Living and Dying in 3/4 Time

But mostly dying.  Also in 4/4, 2/4, and 6/8.

I’ve been a church-goer for decades now, and thought I’d seen everything.  But yesterday I attended church (no, it wasn’t my home ward and I won’t tell you where) and saw something I have never seen before.  We sang Hope of Israel for the opening hymn and during the song I noticed that a man on the pew in front of me was starting to fall asleep.  There was the unmistakable drooping of the head and fluttering of the eyelids, and finally, just as we were singing “Hope of Israel, rise in might!”, his chin rested peacefully on his chest and he was off to dreamland.  At first I felt sorry for him.  Poor guy, probably worked a double shift yesterday and is worn out.  But the ward was singing the hymn so slowly and so horribly that I eventually envied him that he was asleep and didn’t have to listen to the communal caterwauling we call congregational singing.

Why do we do such a bad job with our hymns?  Why do we sing so slowly?  It sounds like an LP record being played with the turntable set to the wrong speed.  At the top of the page in the hymnal we can read instructions for how the hymn is supposed to be sung, and we can see words like “joyfully” or “with spirit”.  And yet, we sing as though we’ve never in our lives experienced joy or enthusiasm.

Memo to organists and conductors:  When people in your congregation need a double shot of Red Bull just to make it through the opening hymn, ur doing it rong.


  1. Naismith says:

    “Why do we do such a bad job with our hymns? Why do we sing so slowly?”

    Because we rely on volunteer organists who aren’t well trained and can’t go any faster.

    Seriously, I live in the hinterlands of the church, and we have a shortage of organists or keyboardists of any stripe. We haven’t had a RS pianist called in a year and a half. Every week it is a struggle to see if we can avoid singing with the ipod.

  2. The most enjoyable singing of church hymns happened in the Longfellow Park Singles Ward in Boston in the early 2000s. I forget his name, but the ward employed the services of a PhD organist, and his playing was rousing. Truly we sung joyfully.

  3. We have a good organist. Our hymns are played at the correct speed. The only problem? The organist complains that the congregation sings too slowly. He wants to play a bit faster, but the congregation refuses to go along.

  4. My favorite church singing was in South Africa in a township that had refused the offered organ. Hymns were sometimes sung to different tunes and ALWAYS much more spirited.

    I was criticized the other day for playing a primary song too fast.

  5. A guy in my old ward used an iPhone app where you could tap in a rhythm and get the metronome speed. It turns out we were singing everything at sixty, no matter what. I was not surprised.

    When I conduct or play I find that I tend to rush things — I also like to pull out all the stops on the organ and add extra octaves in the bass line on the piano. I feel like it is my own personal duty to singlehandedly compensate for everyone else.

    And since we’re on the subject… the great abomination of church congregational singing is when people try to conduct all of those 6/8 hymns in six instead of two… (although we sing them slowly enough that it almost doesn’t matter)

  6. Mark,
    Thankfully, my previous and current wards do the hymns at a roughly correct speed. And both play(ed) with volume. The addendum to too slow is too soft. Decent speed and decent volume makes for pretty decent congregational singing.

  7. I heard on Radio Lab (NPR) that people have a good sense for the tempo of songs, which is why someone realized that teaching people to do CPR to the beat of Stayin’ Alive was a good idea.

    So my hypothesis is that we have a vicious loop. Hearing the hymns played slowly has ingrained the slow tempo into our minds so that now it feels right. We therefore sing them slowly and ensure that the tempo is ingrained in the next generation.

  8. I’ve been in wards where they have sung the hymns as directed in the book, deliberately. My favourite ward to visit had this chorister who would wave her arms like crazy, stomp her foot, move her head around with feelin’, move her eyebrows with much expression, and everyone loved her.

  9. Having spent slightly over 60% of my lifetime training as a musician, it pains me to see (and hear) the hymns being performed incorrectly. I appreciate the efforts of those who have not been trained but, at the same time, I really wish the bishopric would kindly direct a new chorister to the section of the hymnal that teaches how to read meter and time signature.

    I would like to add to the complaints list the matter of a chorister resolutely conducting every hymn in a 4/4 pattern, regardless of the time signature. Also, we might add to the list the choristers who ignore upbeats.

  10. mondo cool says:

    I gotta go w/ Naismith #1. However, I live in a city that is in the top 10 in population in the U.S. Five stakes in the area. I think the “talent pool” is dwindling. People (girls?) used to take piano lessons, right? I wonder how much an organist would cost? Would it be an approved Ward Budget item?

  11. StillConfused says:

    When I first moved to Utah, I about went nuts on the timing of the songs. I counted the beats per minute and it was typically half of the suggested amount. Why is that? And when my ward members would visit the east coast, they would complain that the songs were sung too fast, even though they were sung in the recommended speed.

    Slow does not equal good… at least in hymns.

  12. Natalie B. says:

    This is a pet peeve of mine. Hymns are always sung too slowly. Since a number of the songs are difficult to sing, slowing down seems to make the situation even worse.

  13. Natalie B. says:

    Also, the wards I have lived in do have a lot of musical talent, which leads me to suspect that the problem is not lack of knowledge so much as that we’ve grown used to hearing songs at a certain speed.

  14. SLO Sapo says:

    The sad thing is that it’s a lot easier to sing the hymns well when they’re sung at the correct tempo.

  15. Kristine says:

    Another part of the problem that hasn’t been mentioned is that we have crappy organs with not enough oomph in the bass to give the congregation support and a sense of the tempo. And that organists generally use the couplers (if there are any) instead of the pedals.

  16. mellifera says:

    Yeah, it’s an abomination. Sadly bishops often have bigger things to worry about than music, like members who are sick/in poverty/in jail. So “Man, we sure do have a music problem” probably just isn’t the kind of thing that comes up in ward council.

    But good news, people with musical talent: there’s no rule against choirs and quartets in sacrament meeting, and singing them right at home.

  17. Researcher says:

    Tim (#3) — if the congregation is not singing up to tempo, one of my favorite techniques is to start playing the hymn staccato. The congregation will catch up.

    When I’ve been gone from playing the organ a week or two and there has been a substitute organist, I come back every time to find that the congregation will be singing very slowly, and the music director will want to make a big dramatic pause between each verse. It takes a couple of hymns for the congregation and music director to get back up to speed. Sometimes the effect can be rather comical, but it’s worth it to have the congregation singing up to speed and with spirit.

  18. This triggered a memory from my BYU days. I was in an off-campus student ward. We typically named our domiciles (mine was characteristically and unimaginatively called “Doris’s basement”).
    A house of RM men took upon themselves, “House of Israel.”
    A house of women students, some of whom those guys were dating, became “Hope of Israel.”
    There were two marriages between those houses at the end of the year.

  19. What about the “new’ digital music players. Anyone have one in their ward? Will they fix the problem? Are they the future?

  20. My husband plays the organ in our ward. Our chorister (in her 70s) keeps telling him that he plays too fast (he says he plays right about in the middle of the suggested tempo) and that he should slow down. Yesterday he was playing prelude in the chapel, and this other older guy came up to the chorister and my husband and congratulated him on playing at an appropriate tempo instead of playing everything like it’s a funeral dirge. He said the chorister got really flustered and rolled her eyes. I think part of the problem in our ward is that they have both an organist and a pianist (don’t ask why– I can’t explain it) play every hymn in sync (mostly) and it’s probably hard to reliably go at a fast pace.

  21. Cynthia L. says:

    manaen: wow. wow.

  22. Kristine says:

    Well, there is the whole question of why in the world we have a chorister–it generally doesn’t help with setting tempo, because the congregation follows the organ anyway, and it can actually end up slowing things down if the chorister and organist have trouble leading/following each other.

  23. I’m a ward organist. Our conductor refuses to direct quickly enough. When I ignore her she turns to me and tells me to slow down. When my wife has substituted for her we play them at a good speed but the congregation refuses to keep up. i guess it’s from 30 years of training with the same old music director. We just ignore the congregation and do them at the proper tempo anyway. We got several compliments on doing them at the right speed, it would probably just take the congregation some practice, something that won’t be happening while we have the same conductor.

  24. Cynthia L. says:

    I was the conductor in our single’s ward for several years. I would get weekly compliments from people saying that this ward has the best music of any ward they’d ever been in, and monthly comments from people saying that we went too fast and didn’t take big enough breaks between verses. I suspect the ratio would be tilted the other way in an older ward. People don’t realize that, while they aren’t used to the speedy approach, it makes the songs great.

  25. I hate it when the songs are slow. I always told the organist to play them faster when I was the chorister. Once at a funeral, the organist played “How Great Thou Art” so slow, I thought I’d pass out from making my arm go that slow.

