Is Church Music “Good”?

BCC guest blogger Sharon H. has a background in Humanities education and arts administration, and in her free time, she’s been organizing a pretty epic Christmas concert for the New York, NY stake.

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I remember it was over a mediocre burger within my first week of moving to Texas. My colleague was being friendly, telling me about her church in case I needed one. As we were both music educators, she went into extra detail about her church’s music. She told how their previous music minister was a good Christian man but really impossible to work with as a director. But they had just hired a new minister and purchased a completely new sound system all built directly into the sanctuary—I should hear it—and this new music minister was full of ideas and was already asking her opinion for upcoming events. Exciting, I agreed. Had I found a church yet? I had, actually. Do they have good music?

Hmm. How to answer that question? Well of course we have good music. We sponsor one of the most famous choirs in the world with an orchestra and bell choir to boot. We host an annual Christmas concert series with internationally renowned musicians broadcast on PBS. But after listing these examples, I feel myself running out of steam. If we’re talking about our weekly worship services, then the answer must be that it depends. It depends on the ward or branch, on those who organize the meetings, on the given week, and, on what, exactly, is meant by “good.”

The LDS church is unusual in not having paid musicians or a music director, but I submit that where we’re unique is in not requiring or maybe even expecting those who take on music leadership roles or callings to have musical talent or experience at all. I realize that the vast majority of sacrament meeting accompanists have had some form of piano lessons, but haven’t we all heard the stories of the people who, bless their hearts, couldn’t keep a beat and a melody in the same room together, and then, lo, he gets called as the ward music chair, or she becomes the Relief Society pianist?

Plenty of these are regular Mormon Horatio Alger tales where she finds an encouraging instructor, begins her service by slowly plunking out the melody with one finger, and gradually improves to playing the entire hymnal competently.

Perhaps more common than these success stories, however, is the experience of “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today” played at the tempo of a funeral dirge. Especially lengthy hymns can test one’s commitment. I am reminded that I Believe in Christ and that I must endure to the end.

These examples illustrate some of the benefits and challenges of the church’s unique approach to music in our services. What follows aren’t comprehensive or perfectly articulated lists, but as I see it, some of the challenges include:

  • Music played and/or sung badly. This happens. Still, I want to qualify this one: I’m a trained musician, and I prefer exquisitely rendered music to most things in this world. That said, I’m also an educator. Quite honestly, if I have to choose between an elitist culture around beautifully done church music and using forgiving ears as Sister So-and-so relives her bygone days as a soprano or as little Bobby rallies his courage to play a squeaky violin version of “Teach Me to Walk in the Light,” I’ll choose the latter. People need and get chances to learn and stretch through church music. They practice, pray, worry, and develop their talents. When I am at my best, I love them for it, and I believe their sincere offerings of musical worship are sacred. Of course, I’m not convinced we have to choose between the two extremes I’ve mentioned here…
  • Lack of variety. A friend pointed out that in the wake of the correlation movement, the hymnal became the “manual” for music. We have 341 selections in the English-speaking hymnal, and while they cover a laudable range of styles in hymn/song formats, most congregations probably use fewer than 75 of them with any regularity. Add to that the fact that there are those among us who believe that if a piece isn’t in the hymnal, it shouldn’t be in our meetings. Consequently, we get a lot of repetition.
  • Official music leadership who don’t understand music or, even worse, the work that goes into it. This happens a lot, especially because the manuals make it clear that at the ward and branch level, “The bishop and his counselors oversee ward music,” while those in music callings, are to “serve as a resource to the bishopric on music matters” (Church Handbook 2, 14.2). This policy means that often those putting in the most time, thought, prayer, planning, practicing, recruiting, etc., to actually produce the music don’t entirely have stewardship over it. Mismatched expectations and interpretations are inevitable. All the more reason for all parties involved to be kind.

But there are some benefits to our system of musical worship, too:

  • A higher music literacy rate on average among church members. How many Mormons do you know who, at some point, have had music lessons? Or, even if they don’t exactly read music, many, like my dad, learn to follow and pick out other voice parts after years of sitting in ward choirs or listening to Bro. Holman sing the bass line.
  • An increased sense of community surrounding music. We’re all in this together instead of the hired musicians as institutionally endorsed and therefore distinct from everyone else.
  • More frequent opportunities for members to provide music for services. Even if a person doesn’t have a calling, there’s always a need for substitutes and special musical numbers.
  • Greater familiarity with church music and materials (i.e., the hymnal and Children’s Songbook). Because many of us help provide the music and because we tend to stick closely to church-produced materials, we get to know the hymns and songs more thoroughly.
  • Greater variety of musical and leadership styles. We tend to get variety that comes from regular calling turnover that we would miss if a music minister was hired and stayed in the job for years and years.
  • Testimony trumps talent. Our system encourages (sometimes demands!) us to focus on the message of the music and on the intent, diligence, and testimony of the music maker rather than on the talent of the music maker.

Although I could say plenty more, for now I’ll raise one final characteristic of local church music organization without putting it in either list: the vulnerability of those who participate.

Especially if a person doesn’t necessarily have the skills for his or her calling as the primary singing time leader or organist, I’d venture that few callings in the church reveal a person’s inadequacies as readily and as frequently as music callings can. The whole ward can hear a fumbled note or missed entrance. Others feel vulnerable when they seem to be consistently passed over for musical opportunities. Even those who are more confident musicians can face criticism—for being “too good.”

Once in college, shortly after friends and I had presented an arrangement of “For the Beauty of the Earth,” a ward member glanced at me and then pointedly and loudly told everyone in the room that the feeling of wanting to clap after a musical number was a sure indication that the Spirit wasn’t there and that the people wanted to show off. Whether the Spirit was there or not, she misread our intention, and I found myself feeling embarrassed, misunderstood, and less inclined to sing again.

That one example of many explains why a priesthood leader I know maintains that music callings are not for wusses—precisely because people who serve in music are so often required to have thick skins and resilient testimonies.

Maybe this vulnerability actually adds to the music’s impact. At first somewhat embarrassed about his rocks, the brother of Jared walked away with God-touched perma-lights and a sure knowledge of the Savior. For all its messiness, some of the most moving music I’ve ever heard or performed has been in LDS worship services. Church music is where I learned to sightread and to overcome childhood shyness. It’s where I first learned for myself the genius of Handel and where I gained some of my dearest friends. It’s where I’ve known way deep down that God knew me, and it’s where I’ve laughed the hardest at church. Whether or not the music itself is good, it’s sure been good for me.


  1. Philip Siu says:

    It would be great if LDS parents encouraged their children to musical instruments other than just Piano, Violin and Flute. It makes it immeasurably easier to put an LDS orchestra together (no mean feat outside of the LDS heartland regions!).

  2. I heard a Conference talk a long time ago that I often remember when I think of our bumbling meetings (and music).

    The story was told of a couple missionaries that invited a woman to church. She came, and as the Elders sat there cringing through an awkward meeting in the small branch staffed by volunteers clearly not up to the task of their various assignments, they wondered if they’d ever see this investigator again after the meeting was over. To their surprise, afterwards, she remarked on the humble, imperfect and seemingly inadequate nature of the meetings and said, “I think this must have been what meetings were like in the time of Christ.”

    Of course, I’m not suggesting the goal should be mediocrity, but whenever I encounter it, at least that story gives me comfort.

  3. This is really great, Sharon. Thanks for both the analysis, and your charitable approach. A lot to think about.

  4. Hate to tell you this, Philip, but it’s no mean feat to put together an LDS orchestra even inside the LDS hearland regions. Non-rock-band instruments aren’t very high on the scale culturally, not even in the middle of Utah.

