Care and Leading of Church Musicians

Gail Homer Berry has served in ward and stake music roles since the age of 12. She recently moved to Indiana along with her husband, five sons, and conclave of contumacious stuffed animals.

When I was 14, I was walking out of church to go home and break my fast – when the missionaries pounced and asked me to play piano for a baptism starting in fifteen minutes. My mom pushed back, but the missionaries guilted me into agreeing. Mom sighed and promised to come back for me, then wrangled my siblings home. Halfway through the baptism, I began to feel terrible. The room spun, my vision went pixelated with black spots, and I started shaking. A good accompanist blends into the background, and a “good” Molly Mormon is modest and selfless, so I pushed through –barely– without interrupting the service. (Fortunately this medical panic was just low blood sugar from the extended fast plus puberty.) After that, I told the missionaries they needed to ask me a week in advance. Instead, they tried the same stunt three weeks later. I refused and walked away as they panicked.

I have an unusual perspective on church music callings: I was first sustained as a ward organist at 13 even though I couldn’t play the organ. I learned a lot, and I was essential to the ward’s worship, but I was also minimized, dismissed, and even exploited.  I logged many Sundays in which I put in an aggregate of 7 hours: playing for choir practice, Sacrament Meeting, Primary, a baptism, and a youth fireside, plus all the prelude and postlude.

One of my worst teenage experiences was when the Stake President stood up in ward conference and announced “we’re changing the closing hymn.” The first verse was awful because I tried to sight-read a song I’d never heard; the last verse was awful because tears of humiliation blurred my vision. This musical disaster did not invite the Spirit. When I confronted the Stake President after the meeting, he told me I could accomplish anything I set my mind to, then shooed me away without acknowledging my need for advance notice or practice. 

Other times Priesthood leaders yanked me out of youth meetings to be an emergency pianist for Primary, Elder’s Quorum, and once for an adult wedding – when I had a sprained wrist and couldn’t use my left hand. 

In sum, my youth music career featured me repeatedly explaining my boundaries to men who then ignored my concerns.  They wanted me to function like a robot, behave like an adult, and be dismissed like a child. 

In the ensuing years, I’ve paid close attention to the myriad ways lay leadership fails to understand musicians.  

For example, at a recent stake conference, the visiting Area Authority Seventy announced an impromptu stake choir number and then asked if he could impose upon me to play “Called to Serve”– “with gusto”–as the voluntold missionaries walked up to the stand to sing.  I’m still daydreaming about what would have happened if I’d looked innocent and said “I don’t know that one” with wide eyes and a helpless shrug.  He’s lucky I enjoy jazzing up “Called to Serve” with editorial circus calliope rhythms. Afterwards I passed him a humorous but firm note of protest. (“According to my union contract, you owe me overtime….”) We had a good dialogue and the issue was resolved. 

Still, I want to prevent further such incidents for other musicians. As a Church, we need to improve our training so that leaders can be more sensitive to musicians’ needs. Thus I’m sharing a list of things I wish leadership knew about music. It expands every few years; feel free to recommend your own additions.


1) Musicians are people, not machines. You cannot turn them on and off at will.

2) Musicians get tired, hungry, and cranky. They need rest and cannot perform continuously.

3) Prayer is wonderful and can enhance, but not replace, practice.

4) Keyboardists generally come in the following loose categories:

a) Those who need a month of practice, and even then are very tentative.

b) Those who need two weeks of practice, and even then still make mistakes.

c) Those who need at least three days warning, and even then may need to veto the occasional song.

d) Those who can play almost any standard hymn or selection from the children’s songbook, on demand. They are very useful, but don’t take unfair advantage. Use them sparingly as emergency substitutes. They should also not be handed surprises like special arrangements or unfamiliar songs.

e) Those who can sight-read anything. They are rare; never assume your standard pianist is one of them. If you find one, treat her like gold. Also remember that she gets easily bored and give her other non-musical assignments when you can.

f) Professionals.  Some professional musicians love filling in at the last minute or serving in music roles at Church, but others say Sunday only feels like a day of rest if they get a break from performing.

5) You can determine which type of keyboardist someone is primarily by asking directly and listening politely. He might be great on piano but terrible on organ. She might play only by ear. Maybe he can handle Primary but not ward choir. Know your people and respect their limits.

6) In that vein, never change a congregational hymn without first consulting the musicians–privately. Passing a note asking “is this okay?” during Sacrament Meeting is fine. Announcing it from the pulpit is not.