    We had the church’s worst organist for my sister’s funeral. I was so mad! She hit glaring wrong notes and people were laughing. And every time I see her or think of her, I want to slap somebody.

  26. Cynthia L. says:

    Kristine, that is a very good point. I often wondered that myself when I was just starting out as conductor. I had no idea what to do, and told the branch president that, but he said something to the basic effect of “the Lord will provide.” So I was often lost and out of it and stopping to find my place again, but the congregation would continue no differently. Made me wonder why on earth they needed me. I finally decided that I was basically a glorified flower arrangement—something for people to look at while they are singing (or not singing), so my job was just to smile and try to project whatever the mood of the song was.

  27. Kristine says:

    I once fainted while conducting, and pretty much no one noticed.

    Having a “chorister” is a relic of our association with the Campbellite tradition and the frontier–the Churches of Christ forbid instrumental music in their worship services, so they do need someone to give an opening pitch and keep tempo. And, of course, this made sense in the early days of the church when many meeting places would not have had pianos or organs.

    So, not so much a flower arrangement as a vestigial organ. Like a tailbone, or appendix :) But shall the head say to the appendix, I have no need of thee? ;)

  28. Well, there is the whole question of why in the world we have a chorister–it generally doesn’t help with setting tempo, because the congregation follows the organ anyway, and it can actually end up slowing things down if the chorister and organist have trouble leading/following each other.

    A good conductor takes charge and compels everyone to follow — the congregation often doesn’t even realize that they’re following. The only reason that we think a conductor isn’t important is because we aren’t really dealing with conductors here. If you can’t get the organ and congregation to follow you, you’re not a real conductor.

    Unfortunately, there’s no real way to fix this. People get called as chorister because leadership thinks that anyone can do it. (Nothing could be further from the truth.) Teaching people beat patterns doesn’t change much (although it can at least make things a tad less awkward for the person waving their arm around).

    It’s like how people whine when the quality of teaching in the church is low — it’s because oftentimes we aren’t dealing with real teachers… but what are you going to do, get rid of Sunday School?

  29. I have no professional musical training but this also rives me nuts. Another weird phenomenon I saw once on my mission was when the branch sang “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again” for opening hymn and then sang “Welcome, Welcome Sabbath Morning” for closing hymn. lol

  30. Having a “chorister” is a relic of our association with the Campbellite tradition and the frontier–the Churches of Christ forbid instrumental music in their worship services, so they do need someone to give an opening pitch and keep tempo. And, of course, this made sense in the early days of the church when many meeting places would not have had pianos or organs.

    So, not so much a flower arrangement as a vestigial organ. Like a tailbone, or appendix

    I don’t know if the Campbellite thing is true or not. Though I can totally see how, in most cases, the idea that the chorister is an unnecessary vestigial organ is true, it’s only because too many of us have never experienced the difference it makes to have a fully formed and functioning appendix.

    So, no, I don’t think the chorister is unnecessary — quite the contrary. A good conductor is essential to curing the usual congregational malaise during hymns. However, I completely agree that, in 99% of cases in the church, the chorister might as well sit down for all the good they are doing.

  31. Lawrence says:

    I’ve been the chorister in my ward for almost 11 years and our hymns are sung at the correct tempo. Our organists are so used to me by now that I seldom have to tell them ahead of time what tempo I want. One organist is so good that if I fall off the cliff or lose concentration she’s right there with me. I also lead the men in priesthood meeting acapella and if they’re not doing it the way I want, I stop them and we start again. Sometimes they actually sound pretty good.
    My biggest gripe is that the young men won’t sing. I think they listen to so much crap that they have no sense of melody or harmony. What’s to become of us when they become elders and haven’t learned the musical traditions of the church?

  32. Mark, I sympathize. Our organist has been doing the job for 30 years and has gradually slowed down. Sometimes it’s a real temptation to nod off on the long ones. As a grad student I remember we had a music Ph.D. doing the organ and he was amazingly inspirational. Bach for prelude, Debussy for postlude, great sound on the hymns. His playing made me want to practice some of the stuff he was doing. I still think about his “Spirit of God.” But Naismith is right. We work with what we’ve got.

  33. SLO Sapo says:

    BTW, is there anything worse than singing “I Believe in Christ” at about 40 bpm?

  34. Cynthia L. says:

    SLO, no.

    WVS and Naismith, I think the inevitable conclusion of this thread is that less-than-professional pianists and organists would be much better off just playing only the right hand, or other simplifications, and playing on tempo, than doing everything poorly and slooooowwwwwly.

  35. SLO,
    maybe getting thrown into the Sarlacc pit and getting digested alive for a thousand years…
    …but I doubt it. :-)

  36. Left Field says:

    If you don’t start out “Love at Home” at a goood clip, all those half-notes at the end seem to last about 15 seconds each. That’s just about more love than I can stand. “Who’s on the Lord’s Side?” can be pretty bad, too. “…Nowwww iiiisss the tiiiime toooooo sloooow…”

  37. I sustain everything said so far. May we puleeease speed up the hymns.

  38. Mack Wilberg is partially to blame. He’s been doing excessively slow arrangements of things with the MoTab for a long time, and now he’s head director, so there’s nobody to tell him to do otherwise. So some of the problem is directors trying to do things excessively slow because it’s the “cool” thing to do, a la Wllberg. I think it’s supposed to be more thoughtful or meaningful or something, but, mostly, it sucks the life out of what’s going on and I find myself wanting to introduce Bro. Wilberg to the Spirit World where he can find the level of life he seems to be seeking.

    Otherwise, I think it’s part of the general lack of training we give people in the Church on the belief that training in “simple” things like singing in a group and understanding Jacobean English aren’t necessary. It’s right next to the lack of appreciation we have for people who can direct and accompany congregational singing, until we no longer have anyone who can.

  39. Mark Brown says:

    SLO Sapo,

    Probably not, but singing If You Could Hie to Kolob at 40 bpm is a close runner-up. When you’re singing there is no end to this and there is no end to that, it’s also easy to think that there is no end to the song, as heartily as you might be wishing for it to end.

  40. Along those lines (jacking of thread not intended), I also wish music leaders would choose Sacrament hymns with an eye to how long they last, and how much time it takes the priests to break the bread. “Upon the Cross at Calvary” is a beautiful hymn, but it only has two lines per verse. It could do with an interlude verse planned in. And “In Humility, Our Savior” just has the two verses. Same deal. “How Great the Wisdom and the Love” has some extra verses that are quite appropriate to Sacrament worship — don’t leave the priests standing in silence with them unsung.

    The calculation isn’t hard. Divide the metronome count by the number of meter-notes per measure times the number of measures times the number of verses.

  41. 39 — I refer to that as the Mormon Song that Never Ends. I was not long ago at a Catholic funeral, and they used a different text to the same tune while people were coming up for the eucharist, and, after completing the available verses, they started over. And I thought “Man. This is also the Catholic Song that Never Ends, too.”

  42. There is a cure for this and his name is D. Fletcher.

    We just need to clone him 10,000 times.

  43. Kristine says:

    Orwell, I’m a good chorister, probably in the 1%, but there’s really nothing I can do that a good organist can’t do without me.

  44. Peter LLC says:

    28: People get called as chorister because leadership thinks that anyone can do it. (Nothing could be further from the truth.)

    Preach on, brother. I was a music major and earned my daily bread for a time playing music and I’m still an inadequate conductor even after taking lessons from a pro for a few months.

  45. Kristine says:

    No way. If You Could Hie at least has gorgeous Vaughan Williams harmonies to pay attention to.

  46. Kristine says:

    Oh, and conducting (as in a choir) is a totally different beast than leading congregational hymns, of course. A good conductor makes a HUGE difference in the ward choir.

  47. Latter-day Guy says:

    Heh. This post is really only a snowflake resting on the surface of the iceberg of destruction that is church music. It’s like C.S. Lewis said:

    “The case for abolishing all Church Music whatever thus seems to me far stronger than the case for abolishing the difficult work of the trained choir and retaining the lusty roar of the congregation.”

    Of course, I’ve never been to a ward with anything like a “trained choir,” and for the most part “lusty roar” is not so accurate a description of LDS congregational singing as “weary, gutless warble.” All of this is not helped by the fact that we could tear out nearly half the pages in our hymnals and burn them without any appreciable loss. Musically, we pretty much get what we pay for, which turns out to be about as spiritually uplifting as an ulcerated eardrum.

  48. Blain (40), with all due respect, it’s just not that easy to know in advance exactly how long it will take the priests to prepare the bread. Some of those shorter sacrament hymns are beautiful and perfect for low attendance Sundays, like Memorial Day weekend, when half the ward is camping. Whoops. Brother and Sister Jones decided to bless their baby this Sunday. And bring along their 100 closest family members.