    One thing I’ve found in being called as music director – I’m never missing a rehearsal again, even after I’m released. It’s just too hard to get people to come, and I don’t want to be part of the next director’s problem. That is one thing about our Church. We don’t like talents hidden, no matter how imperfect we think our own may be.

  5. Pleasure to see you round these parts, Sharon!

    I’ve never been in charge of music, though I have sung in some choirs and quartets. I confess a real… discontent with our church music and MoTab sound, but…
    I absolutely love going to Evensong/Vespers and hearing beautiful classical religious music, particularly unaccompanied polyphonic pieces. And I can’t help comparing it to our staid modern arrangements and sighing.
    Then a friend of my wife’s came to church with us, and made an observation that shifted my view a bit. Her comment was “Wow, your congregational hymns are really difficult, but people sing all the parts.” And I realized I’d been comparing the wrong things. It’s true that the large choir of trained under-14s or an Eastern Orthodox group sounds ethereally inspiring, but congregational hymns in high church settings are virtually monotone, no parts, and musically boring. Perhaps it averages out. But the outside observation has helped me appreciate our weekly music more than I was.

  6. Some good points. I think your challenge #3 is the main problem (at the local level), and is the reason I gave up trying to find fulfilling musical experiences in the church.

  7. Also, reminds me of the time an investigator asked if our church meetings were spiritual. My companion fell all over himself to assure the man, yes, of course they were, but knowing his background I asked what he meant by spiritual.

    “Oh, you know, do you have a good worship band and clapping and stuff.”
    “No,” I replied, “our meetings are not very spiritual.”

  8. I agree, Ben. I sat on the stand on Sunday, and was impressed at how much the regular congregation sounds like a choir, when paired with the right organist and hymn.

  9. Ben, I would disagree that high church congregational hymns are monotone, no parts, and musically boring. Maybe at a catholic church, they tend to do more unison singing. I submit you’ve just been going to the wrong churches…

  10. Loved your thoughts — thanks for bringing them here!

  11. My biggest concern isn’t whether the music in church is bad or good, but whether it’s enthusiastic and engaged or not. Utility is such a dominant force in our aesthetics (if you can call it that) that music is in danger of being or becoming something that we do out of duty and routine. We sing an opening hymn because that’s what you do. As a result, in my ward, congregational singing is sometimes just sad and depressing.

    I also worry that outside of the US we expend too much effort and energy trying to get people without anything like American-style piano culture to emulate it in clumsy ways–plunking out a simplified accompaniment on a cheap Casio keyboard, which might make a service seem vaguely more similar to one in Utah, but certainly doesn’t make it sound better. Especially when this takes place in some places with no piano culture but strong traditions of unaccompanied singing. (Which, alas, we sometimes dampen by insisting that people not stand, or move to the music, let alone clap!)

  12. Has anyone else noticed it seems to be less common for mormons to take piano lessons now? When I was a kid, tons of us did, and I’d say on my mission (nearly 20 yrs ago now) 1/3 to 1/2 of the missionaries could play hymns pretty decently. Now I am the only person in my ward who can play at all (and I am not very good), so I am the de facto pianist, and of all the missionaries that have come through in the last 5 years, there was only one who could play piano, and one or two more that could plunk out some notes if forced into it. I’ve been observing this for long enough that I think music lessons are becoming less common. They are really expensive, so that might be why.

  13. Many years ago, when our family first moved to Salt Lake City, my father was called to play the organ for priesthood meeting in our ward. He had played piano since childhood, but organ playing is very different. The ward actually paid for my father to take organ lessons and he became quite accomplished. When my parents moves into the ward they would live in for the rest of their lives, my father was once again called as the priesthood organist. When he expressed an interest in pipe organs, he was given a key to the stake center, so he could go and play the pipe organ there. The church seems always to be able to provide the means for people to develop their talents.

    Our current ward organist has played piano for years, but not the organ. She is working very hard at magnifying her calling. She selects the hymns each Sunday, rather than the chorister (currently me) so she can select those she can play. She is also taking an organ class at the U. While she does hit wrong notes from time to time (especially with her feet), and sometimes does not play as fast as I try to lead, she is improving week after week. I make a point of telling her how much I appreciate her efforts.

    Yes, sometimes it can be jarring on the ears to hear the efforts of some whose talent does not quite meet up with their aspirations, but if they are using those talents humbly to praise the Lord, then I think our ears can handle it.

    However, I certainly would never claim the spirit was absent when someone preforms beautifully. That just brings the spirit loser.

  14. Sorry, that should have been “That just brings the spirit closer.”

  15. Would have worked with a comma, too. “That just brings the spirit, loser.”

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    I loved this, Sharon!

  17. As one who the manual says has stewardship for the music (Bishopric), I’ll say it is a daunting calling that causes me more night sweats than any other area of responsibility I have. Music can have a profound and enriching impact in every meeting during the three hour block and in extracurricular activities like firesides and other spiritual outreach efforts.

    Just ensuring the key players are in place – and by that *wink* I don’t just mean organists and pianists though that can be a very real challenge – is a struggle if you don’t have a deep bench of musical talent. As I joked in one meeting, if all we need is someone to stand up there and wave their arms to the music, any Deacon will pass the muster. But that is not what we’re looking for nor as Sharon explains, is that what we should expect. Though I do believe every young man and young woman should be taught how to properly lead music as part of their development within the Church.

    It’s important to develop respect for what it takes to put together a proper choral number while also recognizing the beauty of every member doing their best and praising the Lord in song. That’s why I loved the story of Maude and Clyde from the 1991 Ensign because it embodies what dedication and love represents.

    I do my best to ensure we put the people in place that the Lord wants called while trying to seek out the best talent possible and then let the Music Chair run the show. We check in with each other to stay aligned with the themes for sacrament meeting and to ensure that the music chosen from outside the hymnal – which I strongly encourage – is tonally appropriate and doctrinally correct. I’ve discovered that a great music chair who really magnifies that calling can profoundly change the tenor of how music is presented and perceived within the Ward while also ferreting out those who are hiding their candles under a bushel. We’re seeing some fantastic youth, men, Primary and other types of choirs develop as a result of those efforts.

    My good fortune has been to experience a Ward of extraordinary musical talent when we lived in Boston and all that was possible from that. But I also know the challenges of having to rely on a few select people who always get the music callings because we only have 3 or 4 pianists at best.

    There is richness in LDS music, for all the claims of mediocrity that get leveled at our efforts, I believe a little training and a lot of encouragement go a long way to help change the perception and experiences with what our music can be. We may not sound like the King’s College Choir but if the music is sung with love, then that is all that truly matters.

  18. Alain, if every bishopric had someone who had thought about this as deeply and carefully as you have, things would be much, much better in lots of places!

  19. Sharon, spot on analysis of both our strengths and our weaknesses. i think of this often as I am an occasional member of our ward choir. Our choir director leads a rather difficult and lonely life, and his one passion is music. He creates his own arrangements of many hymns, and his musical knowledge is quite comprehensive. Many of the arrangements we sing seem to be beyond the capabilities of our small ward choir, and that difficulty has often pushed otherwise talented singers out of our choir. Yet I am constantly surprised of what our director can wring from an average of about 12 to 15 singers of various levels of expertise, and I have sung some very terrific and difficult hymns and songs, and we usually exceed all of our expectations. I am a rather mediocre baritone, but when I can sing with a choir that really works well together, and with an enthusiastic director, the result is very rewarding.

