A bit of musicality, please!

I remember that one time, when I was a teenager, my father was speaking in church and he mentioned that he had always enjoyed singing, even though he’d never been very good at it. This came as a surprise to me because I’d always thought my father must be a pretty good singer; after all, he did it all the time. He sang a lot at home, and he always sang with enthusiasm at church (a rarity in Mormon congregations, as anyone who’s ever paid attention to one of our worship services knows–granted, I’m not sure how many people have actually done that). He had also always been in every ward choir in every ward we were ever in. I kind of wish he had never mentioned that he wasn’t a very good singer because after that I began to notice the limitations of his voice, even though I continued to enjoy it. My father’s singing is the sound of my childhood (the parts I care to remember)–my dad singing Chad Mitchell Trio’s “Story of Alice” or “James James Morrison Morrison,” or sending us off to the tub with “Oh, it’s bathtiiiiiime in the Rockieeees.” One of my earliest memories is sitting in on all the rehearsals where the ward choir was learning a musical rendering of Psalm 23. I have had Psalm 23 memorized ever since, but I can’t recite it without wanting to break into song at the end. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me aaaaaaaall the days of my liiife, and I SHALL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREEEEEEEEEE-VER!

Sorry, I sometimes still get carried away.

Interestingly enough, I disliked singing very much as a child and even more as a youth. I never sang in Primary. (Singing was actually one of the reasons I didn’t care for Primary.) I didn’t sing in music class at school. (Yes, I’m dating myself a bit here; they actually taught music in public school in those days.) I don’t remember why I didn’t like it, except maybe I was too shy. (Although I have always resented people applying that term to me, I’m afraid it may actually be true.) I didn’t like talking in front of other people, so why would I want to sing (even in a group)? As a young woman I felt even less comfortable singing in church, partly because I was still shy socially reserved and partly because I had inherited my mother’s tenor voice and couldn’t hit the notes the other girls did without hurting myself.

When did I start singing? Well, when I became an adult and started going to church by myself, I guess I felt obligated to sing the hymns. And then I guess I started liking it. Being a grown-up is scary. Sometimes, when you’re in an apartment in a strange city all by yourself at night, singing a hymn actually helps. (Fortunately, I knew a lot of them, having listened to so many for so long. I always liked listening to them.) But–and this is embarrassing, but I’m on the internet and embarrassing myself on the internet is what I do–I didn’t really start singing in earnest until I joined a stake choir so I could hang out with my friends and also (mostly) this guy I had a crush on. (My husband loves that story. Probably because he was the guy. Well, I was young. What can I tell you?) I did not try to sing tenor because that seemed overly bold, even for my newly-bold self. (Stalking young men at choir rehearsal–this is how it starts.) Instead I learned that I was quite capable of singing alto (as long as I didn’t have to go too high). Once I learned how to pick out the part that was in my vocal range, I found singing a lot more satisfying. In fact, I found I liked it very, very much. And just like my dad, I started doing it all the time, even though I wasn’t very good at it.

Despite the fact that I sang every last one of my children to sleep when they were babies, none of them is nearly as fond of my voice as I was of my father’s. In fact, when they started talking, one of the first things they learned to say was “Don’t sing.” And that’s fine. I don’t need my children to enjoy my singing; in fact, it’s probably better that I keep it as a weapon to use to my advantage when the time is right. (“I’m just going to keep singing until you get out of bed. Trust me, I can go all morning.”) My children have historically been among the more ill-behaved people in sacrament meeting, but they know not to bother me while I’m singing. That’s the only part of church I consistently enjoy, and I’m very disappointed when I can’t participate in it.

I think Mormons, in general, don’t appreciate the importance of music in a worship service. This is not to say that Mormons don’t appreciate music or they don’t appreciate good music–I don’t know if they do or not. I haven’t done a survey. I’ve just been to a lot of Mormon worship services, and when it comes to the congregational hymns, most of us are phoning it in. It’s true that we have our kids climbing all over us and we’re probably thinking about the lesson we have to teach next hour and blah blah–I know. This is the same stuff that keeps me from paying attention to the speakers, so it’s not like I’m Sister High and Mighty lecturing everyone about proper sacrament meeting form. But sometimes I listen to us sing and it is just painful to hear how tired and bored we all sound. Well, in fairness we probably are tired and bored. Normally I’m all for more personal authenticity at church, but hymn-singing, I think, is one of those areas where we could afford to fake it a little more.

Well, it turns out that I can’t say any more on this subject without turning into Sister High and Mighty lecturing you all on proper sacrament meeting form, so instead I’ll turn the time over to you, brothers and sisters. How do you feel about singing in church?


  1. In the midst of a number of clinkers, we actually do have some amazingly beautiful hymns. But we tend tossing than at a Funereally. Slow. Pace. That green hil gets farther and farther away every Sunday, I tell you.

    Since returning to church activity last year, I have been asked with some frequency to substitute on the organ for sacrament meeting. I have instituted zippy tempos for pretty much everything, even sacrament hymns. A number of people (including the bishop) have told me it makes an enormous difference in their worship experience.