    A good organist will have prepared different stops for this and continue playing after the congregation has done all the hymns.

  49. Eh. That should be “done all the verses.”

  50. Kristine says:

    Latter-day Guy,

    I think I love you.

  51. A few months ago a new choir director was called in our ward. He’s a nice man, but he can neither read music nor lead music, and he doesn’t really sing, either. There are faithful members of the ward who have advanced music training and aren’t presently serving in any effortful callings. We have many people with fine voices. We could have a wonderful choir.


  52. Yep. The hymns in my ward are dreary. It’s not the organist’s fault, though. Sometimes it is indeed too slow. But the much greater problem is that, well, nobody in my ward seems to give a damn about making anything in sacrament meeting worshipful. The speakers mumble through their talks-about-conference-talks, the audience mumbles through all the hymns, and everyone looks like they’re listening to the phone book being read aloud. It’s really quite sad.

  53. Jared T. says:

    I both fear and loath singing I Believe in Christ for this very reason.

  54. 52. This sounds like a call out for the “bloggernacle move-in team.” Five bloggers+families move in to your ward for 3 months, liven it up, then pull out just as things get rolling. Only $50,000. Cheap at the price.

  55. Orwell, I’m a good chorister, probably in the 1%, but there’s really nothing I can do that a good organist can’t do without me.

    I think that’s (mostly) true, but there aren’t that many good organists out there either.

    I’m a mediocre organist, at best (I’m much better as a conductor), but I know how to take charge. What’s important is that either the conductor or the organist know what’s up to be able to direct things appropriately. Sometimes you have one, sometimes the other. (Having both at the same time is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing in the church.)

    And I understand what you mean about ward choir being different, but that doesn’t take away from the influence that a good chorister can have on congregational singing. Like I said, we’re all so used to them being a non-factor that we’ve forgotten (or never known) what a difference it makes.

  56. “What’s important is that either the conductor or the organist know what’s up to be able to direct things appropriately.”

    I’m a competent organist and I know how to play to get a congregation singing. And I’ve had the chance to work with a trained conductor, which was incredible, and I hope not my once-in-a-lifetime quota. The other end of the spectrum, a very poor chorister, is also just fine, because I can ignore them and they don’t care.

    Far more difficult is the untrained chorister who _thinks_ they know what they’re doing. That’s a much more difficult dance. And the source of my winces between verses. I try, I really do.

  57. The other end of the spectrum, a very poor chorister, is also just fine, because I can ignore them and they don’t care.

    I do this all the time… so much fun.

    Far more difficult is the untrained chorister who _thinks_ they know what they’re doing.

    Yes, but so much more satisfying when you finally bend them to your will…

  58. I have lived in two wards (Arlington, MA and Quincy, IL) with phenomenal choirs and very good choristers and organists. (Seriously, I thought I would never experience again a choir like we had in Arlington, but the chior director in Quincy is amazing.) Everywhere else has been a mixed bag.

    If you have a chorister and/or organist who go way too slowly, just sing a little faster at the top of your lungs and force them and everyone else to follow you. I had a Bishop once who did that, and it worked very well.

    Of course, being the Bishop and facing the congregation helped.

  59. We had an organist who just went ahead and played without paying much attention to the chorister or the audience. One day, he played the introduction to the hymn, and then just launched right into the hymn without even glancing at the chorister. She was standing there with her arms raised ready to start, and she turned around and walked over to him, about two feet away, with her arm raised, established eye contact with him, glared until he stopped, and then she turned around and started the song with everyone together. Best hymn singing ever that day.

  60. This is the best thread ever. My wife and I–both musically trained–experience something close to physical pain three times every sacrament meeting. Four if there’s a congregational hymn in the middle. It seems that every untrained chorister is happy to just flap along mindlessly without heed for rhythm, tempo or meter. And even some well-trained organists seem to adhere to the Walt Stack School of Organry, with the motto: “Start slow…and taper off.”

    My wife and I have begun playing games during hymns to keep ourselves entertained. We’ll try to calculate how many BPMs we’re losing per verse to determine how much irreplaceable time has just been lost from our finite apportionment in mortality. If a song is slow enough, we’ll try to freestyle a little bit (she’ll do one verse and I’ll do the next) making up new words. Often by the end of the hymn, we’re reduced to silent hysterics. Hymn-singing has never been so much fun.

    I was in a ward where the bishop actually called a ward pianist who had exactly zero musical training. Literally. She was even more horrified than the rest of us, especially since several folks in the ward could actually play. The thinking seems to have followed this course: “We will extend this inspiration-driven call, the mantle will descend upon this dear sister, the musical windows of heaven will open, and after a few months of serious training and divine intervention, her ability will expand to fill the mantle and a wonderful ward pianist will emerge.” She seriously tried. She took lessons. She prayed. She practiced endlessly. And in the end, the bishopric realized that maybe a little more than inspiration is required for (most) people to become musically talented.

    Hopefully this will piggy-back into another post about what Latter-Day Guy said earlier: “This post is really only a snowflake resting on the surface of the iceberg of destruction that is church music.” Amen, brother.

  61. Our organist is an 18 yr old yw who will be going off to college shortly. She taught herself to play and actually plays the organ better than the piano. Our chorister is 20 years old and semi-active which is probably why she was called. I have absolutely no musical talent myself, so even though these two sisters may not be the very best at what they do, I admire them for their efforts.

  62. Kristine says:

    Oh, dear, Bryce. That last sentence sounds like an invitation for my posts on “Why the Messiah Sing-Along is Not Just Bad, but Seriously Evil” and “Why the Ward Choir Stinks and What You Can Do About It.”

  63. anon on standing up for musicians says:

    As one who plays neither the piano or the organ, I appreciate all those who play these instruments for the meetings. They bring the spirit of the hymns into the lives of the congregation.

    Reading some of the concerns mentionned on this thread compels me to share a bit about a sis in my ward. One time while she was in a previous ward, this sister was criticized on her piano-playing efforts. She told the person w/the complaint that individual was welcome to play the following week. The person did, and no further complaints.

  64. Latter-day Guy says:

    “They bring the spirit of the hymns into the lives of the congregation.”

    That result is largely dependent on the skill of the musician. Butchering a hymn, even if it is sincerely butchered, results in more wincing distraction than “spirit.” Having a lay ministry, for all its benefits, does sometimes tend to make Latter-day Saints regard folksy mediocrity as a virtue. It isn’t. Zeal, faith, and sincerity are all positive attributes, but they do not compensate for the all-too-frequent lacunae in the skill and talent department.

  65. 60 & 64 – Amen and amen.

  66. CS Eric says:

    I am the organist in our ward, and our chorister’s only qualification is that she is willing to do the job. Unfortunately, I forgot this yesterday as we sang the opening hymn “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand.” I started out all right, but she led it at the pace of a dirge, and nothing I could do would speed it back up.

    So for the other songs, I just played at my tempo, as she struggled to keep up. It was both sad and funny to watch her flail her arms to some unknown tempo.

  67. Matt A. says:

    Well, I have to chime in on this and say that, in my opinion, most of the listed tempos in the hymnbook are flat out incorrect. Up the BPM by 10-30, depending on the hymn, and you have something that has the possibility of being musical, and some of the dreary hymns actually start to sparkle a little bit.

    That being said, it can be a monumental task to get the congregation to move at a faster pace than they are accustomed to. I was fortunate to work with a skilled organist who liked to go fast, so the pounding bass line dragged people forward. (The asynchronicity was kind of funny, the first few Sundays, though.)

    I also think that the dismal state of congregational singing owes some of its existence to the dismal state of participatory music in general in North America. From the attitudes to the training to the funding. And I will stop there with that because it’s a soap box for me.

    One other gripe I have, which I am reminded of when reading about wards with no trained organists. Why must tradition dictate organ accompaniment? If there are no organists, use pianists. A good pianist beats a bad organist, hands down.

    I could go on and on about this, but I’ll stop here.

  68. I was sacrament chorister for my ward, a few years back … and I loved the calling — when I wasn’t hating it. There was the difficulty getting the congregation to keep up some times; there was my own struggle with music _I_ had chosen that I wasn’t all that familiar with ( I wanted to use more of the hymnal ); there was the occasional down-tempo drive of the accompanist; there was the insistance on standing for the intermediate hymn ( why should we wake the sleeping children?! ); and there was the default maneuver of cutting the number of verses on the closing song when the SPEAKERS had gone over time.


    But most of those problems were solved by my showing up early enough to practice with the organist. A little practice goes a long way.

    I do have a question, though … what are everyone’s thoughts on the piano vs organ? Our organ is breaking down, and while it’s not dead yet (sadly), I’ve considered lobbying to have the piano played instead.