7) When considering splitting a unit, you must look beyond the number and distribution of Melchizedek Priesthood holders. You should also look at the number, competence, and distribution of musicians.

8) At the most basic level, the theoretical minimum for a ward is two musicians: A keyboardist for Sacrament Meeting and Primary, and a chorister for the same. If you don’t have even one person who can play hymns and primary songs, you don’t have a ward; you have a branch, or possibly just a twig.

9) Some new pianos and organs have “button pushing” options so that the instrument digitally plays itself. This can be helpful, but remember: some pianos may be robots, but no pianist ever is.

10) The burden on church musicians has decreased significantly in the last decade. With the new schedule, we no longer need pianists to cover most youth and adult meetings. Still, pianists are often asked to cover baptisms, firesides, choir practice, special musical numbers, and other events. Please remember that while miracles happen, time travel or teleportation are rarely among them.

11) Sunday scheduling is always complicated, but consult with your Ward Choir Director about holding choir practice at a time that does not conflict with other meetings. Too often, the only reliable tenor in the ward is also in the Bishopric. Or the choir pianist has young children, one car, and a husband in the Elder’s Quorum.

12) The Primary Chorister should be included in major planning decisions. Consult him or her about what to include in the Primary Program. If (s)he says “No, really, you don’t want the junior primary to sing the Hallelujah Chorus with hand bells at the Ward Christmas Party,” believe it.

13) A low level of anxiety about the difficulty of staffing music is appropriate. You should only get really concerned if music callings are becoming more difficult to fill than teacher vacancies in Primary or Nursery.

14) Musicians deserve equal respect. For years, one stake president would rise immediately after the benediction and rush to thank the speakers, then walk off the stand without a thought for the person still playing postlude. I found gentle ways to teach him that I had worked just as hard to prepare for the meeting.

15) Leadership should always ask and never demand.  Consider the following two options: (a) “The Stake President wants you to play the organ for stake conference. Please be on the stand 15 minutes early for prelude.” vs. (b) “The Stake President is wondering if you’re available to play for stake conference. He’d like 15 minutes of prelude and we’ll get you the hymns next week. Please let me know by March 15th if that works for you.”  Choose B. Always.

16) Musicians can go stale. Rotate them into other callings occasionally. Never assume a musician will say yes to a music calling – both my sister and I have experiences with Bishops extending piano-playing callings from the pulpit without asking us first.

17) Micromanaging is silly. If someone wants to play prelude on the piano but congregational hymns on the organ, they likely have good reasons.

18) Church service is not the same as private favors. If you want someone to play for your child’s wedding reception, offer to pay them.

19) Reasonable requests can be misinterpreted. I’ve seen a bishop muse aloud “Would it be possible for someone to sing ‘O Divine Redeemer’ for Easter?” not realizing that the Ward Music Chair is now panicking about how to pull that Divinely Inspired Direction together on one week’s notice. (I would say “Ask me again next year, a month in advance,” but a shocking number of people are unwilling to tell the Bishop “no.”)

20) All of these can be summed up simply: Counsel together. Ask questions. Listen, don’t dictate. Respect boundaries.

* * *

These principles apply outside of music, of course: any time a manager supervises a specialist, it’s wise to respect the specialist’s input. Revelation depends upon good information. 

The best leaders are humble enough to listen and learn. Together, we can serve the Lord and also set appropriate boundaries, communicated in a loving but firm way.


  1. Carolyn says:

    Thank you for this — I think a lot of leaders see music callings as all too similar to primary callings. Just throw a warm body with minimum competence at the problem and it’ll be fine; the Lord will magnify the rest.

    In terms of adding to your lecture, one I’d include is “if you have arbitrary across-the-board restrictions on music, make that clear UP FRONT and not by vetoing a ward/stake number AFTER weeks of practice.”

    I have heard so many stories over the years about bishops/stake presidents with rules like “you can only sing hymns from the hymnbook” or “you can only sing anything the Choir at Temple Square has ever sung” or “even if you’re doing an approved piece, it should stay simple — if you have too many harmony parts and descants and extra instruments that’s too flashy and I’ll tell you to reduce it to basic counterpoint, at most.”