    What we lack in talent in our ward choir we more than make up for in other musical talents. We have at least three part or full time professional musicians, and a number of other really talented individuals. We have had wonderful pieces that include cello, violin, saxophone and french horn, and I have even played acoustic guitar in sacrament meeting on multiple occasions. This is where I see the fruits of offering opportunities for developing our musical talents. The lows of slow hymn singing are far outweighed by the occasional drop dead heart-stopping moments of musical grace.

  20. OK, I can go with you here, Sharon. A charitable approach is usually the best one, so, thanks.

  21. I love your last paragraph. I’m looking around me for someplace I can quote it–I’m sure an opportunity will come up!

  22. What a great discussion. Being a music educator myself, and having also had the experience of being a paid music and liturgy director in another church, I have though a lot about this topic.

    I think we are better off not having paid music ministers in our Wards and Stakes. Under such conditions it’s all to easy for us to “outsource” our personal musicianship to the professionals. It goes against the very idea of a lay ministry where all have opportunities to serve and grow.

    That being said, I do think that Bishops and Stake Presidents should provide sufficient musical training for the people they call to music positions. Where possible there could be periodic training classes held during Sunday School or on a week-day evening. A pianist who is called to play the organ should get at least some training on how to set registration properly and some simple fingering technique. Congregational “choristers” should understand how to interpret the suggested metronome markings in the hymnal and know how to conduct compound meter. I am confident that, at least in the larger Wards there is always someone willing and able to provide this training. I have volunteered to provide it in my own ward, but until is it made mandatory, few are going to feel they can spare the time.

    We have the potential to make music great. We just need the will.

  23. I am the chorister in our ward–going on 15 years. I refuse to sing the sappy sunshine hymns and avoid the militant hymns like the plague. Vanquishing the foe to me seems at odds with the Savior’s plea for us to love others. No way do I select 75% of the over 300 hymns in the book. I do think, however, we could use about twice as many good sacrament hymns as we currently have. We’re fortunate. Our ward has 4 decent organists one of whom is excellent, The others trail off by varying degrees. But, I give thanks for each one and let them hear it from me almost every week. So many of our hymns are joyful and should be sung at the tempos that are intended. There’s nothing worse than singing or playing hymns that are painfully slow.

  24. I have been the organist off and on for most of my adult life, mostly self-taught. From where I sit, it makes a world of difference who the chorister is. In the last ward I was in, the only qualification the chorister had was her willingness to do it. As a consequence, the first app I got for my smartphone was a metronome, so I could keep a decent tempo as I was playing.

  25. I’ve always just ignored the chorister and played however I wanted. Seems to work fine. If you’re the one playing the instrument, you have the ultimate ability to set the tempo.

  26. “I’ve always just ignored the chorister and played however I wanted.”

    Yeah, we noticed :)

  27. woodboy, all those years in youth orchestra have made me the pianist who follows the chorister, or tries to. Sometimes the chorister has appeared to be waiting for me at the start of a verse however, which can lead to a longer than anticipated gap between verses.

    Sharon, I’d suggest the reason so many of our congregants sing the parts is because our hymns are so tedious otherwise. I like to alternate between soprano and alto, and if it’s not too low, I’ll have a bash at the tenor line as well. In my experience CofE hymns have much better tunes. I am a big fan of congregational singing though. And I think it’s great we have the music notation in our hymnbooks as standard.

    I am currently ward music chairman, and #3 is definitely a huge and frustrating problem.

  28. I once had to be the chorister for a professional organist. If I screwed up, so did he. It was highly educational, terrifying, but ultimately transcendent. A far cry from being the useless fool standing in front of everyone and waving one’s arms around.

  29. Bad woodboy, bad!

    Personally, I prefer hearing an imperfect Elizabeth Bennett to an affected Mary Bennett. We do get some of both, as well as some first rate musical numbers.

    I think one other element missing is that we refuse to expand the number of instruments we allow. Guitars at minimum seem like a huge miss.

  30. How did you end up with a picture of the Vienna 2nd ward?

  31. It takes all of my concentration to manage to play most of the right notes. I can’t really be trying to follow someone else at the same time, especially when they are so unnecessary.

  32. Woodboy, if the chorister knows what they are doing, it actually makes playing (and singing) easier. Real congregational conducting can make a huge difference in the music, but unfortunately has become something of a lost art.

  33. I suppose that can be true, but none of the other churches I have sung in have them, yet somehow everyone still manages to come in at the right time and sing the right notes. So I see the position as somewhat superfluous, except maybe at general conference. Still, I recognize that 99.999% of Mormons disagree with me and think it is an important calling without which hymnody would collapse, so it’s not an argument I expect to win, and anyway I’m distracting from the point of this post.

  34. My disabled daughter has just been called to lead the music in RS. The part of her brain that does math is damaged, and that part has a lot to do with musical ability too. As hard as she tries, she can’t get the counts right. The Lord certainly did work in a mysterious way on this calling.

  35. Some comments have mentioned guitars. Our rural Indiana ward produced a guitar-harmonica duet of Silent Night last Sunday, by 2 men. As people who are less inclined to formalism and unwritten (or written) rules, they have no idea how subversive they are!

  36. My late grandfather was an accomplished professional jazz musician who converted to the church in the early 1960’s. For most of my formative years, I remember him playing improvised yet reverent prelude and postlude music on the chapel organ in a sort of muted Bill Evans style. Somehow it worked. And I miss it … especially when I hear our current organist play. No disrespect intended, but she prefers more of the heavy-vibrato, hockey/carousel organ sound than what you might expect at church. Sometimes, I confess, I want to sneak into the chapel and break the vibrato button so that it can’t be activated ever again. No one will ever replace the soothing tones of my grandpa’s magical fingers, but if we could just get back to a traditional church organ sound it would be a start.

    On another note, my wife often elbows me in church as I pretend to tear certain pages from the hymnal mid-song. (If SWK could staple together Song of Solomon and dismiss it from the scriptural canon, surely there is some enabling precedent for my right to disregard portions of the hymnal.) It is true that we confine ourselves to a select number of the available hymns. It is also true that many of the hymns have no business being in the hymnal. Some have worn out their welcome. Others were never welcome in the first place. But that is a thread for another day.

  37. I agree organ tremulants should be used with extreme discretion in church music. Pretty much only for solo stops. It’s been many years since I’ve attended an LDS church with an organ, but I also remember it being overused.

  38. I think one of the biggest issues is the other time demands living an LDS life creates leaves little time to produce musical excellence unless in the Tab. Choir. I am a trained musician and for years and years was frustrated by LDS male leadership (with no musical training) having all kinds of opinions on music from words (the word figs in a carol) to instruments in the chapel (instruments approved varied from Bishop to Bishop despite the handbook). Actually putting together any musical event became a living nightmare. So I simply stopped doing it. We left the LDS church two years ago after studying church history (only source documents) and I must say, I love not having any of those politics to deal with anymore. I regularly arrange music events for my local community which I believe bring the spirit of Jesus to all who attend. I really hope the LDS culture will allow music to become less about the ‘rules’ and more about the ‘spirit’. Unfortunately, nobody has the skills to play the piano the way I did in my former stake. By members own admission, there hasn’t been a high quality music event in years. I have just been confirmed an Anglican. I did chuckle last Christmas when I saw several active LDS also in attendance at the Minster Cathedral Carol service. When I said hello they joked they had to visit the Anglican’s for their Musical fix!

  39. Nora Ray, I assume you know about this, but just in case…
    It’s a really good resource.

  40. So I am somewhat musical and served with someone who was classically trained. We were told that before we sang a pioneer song, we had to get it approved by a member of the bishopric. I went up to the counselor over music and handed him the lyrics with the directive I was given. He flipped quickly through the pages and said, “Murder and mayhem”, “blood and carnage”….”looks great!” His sarcasm was exactly how I felt. I am positive that Eliza R. Snow’s “O My Father” would never make it past the counselor over music if not already in the hymnal.