    So my suggestions for effectively preaching the gospel through music include: choose better music, sing it upbeat, and—long range goal—get some clapping and body movement involved. Sing and dance to the Lord!

  2. tossing = to sing

  3. than = them, hil = hill

    I need to proofread!

  4. Hadn’t noticed EdwardJ. Since I agree with all you say, the typos don’t matter.

    But, sadly, Rebecca J is right. Most of us just plain don’t give a damn.

  5. I’m not nearly as enamored with the hymns as I used to be. Perhaps coming from an extremely musical family and being extremely musical myself I’ve become bored with them after all the repetition. I still sing them loud though, they just don’t have the same spiritual/emotional impact anymore.

  6. So, I was pretty much a non-singer until high school, when I found I could actually use my piano lessons to read vocal lines. Who knew? My father, on the other hand, was a professional singer for a time, and was a trained voice. I preferred the rock and roll non-vibrato types myself. I used to get dragged to choir practice on occasion because my parents didn’t always trust my brothers to pay any attention to me while they were gone. Like the time I got a burning log out of the fireplace so see the smoke curl up to the ceiling. Anyway, my father made choir practice bearable by his sotto voce imitations of some of the older (80+) sisters in the choir with their ultra s.l.o.w. vibratos. My mother always caught us giggling though, and we or at least he, always paid for it a bit. That is, when she could keep a straight face. This taught me another lesson about dealing with the women in my life. One that is endlessly frustrating to them, I’m guessing (but not asking).

  7. ben orchard says:

    I’m firmly in the ‘Love to sing, but wish I were better at it’ category. As a teenager I had a remarkably tin ear. I’ve improved dramatically over the years, starting most noticeably with my mission, and when a kind-hearted and musically competent companion taught me what the difference between a sharp and a flat version of a single note sounded like together. I’d never really had it explained to me how to tell when you were off key, and being the sort of person I am, I needed someone to sit down and explain it to me. Since then I’ve gotten to the point where I can sing without the people near me wanting to kill me, and I’m glad.

    Now when I sing, I can stay in tune as long as I can hear the music reasonably well, and I can even eke out the bass lines fairly well. I’ll never sing barbershop like one of my good friends does, but that’s not a goal of mine.

    I wish people would put more enthusiasm into their singing during services. I don’t care how well you sing, just do it enthusiastically. I will say it is easier when you aren’t singing the hymn at about half the suggested tempo.

    personally I’ve wanted to get a metronome and stick it on the organ and set it to about 10% above the pace suggested by the hymnal–then we’d probably end up with something reasonable sounding.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    I want to start a band with you as the lead singer.

  9. EdwardJ (1), ben orchard (7) – If I were in charge of the next edition of the hymnal, I would replace all the “Brightly”s, “Boldly”s, and “Cheerfully”s with “About twice as fast as you think it ought to be.”

  10. I love to sing in church, but I mostly don’t — for one, I can’t sustain my breath long enough to make it through an entire line of any hymn played at the slow-as-molasses tempo. For two, I can’t see to read the hymnbook in the muddy brown light of the typical chapel. I can still sing all the old standards without a hymnal, but it’s hard to sing the “new” (post-1985) ones without a written prompt. And I finally realized that that isn’t just because the old ones are more familiar, having been memorized when I was a kid — it’s largely because most of the new ones don’t develop a story or actually GO anywhere. I mean, you could cut the phrases of “I Believe in Christ” into strips and scramble the in a hat, and the only clue you’d have to putting them back together is the occasional rhyme. Otherwise it’s just a random collection of nice-sounding phrases that could go together in any random order, meaning that it’s hard to guess what the next line will be until the sighted congregation begins to sing it, and I can then chime in. It’s exhausting to sing that way, though.

    Singing is, in theory, a wonderful thing for a congregation, and I’m very happy we still do it. But somebody should spike the organist’s water with caffeine so that it doesn’t take a world class athlete to breathe deeply enough to last to the next comma.

  11. I’ve noticed, too, that sacrament hymns become more meaningful when they are sung at an appropriate tempo. The motion gives meaning and color to the words, which are otherwise merely drawn-out syllables, with three or four breaths in each line.

  12. Unfortunately, I don’t think the tempo of the hymns could go all that much faster. Most organists are converted pianists. It’s not extremely difficult to get to a basic level of proficiency, but moving beyond that takes a lot of time and practice. I’d imagine, most organists are going at the pace they are comfortable with. So until Mormons become rich enough to not only have full size full pedal organs, but houses big enough to have a place to put them, I doubt organ virtuosity is going to improve much.

  13. I think Mormons value music as much as if not more than the general public (and I think the obvious per capita imbalance in high school choir groups I’ve observed pretty much everywhere I’ve lived is good evidence of that) – but I think the ability and age of our local organists tend to make Sacrament Meeting music a totally different animal than other music for us collectively.