  2. Kent Gibb says:

    Many years ago when I was 16 I was asked to lead the music in Mutual. I had played in my Junior High School band, how hard could leading the congregation be? After I fumbled through the first evening, the Young Men’s President asked if I would like to skip my classes for a few weeks and learn to lead the music. I jumped at the chance. I learned lots from him and I continued to lead the music in Mutual, priesthood, Sunday School, Sacrament and Stake conference. IT was great fun because of that caring Young Men’s President. I attended many wards and looked on in amazement at the people who took on the responsibility to lead the music. All too often I was dismayed at their hutzpah at daring to try to lead the music with so little knowledge.
    In my opinion, one of the major responsibilities is to select and train young men and women to be able to lead the music. Adults could be invited to the class as well.
    Bishops, call your ward music leaders 3 months in advance, have them taught proper techniques and then have them lead one hymn in sacrament meeting, then, as they are judged to be getting better, let them take on more responsibilities. Don’t just throw them into the job with no training at all.

  3. Away from the Mothership says:

    I would add: Just because someone reads music don’t assume they can play keyboard or conduct music. Different skills. Different desires.

  4. Kristine says:

    Probably unpopular opinion: it doesn’t matter if the Sacrament Meeting music leader knows what they’re doing, as long as the organist does.

  5. I love your list! I’m sorry that leaders and others have so often assumed they can strong-arm you into things. I’m obviously speculating, but I wonder if there isn’t a gender component to a lot of this, as in your experience, where the leaders are men and the musicians are (often) women, and men, especially in leadership, are accustomed to telling women what to do rather than getting their input first.

  6. Thank you for writing down all my thoughts for me.

    My wife and I both play the piano and organ and one or the other (or both) of us have been doing it for most of the last 20 years. I’ve also been the primary pianist and had a run of 9 straight years as the choir accompanist, despite moving 4 times. Each new ward called me back to the same calling within a few weeks of moving in, even as I started specifically requesting a different calling by ward #4 and 5.

    Many years ago my wife got a last minute request from the bishop to switch a hymn (to ‘True to the Faith’) which she did, and it went ok, but was certainly stressful for her. In discussing the situation with the bishop after the meeting (pointing out how we need to practice and playing the organ is difficult what with using your hands and your feet, etc.) our bishop was SHOCKED to learn that the organ is played with your feet! He was approximately 70 years old, and had probably been an active member his entire life, but had never noticed that organists use their feet.

    These days, we are much less timid about sticking up for ourselves. More recently I was in a bishopric meeting on Sunday morning when the bishop noticed one of the hymns on the program which he didn’t like and wanted to change. I wasn’t the one playing that day (nor was my wife) but I still firmly told him that the hymn had been on the schedule for weeks, and while it was fine if he wanted to exercise his bishop veto on a hymn, one hour before church was not the appropriate time to do so.

    I could go on and on, but wanted to comment on #8 above. It is not a good plan to have the same person playing in sacrament meeting and also playing (or leading) the music in primary. It seems fine until you realize that you’re supposed to be playing postlude in the chapel at the same time you are playing prelude in the primary room! Furthermore, we have learned from experience that (at least for us) being preoccupied with providing the music for a meeting can be detrimental to connecting with the meeting. I struggle to pay attention to the speaker when I’m worried about whether he is wrapping up or not so I can jump back up the organ and adjust the volume and did I leave the hymnal open to the right page? When that distraction is coupled with also “putting on a show” to engage and entertain the primary kids each week, church starts to feel more like a performance than a religious service. Maybe others are sufficiently talented or calm and can pull it off, but it is at times a trial for me, and virtually always a serious struggle for my wife.

  7. Kristine: As the organist, it is helpful to have a conductor that knows what they’re doing, but in the end, you’re right – they could write their name in cursive in the air and most of the congregation won’t notice, and I as the organist won’t care.

    Ziff: My experience is that both my wife and I get dumped on musically the same amount. To me it isn’t gendered, its that non-musicians have little understanding of (and often very little respect for) what they’re requesting. For the most part no one would call you up 15 minutes before church and ask you to teach gospel doctrine, but they don’t mind doing it for music because to them music is just something that magically happens.

  8. hurstme1990 says:

    While it may be true for some that the person leading the singing doesn’t have to know what he or she is doing as long as the organist does, it is NOT true for people in the congregation who DO know how to lead music. Even with a talented organist, an incompetent music leader is VERY annoying and distracts from the purpose of music in the meeting.

  9. David Rasmussen says:

    Note to all shepherds: in order to lead your sheep, first you must know them.