  41. Thank you, all, for terrific comments and experiences! I haven’t meant to bow out of the conversation. I just haven’t been near a computer all day, and this response will be abbreviated too as I’m still typing from my phone.

    Ben, pleasure to see you here. Yes, I agree that often the upper end of LDS church members’ musical abilities falls below the best musicians in other denominations, but if there were some way of accounting for the median of members’ musical talents, I think the LDS contingent does pretty well there.

    Jeremy, a big amen to all of your thoughts. I considered writing about some of the musical mismatch we impose on other cultures in the church and opted for this post instead. I think a lot of the strictures on music come down to a combination of how much our understanding of the Spirit is tied to what we’re familiar with and how familiar church leaders and members are with music and musical variety. I’d love to think about how the congregation’s musical language allows for or inhibits variety in our worship. I’ve got away with a gospel song including a bit of swaying and Palestrina in one ward, but that was a congregation that was comfortable enough with those differences that they could worship through that kind of music. That wouldn’t be true and therefore may not be necessarily be good for another ward. (Although I love using music callings as educational opportunities.)

  42. I’ll insert my slightly bitter, Eeyore-toned kvetch about how only people with acceptable musical skill sets are welcome to perform in Sacrament Meeting. I am a blues/honky-tonk/folk/rockabilly singer (and a moderately competent guitarist), but I’m perfectly capable of singing in a more classical style. The only time I was ever asked to provide a musical number for SM, on Mother’s Day, I was shot down at the last minute because I chose a song about Heavenly Mother. I know, that makes me a rabid, crazy-eyed feminist radical. Guess I should have just sung “I often go walking.” Sigh.

    Oh, and woodboy – I’m in southern California and piano lessons seem fairly common for the kids in my ward. Both my kids take lessons weekly. I pay $120 monthly for the two of them, and that is the least expensive teacher I have found (in the 4+ years we’ve been with her, she’s never raised her rates), so you may be right that there’s an economic barrier keeping more people from getting their kids lessons. If their teacher charged much more, I might not be able to justify the expense, as valuable as I believe it is.

  43. woodboy, I’ll join you in the 0.001%!

    Thanks, Sharon…

  44. I remember at the beginning of one semester back at BYU, the bishop called me in and asked if I would accept the calling to be the sacrament meeting pianist. I said yes, and he looked down to check something on a piece of paper. Then he looked back up and said, “Great! So, do you have any experience playing the piano?” A little surprised (I assumed he knew that before calling me in), I answered, “Uh, yes,” to which he replied, “Oh good … that will make it a lot easier.”

  45. In my last stake, the Stake President issued an edict banning all music from sacrament meetings unless it was a hymn. For a time, this was even applied to the annual Christmas program—no carols could be performed except those in the hymnal. Such a draconian policy has a Luciferian quality to it: “There is only proper way to worship God through music, and this is it.”

    Music is a form of worship. And for music—and worship—to retain their vibrancy experimentation must not only be allowed, but encouraged. I am convinced that there are new ways in which we can worship our Father in Heaven through music, but they will remain hidden unless we are allowed to explore. This requires us to take risks, and it means that sometimes we will try things that won’t work. But it is the only way our sacred musical canon (nice play on words, don’t you think?) can grow and develop.

    Matthew Bowman, in his book “The Mormon People,” laments the fact that the church has banned the use of drums in Mormon branches in Africa. At first blush, this may seem like a sensible policy—until we learn that the drum is the most sacred religious instrument in most African cultures. It is only our western tastes and biases that cause us to recoil at the thought of a drum in sacrament meeting. Such failures of imagination shackle our efforts to realize our music potential within the church.

  46. Hmm, for me it boils down to this. Is the music at LDS services “good”? By every metric I can think of, not really. But is this okay? Yes, I think so.

  47. Sorry guys, I also believe Woodboy’s right. I’m a trained musician who has spent a good portion of my life in various music callings. In my experience, virtually no one pays attention to a Sacrament Meeting chorister. And yet, somehow, we’ve developed the erroneous belief that we can’t sing anything ever unless someone waves a hand in front of us. Very odd.

    Don’t get me wrong, as chorister I like it when an organist follows me, because I know what I’m doing. But it’s a little silly for me to stand up and face the congregation when the only person I’m really directing is the organist behind me. And I recognize that if organists know what they are doing, they don’t need me. Conducting matters in choirs, not in congregations.

  48. Another benefit I’ve seen is the chance for members worldwide to access music where they might not have had the opportunity. Having served in Southeast Asia, I saw many young members relish at the chance to plunk away at a cheap Yamaha piano. Some of the playing was poor, it’s true, but some of them became quite proficient. Singing the melody in a small choir as a special musical number for all the verses wasn’t very novel or inspiring, for me. But for them, they had the chance to access a part of them that would lay dormant because of the lack of opportunity. It makes me glad the music system is church wide.

  49. Great article. So many issues with Church music. I grew up in a Ward blessed with talent. 1 0r 2 musical numbers every week. Many of us got our first taste of overcoming fear while being in front of the public. Didn’t play an instrument? You got to learn how to sing with the other young men. “you guys are in a quartet” “You will be singing a duet” WOW!

    We had professional soloists who could raise the roof with their voices and sometimes did if the spirit moved them to do so. Can you imagine an Air Force general in uniform leading the congregation on July 4th and then singing a solo later? He sang on the strip in Las Vegas as a young man. Wouldn’t be allowed today.

    I miss being taught the hymns of the church as a congregation in Sunday School. Even the parts! Now we have the music nazis in correlation making all music the same. Yes, almost all the songs are sung in funeral tempo.

    I am very grateful for those who lead our choirs and play for us. I remember my favorite organist who transposed popular songs from the 30’s and 40’s for prelude and post meeting music! Bless the talent.

    My first year at BYU in the old Smith fieldhouse I felt the spirit in church hymns at a Thursday devotional when that tremendous chorus of students sang with energy and joy the words that echo still today ” Shall the youth of Zion falter…” I remember that moment as the first time I understood what power hymns have when sung with power and joy.

  50. I attended a Congregationalist Church the first Sunday of Advent. They applauded after announcing how many meals they’d fed to the homeless that Thanksgiving, and I think with just cause. (LDS YSA count: 0.) We sang carols before the service: some were familiar, some were new. They had different languages in the hymnbook, which was awesome. Also, they founded Harvard.

  51. Looking back at KMarkP’s comment this morning, I’m interested in any opinions for how to provide music training for those who receive callings. I think it’s a great idea, but what should it look like, shy of the arrows and diagrams for beat patterns in the back of the hymnal? What, besides note reading, should people learn? This gets to the argument woodboy has raised: can a chorister’s skills actually make congregational singing more meaningful? I think yes, but I’m curious how others would articulate exactly what those skills are.

  52. I was recently called as ward music chair, and even though I live in Provo in a ward where musical talent and enthusiasm are abundant, I have been consistently amazed at how much work music callings can be, and how much I appreciate ward members’ participation and willingness to offer their talents/expertise. Seriously, like Frank mentioned above, it makes me want to be as active a member of ward and stake choirs (or any other musical thing I can help out with) as possible, if for no other reason than supporting the director’s time and effort. (Especially since the personalities and occasional inadvertent ego scuffles that happen can make things difficult.) Thick skins and resilient testimonies, indeed.

    I do also love the perspective of the story DQ shared, about how things must have been in the time of Christ. That gives me some good perspective. (Especially going into two consecutive weeks of our ward’s Christmas music programs!)

