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.