  69. I currently serve as the ward chorister. We have one organist with two part-time organists. One of the part-time organists is by far the best, but seldomly gets to play. Our hymns are sometimes slow with the regular organist which is due to her difficulty with some hymns. The other part-time organist plays way too fast and I hardly have time to draw breath before he launchs into the next verse.

    We have an awesome music chairperson though. She always makes sure that we all have the assigned hymns for the upcoming month in advance so that we can practice if need be.

  70. @ Matt A.

    Agree completely about trained pianists vs. untrained organists. I think one problem we face is that many people handing out callings don’t think there’s actually a difference between Organist and Pianist. They aren’t musically trained themselves, so they don’t know that the skill sets are rather different. A pianist can play the organ (like my wife), but it’s very strange to do, so things like pedals and stops go unused.

    The best answer I’ve found for speeding up the lackluster congregation is to have a whiz-bang organist (and a chorister that will go along helps too). We had a guy in our last ward who was AWESOME on the organ. He really magnified his calling by writing his own introductions for the opening/closing hymns (he left the sacrament hymn alone) and those introductions would RIP along at least 20-30 bpm faster than normal. Plus he’d have that volume pedal all the way to the floor. It woke people up, and they didn’t have any choice but to sing that hymn at breakneck speed. It was a thing of beauty.

    He would also chase everyone out of the chapel by playing pedal-to-the-metal Bach fugues for his outtro each week, so no standing around dawdling and yakking for ten minutes before meandering over to Sunday School. In so many ways he helped increase the spirituality (and punctuality) of the ward. Blessings from heaven for any organist who does the same.

    Interestingly, I heard several members of the ward complain about his style of playing. They found it too raucous and irreverent. But if you invite those people to do it better themselves, they usually shut up pretty quick.

    @62 Kristine: Yes! Yes! A hundred times yes!

  71. woodboy says:

    Professional organists would help a lot, but that’s not going to happen. I’ve never understood the point of having a chorister, either. no other church does that. Let’s see, there’s one person picking the hymns, one persion playing them, and one person “leading” them. too many cooks spoil the broth.

  72. Yes, practicing together before the meeting really helps. And having the hymn list in advance is huge. One month is great, but honestly, three months or more is so incredibly helpful for both new and experienced organists.

    I also wanted to say that it’s really easy to complain about music in the church. And I could force the chorister to bend to my will, and it might be better music, some of the time anyway.

    But I don’t because I remember how it felt for years to be a mediocre, um, quite bad pianist. Then I was called to be the organist, what a joke! My ward suffered through some very bad moments. But I kept at it, practiced a lot, set some ground rules for myself, begged for the list of hymns in advance. And if I didn’t get them, I’d choose them myself.

    I got better. So I really do believe in callings and growing into them.

  73. I am the chorister Ward Music Director in my ward, and I’ve had just tons of fun. I have 4 organists and 5 youth organists, and a Ward Music Chair who is fantastic. I’ve shared previously how I dealt with the ward singing only a small subset of the hymns in Hymns: Hymn-stogram!.

    Recently I was assigned to lead the music in a session of Stake Conference, which in this stake usually suffers from the funeral dirge problem. One of my ward organists was playing, and I was blown away at what a fight it was. I smiled appreciatively at the five people watching me and kept at it. The organist did a great job trying to stay with me.

    By the last verse of the closing hymn the congregation and I came to an understanding. They understood that I had a purpose in waving my arms around, and I understood that I would be followed.

  74. Oh, the day. The block plan did in singing. When Sunday School was a real school with an opening exercise, we had song practice. A new hymn each month! Our chorister was a huge man with a huge base voice who would make everyone sing. We would practice obscure hymns and go over the finer points of hymn singing.

    In the present day there are maybe 250 hymns in the book but if we sing 25 we are lucky. Recently I went to a Christian Bible Church. Their hymn book had 1000 hymns and a chorister (professional) who could really sing and carry the music forward.

  75. samurai6 says:

    The part that amazes me when I lead is the adults who sit with their mouths shut, no pretense of even opening a hymnal and stare straight ahead through the entire song. I don’t know what to make of it exactly. It’s kind of like the time on my mission I caught Bro. Maxwell up on the stand combing his hair during the prayer at a mission conference (thankfully I didn’t catch his eye).

  76. britt k says:

    I just went to a funeral in another hcurch last month and they had a chorister…and you HAD to watch him because he was creative in his application of the words and music. I don’t know how long that pianist and chorister had worked together…

    reading this makes me a little nervous. Our ward organist (really a good piano player) has been playing for 10 years and has been saying he is done. I took one Organ class at BYU 5 years ago. Enough to know I can’t do it and it’s MUCH harder and very different than piano playing (at which I am marginal at best-I practice before playing primary songs). There are only 3 piano players in our ward…this man, a woman recently called into YW presidency and servicing as chorister…and me.

    If I were called I would play piano. I can’t just play the organ like a piano, I would feel my organ teacher breathing down my very nervous neck.

    The only possible good that could come of me playing in sacrament meeting is that my by then 9 children would be left with Dad “presiding” and mom at the organ…thus the meeting would be much more lively for everyone… in reality Dad’s concept of presiding includes seeing the needs of those in the congregation (especially his wife and children) so he leaves the stand frequently anyway.

  77. Our organist plays quite slow hymns that should be rousing. But also having to go through all verses of How Firm A Foundation in such manner drags so much that by the end, you really feel your enduring to the end. I have heard that some local authorities don’t like hymns played ‘fast’ so they instruct organists to have an overall rallento. Try the above hymn in such manner and is enough to have a double expresso during sacrament meeting.

  78. Aaron R. says:

    I know I am late to the conversation but I am glad this is not just a British thing. Last sunday we had a member of the Bishopric ask everyone if we could pick up the pace, for some reason it was dire that week. That is dire compared to an already awful standard.

  79. Swisster says:

    When the problem is lack of ward musical talent, how do people feel about replacing (as needed) a live organist with the recordings that are programmed into some of the newer keyboards, or even playing the hymns on CD as accompaniment? I think those things might have their place in church, but I hate to see a living musician replaced by digital media. What would be next — replacing one’s talk with a recording of a GC sermon?

  80. Aaron R. says:

    People already replace content in our ward. We have a lot of people who get up and just read, often without citation, GA’s talks. It makes for very poor listening.

  81. Blaue Blume says:

    I read the thread through to the end with great enjoyment. I was the bishop on the stand leading the chorister, organist and congregation! I was the chorister who had to control the organist (they can be a bit uppity). I was the congregation member who cringed at the tempo. This thread could be used as a training manual and consciousness raising document for Church musicians and the leaders who call them. But, the question of the digital organ/piano was asked and not answered. In our new building (occupied last August) in a small community in Minnesota, we have both a digital organ in the chapel and digital piano in the Relief Society room. We have a dearth of trained musical talent spread very thinly through the meetings. The digital instruments have added a dimension to our music capability that has proven helpful and is more and more welcome to the congregation as they see the advantages in using them.

  82. Researcher says:

    Ward organists, including but not limited to those who are trained as pianists and not as organists, won’t want to miss a new online resource, The LDS Organist.

    The woman who is running this blog is including lessons, links to resources, guest posts (recently featuring Herbert Klopfer and a representative from the Allen Organ Company), reviews of music, and organ tours.

    It has been a very helpful resource. I learned, for example, that all the organ manuals (books) are available on the church website. I downloaded the one for the organ in my building and have learned a lot about the specific organ. It’s still an awful instrument (an old Rodgers organ with electrical problems), but now I know how to work with it and not against it.

  83. You know, I have complained so many times about hymns that are played and conducted much too slowly.

    And you know what happened? I got called as the Relief Society chorister and music director.

    I guess that’s kind of God’s way of saying, “I agree with you. So what are you gonna do about it?”

    Yeah, conducting is not as easy as it looks. Fortunately, the accompanist is willing to do what is right regardless of me until I figure out what I’m doing :)

  84. Kristine says:

    Agree with Researcher. The church music site is, on the whole, amazing, and an indispensable resource. Also, while we’re talking about free resources, it’s worth mentioning, for free choir music and lots of hymn sources.

  85. I am of the view that if you are talented in organ playing or being chorister it makes no sense to offer up criticism of those who have skills less then you. You should volunteer to lead the music or play the organ or shaddup about other people’s lack of skills.

    Those that have been called to lead music or play are painfully aware of their shortcomings I assure you.

  86. As an organist who actively fights this tendency, and who has played with numerous choristers, I have some insights.

    First, and probably most significantly, is a simple matter of physics. Sound takes time to travel from the organ to the people, and people take time to react, and the sound from them takes time to get back to the organ. So, if the organist is following the congregation the whole group slowly gets slower and slower. Eventually the organist (probably) reaches the lower limit of how slow he can play the song before his failsafes kick in. (This phenomenon is not so much a problem in other churches because other churches have professional musicians who know about these things and so don’t fall into the trap.)