  53. Our hymnbook is one of the good things about our church music: a rich collection of hymns, great SATB harmonies, cleanly and readably notated. Lots of denominations provide the congregation just with a melodic line or even just the words with no music. So really, in our meetings the congregation is invited to step up to choir-level singing. This means that a chorister is definitely appropriate: He or (usually) she acts as a focal point and a model for the singers. Plus, it’s such a fun calling!

    I used to think there were lots of duds in our hymnbook, but then I’ll hear someone sing an old boring one with gusto, devotion, or musical skill (any of those 3 can do it), and I “convert” to liking the hymn. I’d hate to see a smaller hymnbook in the future. However, I would like to see one that includes some of the old favorites of past hymnbooks, or some of the hymns that are in current non-English hymnbooks. The French hymnbook has such good Christmas and other hymns, (“Il Est Ne'”, “Noel Nouvelet” “Souviens-toi”). And I bet every ex-Italian missionary would love to see “Mandate Voci” translated into other languages. And why do the Russians get to sing “What Child is This” and not the English-speakers?

  54. Our ward has at least 4 skilled pianists and about 8 children/teenagers learning (some quite advanced by now) several my children. I cannot play and always wanted my children to as I remember on my mission wards begging for pianists.

    Funny story about choirs – and my lack of singing. When my children were a lot smaller I had to handle them by self as my husband was on the stand every week. So at Stake Conference I joined the choir – so I cold sit on the stand and watch him struggle with the children. I mimed the entire time :)

  55. Sharon H. and KMarkP,

    As Ward Music Chair and Stake Music Chair, I learned that, according to the Handbook, one of the principle duties of these callings is to train others in music callings. But I found little opportunity for such training. We did have a Stake Music Workshop one time where we taught some conducting (entrances, cutoffs, fermatas, etc.), gave ideas for choosing appropriate music for Sacrament Meeting, and taught pianists how to use the organ. And I once asked for a Sunday School class so I could teach some of these things to members of our ward, but the Bishopric nixed the idea.

    Ideally, I would have liked to visit the wards and branches to learn what needs they had. I sympathized in particular with the people who felt overwhelmed with music callings in small branches and received virtually no help.

    Unfortunately, I think a lot of Priesthood leaders these days don’t realize training is necessary for music callings (when I was called as Stake Music Chair, the Stake Presidency counselor who interviewed me told me all they needed me to do was plan music for Stake Conference; I later learned that three of our units didn’t even have choirs).

    I think we can do better. Apparently, the Church used to invest more time and resources into training musicians:

  56. John Mansfield says:

    In September my wife and son attended a BYU organ workshop in Mt. Vernon, Virginia. About 150 people from the stakes around Washington where there for the morning and afternoon of instruction, including five from my ward. There were four BYU faculty, and three new organs that were to be installed in area buildings were shipped to the Mt. Vernon building first for the workshop. One of the faculty, Brian Mathias, gave a recital in Washington’s National Cathedral the next day. Plans are in process to do this again in Washington this spring.

    Besides the efforts of the BYU faculty, and of all the pianists who want to be good organists, this instruction is being helped along by a donor who made a substantial gift to further organ instruction throughout the LDS Church. My wife said this gift will pay for workshops for a few years. Spread the word to music chairmen in your area.

  57. That’s wonderful to hear, John Mansfield.

  58. BYU provides a yearly (I think) workshop for church musicians for those close enough to take advantage of it. It teaches Ward choristers not only the basic beat patterns (which are in the back of the hymnal, anyway) but how to select appropriate tempi, show entrances, cut-offs, fermatas, phrasing and dynamic levels, etc.. This is so that the conductor can inspire confidence in the congregation and encourage them to sing more enthusiastically. Organists are given training in registrations, fingering, foot pedals, choosing appropriate music for prelude, postlude, etc.
    These opportunities are a luxury for most congregations in the church, I realize, but we should take advantage of them when we can. True, music is for amateurs, but that’s no reason to settle for mediocrity when help is available.

  59. Kevin Barney says:

    Many of you are too young to remember this, but a long time ago the opening exercises for Sunday School included practice singing the hymns. I remember my own father had the calling to lead this instruction. I recall we would often get a few lines in and then he would stop us with “No, no, no,” explain what we had done wrong, and then the congregation would try again.

  60. Echoing woodboy, my organ instruction was from an accomplished professional protestant organist and her number one rule was that the organist was the ‘boss’ in terms of tempo for any congregational singing. She was always amused at the notion of a congregational ‘conductor’ in LDS services.

    I would agree that compared to the mainline protestant congregations I’ve attending, LDS congregations seem to be better hymn singers, but outside of that, our services really don’t use music effectively. I’d love to see much looser restrictions on instruments and styles and more willingness to experiment and encouragement for members to share their talents.

  61. I agree with Sharon that note-reading and beat patterns are important things to train/teach those in music callings. In addition to that, I’ve also wanted to have a workshop-type setting for pianists to learn some basic principles of accompanying–perhaps having pianists take turns practicing following a chorister, talking about dynamics and musicality while accompanying, or other basics to piano accompaniment. A similar workshop with choristers, once they’ve solidly learned the beat patterns could also be helpful. I also love the organ instruction/workshop ideas, as the organ is such an excellent and often underutilized instrument.

    I have also wondered if part of the training of those in music callings ought to include a little about music theory or history, at least about some of the musical traditions that LDS music relies on. I once took a class at BYU where we learned about the Welsh religious choral tradition and the patronage system under which composers like Bach and others in our hymnal worked. That was particularly fascinating for me, and it helped me feel connected to more of our hymns since I understood better the musical context in which they were created.

    Maybe some kind of stake music workshop, for a couple hours on occasion could work. All interested congregants would be invited, and those with music callings especially requested to attend. And then you could offer any or all of these classes for 20-30 mins each, and let participants choose one or two to attend.

  62. Recently our stake center got a new organ and organized (ha) an organ recital to show it off, with a handful of professional and semi-professional organists demonstrating its abilities through the pieces they chose to play (most of which were not from the LDS hymnbook). It was such an odd thing to experience in a Mormon setting. You get that sort of thing on Temple Square, but in our local congregations we’re not supposed to be fussing over the quality of the instruments or voices–just the quality of the Spirit. I confess that I loved it. I got to hear really beautiful music beautifully played on a beautiful instrument *and* feel the Spirit.

    That said, if it were not for the inclusive nature of Mormon music culture I wouldn’t be so confident musically as I am. As I turned into an alto during my teen years I had a chance to try the same hymns over and over and over (seriously! could we try some new hymns once in awhile?) and learn to read the alto part by trial and error and listening to my alto mother next to me. During college I got bored with the alto parts and branched out into the tenor lines (and bass lines an octave up). I came from a musical family with a piano teacher mother, and I loved to sing, but I was a poor piano student because I struggled with sight reading and it was only in those moments of church boredom that I took the time and effort to learn to sight read music well. If I had been in a church that didn’t encourage so much musical participation from regular congregants, I’d be an utter musical failure in the eyes of my parents and would have a lot less personal enjoyment musically.

    One last thing: could we keep LDS pop music out of Sacrament Meetings? It hurts my feelings. Also, in one of my BYU wards we got to hear a (muted) trombone quartet during Sacrament Meeting and it was a revelation. More brass, please.

  63. I agree that even when sung badly, the music in church meetings is healthy and a good thing. While attending church services in India, most attendee’s did not speak English as a first language and had NEVER in their life heard the 341 or even the 75 most popular ones pronounced or sung as my ears were accustomed to hearing them. However they sang with such enthusiasm and heart that it made the hymns new again and more full of meaning. They actually meant something and had an emotional depth about them rather than being “this one again.”

