it, and secondly, as you say, the love and trust of ward members to make it happen. One step closer to Zion.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Wonderful report. Some of these innovations should be tried in other locations. I think it was Elder Packer who said that the quickest way to improve the quality of a ward’s sacrament meetings is to improve the music.

  4. Mark Brown says:

    Pretty cool, Br. Kilmer. I echo the others – your ward sounds wonderful.

    We had a trumpet trio with organ play God of our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand. I love those strong organ chords, and when the trumpets hit that taaa-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-taaa between stanzas, they did it just right. At first I wondered whether unmuted brass would be OK, but this was perfect. It made me think of Moroni, sounding the trumpet to begin the last dispensation.

  5. The ward I am in also has a it of a maverick feel when it comes to music.

    We regularly get violins, flutes, saxes etc. Its really nice when the little kids play.

    I really enjoy it and the spirit is always present.

  6. Norbert,

    For me, the fact that 2 out of 3 meetings in Finland were drenched in institutional apostasy was one of the best parts of being a missionary there. :)

  7. I have read the comments previous articles and this one, and I seem to be the only one that finds this unessecary, unwarranted and distracting. I find the “status quo” of traditional music programs enlightened and inspired. The simplicity, and yes, the sometimes boring congregation hymns (with standard instruments) allow me the luxury of singing if I choose. But more importantly, it allows me to think and let my mind wander. Wandering (or pondering if you will) under the influence of the Spirit is how I get revelation. A music program that focuses on performance, demands a conformity in standing, or is outlandish (interpretative dance, or soundtracks) would deny me the chance to recieve that revelation. Instead of a simple hymn allowing me to ponder the sublime messages I just heard, I am forced into a some kind of freaky new age performance with a bongo solo depicting the struggle in the garden of gethsemane (sp?).

    Before anybody thinks I am some uncultured Visigoth, both me and my wife are heavily involved in music in just about every genre (Jazz, latin, rock, classical etc.) We are happy to perform simple and traditional arrangments as requested by the ward. But we go to church to worship Christ, not to be distracted from our revere by virtuoso and/or weird performances, or to seek some funky new way to revitalize what should be a subdued experience anyway.

    So I am sorry to be the grinch whole stole innovation here. (Although I resent that I have to be the “bad guy” for pointing out the intrinsic benefits of traditional programs) I applaud you for actively seeking ways to improve the worship experience. But, to you use a musical term I always reminded of, Basic is Better (BIB) or Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). I think you are missing the mark in your endeavors. Thanks for your time. (Sorry ahead of time for any spelling/grammar errors, I do my best but always miss one or two)

  8. I think a concern with different music and instruments is that they eventually become performances – taking away the worship aspect of it. But I have to say Norbert, it sounds like your ward has really found a great formula – and a great example for the rest of us.

  9. Kristine says:

    Morgan, did you read Norbert’s post? I don’t think there’s anything he reports that violates either the spirit or the letter of the CHI on this.

  10. Although I resent that I have to be the “bad guy” for pointing out the intrinsic benefits of traditional programs

    Wow, Morgan. Sorry to cause you to feel bad by saying something with which you might disagree and then giving you an open forum in which you can choose to express your feelings. I can see how that could cause resentment.

  11. Peter LLC says:

    Our ward members have enjoyed the music immensely

    Well, there you go. Sounds like your committee was magnifying its calling.

  12. Morgan, you sound like a wonderful person.

  13. “But more importantly, it allows me to think and let my mind wander. Wandering (or pondering if you will) under the influence of the Spirit is how I get revelation.”

    I agree. And, I would note, it bothers me when I read posts, or talks, or articles, about improving the quality of talks or lessons. The last thing we should do is make them interesting or stimulate thinking.

    Our job is to comfort the comfortable, to allow the audience to allow their minds to wander and day dream about gospel related topics.

    Fortunately, most wards and stakes follow the inspired cultural tradition of routinized talks regurgitating other peoples’ talks and most units carefully restrain gospel doctrine lessons to reading aloud from the gospel doctrine manuals not only the approved questions but the approved answers. This allows for a much more spiritual experience.

    If I had my way, though, every Sunday would be high council Sunday, and to really heighten the spirituality I would request them to give the identical talks each week!

  14. #9 I did read his post (and previous ones as well). I still feel like it is moving past the mark; his music committee and ward liking it does not make it okay for every or any church member. As others have said, it sounds manipulative and performance based instead of worship based.