  10. EagleLady says:

    As one member of the congregation who inherited a pinky-full of talent, but two ears full of appreciation for music, may I thank you from deep in my heart for all your years of hard work and dedication to developing Your talents to bring the beauty of music into our chapels, meetings, temples, and important life events. You are special and deserve great admiration and respect.

  11. How much of the lack of care is due to the habit of praising “inspiration from the pulpit”, where we get a story of how great the newest SP will be because the Area Authority couldn’t come up with a name until after the meeting to call them started? We seem to find it admirable to throw someone from a tall building because “the angels will bear them up”.

  12. Gilgamesh says:

    To your #7. Our ward split a few years ago and our sister ward (same building) had a number of their musicians move out. Just recently our bishop’s son, who moved to the sister ward, was called as the organist, which baffled him and his family. It turns out the RS president shared a story about teaching him piano when he was a child and the bishop assumed he must play – hence the calling. He let the bishop know that he only took 2 years of piano and hadn’t played since he was 10. The bishop, in desparation, still asked him to serve as the organist to which he stated, “Give me 2 years to practice and I may consider it.”

    As to your other points, I am in full agreement. I played piano for priesthood since I was 13 and only once in that time was it ever considered a calling. In most cases I was informed it was an “assignment” that didn’t count as one of the many callings I have had. It didn’t matter if I took 2-3 hours a week practicing. Since I was a musician, my playing was always seen as enjoying my hobby. That said, being the pianist for Primary was one of my favorite callings of all time.

  13. Great list, especially for keyboardists, which it sounds like is your area of expertise. As a singer and conductor, I have a lot to add! Suffice it to say, I feel your pain and I wish we would all strive for better respect and musicianship across the board. Thanks for bringing the topic up!

  14. Carolyn says:

    @Morgan: Please do add to the list! Would love your conductor insight.

  15. nicoleahopper says:

    It was very validating to see your keyboardist categories. I am solidly in the b category and I can’t sight read to save my life. I always felt so much lesser because of that. It feel like everyone expects every pianist to be able to sight read perfectly.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post; should be required reading for all bishops and SPs.

    My father was our long time conductor in the branch I grew up in. If he wasn’t happy with the results he thought nothing of stopping, explaining what they were doing wrong and starting over, which embarrassed me no end, but folks seemed to appreciate how much he cared about it.

  17. I’ll add a few for the decision-makers (priesthood), as someone who was the ward pianist or music director off and on from age 12 to 38.

    If you want hymns related to the sacrament meeting topics, set the topics at least a month in advance.

    Don’t require a special musical number more than once a month in sacrament meeting when the ward music talent is extremely thin.

    Don’t take hymn requests from the peanut gallery during the prelude. This became an annoying pattern in my final ward and I had to be the “bad guy” and put a stop to it.

  18. This is wonderful. I especially appreciate the focus on leaders and not musicians. But I did expect a somewhat greater emphasis on just say no.
    As someone who grew up in a (d) category expectation household (dad could, and some of his children measured up), I would add that ability to muddle through a standard hymn book is a far cry from accompanying an ambitious choir. Don’t expect miracles.
    Also, I’ve known a number of professional musicians and most of them were performing at other church services on Sunday. They need to be included in the delicate and abused category of LDS volunteer labor by people who normally get paid for the same.
    Finally (for now), there are complicated dynamics around quality and participation. I’ve been in wards where I was awestruck by the music every Sunday. Often that was in the near vicinity of a top flight music school. And I’ve been in wards where even I could do better. I’m free with praise for the former, but I know it created jealousy and envy from other units in the stake. In the latter cases I generally do not say anything, including not to raise my hand. It’s complicated.

  19. Loursat says:

    In response to Kristine’s comment: Our church’s practice of having a chorister for congregational singing is unusual among churches. A chorister is not needed if an organist or pianist is reasonably capable. People can follow the instrument just fine. (Although having a chorister is so deeply ingrained in many parts of the world that our people would need an explanation to go without one.) I think the chorister’s quality does make a difference, though. If the chorister is good at it, they improve everyone’s experience with the hymns. If the chorister doesn’t know what they’re doing, it can really bring the experience down for the congregation and the organist. As an organist, I find it so much better to have a capable chorister. It’s very uncomfortable for me at the organ when I essentially have to ignore what the chorister is doing.