  64. I am glad to see some other folks backing me up.

    It was my understanding that LDS churches are no longer allowed real organs. At least that’s what everyone was told when the proposal to put a real instrument in the new stake center at Cambridge was denied by the music committee a few years ago. They were forced to install a standard issue digital organ instead. It appears from Marie’s comment above this may not be the case everywhere, though, because otherwise I have no idea why professional organists would be interested in having a recital to show off a cheap digital organ. Perhaps that stake was in Salt Lake or otherwise well connected to get special treatment.

  65. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    The current hymnbook has hymns rewritten into keys that are easier for pianists to play compared to the previous hymnbook. I think that change does correlate with fewer pianists/organists reaching superior training levels. If you listen to the arrangements side by side, the older hymnbooks arrangements sound more professional, IMO. We have had two organists move out of our ward, leaving only two. There are no budding youth that are reaching the level where they can fill in. Our RS room has an electric piano that has a computer database of the hymns and primary songs so it can play automatically. I suspect that the chapel organs will eventually have these, if they don’t already…and why not?

  66. No brass allowed. Trumpets are not sacred enough for sacrament meetings, and are relegated to lesser events like the second coming or the resurrection.

  67. Our bishop has, on several occasions, requested that we redo a hymn during sacrament meeting because either a significant number of congregants were not singing or the hymn is intended to be sung joyfully and nearly everyone had a gloomy face while they were singing. I wish more leaders would follow such inspiration. Of course, I also think we should reconfigure Fast Sundays so that each member gets a limited number of turns at the pulpit during a given year.

  68. Here are my, hopefully practical, two cents. If you want my more abstract ones, message me personally and I will be eager to write them – or if i have time I will post them here later.

    About training needed but hard to find, available from the church. the Distribution Center provides teach-yourself keyboard (complete with wholesale priced electric keyboards) and conducting lessons. The back of the hymnal also has some beat-pattern basics, though I would qualify that Silent Night is the only hymn in the hymnal I would ever consider beating in 6. The point of conducting is to emphasize strong beats, which for all of the 6/8 hymns in the hymnal, is the first and fourth beats. So you might have a better musical and religious experience conducting (or mentally conceiving, for that matter) of those pieces with 2 beats per measure. If that seems too fast, prayer, fasting, practicing will help you get them up to speed. Also, see the previous comment about a better musical and religious experience at slightly more conversational tempos.

    Also, the community for institutionally- and individually- produced instruction for organ and choir is growing rapidly. As KmarkP posted, BYU does run an organ workshop, also a conducting workshop, both of which are excellent by any standard and attract musicians from many faiths. There are also online materials. Consider a podcast-based course for pianists learning the organ, complete with simplified hymn arrangements, found here: (I helped write it so constructive feedback would be very much, ahem, appreciated).

    For organ, also try the more comprehensive course on For prelude/postlude music available for beginners, get on and try out a few. Florence Hawkinson’s books are truly excellent beginner pieces that work well in worship services. Almost any of those are a sure fit for a variety of levels. For more formalized training, try the Roger Davis Organ Manual or OrganTutor101. They are for my money the best of the 7+ organ method books I know on the market. Also, try your local American Guild of Organists chapter for more info on instruction. (They also connect to several choral music organizations). They have chapters as far reaching as Korea and in Europe. You might be surprised how similar the average ward’s needs are to other Judeo-Christian congregations of the similar size/demography.

    For conducting/singing, try the DVD Masterful Choral Conducting. Also, there are several books, such as Giving Voice by David Hill et al, that I have found very informative.

    Also, Sharon asked what could be taught shy of beat patterns, etc. I would (and have) started with teaching conductors to teach the basics of vocal tone, blend, dynamic and phrase expression, diction, and attention to text. One of my colleagues has a three-week curriculum for conductors that teaches some of this – we are starting it in our stake next year. I have taught seminar courses like this and add things like resources for further training, how/where to find music that fits a specific choir, type of service, or other parameters. Also, emphatically a discussion session on working with priesthood and other leaders, involving other organizations, budgeting for a ward music program, etc. I might quip that no musical is ever exactly like another, but few are really insurmountable, either. (Call me an optimist, but I think religious music has long been purposed toward building and nourishing community, and spiritual and intellectual understanding, and under those parameters, the right music can be found and cultivated – even if it means you are the one that needs to reach out of your comfort zone a little.)

    A few final remarks – though working under frankly unmusical and irreligious requirements, music can still be had – some of the most polished ward choirs I have ever had were formed while I was asked to limit myself to LDS Church-produced materials. After a couple of years, that sanction was lifted, which involved working rather diplomatically with the leaders in question, and showing them what beautiful, devotedly prepared and executed music could do in worship, and how we needed more, not less. That said, if you do need a little negotiating power in your quiver, find a copy of the First Presidency letter dated 11 Nov 2002 (or very near) which explicitly states that wards and stakes need not be limited to church-produced music materials. Also, keeping abreast of the Music handbook is always helpful – notice that brass instruments are not prohibited, paid organ lessons can be held in church buildings, etc.) For real zingers, message me and I will give you the contact details of the very persuasive church music committee member tasked with official interpretations of the music handbook. :)

    Thus endeth the preaching.

  69. Ruth, love your insight here but in spite of what the Music handbook might say (wasn’t aware there was one), the Church Handbook 2 in the chapter on Music 14.4.2 specifically states the following about Sacrament meeting:

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

    So if you have information that says otherwise I would be interested in the source. Signed a trumpet player long forlorn that his talent is unwelcome in the chapel on Sunday.

  70. Whatever happened to “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves”?

  71. My current ward, before I arrived, had a Bishop that allowed in Sacrament Meeting a choral piece with trumpet fanfares. The handbook leaves a lot of wiggle room for Bishops who have some idea how to make use of the “worshipful sound” bradd instruments can make.

  72. Woodboy, I don’t know anything substantive about the new organ in our stake center–just that it was considered good enough to plan an organ recital around and invite the community at large to come hear it. Yes, I live in Salt Lake and my stake covers an area on the richer east bench. Bonnie Goodliffe played for the recital, (one of the SL Tabernacle organists), so maybe she’s in my stake? Maybe it was installed just to be her practice organ? Kidding, of course. I don’t know why. Maybe there are a lot of budding organists in the area who need a good organ to learn on. With piano lessons being expensive these days, maybe pianists and organists will be increasingly rare in poorer wards. If an expensive organ is unlikely to be fully utilized, no reason to install one.

  73. Bravo, Ruth! And I would also be interested in the source for the brass instruments in sacrament meeting tidbit you mentioned.

  74. Ruth, thank you! Your ideas are practical and just plain cool for breadth and depth. One other thought about music education via church music: I’ve found that few things inspire interest and buy-in to additional music training like success in a large group endeavor. In my experience this has usually been a choir, but I have seen very cool things happen with orchestras, etc. Usually this happens when someone who is well-trained leads and makes it accessible and fun but also challenging and musical. When getting people to show up moves from pulling teeth and barely keeping the performance together to a community where in which they want to be there and can see their improvement, that’s a whole new ballgame. It creates momentum and spirituality, and suddenly people want the music to be not just worshipful but polished too — precisely so that it can be their best form of worship. Of course, how do you get a group to that point? Well, that’s another discussion, but I believe you usually need at least one fairly strong musician on each part, which brings us back to the issue of training and music education…

  75. Thanks Marie. Who knows why these policies aren’t applied evenly. The one in Cambridge would have been used heavily, and could have been an excellent resource for the hundreds of students that come through, many of whom are very talented musicians. That’s why we were all so disappointed when it was not approved. It wouldn’t have cost the church anything, they just had to approve it but refused.