    And sarcasm is unessecary. The reaction to my post is excactly what I resent. I think the status quo is not only fine but beneficial and inspired. I said so, and now the icy sarcasm and snarky rejoinders come out in response. (#10 and #12?)

    I’m not sorry for defending my time for revelation with gusto.

  15. Morgan,
    Again, nothing Norbert has actually described his ward doing deviates from anything in the CHI. 94% of what passes for acceptable musical numbers in sacrament meetings these days is, orders of magnitude, more manipulative and performance based than anything described in this post. I think you’re correct that musical numbers should conduce worship, should not center on flashy performance, and should be rooted in reverent, traditional LDS music. I just think your criticisms here feel a bit like tilting at windmills.

  16. I guess some of us find that revelation and inspiration come from meetings and music that are repetitious, routine and allow our minds to wander and others of us find revelation and inspiration come from music and talks that engage our minds and hearts. I am in the latter category.

  17. Norbert, I am a musician also, and I adhere to the Keep It Simple Stupid philosophy, too. (I hate it when other musicians try to bite off more than they can chew.) However, to me, that does NOT mean that music in the Church should be purposefully dumbed down (and spirited-down). This new idea that Church music should be nothing more than “background music” is just another new heresy, out of step with the what the scriptures and modern prophets say about music.

    While I can certainly understand where Morgan Deane is coming from when it comes to avoiding having the performer take all the attention away from the worship service, I just don’t think his comments address what I read what your Ward seems to be doing.

    Keep on keepin’ on, Norbert! It sounds wonderful.

  18. Great posts all. (15-17) I guess I should include a translation guide with all my posts since I seem to offend more than anything. (like the joke in my intial post at the end of paragraph one, and beginning of paragraphs two and three) Post 16 is especially appreciated because that was the main thrust of my post. I am in the former category, and I would not object to music that talks and engages my mind outside of sacrament. I would love to “jam for Jesus” sometime in more casual settings.
    If my comments are off the mark for what Norberts ward is doing than I am glad I was wrong, and apologize for any offense given. In the circles I run with, they continually use the same arguments that Norbert did in trying to justify all sorts of things in sacrament meetings- maybe creating a windmill.
    I would like to know what “dumbed down” would mean in a sacrament meeting Hunter.

  19. One example of dumbing down Church music, is when someone insists that the Ward Choir should only sing a hymn straight from the hymnal, with a prohibition on any variation from verse to verse.

  20. Okay, I see.

  21. Hunter-

    I would agree a poorly interpreted and redundantly sung hymn is probably going too far on the “dumbing down.” I would add, though, that many of the hymns can be effectively sung very straightforwardly right from the hymnbook with minimal variation (good musicianship goes a long way in such cases).

    The Tabernacle Choir makes a point to sing some of their numbers in general conference exactly this way intentionally to model what is possible for ward choirs to emulate (though maybe not perfectly replicate).

  22. The original intention, which I thought has been successful, has been to help people feel the spirit and to allow musicians to make an offering to the Lord in a holy space. We were interested in exploring what could be done to meet those goals rather than using a sense of status quo to control how we went about doing so. As several people have pointed out the CHI gives wards significant leeway to do so. Nobody is burning hymnbooks here.

  23. I don’t want to be a spoil sport but I thought there was a letter in the last year or so which said that we shouldn’t have an all music Sacrament meeting. I personally would love to have one and was very disappointed to hear we shouldn’t. Of course, we aren’t supposed to have people look up scriptures during talks, either, but a former SP did that in our branch last month.

  24. Noray, if that’s the case, it sounds like the organist lobby may have gotten the ear of church HQ. Those meetings are great for everyone except those poor, taken for granted organists!

  25. Cynthia L. says:

    This is great Norbert. It sounds like a perfect balance of the competing goals of tradition and individual adaption. The image of the accordion lady is beautiful.

  26. Norbert,

    My DW wants to know if you’re in the Neitsytpolku Ward or out in Haaga/Marjanieimi?

  27. #19 The Tabernacle Choir certainly does a nice job with their hymns and I agree we can emulate the model. I think it is worth noting that in the last few years they’ve performed (er, sung) a movement from Brahm’s Requiem and one of my favorite French Christmas carols (not a hymn) in conference/Christmas broadcast. We can certainly follow their lead and include some creative choices of worshipful music outside our tradition.