    My high school in fairly rural Utah had about 650-700 students. There were at least 200 students in choir and 200 students in band. Granted, many of them were in both, but I would guess that close to half of the students were taking at least one music class – at a public high school. A non-Mormon friend of mine is a college music professor. He had taught for a while in Missouri and accepted a position at Southern Utah University. He was shocked at how many students at the college were enrolled in some kind of music class and how good they were. He told me it felt like he had died and gone to music heaven.

    Otoh, many organists in most wards I’ve attended in my life were wonderful, sincere, good, caring . . . more mature ladies. They were doing the best they could, but some of them might not have been able to hear what they were playing. Those who were different often were doing the best they could with somewhat limited experience on an organ, and, thus, couldn’t play some of the harder hymns confidently – and those tend to be the hymns that should be played at a peppier tempo. Add difficulty to faster intended tempo, and voila . . . Sacrament Meeting funeral hymns of rejoicing and praise.

    I sing loudly and enthusiastically enough to embarrass my children – but I’ve sung publicly since I was seven years old.

  14. So with you on this! I grew up in a non-musical family but there were two places we would always sing–in church, and on long car trips. Since then I have been known to sing in ward choirs for major holidays (and also, coincidentally, for the sake of boys I had crushes on). Our church hymns really REALLY need to pick up the pace. Sometimes I have to stop singing in sacrament meeting because I just caaaannn’t siiiiiinng thaaaaat sloooooooowwwwwlyyyyy. Give me a clapping, swaying, gospel choir any day.

  15. Researcher says:

    “set it to about 10% above the pace suggested by the hymnal” (7)

    Actually, if you set it to the highest recommended tempo, it is usually much faster than people are used to singing the hymns, and it makes for some good enthusiastic singing once the congregation catches up to the organ.

    But please do try that, Ben, and let us know how that goes. I’ve found that most organists are rather touchy, and hypersensitive to the faintest whiff of criticism. (I, of course, am an exception to that rule…)

    Oh, what was the song we sang recently? It was “On This Day of Joy and Gladness,” a song that shouldn’t be sung by many congregations in any case. A dotted half note gets a single beat, and the tempo is 46-56. We had a substitute organist who played it at about 20. (I think. My metronome doesn’t go that low.) Joy and gladness would not describe the atmosphere in the chapel.

  16. Well, all I can say is I’m glad I live in the ward I do. We have competent organists (in sacrament meeting, anyway; in priesthood we’re at the mercy of whatever hymns the two young men who play can play) who play the hymns at the proper tempo (sometimes regardless what the chorister does), and we have a congregation that generally sings pretty well (in parts, unlike most of our protestant friends who muddle along in unison).

    There are still certain hymns that bear great significance for me, and I’m pleasantly surprised when they appear on a sacrament meeting program. There are other hymns I’d rather chew glass than sing, but I sing them anyway, if only to set an example for my surly sixteen year old.

  17. I have seriously considered taking organ lessons just so I can pump some life into sacrament hymns. I’m always jealous of my friend’s ward in California, where their ward organist is a professional jazz pianist. Their sacrament meetings rock.

  18. Jeannine L. says:

    Ardis–I’m a problem solver. So here’s how you sing in church:
    1) Get a tablet that supports the hymn software. They are LIT UP and you can zoom in if you are my age….Also, these can hold your scriptures and every lesson manual ever and all the Ensigns and whatever else you want, heh heh.
    2) Stagger breathing. We do it in choirs all the time. You breathe whenever you need to and just be sneaky about it. It also means you can slouch in church if you feel like it.

    RebeccaJ–I figured out in Primary that I’m a low alto. I only freaked a couple of teachers out when I sand the alto part on a hymn. Now when I sit in church and sing with my husband and daughters, the rule is nobody sings the same part and you get to change parts every verse. Sadly, this still doesn’t really help on some hymns. They are just dogs.

  19. Also, in my experience, it takes firmness of mind and persuasive timing for an organist to counteract the gravitational pull of slow congregational singing. It can feel like a fight sometimes, but I almost always win. :-)

  20. #19 True story. Even if you start out a hymn fast, the congregation for some reason naturally slows down unless you make a significant conscious effort to keep things fast.

  21. One more thing and I’ll stop spamming y’all:

    The medium should match the message. The gospel is exciting, expansive, and moving. We blather on about how to spread the gospel, but if investigators/new members/any of us come to church and are bored to distraction by the music and correlated lessons, we have really failed in our efforts to communicate the emotional and spiritual impact of the gospel.

  22. Sarah Dailey says:

    If every organ in the Church was equipped with a bass coupler, those of us pianists who’ve had to pinch-hit on the organ would be eternally grateful (and better able to play the hymns at a reasonable tempo.) You just flip a switch and the organ adds in the bass pedals without you having to try and move both hands and feet simultaneously. Also, can I put in a word for watching the chorister? :) (Well, if your chorister and organist are communicating, that is.) Especially if you’re in a big chapel, there’s a slight sound delay between the organ and the congregation hearing it and vice versa. Listen to the organ and you’ll be behind the beat. If the organist tries to listen to the sound of the congregation, they’ll slow down even more. You get the idea.
    Hmm. I guess what we really need is more music education in general. I feel like the Church used to have regular programs for that kind of thing, but it’s fallen off over the years.