    Second, some people seem to have this inexplicable affinity for singing hymns way too slow. Probably a result of having been raised with it.

    A good chorister can prevent this, *if* he has an organist who can and will follow him. This is almost as rare as a good chorister…

  87. Incidentally, very few other churches even *have* choristers. The organist sets the pace. This is always the case in practice anyway, and I think choristers are a strange and silly tradition. If anyone ever makes the mistake of making me Bishop, we’re not going to have a chorister.

  88. Kristine, “Orwell, I’m a good chorister, probably in the 1%, but there’s really nothing I can do that a good organist can’t do without me.”

    Amen. I’m a good organist and I firmly believe that. I am also a good chorister. And in spite of both of those things, I was blown away the first time I was in a non-LDS setting and the great organist (and no conductor) played the hymn with such power, reverence, and confidence that I and everyone else was *compelled* to follow and sing with spirit and exuberance. I was literally taken aback. It was an eye-opening experience, and I have tried to emulate it as best I can in my ward since. (And I have noticed an increase in the number of thank yous and compliments.)

  89. I am of the view that if you are talented in organ playing or being chorister it makes no sense to offer up criticism of those who have skills less then you. You should volunteer to lead the music or play the organ or shaddup about other people’s lack of skills.

    It isn’t that simple. You know perfectly well that leaders call people that are less qualified all the time to “let them grow” or refuse to call people with the requisite skills because they are “needed elsewhere” (because too many leaders view music positions as “lesser” callings).

    Besides, in many units, volunteering for a calling is viewed as either “inappropriate” (love that scare word) and/or the best way to ensure that you never get it because some holier-than-thou leader resents your circumvention of the “inspired process by which calls are extended” and wants to make sure you are humbled by being put where “the Lord wants you,” as opposed to where you think you should be. Sometimes they mean this sincerely, but often it’s because they take too much pride in being the one to receive revelation about that particular calling and won’t be told what to do. Perhaps this is a cynical view, but unfortunately it’s not one that I have arrived at spontaneously. In any event, there’s usually no such thing as volunteering.

    Those that have been called to lead music or play are painfully aware of their shortcomings I assure you.

    When this is true, these people have my sympathy. However, I have a lot of firsthand experience that tells me that this is frequently not the case…

  90. I’m kind of freaked out — it seems as though 95% of the commenters agree (AGREE!) that the hymns are played too slowly.

    This kind of unanimity in the Bloggernacle is unheard of and frankly I’m not sure what to do with it. Quick! Somebody do a post on SSM or gender roles . . .

    P.S. Here’s another vote for “too slow” and for the Church Music Dept. to provide more training and resources for our ward organists . . .

  91. I’m teaching a workshop on hymn conducting in my Ward this week, and this thread has given me some great discussion ideas. Thanks.

  92. Kristine says:

    KMarkP, just teach them what an ictus is, and all will be well :) Way too many people try to be graceful or something, with the result that there’s no actual beat in their beat patterns.

  93. Oh my gosh! Were you at my ward on Sunday. We sing the songs SO slow. That sad thing is that our entire ward wants to sing faster but its our chorister slowing us down. He is always a half-word behind the organ/congregation.

    I love how when General Conference rolls around we actually sing/hear songs in their correct tempo. It’s such a good feeling.

  94. Latter-day Guy says:

    “teach them what an ictus is, and all will be well”

    Amen, amen, amen. The conducting patterns in the back of the hymnal are false doctrine. The clearest patterns are almost entirely made of straight lines. The only other thing I would suggest is where to put breaths and the two ways to indicate them (either on the beat, or on the upbeat). You really don’t need much else for leading congregational singing.

  95. So much to say, so little time. I hate when I miss bloggernacle for a few days.

    First, I think that some of the problem may be that within Church culture, our idea of “reverence” is what we tell the primary kids: Fold your arms, walk slowly, and don’t give any physical indication that you’re actually enjoying yourself. The same instructions just bleed over to hymn singing.

    Second, Kristine (62), I’m looking forward to your posts. PLEASE!!!

    Third, Paradox (83), I tried that. I graduated in music (with only a lack of student teaching separating me from a career teaching music). I have thought for a very long time that I would love to work with my ward choir. Rehearsals currently last only 10-15 minutes and are usually held only twice monthly (sometimes 3 times). But I had been in the primary for a very long time – first as pianist, then as a nursery leader. When I was released from the nursery, I began to hope that I would be called as ward choir director or chorister. (The times I’ve subbed for a choir director, several people thanked me for keeping the tempos decent.)

    Instead, I was made Ward Executive Secretary. Go figure.

  96. Whew. I seriously thought that man was going to die in this story, given the post title.

    The most labored hymn of all for me is “O My Father” when it is sung too slow. And “The Spirit of God” which has way too many verses when it’s sung slowly.

  97. “Why do we do such a bad job with our hymns? Why do we sing so slowly?”

    Because accompanying congregational singing is a SKILL that requires TRAINING. Piano lessons are NOT ENOUGH! The Church has delegated music training to priesthood leadership, which, I’m sorry, is like delegating training doctors to high school biology teachers. The only way I see this situation improving is by the SLC leadership giving this issue some serious attention, giving satellite master classes, and perhaps recruiting paid trainers throughout the world. Locally driven and locally derived training is not working.

    But thanks, Mark Brown, for giving this issue a shout-out. I feel your pain, so much so that I’ve started practicing the organ on my lunch hour 3x a week. I played for Sacrament meeting last Sunday, and while I flubbed up a couple measures of “Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise,” it was NOT slow!

  98. Antonio Parr says:

    cf “3/4 time” with “groovier sabbath”, and perhaps you will find the solution to your problem!

  99. Matt W's wife says:

    Seriously, the only reason we have a chorister is because they are the ones who decide if we sing the “extra” verses.

  100. I feel the pain in this post keenly.

    We have 3 sisters and 1 brother in our ward who can play the piano and only 2 of the sisters are halfway competent in playing the organ. Because each of the 3 sisters have more “important” callings, we’ve been without a steady pianist in RS for going on a year now.

    We’re going to order the manuals from the church website and we’ll begin music classes next week for any interested sisters. The sisters who have signed up at least had piano lessons as children. We feel like a 3rd world country in this regard…

  101. Once when I was the concluding speaker, the organist had to go over and wake up the chorister. She must have been super tired – couldn’t have had anything to do with my engaging talk

  102. Glad I’m not the only one! I physically cannot sing that slowly. Makes me yawn, which makes my eyes water, which jeopardizes make up… and on Sunday, the day I hope for uplift! Some of our hymns are a week and half long.

  103. I would not lay it all on the organist and chorister–though obviously it is hard for the congregation to go much faster than the organist and chorister are willing to go. I don’t know how the problem started, but I think 1) we are used to equating reverence with slowness (as well as quietness), and 2) we aren’t very happy to be in church. If the people in the congregation would actually sing it like they mean it, it would make a big difference. It might even inspire some organists and choristers to play/wave arms faster.

    I like to sing the hymns. I don’t sing well at all, but it is the one portion of the meeting that I pay attention to. And as much as I don’t like to stand up for hymns, I wonder if having to stand up for hymns (all of them, not just intermediate hymns) like they do in many other churches would make people feel a little more like they were worshiping rather than enduring.

  104. Kristine says:

    It would also help if we abolished the abominable tradition of our fathers that is the “rest hymn.” It makes people think that singing is an interruption of worship, rather than an integral part of it. We also need to stand for all the hymns.

  105. Mark Brown says:

    Kristin, in the meeting I described in the original post, the bishop referred to the rest hymn as “halftime”.

  106. Kristine says:

    /small, guttural sound, something like a small animal dying/

  107. Latter-day Guy says:

    “small, guttural sound, something like a small animal dying”

    Well, sometimes… but I suspect that the ward choir would bristle at that description of their efforts, no matter how nicely you put it. ;-)

    (Seriously, #106 is going to keep me smiling all week.)

  108. It only counts as halftime if brass instruments are involved. I play trombone, and it miffs me to no end that my brass brethren and I are considered too unholy to perform before the congregation. Don’t get me wrong–flutes and violins are nice and all–but Christmas songs just rock with a brass quartet.

    But the people making those decisions are, unfortunately, probably the same group that think the only spiritual music available for our meetings comes out of our little green hymnal. This in spite of the loads of music performed by the MoTabChoir that has never seen the inside of our beloved green compilation.

  109. Bryce, you aren’t an actual trombonist who plays professionally, are you?

  110. ByTheRules says:

    At High School dances, we considered Stairway to Heaven a slow song. And of course in church we only sang “classic” hymns that everyone knew and were played at an appropriate tempo.