    I’ve never seen a ward or branch where they didn’t use a chorister, even though that should be a real option in some circumstances. But, as with so many things in a ward’s music program, doing that would never occur to a bishop who is ignorant of music. Reading this post would help a lot of bishops just to become aware of what they don’t know about how music happens in a ward.

  20. YES! Please, please be considerate to the music people! We are tired. So very tired.

    Thousands of hours go into the ability to play a hymn on demand. It is exhausting to play every Sunday. I have told priesthood leaders who asked me to come up with a piano solo musical number with less than 24 hours notice, “if you want a musical number tomorrow, you’d better start practicing!” If you can’t play O Savior Thou Who Wearest a Crown (hymn 197) with the foot pedals yourself, then you should be very, very careful about the demands you’re making on the people who can.

    Inspiration is an individual thing – I can be inspired to throw my prepared talk out and say something else. But what I cannot do is stand up in Sacrament meeting and say I’ve been inspired that YOU should throw YOUR talk out and say about something else! Do not do that to musicians. If the hymn should be changed, it should be the organist getting that inspiration and then *maybe* you getting the same inspiration, not you up at the pulpit telling the new hymn title to an organist who is now at risk of a stroke, thanks to your inconsiderate demands.

  21. anitawells says:

    As one who has served in most music callings over the years, amen to all the above thoughts. I was once called to be the ward choir director because they knew my mom was in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Alas, her years of vocal and choral training didn’t pass down genetically…

  22. Little BG says:

    I’m a long time organist who finally got my degree in church music/organ performance a few years ago. This list should be required reading for church leaders. There’s a lot of ignorance about what it takes to play music for church. I’ve had people act surprised that I 1) practice several hours each week, 2) play with my feet—yes there’s a difference between piano and organ that involves both pedal and manual technique, and 3) need advanced warning about hymn changes. I attended a Saturday evening session of stake conference where the hymns were the same as what I had been told to prepare for the following morning. They had changed the hymns without letting me know. I sobbed during the intermediate hymn for all of the practicing that had gone to waste.

    I now play professionally, and while I still deal with pastors and priests and their quirks, at least I’m paid for it, and the other congregations appreciate my work. Meanwhile the LDS church gets me every other year when my ward meets in the afternoons. It’s been several years since I’ve played for stake conference because they tend to ask me the week of, and I’m already booked at that point.

    Lastly, I am both organist and music leader for my paid jobs. Not a fan of the chorister.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Loursat, good point about other churches often not having a chorister to lead congregational singing. The Lutheran church I sometimes attend doesn’t use a chorister now that I think about it.

  24. Geoff - Aus says:

    David Rasmussen, Did you live in Cardston when you were about 12?

  25. Thank you for this! As a kid, my LDS piano teacher emphasized sight reading so that I could be of service in the church. Thanks to her, I would consider myself in category e. In all the ways. I am in part thankful for this, but on the flip side, I have rarely had any other calling, and I am so incredibly bored. Especially since COVID ended our ward choir, where we did sometimes challenge ourselves. I have had a bishopric member ask me if I would like to be released from my primary pianist calling. I asked if that would mean they would call me to play the organ, which he couldn’t deny would be the case (We only have 1 other person in the ward who plays, so we would essentially just be switching places. Again.) I highly prefer primary and playing the piano (really don’t like playing the organ, it’s just not my instrument), so I told him I would prefer to stay where I am. But until the makeup of our ward changes, no other calling is ever on the table.

  26. Kristine says:

    Loursat, Kevin–the reason we have one is Sidney Rigdon–Campbellites don’t use instruments in their services, so they need a song leader to set pitch and keep tempo. We adopted that practice from Rigdon’s congregants and never discarded it when we started using organs and pianos. You really, truly don’t need one. (And I say this as someone who loves leading hymns, and fancies I can make a little difference when I do it!)

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks Kristine, that explanation makes good sense.

  28. @Ziff, it is likely there’s a gender component. Things got a lot better once I was an adult, but that was 20+ years ago, and there’s still room for improvement. Part of the improvement is that leadership subconsciously offered more respect to the matron whose husband was ward clerk. Much of it, though, was because I got better at advocating for myself.

    Aside — as a youth, I felt equally important to the boys my age. If a deacon forgot the bread, they delayed the Sacrament, but if I was three minutes late, they delayed the entire Sacrament Meeting.