  23. I’m envisioning RJ’s singing roughly like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwTZ2xpQwpA

  24. The organist sets the pace. The congregation will follow, especially if the organ is supportive and loud. The chorister is irrelevant and should be done away with.
    Also, it is very easy to criticize someone for playing slow (especially for those who do not play, like our bishop), but given limited talent a lot of times it can’t be helped. As long as we don’t want to pay professionals, it will probably always be like this, unless you are lucky enough to have a competent organist.

  25. A bass coupler is a cool idea in theory but not really workable which is why organs generally don’t have such a thing. I think the new digital organs the church has been installing in recent years have firmware with hymns preloaded, so they can play themselves. Perhaps that is the future. Sad, but somehow fitting.

  26. Chris Kimball says:

    In a relatively long life in the church, in a number of wards that include among them some of the best there are for music, I’ve probably seen and heard every possible variety of hymn choice, tempo, organist skill, attention to the chorister. I could echo most of the comments made. But let me add:
    1. Music does NOT fall in the “church is the same wherever you go” category. There are enormous differences, ward to ward, year to year, organist to organist. I try to appreciate it when I’m in a good place in a good year.
    2. 3 of the 4 or 5 best LDS organists I have known personally make their living as music directors and/or organists in other churches. Once in awhile, by particular assignment or by happenstance of schedule, we have enjoyed their music in Sacrament Meeting. It is almost stunning, as in I listen in awe and cannot move.
    3. Perhaps most important to me personally, once upon a time our bishop of the year came to visit and after some probing questions about what I believe and don’t, he asked why I come to church. There are a number of correct answers, but on that day in that meeting I told him “it’s the place where I know the hymns”. True story. True feeling.

  27. Each person in a worship meeting needs to determine for him- or herself what the purpose of the hymns are — are they (a) an important and integral part of the worship when all of us are worshiping together; or (b) a time-filler to get us ready for something more important (announcements, sacrament, and talks) or to go to the restroom? I tend to think of the former as the “right” answer, but I know that the latter seems to be the rather common answer. We don’t need to talk about organists — may God bless them — we need to decide to adopt the former approach for ourselves and then everything else will fall into place.

    Yes, we could benefit from some musical training. As an organist, I know that I set the tempo (not the chorister, who leads the congregation in following the organ) — and I know that if I listen and adjust to the singing, then I will invariably slow down myself (as Sarah Dailey correctly observes) (Organists are taught then the singing is slower than the playing, don’t slow down! — Rather, keep playing at tempo but maybe with a little spacing, but don’t slow down!). But every organist will benefit from kind insights and observations from fellow worshippers — however, most organists never hear a single word about their playing — in a way, that’s good, because an organist doesn’t want to attract attention to him- or herself, but everyone in every calling can benefit from a little kind insight and feedback once in a while.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Singing is pretty much the main reason I go to church. I would sing in the choir, but they practice after the three-house block, and after three hours I’m just tapped out and can’t stand to be in the building anymore.

  29. Singing’s my main draw, too. Unfortunately the ward I live in now sings at slightly sub-glacial speeds, and I can’t do it. I can keep up (down?) but I start to get twitchy after the second verse. (Mind, the choir could use more tenors, and I don’t think a female tenor would freak them out TOO much?)

    Technical question – is there any reason the organ MUST be used for sacrament meeting? I’m only a mediocre pianist, but I’ve borrowed the chapel piano for practice, and it seems pretty loud. Is there a downside to using piano instead of organ that I’m not aware of?

  30. An organ generally works better for congregational singing (assuming there is a decent sized congregation and that they are singing) because it’s louder, and the sound is better supported because it sustains rather than dying off like a piano. Also tradition. Hymns have been played on organs for centuries.

  31. Yes, a piano is good support for a good choir where singers know the notes, but a congregation of worshippers does better with an organ — the full, surround sound is more helpful and the sustain is more helpful. However, the handbook does allow for a piano if an organist is not to be found. I visited my mother’s stake a couple of times and they used a piano for stake conference, not because there were no organists but because the pianist was the daughter of a counselor in the stake presidency — the organ would have worked better, and the stake had good organists — but my point is that the presiding offcer makes the decision.

  32. Mark Brown says:

    Re: music in church, two words:



  33. My 14/15 yo Sunday School lesson this past Sunday was on music and the plan of salvation (like how we can learn about the plan of salvation through music). Before Sunday, I had asked each student to pick her favorite hymn and tell us what it means personally. These kids were awesome. They had such insightful comments. AND they were cool w/ singing all the songs they picked (even though I told them they didn’t have to). Most of them chose hymns having to do with the Savior–it was very touching.

    I had them sing “All Creatures of our God and King” in Italian, and that was a hoot, b/c we started it way too high and ended up sounding like howling dogs.