    I also don’t know what to do with the counsel to avoid a “performance” feel. I understand the concept that the worship service is about the Savior and not the musician, but what exactly does that concept discourage? If I have an opera singer in my ward, I want that person up there as often as possible singing their guts out so I can enjoy and benefit from their expertise. I don’t think their awesomeness interrupts my worship; to the contrary, their God-given talent makes me feel even more reverence for the ultimate source. Is a performance distracting because they are tooting their own horn or because we can’t stop thinking that we wish we were so cool? It seems we miss out on something great if we fret about our ward members’ music being too polished or professional. I have had very uplifting experiences at church hearing music from both ends of the polish spectrum, but we seem to shy away from the too-good end for reasons I cannot understand. Thoughts?

    Norbert; keep up the good work. I couldn’t agree more that our ward family should be our first consideration.

  28. I’m with you, Cort. I’ve participated in hundreds of musical numbers, accompanying choirs, and soloists of every vocal and instrumental type and I’ve never thought that I was involved in anything other than a performance. Even accompanying congregational singing is a performance, one that can be quite distracting when done incompetently. Certainly the chorister is putting on a (mostly superfluous) performance.

    What is occasionally missing in musical numbers is rarely sincerity or the appropriate attitude. But the missing ingredient, good taste, is difficult to legislate. Sadly, attention to aesthetic principles is even less evident in our rhetorical performances.

  29. My comments were not directed at avoiding “good” music Cort, it was more in some of the other efforts he discussed: interpretative dance, possible soundtrack for speakers, and really unusual instrumentation that moved it from just seeking good performers to an undesirable something else in my opinion. Maybe I missed an implied joke in those suggestions, but I am fine with standard musical numbers with orthodox accompniment. I don’t feel the selected numbers need to be talent driven (although it certainly is nice), else why would our church force Heber J. Grant imitators like me into congregational singing.

    If you choose to focus on the aesthetics as opposed to the sincere attempts then you are robbing yourself of a spiritual experience. I would say every other consideration (aesthetics, talent, peformance) is secondary to feeling the spirit. It is an individual’s particular hang up with any of those items that prevents an uplifting spiritual experience.

    For example, I use to volunteer at a church service designed for mentally and physically disabled memebers. I would say their singing had the least attention to the musical qualities that would make a good performance. Yet it was some of the best spiritual experiences I had because nobody cared about that stuff. We could simply enjoy each others attempts at worshipping through song without any of the other pretenses that come with performing music. Anyways, thanks for putting up with ramblings.

  30. Cynthia L. says:

    Morgan, from this latest post: “In the earlier posts, I shared some of the more outrageous ideas we considered, none of which we did.”

  31. Steve Evans says:

    Morgan, you are just missing the point. Nobody, not once, is suggesting “to focus on the aesthetics as opposed to the sincere attempts.”

  32. I would direct you to posts 13 and 28 Steve, and the numerous other posts that indicate people are more interested in people being GOOD (or engaging, talented, not dumbed down, exciting, etertaining, awesome etc.) than being sincere. Wanting all those things is fine, but when the goal obfuscates the purpose it is wrong.

  33. To #27 “I understand the concept that the worship service is about the Savior and not the musician, but what exactly does that concept discourage?”
    “…we seem to shy away from the too-good end for reasons I cannot understand. Thoughts?”

    Some good questions, Cort, and I don’t know that there is any final answer, here. I do think one of the problems is that many people do not seek out opportunities to be exposed to high-quality, classical/sacred music. As a result, when it hits them over the head in a more common setting (like sacrament meeting), it can’t help but jolt their attention away from anything but that crazy opera singer letting loose on something that may be a little more refined than your “average” musical number (do not misunderstand, I am absolutely not bashing simple, modest music from the trained or untrained).

    To me, this is part of a broader issue that the music world (speaking collectively, not individually) has brought upon itself to some extent. The musical “haves” have convinced the “have nots” (unintentionally) that great music is only for the chosen, and not the masses. The masses, in response, have turned their backs on it.

    What is needed is more people in the music world (ESPECIALLY in the church) echoing Chef Gusteau’s adage “Anyone can cook!” to “Anyone can sing, anyone can play, or at the very least anyone can understand and appreciate.” Not everyone needs to try to make it as a professional musician, but we can all do better promoting an inclusive music culture within the church. Without this, many will lose out on the benefits that music can bring to our meetings.

    One last thought before I step off the soapbox (sorry, really got going here), that my very wise mom once said: Saying we can’t or shouldn’t sing because we don’t have a great voice is like saying we can’t or shouldn’t walk because we have ugly legs.