    Many young women in my generation (and before) felt like second-class citizens at church, and I totally get that. Young men in the 1990s did seem to get more attention and resources and encouragement to serve missions, etc. But I felt just as essential to the ward as any of the young men. Even if that wasn’t the message I was getting from my bishopbric, it was objectively obvious: they *needed* me. At times, there was literally no one else in the ward who could play the hymns.

  29. @Kristine, that history lesson about choristers was so helpful! Thanks.

  30. TRUE, TRUE, TRUE! I think I’ve had every one of those situations happen to me.

    A few additions:
    Just because someone can play the piano does not mean they can play the organ. They are entirely different instruments. I learned to play the organ after being called because a boundary change left us with no organists in the ward. It was horribly stressful!

    In regards to playing in both Sacrament Meeting and Primary, I had both callings for several years. I came early to play SM prelude, then stayed as people left the the chapel while I played postlude. I then ran as fast as I could to the primary room where I spent the entire meeting sitting behind the piano. I left church having interacted with 2 choristers. By the time I asked to be released from Primary, I did not know anyone in the ward.

    No, it is not a good idea to ask the chorister to watch the sacrament preparation and cut off in the middle of the sacrament song if the priesthood holders are finished with that preparation before the entire song has been sung. And priesthood holders should not begin the sacrament prayer while the chorister is walking to her or his seat.

    Consult your music people before scheduling anything in the chapel immediately before sacrament meeting or in between consecutive meetings. I am always there 30 minutes prior to the meeting so that I can refresh the music in my mind and my fingers immediately before playing. I’m not a gifted musician. I’m a basically competent musician who practices A LOT. If you really need that time, give me enough warning that I can adjust my planned practicing.

    Demands on musicians may have decreased, but so has the number of musicians in my ward and stake. How are you planning to replace me when I can no longer play? If you’re in Utah, have you thought about offering a pianist in your ward the opportunity for the ward to pay for a trip to BYU’s annual organ camp?

    Don’t put flower arrangements on the organ so that I can’t see the chorister. Don’t open window coverings so that light is shining in my eyes. If you do, expect me to delay the start of the meeting while I fix the problem so that I can see.

    Sorry to rant, but this is a hard calling for me. Please don’t make it harder.

  31. Regarding choristers: I agree that they are frequently not necessary and sometimes just make things worse. When I encounter choristers who don’t know what they’re doing, I have a few options: follow them into disaster, bully them subtly, bully them blatantly, or completely ignore ’em.

    Over the years, I’ve moved into the “blatant bullying” or “completely ignoring” camp.

    It is nice when a really competent chorister genuinely leads at tempo, but that’s rare. My previous stake music chair did that, and it was lovely.

    One benefit I have is that I frequently sing while playing the organ. (I can either use my feet or my voice, and unless it’s an anthem like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I will use the base coupler and sing.) Anyway, the organ drowns me out so the congregation doesn’t hear me, but the chorister does. My singing can often help a tentative chorister find the rhythm. But not everyone can do that, and it would be more efficient for me just to lead from the organ instead of coaching the chorister while pretending to follow.

    Fun fact: it’s possible to bully the entire congregation! I’ve never taken formal organ lessons, but I’ve had little mini-lessons from those more skilled, here and there, and one of them taught me how to “make a hole” so everyone reflexively speeds up.

    Finally, when I’m singing in the congregation, I almost never look at the chorister. I suspect that’s true for most people, musical or not.

  32. Thanks for all the comments! Keep ’em coming! I will definitely need to expand the list. I am especially gratified by the people who have already shared my list with ward councils, or told me privately that they’re already working to change how they communicate with musicians. <3

  33. @Carolyn, thanks for being a great sister and encouraging me to do this. –Gail

  34. @Morgan, I sing, too. Not professionally, but well. I have fewer horror stories about singing in church, mostly because I rarely get to do it; I am too often chained to the keyboard. But I’d love to hear your list. I agree that singers and other musicians need to be included!

  35. @christiankimball, I have definitely gotten good at saying no. These days, when someone extends a music calling, I demand reciprocity: “Fine, I’ll do it and try not to murmur about it, much, but a) before you can sustain me, you need to listen to my lecture, and b) remember that I find playing for Primary stultifying, and I will either perish of boredom after six months, or else I will start entertaining myself by attempting–badly–to transpose on the fly. Or play blindfolded. Or something to keep it interesting.”