    Then there was some sort of memo about learning “new” hymns. Now we avoid classic hymns like the plague. I am soooo disappointed when we do the obligatory classic a couple of times a year (error on the choristers part?). The youth have never heard them, and we then go right back to hymns that no-one knows, either young or old, chorister or organist. Ergo: too slow.

  111. Kristine says:

    107–L-d Guy, I’ll have you know my ward choir ROCKS. We’re doing My Shepherd Will Supply My Need (the real one, Thomson, at 108, thankyouverymuch, not the Wilberg dirge with harp) this Sunday.

  112. Kristine, I’m on your side here, but I can’t condone passing slights at Wilberg, we’re lucky to have him.

  113. I think the Thomson arrangement begins at 120, shifting downward for the next verse, and then even more to some kind of maestoso in the 90s for the last (if you care about exact faithfulness to the metronome, or composer’s instructions, which I don’t) — which should put the lie to the idea that there is one particular acceptable tempo for a hymn. Hymns can be played and sung musically at a variety of speeds.

    Also, My Shepherd, is one of many hundreds of versifications and musical settings of the 23rd psalm, so it’s hard to think of it as the “real” one.

    I agree though with many of the criticisms observed here, but despair a little of much improvement. As Samuel Sebastian Wesley observed in 1849:

    Painful and dangerous is the position of a young musician who, after acquiring great knowledge of his art in the Metropolis, joins a country Cathedral. At first he can scarcely believe that the mass of error and inferiority in which he has to participate is habitual and irremediable. He thinks he will reform matters, gently, and without giving offence; but he soon discovers that it is his approbation and not his advice that is needed. The Choir is “the best in England,” (such being the belief at most Cathedrals,) and, if he give them trouble in his attempts at improvement, he would be, by some Chapters, at once voted a person with whom they “cannot go on smoothly,” and “a bore.” The old man knows how to tolerate error, and even profit by it; but in youth, the love of truth is innate and absorbing.

  114. Kristine says:

    Orwell, I agree that we’re lucky to have Wilberg (though we’d be luckier to still have Jessop), and I like many of his arrangements. Just not that one. And I liked your post. Ryan’s a great guy and a fine musician–they are very lucky to have him, too.

    You’re probably right, Bill–108 may be the second verse. And I know there are lots of other settings of the 23rd Psalm. I’m especially fond of Wigan from the Sacred Harmony (1784-ish?)

  115. Mark Brown says:

    Bryce (108),

    When I was a teenager some musicians in our ward performed “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand” with brass accompaniment. The 4 trumpeters really knew what they were doing, and I remember that meeting to this day, decades later.

  116. Kristine says:

    Last year for Stake Conference we did The Spirit of God with a trumpet descant that ended on a high b flat. It was teh awesome.

  117. 112 — Welcome to the game, but you’re a bit late. My criticism of Wilberg was way back in #38, and I stand by it. It doesn’t describe every arrangement he does or all he does for the choir, but I’ve seen very few of his intentional slowings down that didn’t lose essentially all its energy (none come to mind). I do see that as a contributor to the director portion of the problem the thread is talking about — for “good” directors who see Wilberg as the example of how the cool kids are doing it.

    He may be great for the choir overall and a ton of fun at a barbecue, but I wish he’d stop with that one thing.

    I am generally not a fan of any slowing down of music in a congregational hymn — like the last few measures of every congregational hymn in GC. Trying to do much of any cool thing with a congregational hymn (or having the congregation join the choir for the last verse) is just not a great idea. A regional conference where the closing hymn was such a thing comes to mind — with a key-change right before that verse, and the choir doing a totally different thing, and no copies of the music to work from, it was pretty brutal.

  118. Latter-day Guy says:

    111, So what’s your secret? The fortuitous alignment of heavenly bodies? [I know it sounded like one, but that sentence was not intended as a euphemism.] Seriously, I’d sacrifice animals to whatever Gods are necessary.

    I swore I’d never to get involved again, after a lovely rendition of “If ye love me” was derailed by a certain priesthood leader’s insistence that we add another individual to the small (unaccompanied––perhaps this was how we’d tempted the wrath of the Gods) ensemble that had worked really hard on the piece. With literally only 30 seconds notice, this new singer––who had earlier declined to participate––was brought onto the stand to try to fake her way through the soprano line. She sang an important entrance too far down by a whole step, the other sopranos followed, other parts cued from that wrong pitch, and––shazam!––Pestilence rode with us astride his white horse. It was the musical equivalent of an abortion, and sounded more typical of Penderecki than Tallis.

    Since then, I have had nothing to do with church music. (Well, that’s not quite right; I’ve played piano for the primary.) And were I to get a calling tomorrow, I’d decline it. I might reconsider my stance if I had any real faith that success were reasonably possible, and not just a statistical outlier on the order of, say, a man giving birth…

    …through parthenogenesis…

    …to a porcupine…

    …in breech presentation…

    …that was on fire.

  119. Sorry Blain, I don’t see a causation there. Nobody slows down the congregational singing to be like Mack Wilberg — the sort of conductor that is ignorant enough to try that wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in the first place.

    Congregational singing was slow before Mack and it will be slow after Mack.

    And I still say we’ve all grown complacent in the last eleven years because nobody remembers what the MoTab was like before…

  120. Mark, thanks for bringing this up. I’m not even musically inclined–I know next to nothing. But the little I do know is that hymns have consistently been sung slowly in I think all the wards I’ve ever attended. The worst was the one my wife and I lived in for a few months right after getting married. I used to figure out the actual tempo for every hymn and compare it to the low end of the suggested tempo and then whisper this comparison to my wife. I think after a while she asked me to stop because she just didn’t want to know.

    This discussion reminds me of Benjamin Orchard’s suggestion over at Mormon Matters a couple of years ago for getting hymns sped up:

    EVERY chorister needs an electronic metronome bolted to their stand that shocks them when they conduct too slowly. It should be aware of the slowest recommended tempo for a song, and if they reach as slow as 10% faster than that, they get a jolt. Organists/pianists as well.

    I’m sorry to be a pessimist, but could things get worse? If there’s less an less musical training of members of the Church, will more wards and branches have to rely on people who only “know” that slowness = reverence (as Rebecca suggested)? Worst of all, what if in our next hymnbook is issued, all the suggested tempos are slowed because the book is put together by people who also “know” that slowness = reverence? At least now the book suggests faster tempos so if people are able to play/lead/sing faster, and need only to be persuaded, pointing out the numbers in the hymnbook might help. But what if you open a future hymnbook, and it says “I Believe in Christ” should be sung at 60 beats per minute (or whatever it is)? Then we’ll really be stuck.

    Cynthia suggested that pianists should try playing only the right hand at the right pace rather than slowing the pace to play with both hands. Bob mentioned the digital players–could they be used to help? I also wonder if they fall along the same line as the simplifications Cynthia suggested. Would it be better to have an artificial player (or a recording) and get the tempo right than to have an actual person playing too slowly?

  121. Kristine, I meant to write “My Shepherd, as you know, is one of many paraphrases…”

    The tabernacle choir is obviously in a unique situation – with more than 300 singers they can achieve many effects impossible for smaller groups even of professional singers. The average congregation would do well not to imitate the choir’s slower tempi, since most congregations are smaller than 300, half of whom don’t sing, and the remainder are sitting usually with less than ideal posture for singing.

    The rest of the criticism is just aesthetic preference. I happen to like George Szell better than Leonard Bernstein, but both were great artists. I can forgive the tabernacle choir directors’ slightly self-indulgent interpretations, especially since the technical level is so much improved.

    As for organists, there really ought to be a minimal level of competence. Do we ask totally unqualified people to build the church’s buildings, manage its investments, represent it in court? Perhaps at one time, but not in recent years. Those tasks are given to people who have demonstrated expertise, not to someone who might possibly need personal growth.

    Most of the above are paid for their services. The fastest way to improve the quality of organists would be to compensate them. Maybe there will be some qualified organists who will prefer to offer their services pro bono, or as an in kind contribution, to which I would have no objection.

    There is already an organization that certifies the qualifications of organists. Those who are curious about how it’s done in most other churches can check here:

    Without professionalization, I fear the incentives are insufficient to attract enough people to the hard work of becoming better than mediocre. More and more congregations will find that the soulless recordings actually are better than the human incompetent and become satisfied with that outcome, which is the saddest commentary of all.

  122. I’d also like to point out that the BYU School of Independent Studies has an organ certification program, which is designed to be taken from home with the help of an organ instructor that the student selects her/himself. This is better than AGO certification, because it’s actually a course, not just a method of certifying competency.

    What if stakes paid for ward organists to take the BYU Independent Study Organ Certification course? What if completing training like that became part of the “job description” for a calling as ward organist? What if people who were motivated to take & pay for the course themselves were then guaranteed an opportunity to be called as ward organist?