  34. Steve Evans says:

    No, Morgan, you’re wrong. Not one of those posts indicates that people are opting for good music over sincerity. Sorry, but you’re tilting at windmills 100%.

  35. I believe that sincerity and quality are compatible, and that quality and the presence of God’s spirit can also be consistent.

    My disagreement is with the concept that music in Church that engages the mind is per se improper because it does not allow or encourage wandering thought. I disagree with any implication that the primary purpose of music (or talks or lessons) in Church is to be a sort of spiritual background muzak, as distinct from something that engages the mind, heart or soul.

    I may have misunderstood.

  36. Latter-day Guy says:

    Well, Steve, I would be happy to be a windmill to tilt at in this case.

    Morgan: Screw sincerity and effort. If it still sounds like utter dreck, I don’t want to be subjected to it, thanks. A good third of the songs in the hymnal should be burned to begin with, not to mention the stomach-churning “traditional” efforts of folks like Janice Kapp Perry, Kurt Bestor, and the rest of the Mo-pop crowd. Instant excommunication for anybody who even mentions “His Hands” again. Congregational singing is fine––we expect the lusty roar of the congregation––but “Special Musical Numbers” ought to be made special by more than the reverse peristalsis they induce.

  37. Steve Evans says:

    L-D Guy, I guess I would argue that if you are sincere and are putting forth an effort, you won’t sound like dreck, and if you do, you’re not putting forth an effort (i.e., thinking about what you’re doing).

  38. Cynthia L. says:

    Ok people I think we can let up on Morgan now, yikes! :-)

  39. Latter-day Guy says:

    37, Yeah, that can be the case. At the same time, I can hardly count the occasions on which my ward choir (or other ensemble) has put in quite a bit of effort, were totally sincere, and yet the net effect of their performance was distraction, because, damn it was out of tune, etc.

    I am certainly willing, for my part, to just accept church music as a cross to be borne, but I do not accept that there is any particular virtue to “traditional”efforts that are so often physically painful.

    That said, sorry, Morgan. I was being a bit hyperbolic, and I do see where you’re coming from––I just disagree.

  40. I appreciate all the comments. (LDS guy: maybe I’m weird but I thought you were funny, and I still disagree with you Steve but thats okay). It seems we are beating this to death at this point. Thanks for being mostly patient with me, as it was not my intention to cause contention. I simply wanted to let people know how I felt about the topic. I seem to come on too strong most of the time, and I hold no hard feelings for anybodies response.
    Good luck in future.

  41. Thanks for the comments Cynthia and LDS guy. (38 and 39)

  42. Depends on whether the effort is self-aggrandizing or humble. The self-aggrandizing type, COMBINED with some lousy piece of junk does merit swift and ruthless retribution. However, I can handle off-key when it’s offered with sincerity and humility. I can also handle bad music (sometimes) if it’s performed without pretense.

  43. Latter-day Guy (36.)

    My heart started racing in panic, for I thought you were going to indict Michael McClean by name. I can barely look at myself in the mirror each day unless “You’re not Alone” is playing softly in the background. After that, I always have the strength to…just…Hold…On.

  44. There is space for music in which people put forth their best efforts regardless of their talents and make a sincerely worshipful noise, and for trained musicians to make an offering of their talents before the Lord. These are not really in competition.

    And Morgan’s reference to Heber J Grant imitators gives me an idea … what about a choir in which every member does an impression prominent church leader?

  45. Latter-day Guy says:

    43, ROFL!

  46. Great, now I can’t walk either :-(

  47. In light of #33 and #36, I’d encourage people to support a good move on Deseret Book’s part, namely the “Sunday Morning Classics” series. They’re basically compilations of either a particular composer (Mozart, Haydn, and Bach so far) or a particular instrument (only piano so far). I would guess that if the initial four do well, more would follow–let’s call it raising the bar on LDS music.
    I personally come to the appreciation of church music with some bias–our ward choir director when I was 16 was a music professor with perfect pitch, and a soprano wife whom he liked to give solo parts. After two or three practices with the choir, encouraged by my mom, the choir director announced that from now on, only those 18 and older would be allowed in the choir. As the only one under 18, I got the hint, and joined the rest of the priests at the sacrament table sniggering about the choir director’s too-tight green plaid polyester suits and his wife’s (I’m sure, now, quite lovely) screeching.