    Sharon, my best musical experience in the church was in a large stake choir like you described, led by Kristine. We put on quite a few concerts, and were really building some momentum, and getting a lot of people from the stake to join in, be serious about rehearsals, make really great music, etc. I also think it was a great community outreach. Then the whole project was shut down by the stake without any explanation. It was really disheartening after all of the work I had put into it, and ended up being the final nail in the coffin for me. That was 2006, and I haven’t participated in anything musical in the church since then, and probably never will again.

    Prior to that time I led a small singing group that did mostly early music stuff in the singles wards in cambridge. Lots of Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina, etc. Even did some stuff in latin. I’m not bitter about it any more, I just realized that there is no institutional support for it and what you are alloed to do is highly dependent on ever changing leadership. For me, it was just easier and far more rewarding to find a choir outside of the church and focus my energies there. no regrets.

  76. Kevin Barney says:

    Our stake had trumpets when they did Messiah years ago, and the Handbook says “most,” so not all brass is off the reservation., I should think.

  77. “Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound… are not appropriate for sacrament meeting.”
    I don’t know how an organ can avoid sounding “prominent.” Is there a stop that turns “prominent” off?

  78. Yep, it’s called “general cancel.”

  79. About fifteen years ago, I was a struggling student and single mother with no musical training or talent whatsoever, when my bishopric called me to be the Primary music leader. I’ll never forget how embarrassed I was that first day, with no idea how I should have prepared to teach music when I hardly knew any myself, standing in silence while the children failed to remember any of their favorite songs, the teachers and presidency staring unhelpfully the whole time. There was plenty of musical talent in that ward so I’ve never known why they gave me that monstrously difficult job.
    However, I’ve had the same calling four times since then, got very good at it, and learned a lot. I eventually took piano lessons too, and can now play simple hymns with practice. Being forced into a musical calling made me interested in music, which has become a real joy in my life (though, alas, no hidden talent ever manifested itself). I love that our church has the flexibility to give people like me the opportunity to learn and grow and become able to feel the spirit through music in a new way. I love that it can do that while also giving voice to those who are truly talented and objectively pleasant to listen to. Most of the time I think the church gets that balance basically right…
    But as my friend Sharon notes the difficulty for music leaders of not having ultimate responsibility for their own calling, in a perfect world I would have written the handbook this way: “It’s the bishopric’s ultimate responsibility to make sure that sacrament meeting music has spiritual content consistent with the gospel, and avoids extremes like drum-pounding and yelling. But they should where possible support the decisions of the ward’s music leaders, and not interpret their ‘responsibility’ as permission to veto musical selections based on their own personal musical tastes.”

  80. davidwayner says:

    It’s disappointing to see so many commenters using the word “chorister”. Check your handbook and hymnbook, people. The correct term is “music director”.

  81. Chorister is shorter and quicker, and IME members often confuse the title of director with chairman. Don’t know why. I’ve always found I had to add ‘chorister’ for clarity when using the official title.

    As another forlorn trumpet player I’d also be interested in that interpretation. At the moment it’s all I can do to argue they’re permitted in the chapel no problem, on occasions other than sacrament meeting.

    Also my bishopric have been tiring of my quoting the handbook at them, and my instance that ‘less familiar’ hymns do not fall in the category ‘inappropriate’ as they are addressed separately….

  82. woodboy,
    It could well simply be a matter of economic constraints. The chapels that I’m familiar with that have been built in the past 30 years with pipe organs have been ones that requested a pipe organ, were told it wasn’t possible, and then someone or someones in the congregation who really wanted one said that they’d like to provide the wherewithal to pay for it and asked if it would be okay if they donated funds to do it and the answer was yes, it’s just that there isn’t enough church funds to make it standard issue.
    Check out the Belmont chapel near you. The organ they have was paid for by some members of that congregation when the building was constructed..
    A similar situation may well be what happened in Marie’s stake where there are, from her description, people with financial wherewithal and a specific love of organ music for whom such a thing was important enough that they’d choose to pitch in financially to make it happen.

  83. But maybe you tried that and it didn’t work in your case?
    “It wouldn’t have cost the church anything”. Means you had donors lined up?

  84. So much has already been said, but I would like to contribute a little.

    My personal musical history started at the age of 12 when I was asked to play the piano for Jr. Primary and the organ for Sunday school. in nearly 50 years I have learned so much, by simple on-the-job training. My skills were never up to performance at BYU or large engagements, but I have enjoyed most of what I have learned and shared.

    The thing that pains me, though is the interference from unwise and threatened priesthood leaders. Apparently if you ARE someone who can actually lead both the congregation and the organist, you give the threatened “the willies.” I never sought position, or power, but I knew how to have fun.

    The first choir I ever led, (as primarily a pianist) I tried to play the piano in the air. But we had fun, and in a couple of months had 35 regular members attending and having fun. We started practicing for Christmas in August and had 9 numbers ready. Barely 2 weeks before the Christmas Sacrament meeting I was informed by the bishop (in whose home we practiced and who attended the choir weekly) that there was no program–where did I get such an idea? We had talks on tithing instead of in music. His blow was intended to “bring me down a notch”. Didn’t know I needed that, but it was effective.

    But the threatened leader didn’t succeed in pushing me out of music, or out of the Church because Music is its own reward. We are imperfect, we are often stupid or silly, and yet we all contribute. It is how the Lord teaches us to love Him, to love His children, and to express joy.

    I currently play a beautiful (to sight) organ in Vienna, the city of Mozart. The previous organist was grand indeed, yet many congregants found his music painful to their ears. Mine is greatly simplified, and a lot softer (because I am also pretty convinced some tuning is needed). It is okay either way. He found so much joy in what he played, that I felt like I was at the Phantom of the Opera, just looking on.

    How do we then handle the mis-management of music in our wards when–if we reference the Music manual–it is then removed from the clerk’s office? In that case the power players do not want any source that countermands their prejudices.

    Our only hope then is prayer, patience, and holding to the larger vision of what gospel music brings to us. It is our responsibility both to improve ourselves as much as we can, and to accept our own failings as well as others’ failings (or superlatives) as they come.

  85. MB,

    Yes there were donors lined up, presumably mostly the same people who paid for the Noack in Belmont. They also had quotes from a few builders. Some folks on the music committee said it was the best and most complete application they had seen. But someone at the very top killed it, and said the church wouldn’t be allowing that arrangement any more. The pipe organ in the other Cambridge building was also replaced with a digital one after the building burned down. It appears from the information on this thread perhaps exceptions are being made in certain parts of salt lake, which is unsurprising.

  86. Ruth, I will see your 2002 First Presidency letter and raise you the current President of the Quorum of the 12. He visited our stake several times a few years ago and was very explicit, both in general meetings and in leadership meetings about teaching us that we are to use only music from the hymnal in our meetings. And he taught us an object lesson in how serious he was about this. At the close of one meeting he approached the organist playing the postlude music, informed her that she was not playing out of the hymn book, and asked her to stop and find something in it to play. When you have such a powerful authority doing things like this on the local level it is no wonder we have Stake Presidents who outlaw Christmas music that isn’t in the book and bishops who tightly control music in their wards.

  87. KLC, the appropriate action, and what I would have done if I were there, would be to smile and make the adjustment to avoid causing a scene but to then approach President Packer afterward with the following quotes from the Church Handbook that was approved not just by him but by the entire First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Seems to me he is expressing his own personal bias and that does not match what the full leadership of the Church have established:

    All Church music should be consistent with the following guidelines.