  34. One of my favorite sacrament meetings was when we had no speakers and instead the organist (a music professor at an R1 who really knew what he was doing) told us a little about some lesser known hymns and we sang them as a congregation, for the full hour! I think we have some amazing hymns and I’d love to see them play a bigger, more valued role in our weekly worship. I’m stone cold tone deaf, but love the stories in some of the hymns and, being a Primary teacher, in a few of the Children’s songs (though some feel too much like propoganda for my liking). I wish we had sacrament meetings like that more often.

  35. I am always disappointed when the hymn-chooser insists that hymns must correlate with the precise theme of the talks. We end up with too many of the boring hymns and not enough of the praise hymns. I long to sing “Press Forward, Saints” and “All Creatures of Our God and King,” but how often do have a joy/praise/hooray theme to our meetings?

    Anyway, my new strategy for singing boring hymns joyfully is to try to make up my own descant, counter-melody or alternative rhythm on the spot. I tried it last Sunday, and it was a lot of fun. (I hope that it wasn’t too disruptive.)

  36. @#1– Bring on the clapping and swaying! If I’m being honest, I would say that one of my favorite “hymns” of all time was “Maybe God is Tryin’ To Tell You Something” from The Color Purple. Ive listened to a lot of spirituals since, and to me they bring a powerful, joyful spirit. And I seem to remember something about joy being related to our reason for being. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!

    Sadly I find most Mormon hymnal music to be joyless, soulless things, and don’t feel terribly inspired by most of the hymn book. The most notable exceptions are the ones written by non-LDS– All Creatures of Our God and King is my favorite, followed by A Mighty Fortress, all the Vaughn Williams stuff, etc.

    Also wish we could do some chant, bonus points in Latin. A little Panis Angelicus, anyone?

  37. The chorister is not irrelevant–but his or her most important work should be done outside of the worship service, meeting with the organist to agree on tempo, dynamics, etc. Then when the meeting starts, the chorister can set the tempo and the organist won’t be surprised, and the chorister won’t need to scowl at the organist for getting things wrong.

    And, another way to improve singing and keep the chorister from drifting into irrelevancy: choose one hymn per sacrament meeting to be sung without the hymnbooks. Announce it in advance so people can spend the week refreshing their memories, and then have them watch the chorister for help when their memories lag.

    One way to avoid having to correlate hymns with the precise theme of the talks is to avoid assigning themes to the speakers in the first place. I don’t think topics are assigned in General Conference, and the church hasn’t drifted off the rails as a result of that. But that’s another topic for another day.

  38. Sharee Hughes says:

    I love singing the hymns in church, but I don’t like the funereal place. Our ward organist has been an accomplished organist for many years. But she plays too slowly. When a new chorister was called a few months ago, I told hi I hoped he cold speed up the hymns and he said he bishop told him the same thing. However, most of the time, no such luck. But when our regular, experienced organist is not there, we have a substitute organist. This woman was a just average pianist when she was called to be ward organist some ears ago. She took her calling seriously and worked to learn how to play the organ (for those who aren’t aware, playing the organ and playing the piano are two different tings). She took classes and really came to know what she was doing. When she plays for sacrament meeting, there is a definite difference! But those who have said the congregation pulls the pace down are correct. I was the stake Sunday School chorister many years ago, and that was what I discovered. When I visited the various wards, I found that the hymns dragged. So when we had a stake music meeting, I brought along my metronome. I had the various Sunday School choristers lead the rest of us in a hymn of their choice. Part way through the hymn, I set my metronome going and found that they were all leading the singing at or above the correct tempo. So my advice to them was to not let the congregation slow them down.

    But it is true that organists don’t like negative comments about their playing. There s a singles fireside on the second Monday of the month that a friend and I have gone to numerous times. The organist there is very good, but she played the prelude music so loud, you can’t hear yourself think. Someone told me it had been mentioned to her, but she wouldn’t listen, so I decided I’d say something. It did not go over well at all.

  39. Or you could just get rid of the chorister and no one would miss them. I am not aware of any other church that has such a position.

    People have different ideas of what prelude music should be, and everyone’s a critic, so it’s hard not to make someone upset. I too have been criticized (mostly by older folks) whenever I strayed away from the very subdued temple chapel style prelude playing.

  40. @26: Can’t relate to point 3, but totally agree on points 1 and 2! Well said.

  41. “Strictly Ballroom” refs? Anyone? No? OK–I’ll bite. “She has no body-flight” & “Did I fail him as a mother?” But my favorite ref, and most appropriate to the OP, would have to be Fran’s “Un vida en miedo es un vida in media”–“A life of fear is a life half-lived.” Thanks, RJ. You just made a geek feel cool.

  42. AndrewJDavis says:

    @woodboy: While I agree that not many other churches have chorister, there are some that do. But more importantly, I disagree with you about getting rid of the chorister position. They just need as much training as an organist to do it right, which as many people have pointed out, is no longer happening in Church. The point of congregational singing is to join our voices together — to be One as someone once said. A chorister who knows what they are doing can foster that unity — in pitch, in tempo, in expression, in spirit. A chorister can remind the congregation of how to sing differently — full of praise when needed, reverently when needed, joyfully, etc. Given time, I have been able to train multiple congregations how to follow a chorister so that we as a congregation make music rather than just ‘have a hymn’.