  123. 105 – that’s my kind of bishop! that’s how I make it through GC.. 1st qtr, half time, end of 3rd qtr

  124. Mark B. says:

    I’ve ranted elsewhere about “rest” hymns, and agree completely with Kristine @ 104.

    My advice: object loudly. Tell the bishop that you’ll sing a “rest hymn” as soon as we start having “rest prayers” in our meetings, and point them to D&C 25.

    And, I fear that bishops who think that congregational worship (and that means both better preaching and better music) can be ignored while they struggle with the very difficult issues in their personal ministries will find that more and more people will end up on that “needs serious personal attention” list because they have not been inspired and moved and invigorated by their participation in sacrament meeting.

    After all, how can we be serious about inviting people to come to church if what they get there is mediocre at best?

  125. Michael says:

    At my missionary farewell, we had a tuba quartet. No, I’m not kidding. One of the tuba players is a musical prodigy who did original arrangements of three hymns, for tuba quartet. He’s a Shoshone-Bannock Native American, so he put this drum-beat chord in the basement under “Ye Elders Of Israel”. Simple half note followed by two accented staccato quarter notes. The chapel roof was shaking, the light fixtures were vibrating, and I’ve never heard anything else like it in my life. “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” was equally stirring.

    I once sat through “Onward, Christian Soldiers” done at about 27 bpm. I’ve often said that hell has a special place for people who stiff a small business, and I’m convinced that in that special place in hell, OCS is played at a perpetual and eternal 27 bpm.

  126. Kristine says:

    “OCS is played at a perpetual and eternal 27 bpm.”

    by a tuba quartet!


  127. I am all for brass in the chapel. The tacit prohibition is a foolish tradition of our fathers.

  128. Kevin Barney says:

    But if we abolish “rest” hymns, that means we’ll sing less rather than more. That’s not a result I want to promulgate. The main reason I even go to church is to be able to sing. I’d rather lop off a talk and add even more music.

  129. I think what he objects to is not having the hymn, but calling it a rest hymn, surely not the biggest problem facing church music, however many times he brings it up.

  130. Mark B. says:

    Bill’s right. I’m with you, Kevin–we should sing more.

    Calling those congregational hymns “rest” hymns is surely not the biggest problem facing church music–but it is a symptom of the biggest problem, which Kristine hit on the head in her #104: to too many people, music is just an interlude, not an integral part of our worship.

    Of course, it’s better than in the ward my sister used to live in where the bishopric referred to those intermediate hymns as “congressional hymns.”

  131. Mark B. says:

    Heck, Paul McCartney used “in” three times in one line once. Can’t I get away with two?

  132. I’ve long said that the ratio of minutes talking vs. minutes singing should be reversed in our meetings.

  133. There are such things as electronic metronomes. My wife has one that has a flashing light and clicks. You can turn the click off.

    It does not have a ‘shock’ mode.

  134. woodboy says:

    I think this thread illustrates why most people with serious church music interest/skills find the LDS music scene so frustrating and choose to disengage, or to make music at another church. Sometimes it’s just nice to have the weight of an institution with you, instead of having to fight against it every step of the way. i know my emotional well being has greatly improved since taking my musical activities out of the lds system.

  135. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, I see now, the objection was semantic, and not to the actual singing. Carry on.

  136. @ 109 rick h: not sure what tone your trying to strike with your question. No, I don’t play professionally (though I have in the past). And I recorded an album with a live orchestra and 250-voice choir as recently as last year. But you’re right, it isn’t my profession. I don’t think that means I can’t wish I was able to play and share my talents in church more frequently, does it?

    @ 115 Mark Brown: I also have a distinct memory of a Christmas Day sacrament meeting that included a brass choir when I was a child. It was magnificent.

    Paid organists and other musical participants would help us make large strides forward–but I don’t see that happening. Ever.

    I’m also a fan of the idea that we cut one of the talks and make room for more music. If we make music more central to our meeting structure, rather than just an interlude to “shake things up” between speakers, then perhaps quality improvements will follow. In particular, I vote to replace every high councilman talk with 30 mins of rousing renditions of hymns and prepared musical performances.

  137. Bryce, I meant nothing of the kind. I’m also a trombonist, and have played some amazing music in a trombone choir. I agree with you completely, I would love to hear (and participate in) more brass music at church. I would agree with Berlioz:

    “In my opinion, the trombone is the true head of the family of wind instruments, which I have named the ‘epic’ one. It possesses nobility and grandeur to the highest degree; it has all the serious and powerful tones of sublime musical poetry, from religious, calm and imposing accents to savage, orgiastic outburst. Directed by the will of the master, the trombones can chant like a choir of priests, threaten, utter gloomy sighs, a mournful lament, or a bright hymn of glory; they can break forth into awe-inspiring cries and awaken the dead or doom the living with their fearful voices.”

    I only ask because my first trombone teacher was also named Bryce. (I guess I should have just come out and said that in the first place.)

  138. In my ward we call them “intermediate hymns” not “rest hymns.” Maybe people’s ward bulletin creators could be persuaded to use that term?

  139. The trombone should make a return to our church meetings, just as it once had a presence in our church magazines:

    The one-ring circus was visiting a town in the hills. The folks there recognized all the instruments of the band except the slide trombone. One old settler watched the player for quite some time, then said: “There’s a trick to it; he ain’t really swallerin’ it.”

  140. Michael says:

    Not to “toot my own horn”, but I used to be a good tuba player. I was a featured soloist in college, I’ve performed all over the western US, and I even organized a tuba/baritone choir to do Christmas music at the Washington DC Temple Visitor’s Center during the last two weeks of my mission. I own one of the largest tubas ever built in a factory – a four-valve Conn with a recording bell (points forwards, not up). I still play on an occasional basis. But, any seventh-grade flute player can get up and squeak out a few hymns in church and it’s great, no matter how badly out of tune. But, I’m relegated to the lists of people with “no real musical talent that we can use in Church”.

    A favorite investigator of mine one took me to church at the Basilica of the Assumption, the Mother Cathedral for the United States. It’s in downtown Baltimore, and it was the first cathedral built in the U.S. Our investigator was a management professional, and the sort of guy who went to Elder’s Quorum and volunteered for stake assignments even though he wasn’t a member. Anyway, he took us to a High Latin mass one morning – we sat there with the choir, the bells, the pipe organ, and heard “angel trumpets and devil trombones” playing what seemed like the very music that was on in the background with God said “Let There Be Light”. I was floored. Afterward, we sat on a park bench outside the cathedral and our investigator explained that at the LDS church, he didn’t feel like we had any sense of worship. He went to church to feel that communion with the Infinite, to feel the Spirit and majesty, and to get the impression that with God, all things were possible. This was a guy who had received one of the very first “Points of Light” awards from President Bush Senior. He had a testimony of the Book of Mormon and of the Priesthood, but the three-hour block (while filling him in certain ways that the Catholic church didn’t) left him feeling hollow and empty.

    I had to agree. I felt so bad for him. I could tell he’d put a lot of thought and effort into how to explain this to us. He was most concerned that he’d be held responsible for his decision at the last day – his hope was that Christ would understand – maybe not condone, but at least understand.

  141. Kristine says:

    “In particular, I vote to replace every high councilman talk with 30 mins of rousing renditions of hymns and prepared musical performances.”

    Well, I’d vote for that, too, but it would mean getting rid of some other meetings to make time for choir practice.

  142. Yeah, I’d HATE to lose my Sunday School nap.

  143. Eric S. says:

    Great post. This part of worship varies from ward to ward. Whenever I attend another ward, I notice the hymns are A LOT slower. I’m looking around for the casket to roll in after the wake. On the other hand, I’ve been to many evangel services, and they swing completely the other direction: rock band, floating, stage dives, screaming Savior’s name over and over . . . The “right” mood is somewhere in between the wake and the evangels. Caught a few Evensongs in Europe last week, and they too sing with more conviction and pace than our Sunday services sound. Drives me nuts to count beats per measure in many wards. It would help if the chorester and organist wore capes and sparkling sunglasses.

  144. rick h: No worries, just wasn’t sure how to read your original question. We trombonists are used to being misunderstood. :)

    Love the quote. “savage, orgiastic outburst” is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever heard said about a trombone. Yay for Berlioz.

    @141 Kristine: That’s cool. I’m all for sacrificing other block meetings. We could easily find 30 minutes of time for music if we just eliminated all the announcements that nobody listens to during the beginning of sacrament meeting and opening exercises, not to mention the 20 minutes lost as people yak and wander around aimlessly after sacrament meeting, as if they had never considered Sunday School could actually start on time and achieve much more in the way of instruction and enlightenment if more than three people could punctually find their way to class.