    The hymns are the basic music for worship services and are standard for all congregational singing. In addition, other appropriate selections may be used for prelude and postlude music, choir music, and special musical presentations. If musical selections other than the hymns are used, they should be in keeping with the spirit of the hymns. Texts should be doctrinally correct. (See “Hymns for Congregations,” Hymns, 380–81.)

    Secular music should not replace sacred music in Sunday meetings. Some religiously oriented music presented in a popular style is not appropriate for sacrament meetings. Also, much sacred music that is suitable for concerts and recitals is not appropriate for a Latter-day Saint worship service.

    Pretty clear that hymns are NOT the only source that prelude, postlude or even other music presentations that aren’t one of the 3 standard hymns (opening, sacrament, and closing) of Sacrament meeting.

  88. I wonder why Brother Packer hasn’t gone over to Richard Elliott or Mack Wilberg and “corrected” them about the non-hymnbook music they choose to perform at General Conference.

  89. Excellent point, Mark B. Packer has made it clear that he would prefer to dictate a rigid set of non-doctrinal rules to govern the church if the decisions were entirely up to him. Case in point is his infamous “Unwritten Order off Things” talk. Those who aren’t familiar can read a copy here:–%20Boyd%20K.%20Packer.htm. Early in his remarks, he argues that ” meetings should be conducted in such a way that members may be refreshed spiritually and remain attuned to the Spirit….” I agree, and I believe that beautiful, inspired music – regardless of its source – can invite the Spirit into a meeting more readily than anything else. So it troubles me that after asserting that point Packer proceeds to describe his own pet peeves about where people can sit during meetings, who can speak, how they dress, the names by which they refer to each other, etc. I’ve met Elder Packer and think he means well. But I don’t find reflections of Jesus in any of these rules that Packer thinks should be imposed on the masses.

  90. Alain, I completely agree with you and with Mark B. But my point is that when the President of the 12 tells you something in person most people listen and obey, and I can’t blame them for doing that.

  91. KLC,

    I’ve heard that story, or a similar story — I’ve have supposed the organist was way out of bounds, and President packer felt a need to pull things back a little — when people are always pushing the bounds farther out and always wanting to be an exception to the general rule, it may be reasonable for a leader to feel a need to retrench.

    I’ll play Angels from the Realms of Glory (tune name Regent Square) for this Sunday’s prelude. I think President Packer would approve.

  92. I once suggested to a pianist that “Silver Bells” might not be the best choice for a sacrament meeting prelude. Any improvement in the general spirituality level among the congregation was outweighed (in a landslide) by the deterioration in hers, as she blasted me for daring to question her choice of music (complete with “I’ve had hundreds [or was it thousands] of bishops who think everything I’ve ever played on the piano was wonderful”).

  93. ji–President Packer’s taste in music might well leave him feeling the need to “retrench” well before the majority of the congregation or a general survey of educated musicians would have thought anything was “way out of bounds.” And that is certainly his prerogative. But in interpreting the story, it’s probably a mistake to reflexively assume that the authoritative opinion is necessarily the reasonable one.

  94. Thanks, Kristine. I wanted to interpret the story as charitably as I could…

  95. I’m always in favor of that :) (or at least I feel like I should be!)

  96. As I’ve been reading the discussion, it’s struck me that although we have unique dynamics in providing music for services in the LDS church, this specific challenge is in no way unique to us. Historically, the “Palestrina style” in response to the Counter-Reformation, banning accompanied music from some Puritan services, and Bach’s intricate weekly cantatas were all part of the tension between church officers and church musicians. I’ve seen similar debates in the churches now. I don’t know that those kinds of debates can ever be entirely avoided; there are too many different opinions and backgrounds in the mix. One additional factor comes up in examples of conflict in my friends’ churches, such as whether or not to put the praise band drums behind a screen, what songwriters are appropriate to use, and how many instrumentalists to hire. Often an extra challenge here is monetary. When more money is involved in providing the music, it can add still another layer of pressure to the conflict. We avoid that to some extent by having a lay music ministry, but we pay for it in all the ways we’ve already been talking about.

    But now I’ve effectively gone off on another tangent.

  97. What a wonderful post! Thanks and amen to everything. Also, and especially for the need for variety and even more celebratory music in our meetings. What if good folks want to applaud, clap, or shout hurrah from time-to-time. Sometimes it’s down-right depressing. . .

    And about this from the handbook: “Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting.” On top of most LDS temples is the Angel Moroni. With a trumpet. Who cares if it’s a metaphor – I want more trumpets in church.

    Merry Christmas, Sharon, and thanks again.

  98. ji, I was there, the music was not way out of bounds. It was standard devotional music, no boundaries were being pushed, and I doubt anyone there but him gave it a second thought. But it was not a hymn, therefore, according to his standards, it was unacceptable. So no, I don’t think President Packer would approve of your choice if I use that experience as a guide.

  99. I had a Bishop once who was tone deaf but sang with worshipful enthusiasm. As much as I love music, I care far more about his approach than his ability. I think, collectively, we worry too much about ability and too little about simple enthusiasm.

    The Arlington, MA ward of the mid-90’s was sublime – the only ward I’ve attended where the men sang better than the women. The Asian branch I attended in Lynn, MA was inspiring – sincere and musically mediocre.

    I love that, everywhere I’ve lived, Mormon students were over-represented in the school choir programs – and that, in more than one place, teachers commented on it.

    I wish we had more people who could play the hymns at the proper tempos and more music directors who could sing out and lead with passion and volume.

    I wish we had more flexibility in our “special musical numbers” and passion in our regular hymn singing – even as I do not want to end up with emotionalism over the Spirit.

  100. Woodboy: Today in church I heard someone refer to my stake center’s organ again and they called it “newly refurbished.” I know I previously heard it referred to as “new” when the organ recital was announced, but apparently that was wrong. Old organ, fixed up.

  101. Thanks Marie. That makes sense. You are lucky you have a good organ available. We don’t even have one at all in our building, which bums me out.

  102. Kant was even more severe than Elder Packer:

    “Those who have recommended the singing of hymns at family prayers have forgotten the amount of annoyance which they give to the general public by such noisy (and, as a rule, for that very reason, pharisaical) worship, for they compel their neighbors either to join in the singing or else abandon their meditations.” Critique of Judgment, section 53).

    A great book for reading a lot of source material on the vitriolic debates about the propriety of polyphony and organs, etc. is Rob Wegman’s The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe 1470-1530. For an earlier period, The Owl and the Nightingale: Musical Life and Ideas in France 1100-1300, by Christopher Page, where churchmen discuss such problems as whether or not minstrels have any hope of salvation whatever. The title refers to a contemporaneous poem pitting the owl, representing traditional asceticism, with the nightingale whose sensuous voice represented the emerging humanistic or courtly style.

    As for comparisons between the center (SLC/Tabernacle) and the periphery (most wards), Samuel Sebastian Wesley complained 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.

  103. That Wesley quote is gold…

  104. Great post. We sometimes take musical training for granted since so many LDS have it, at least to a rudimentary level, but when you step back it’s pretty amazing how many of our people can play the piano, organ, sing, etc. Go to a lecture hall at BYU and ask how many people there can play the piano, and then compare it to just about any other major non-music univeristy and I think the results would be pretty staggering.

    I’m glad we don’t just have music ministers that we pass the responsibility onto. Being an observer to good music can be great, but being a participant is 100x more memorable and meaningful, and our current culture encourages participation rather than a spectator culture. Musical numbers in meetings might not be as impressive to an outsider the first time they come, but they are home-grown and raw and anyone can participate. Go music.

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