    And… keep upsetting people with good music! One day they’ll get over it.

  43. No no no to putting a metronome on the organ for use during Sacrament Meeting. This is music, not a machine. The organist should be incorporating phrasing and the tempo should vary.

    Yes to making the organ more accessible for organists and possible-organists-to-be to practice. The first time I was called as an organist I put 6-8 hours in preparation time each week. If I had been following the rules about women being in the building alone I could never have done that.

    Yes to acknowledging that music callings are not Sunday only callings. Meaning – don’t assume we can all carry the load of a second calling and still play competently on demand.

    I can play up to tempo and I think that’s a good thing to do. But having put in the work to be able to do that I have very little patience for the criticisms of those who have not worked for it. It’s hard. Incredibly hard. The counter-example I offer is two women I know who looked around their wards and realized that music skills were in short supply so they started taking piano lessons. More than a decade later neither of them will be setting the musical world on fire but both play regularly in church. Sometimes not quite up to tempo. Their playing touches me more than the playing of many more accomplished musicians. I know that they play because they saw a need and put their hearts into filling it.

  44. As an organist, I love having a chorister who I can follow impeccably, rather than one whose gesticulations I have to ignore. As Becky (43) says, a matter of training.

  45. The organist has THE HARDEST assignment every Sunday, maybe followed by the chorister, and THE LEAST APPRECIATED. We call them but provide no training — whatever gift they have, they bring it with them. In my mother’s ward, they have no organist and they worship with a learning pianist — it is hard, but they do their best — in contrast, in my ward, we have four organists — one is also the ward Young Men president, one is also the stake Primary president, one is also a counselor in the bishopric, and one is also the secretary in the high priests group. Blessings aren’t even distributed among wards.

    As far as giving feedback to an organist, I suggested it is welcome but others suggested otherwise — maybe it’s in the style of presentation — saying “you played too fast” might received less favorably than “thanks for playing today, but I could hardly keep up with your tempo.” Maybe they need some appreciation before getting correction.

    A chorister should never “scowl at the organist for getting things wrong” — it is uncharitable to draw attention to another’s mistake — it’s a worship meeting, not a paid performance, and the organist hasn’t been offered any training by the church community but is entirely on his or her own, and he or she shares a gift in the worship meeting. No, if there is any mistake noticed, we silently pray on his or her behalf and continue singing as though it was perfect — maybe even a little louder to help provide some cover. If the chorister wants to be helpful to the organist, yes, let him or her meet with the organist during a practice time before Sunday — otherwise, the organist, God bless him or her, is solely on his or her own. A good chorister (we don’t train them, either) will lead a congregational singing in worship regardless of the quality of the organist.

  46. Adam S. Bennion famously said: “What we need in this church is better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it.”

  47. I teach Gospel Doctrine, and I try to incorporate music in the class. We sing hymns, and sometimes we have assigned music. The Sunday after Thanksgiving we have selected people share the hymn they are most thankful for and why, then we sing it.

    Singing hymns together in SS is cool not only for bringing the Spirit but because the acoustics seem to work better than the chapel. In that setting, our ward sounds great. We harmonize together, and people really sing,

    I am excited about teaching D&C this year partly because we can draw on hymns that the early Saints sang.

  48. Calm down, ji. I was kidding about scowling at the organist.

  49. “The organist has THE HARDEST assignment every Sunday, maybe followed by the chorister, and THE LEAST APPRECIATED”

    This statement can be demonstrably proven to be utter bull.

    Generally, we should be nice to people that are doing things for us out of the goodness of their hearts. That said, if you were my organist, ji, I’d probably scowl at you, most likely because of something bad you did (or because you’re “that guy” in Sunday School).

  50. I’m the chorister in our ward and have been a musician all my life. I set the tempo and expect the organist to follow. If there’s any question, I tell the organist beforehand (we have several) how I want the hymns played. I will never sing I Believe in Christ. For one thing, it’s too long. Even if sung at the correct tempo, it can tak 6 or 7 minutes and that consumes virtually10% of the meeting. Also, isn’t very musical…in my opinion. There are others that fall into the same category. I also refuse to select the militant hymns. I once heard on another program the fiery strains of “vanquishing the foe” followed later by Love One another. What kind of thinking or hymn selection is that?

    Another problem is our young people seldom listen to anything melodic. Lovely melodies and harmonies of many of our hymns are exquisite, but if you’ve been listening to modern stuff, the beauties of many of our hyms are like listening to a foreign tongue.

  51. It’s hard being a member of the LDS Church. We want so much to do so much so well, but we can do so little in so many situations.

    This issue used to bother me greatly, since I love music deeply. I’ve sung in public for 40 years; I play the piano and have been the ward chorister and organist multiple times in multiple wards; I play the saxophone (and wish more instruments were allowed in our meetings); I don’t like singing “Now Let Us Rejoice” at a tempo that puts me to sleep; etc.