    @140 Michael: I think your friend has some excellent, well-considered points. Some things our church seems to do really well. But having engaging, powerful, thought-provoking music during regular church services isn’t on that list.

  145. Mark Brown says:

    After reading through the comments, I think part of the problem is that we expect music to be the background noise in our meetings. We want the prelude to be soft enough that it doesn’t disturb our visiting before the meeting. An organist who played prelude or recessional music which demanded our attention would almost surely be accused of showing off.

    A few months ago we had a substitute organist who knows only a few hymns. But one of them is On This Day of Joy and Gladness, and he played it as we were leaving the chapel. He played it with such palpable, exuberant joy and gladness that I stopped halfway down the aisle, turned around, and stood and listened to him play all the verses. It made my Sabbath.

  146. Kristine says:

    Bryce, I actually did a choir prep course in Sunday School one year, 8 weeks (or 10?) like the temple prep class–about 10 minutes of general music history/appreciation (my concession to the Sunday School president was to choose settings of texts for the week’s Old Testament readings :)), 8 or 10 minutes of Mormon music history, and 10-15 minutes of basic sightreading/singing instruction. I think everyone felt like it was a useful sacrifice of some meeting time, especially since it roughly doubled the size of the ward choir.

  147. Kevin Barney says:

    Wow, I would definitely sign up for a class like that. To actually learn something I don’t already know about in SS would be an interesting experience.

  148. 146 — I want that approved by the curriculum committee as you wrote it and sent to my ward. That would rock!

  149. D. Fletcher says:

    I’m a little bit embarrassed to chime in here. Thanks for the compliment, Danithew, and thanks for listening.

    There’s nothing wrong with our hymns, and our Church music in general. It’s simply meant to amplify the message. If you’re not paying attention to the message, why are you coming to Church at all?

    All I really do as organist is try to make people notice the words, the message. Play it louder than usual, play it softer than usual, play it on the piano, do *something* unusual, and the congregation will pay attention.

    We sing in our ward, which is how the congregation actively participates in the meeting. A good, rousing chorister helps.

    I never played the organ before I was asked to do it in Church (I’m primarily a pianist). But I will never tire of it, this thrilling experience of worshiping through artistic expression. It’s probably my lifetime calling, which is just fine with me.

  150. My pet peeve is the “anyone can conduct music” attitude in our ward. Apparently waving your arm randomly, even when out of time, is considered adequate music leadership. I can only imagine that people are willing to do this because they don’t know that they don’t know what they are doing.

  151. willf: Agreed, the bar is set far too low for music conductors in church meetings. IMO, my current ward sets the record to non-musical conducting: They have decided that all youth need the opportunity to direct the music. In and of itself, not a bad idea. The young women all take turns directing sacrament meeting music (a different girl each week) and the young men are in charge of conducting music for opening exercises in priesthood meeting. The problem is, only the young women have actually been given instruction on how to conduct. They do a wonderful job, and have even learned some of the finer points of keeping time such as directing 6/8 with a two-beat pattern.

    The boys, unfortunately, have been left to their own devices. Apparently no one sees a problem allowing a different young man to stand up each week and flap his arm pointlessly as we sing the opening song. I’ve actually offered to provide instruction, but was turned down on the basis that “the boys do just fine” and we wouldn’t want them to get discouraged. *sigh* That reply unwittingly condemned us to one more generation of musical mediocrity as these poorly-instructed youths take positions of leadership in the church.

  152. 1) Also thoroughly enjoying this thread and the like mindedness of so many of you. I’m an organist and I love it: it offers me a much better chance to worship. I have found that tenaciously (incorrigibly?) pushing the congregation with the pedal works to keep up tempo. I have found that an appropriately placed hymn book or flower arrangement blocks my line of sight from occasional unskilled choristers who just distract me. I sometimes feel that I am inherently evil and need to repent because I play the hymns at the upper limit of their tempo indications…sometimes I actually go to outer darkness because I go faster than the tempo indicator. So far I am so hard-hearted I refuse to repent.

    2) I WISH WISH WISH we could have a habit of singing all the listed verses – there are some fantastic verses that we never sing. And sometimes it’s really crucial: for instance, “Come Follow Me”… why do we have to always end that hymn in the middle of a thought?? If we would be heirs, then what do we do?… oh well, we don’t get to know because we ended the singing.

    3) I also **can’t stand it** when verses are dropped in order to “save time.” I want to see how people would feel if this direction was given: “Look, please limit your closing prayer to the first two sentences only because the speaker went over and we just don’t have time for a longer prayer.” Folks, it doesn’t take that long to sing more verses!!! (well, if you play them at a decent tempo). If music gets us closer to God than anything else except for prayer, we are totally missing the boat.

    Heck I know I’m preaching to the choir ha ha ha.

    4) I really wish I could do more free hymn accompaniment, but the folks in charge find that way too dangerous. People might get confused, they say. I think people are smarter than all that…sure, initial confusion might happen but they’ll figure it out, right? If the chorister can shine a beacon of light to show them the way, they can follow. Free hymn accompaniments could really add some loveliness to the message.

    5) Prelude time is not visiting time. Anyone else irked by this? If people would spend that time in contemplation, they would be able to solve half the problems they ask the Bishop to help them solve on their own and with the Lord’s inspiration. I try to establish a worshipful tone with my prelude and when I hear people (especially those sitting on the stand) discussing last night’s sports game etc., it interrupts my groove.

    6) I’m not this crabby in person. I’m really a pretty nice person. I just have issues and this was the first chance I’ve had to let them out!!!! Thanks!!

    7) I learned at a young age to have “church ears” rather than a permanent crick in my back resulting from my right side inching up painfully and my left side grimacing. Church ears work okay after 40 years of practice…but I also whole heartedly agree that mediocre is not God’s plan and we shouldn’t be worshipping it!

    8) Let’s all have an emotionally corrective experience together – a sing-in of all those great hymns that have been ruined or damaged for us in the past. Participate by webcam or whatever. Whaddya say??

  153. Alison,

    Oh yeah, people talking during the prelude/postlude bug me. I think that is more of a reverence issue than anything. The volume of banter only falls during the actual sacrament meeting–immediately before and after tend to be downright raucous. Honestly, we are not a very reverent people in most day-to-day settings, including much time spent in church.

    See my comment in #70. I’ve seen an organist basically blast the postlude talkers into submission using the volume pedal. And I loved sitting and listening to him play. Wonderful stuff.

    Not a church setting, but I once played trombone in a pit orchestra performing Brigadoon. After the intermission, the crowd had a hard time settling down as we played the overture. The first time, my director delicately cut us off, turned, and waited until the crowd quieted down. Then he gave a downbeat and we carried on. But the volume picked right back up! So he cut us off again, grabbed a nearby microphone and said something to the effect of: “We are performing a work of music for you that we have rigorously worked to prepare. Your responsibility is to be quiet and listen.” Dead silence. It was magnificent. We played the entire overture again and carried on with the play.

    After that experience, I realized that most people just don’t know how to act when music is performed. That’s why people think it’s ok to wear jeans to the opera now. They don’t understand the way to experience music on a higher level than their iPod provides them. This carries into church, where folks just think prelude and postlude must be meant to act as soundtrack backgrounds to their conversations about the NBA finals and visiting teaching plans. It’s a shame.

    I say carry on with your apostate organing.

  154. rjamesh says:

    Regarding #66,

    When the wordless first few notes of “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand” take 5-7 seconds (review these 8 notes in your mind and you’ll see what 5-7 seconds feels like), I know that nothing short of a bucket of water in my face will keep me awake.

    It’s nice to have some variety in our Sacrament hymns but some of them are quite difficult for those with no musical ability and others are just awkward – the words and beat just don’t synch well. Sometimes, it seems these “I don’t think I heard this one ever” songs are scheduled to help musically educate the masses. Without regard to whether such attempts to expand members’ horizons are wise, Sacrament meeting sure is a terrible time to go fishing for a new experience. I lived in South Carolina for 12 years. In a state that ranks 2nd or 3rd in % Afr-Amer residents, our music (and its trance-inducing quality) was mentioned as a stumbling block by some blacks who were investigating. While we can argue whether or not that should cause someone not to join the church, it was what it was – and it wasn’t positive.

  155. Steve L says:

    As a perpetual organist I find my greatest difficulty is knowing when to lead the conductor and when to follow. Most conductors are not very experienced and are content to follow. I did have one elderly sister, however, who disagreed with every tempo I chose, even after I decided to start choosing them based on what I thought she would prefer (and she was so prickly I couldn’t bear simply talking to her about it–that would have been horrendous). One Sunday she turned around and shouted loud enough for the whole congregation to hear, “SLOWER!!! SLOWER!!!”

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