    It doesn’t bother me as much any more, though I still wish it was better throughout the Church. Frankly, I’ve been a lousy Home Teacher for a long time – even though I believe it is an important part of the Church. If I can suck so badly at something that important, I have come to accept that others can perform volunteer callings to the best of their ability without me being upset about it. The overall issue can bother be enough to look for ways to try to help, but it doesn’t give me the ulcers it used to cause.

  52. I’m not convinced on the utility of the chorister function, but can appreciate that many people like it. I think Becky in 43 gets at what I find frustrating about the unsolicited criticism. Anyone who is up there playing has likely spent hundreds or thousands of hours practicing and preparing, and it’s annoying to have someone tell you “you’re doing it wrong,” especially if they have no abilities themselves. I’m not a good organist by any stretch, but I remember once I played a cool Pachelbel prelude on the Old Hundredth that I had been working on learning for quite a while, and then some older lady came up and told me “It’s too loud, that’s not what a prelude is supposed to sound like.” Meaning, she couldn’t talk over the top of it and ignore it. Excuse me lady, how many Bach preludes have you listened to in your life? A lot of them are not very subtle. In fairness I’ve also gotten many positive comments over the years, which were nice.

    Imagine how you would feel if someone came up to you and started lecturing you on how you suck at your career and are doing it all wrong, but they have no experience themselves. Most people wouldn’t take kindly to it.

    I think it’s part of a larger problem in the church that there is no real institutional support for music, at least not at the local level. You may get a sympathetic leader who will let you do interesting things musically, but then the leadership will change and the new guy will decide that’s not kosher anymore. It’s why virtually everyone who is serious about church music (professional or amateur) just gives up and ends up working with other churches where you don’t have to fight the culture and the leadership all the time.

  53. I love singing the hymns (some more than others, natch), and I have great respect for those talented (and dedicated) enough to play the piano and organ for us. I wish I’d had the gumption to really learn an instrument when I was younger (and that I had the time and gumption to give it a go now).

    Our current organist is a fairly young women who is very good on the piano and other instruments, but is still learning the organ. I can tell that our tempo is sometimes constrained by her ability, but she’s getting better.

    My grandmother was ward organist her whole life, I think. That’s the only calling I ever knew her to have. She also supplemented her income for years as a paid organist (and pianist, and violinist) for other churches. My last memory of church with her is taking her to her ward in her mid-80s, after she could no longer get herself there, and wincing a bit as she pointedly (and not too quietly) commented on the skill and tempo of the organist. (She was right, of course.)

  54. Researcher says:

    “working with other churches where you don’t have to fight the culture and the leadership all the time” (52)

    Yesterday I started to look up a good way to explain the difference between the piano and the organ and stumbled upon a blog called MusicaSacra Forum. The professional church musicians have real, deep-seated, and ongoing difficulties with their church culture and leadership. The discussions there were helpful; one musician told another that if any changes needed to be made to the parish music culture, to consider it a five-year project.

    About the question of piano and organ, piano and organ are both keyboard instruments, but the similarity stops there. The piano is a string or percussion instrument and the organ is a woodwind, or at least the pipe organ is.

    Asking a pianist to play the organ is like asking a flute player to play the trumpet, and not just to play it, but to perform in front of a large group of people where every single mistake will be immediately obvious. It’s as if a bishopric calls a flute player to play the trumpet for the congregation because, after all, you just have to move your fingers around and blow into the instrument. Or in other words, it is assumed that someone who plays the piano should be able to play the organ because they both use a keyboard.

    When you switch from piano to organ, you have to learn a whole new instrument. You have to learn to use your hands and fingers differently. You have to learn how to pedal. You have to learn how to set stops and use them correctly. You have to learn about volume control. You have to learn how to read music differently.

    I had some excellent organ instruction when I was a teenager, but then didn’t have much of a chance to use the skill over the years — after all, you really only have access to an organ when you’re called to do it, and you don’t necessarily even have good access to an organ when you’re a ward organist; access to the building and organ can be a real problem.

    I joked upstream about organists being sensitive. If any of us are, it’s a well-earned sensitivity. An organist may only be up there because she was called to do it, and she may not have any formal organ training. There’s a good chance that she is a “flute player” turned “trumpeter.” She may have limited access to the organ to practice, and she may quake at the thought that any real organists in the congregation, like lindberg mentions in 53, may be sneering.

    So the next time you feel like criticizing your ward organist, please do reconsider unless (a) you’re willing to sit down and play the organ yourself, and (b) the bishopric would actually call you to the position.

  55. Researcher says:

    And two more notes.

    First, my previous comment is no excuse for someone who actually knows how to play the organ and doesn’t play it at correct tempo. Playing hymns too slowly undermines the worship experience.

    And second, the BYU organ faculty has a good resource for pianists having to switch over to organ:


    The Church Music website also has some good resources including the owner’s manuals for most of the organs used in the church buildings (valuable for learning the quirks of your individual organ) and a cool interactive music player. Unfortunately the interactive music player defaults to the lowest recommended tempo.

  56. Thanks researcher, great comments. I did not mean to imply there are never any conflicts over music programs in other churches, but generally it’s a different set of concerns. Most music directors are given pretty wide latitude over what they do with their programs, and almost nowhere is church governance as autocratic as in the Mormon Church. Of course that can create its own set of problems, like dealing with committees. But generally you don’t have to debate about whether well recognized church music is appropriate out not. Try singing a Latin tallis motet in most wards and see how far you get. or for that matter, even an English one.

  57. Another Becky who has played organ in SM, accompanied the choir, and led the choir. I have put more time into practicing and preparing to play organ for SM than GD teacher or many other callings. I have spent above 10 hours per week practicing the piano and organ for keyboard callings. They are hard and very underappreciated. No, I cannot just play any song you want to pick out of the hymnbook. My friend who is our ward organist now is GREAT and we don’t have issues with too slow. But they changed the hymns for SC the night before and neglected to tell her. I would have been a raving lunatic. This friend has an organ. You can ASK your keyboardist if she can play a certain hymn. but she practiced the other ones for hours this week. I was so indignant for her. Please value your music providers. They have worked very hard. Oh, and it is ok to call men to lead music in Primary and SM. My brother did a great job I. His ward in CA.

  58. “I am always disappointed when the hymn-chooser insists that hymns must correlate with the precise theme of the talks.”

    This, a thousand times!!!

    When I was chorister the woman doing the program and I would choose hymns together. She would slavishly turn to the topical index of songs and go from there. I would think, “Which hymn do I LOVE to sing that we haven’t done in a while? Which hymn makes me say “yes!!” when I see it on the program?” Finally i jist took over hymn selection myself. I had so many people week after week saying that the music in this ward was special to them and made a difference in their enjoyment of Sacrament Meeting.

    And it helped that we had a pianist who was completely in board with my philosophy of doing them at a quick tempo.

    Quick pianist > slow organist.

  59. Re-reading my comment (#53) I think I may have come across as being too harsh on my grandmother. At that point she was about three years into her slide down the slippery slope of Alzheimer’s; I doubt she would have ever sniped at another organist like that during the first 80+ years of her life.

    Sorry, Grandma.

  60. Researcher says:

    Oh, lindberg, as soon as I wrote my comment I regretted mentioning your grandmother in particular. Sorry about that.

    Calling upon amateur musicians with a wide variety of skill levels can result in some real tensions. It can be very painful to listen to musical problems that could be solved with some basic instruction; however, most organists know that there’s not much they can say or do without potentially causing great offense to the current organist. (Ask me how I know. Actually, never mind. Please don’t.)

  61. Thanks for the kind words, Researcher.

    No offense taken. Your mention helped me to realize that my portrayal of her hadn’t been very kind, and I appreciated the opportunity to repent a bit and try to set the record straight(er).

  62. I love most of the music available from the Church. I love it enough to admit that when a vast majority of the world’s music made during the last century has been guitar inspired/performed and your congregations generally fear musical instruments other than keyboards and strings playing in your “worldwide church” services… there are serious cultural concerns worth addressing.

  63. Alf O'Mega says:

    As our ward’s friendly neighborhood atheist organist, I have to say that the only criticism I’ve ever received (that I wasn’t too dense to perceive, anyway) was from my organist father, who was visiting one week. He thought I was playing too loud. I dialed it back a bit.

    I do try to keep the tempo up. The larger the congregation, the harder I have to work at keeping the congregation moving. But even in small congregations there can be hazards. In my last ward, which was pretty small, my nemeses were a married couple with beautiful singing voices. They knew their voices were beautiful and tended to wallow; sometimes I had to leave them behind.

    There are hymns that need to be strangled. The top of my list is 158: “Before Thee, Lord, I Bow My Head.” We should be pasting copies of “Come Thou Fount” over that hymn in all our local hymnals. (Maybe that’s what my fifteen-year-old could do for his eagle project!) And I never play “I Believe in Christ” if I can avoid it. Despite the numbering, it’s actually eight platitudinous verses long.

    Fortunately, I get to pick my own hymns, and although the topics are assigned, I haven’t gotten any blowback about my choices so far. “Press Forward, Saints” will be our lead-off batter this Sunday.

  64. Atheist organists are the best!

  65. I don’t always play the hymns slowly, but when I do, I prefer them to be eight platudinous verses long.

  66. Alf O'Mega says:

    “I don’t always play the hymns slowly, but when I do, I prefer them to be eight platudinous verses long.”

    I don’t know if there’s a hell, Romni, but Dante had nothing on you.

  67. Don’t blame your disappointing music experience on slow organists. It’s a really hard job, but it’s THEIR job. To the people sitting in the pews: Your job is to sing, and to sing loudly.

  68. We can totally blame disappointing music on slow organists. I love singing hymns, but when they are played so slowly that I cannot sing through a phrase in one breath, that’s a problem. When they are played so slowly that I can’t even remember the last phrase I sang because it was 5 minutes ago, that is a problem.

    That said, I don’t blame organists for not knowing how to play the organ. That is the Church’s fault for not supporting them with the education and training they need. An organ is not a piano. Supporting congregational singing is not like solo playing. It is a totally different skill. I could go on, and on, and on.

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