    I know I focused on adolescent horror stories, because that’s what taught me that leadership was clueless and that I needed to advocate for myself. I definitely agree that it’s fine to tell leadership “no” or, as @Marie suggested, “better start practicing!”

  36. @T I totally, totally hear the boredom thing. (See my comment above about Primary.)

  37. Leaders should read this post, absorb it, and tattoo it upon their souls in letters of fire.

  38. Michinita says:

    I served as the ward music chair in a ward with a very small selection of keyboard musicians. We had someone new move in who played the organ, which allowed the bishop’s wife to sit with her 4 little children rather than at the organ on the Sundays the move-in wasn’t traveling for high council, which he was called to immediately despite my protests that we needed him. (The bishop’s wife also taught Sunday school.) The first Sunday he played I was so happy he was willing, and competent, and played at tempo. My initial joy disappeared as multiple ward members came up to me after the meeting to tell me I had to tell him to play softer. I wanted to shake them by the shoulders and shout at them for being so ungrateful. I didn’t, but by about the 4th complainer I did finally start saying their choices were to sing louder or learn to play themselves.

  39. This is gold. I’ve been pianist and organist for most of my life since I was 12. Many of your experiences happened to me. Now that I’m an adult I tell any leader no if I’m asked to do something I’m uncomfortable with. My 15 year old son is now following in my music footsteps and when the bishop extended the ward organist calling I also told him that my son and I both have veto authority. So far theyve been respectful. Leaders take advantage of musicians but parents need to advocate for their children until they are to.

    Two experiences, one annoying and one funny: a visiting GA asked me to play a men’s hymn for stake conference. I told the Stake music chair that I’d play a hymn that wasn’t written for men only or they could find another organist. They changed the hymn but I haven’t been asked to play at the stake since then. Funny experience: when I was choir pianist we were practicing an elaborate and difficult piece. The choir director asked if it was possible to play the accompaniment at the same time as the 4 part harmony. I just laughed and said I doubt that even Rachmaninov could pull that off.

    I try to remind myself that non musicians are ignorant and not purposefully malicious. Usually.

  40. Felicia says:

    ANYONE who has had a musical calling—or talents that are simply called upon last minute—can relate to this post. My abilities are mediocre, but when we moved to a new ward, I was suddenly in high demand. All of the experiences she shared have happened to me except I was an adult when they happened. So when the bishop announced a change to the closing song—one that I definitely couldn’t play—I simply didn’t play it. I played the song I had originally practiced and explained to him afterwords that I couldn’t play any hymn at will. He never spontaneously tried to change the hymns again, although he would still sometimes approach my before the meeting began to see if I would change them. The point being, I was the one playing the music so I was the one with the power to decide what to play. The bishop could give his opinion, but it was ultimately up to me.

  41. This is a great post! I’d like to add one wild and crazy idea: a church with $100+ billion in the bank could spring to pay professional musicians to play the organ/piano and lead the choir (and maybe spring for some special instruments around Christmas. My local Lutheran church with an operating budget of much less manages to pay church musicians.

  42. Count Kolob says:

    I think a lot of non-musicians look at it like magic. If you can do it, you can do it. However, most people need to practice at least a little bit before having to perform.

    My wife has been a church organist for years. While she is good at her job, that job requires regular practice. One of our past bishops had the habit of constantly changing the music on Sunday morning. Sometimes it was one song, sometimes it was multiple songs.

    She tried being tactful with him. It didn’t work. A lot of times when he changed the music, she had to play it on the piano because it was too hard for her to get the pedals right on such short notice. But the bishop didn’t like that. He wanted it to be the organ and complained when she used the piano instead. She told him she’d play the organ every week, but he couldn’t switch out the music at the last minute. He acted like he understood, but the next week the same thing happened.

    It continued for several weeks until she finally had enough. She told him quite frankly that it was clear he felt like he needed to keep changing the music, but that she wouldn’t be the one playing it anymore. He was going to need to find someone else. He begged her to stay, but she was completely unmovable. The funny part was the bishop’s wife was also an organist and when she found out what he had done, SHE gave it to him too. The bishop tried again to cajole my wife into coming back. He was crying on the phone, begging her. She wouldn’t budge. My wife is one of the easiest going people on earth, but if you cross one of her lines heaven help you.

    The ward now has rotating organists who take turns on each Sunday. 1 of the 3 of them is the kind of musician the article mentions who can just play anything sight unseen. But he is a unique breed.

  43. Niki-La says:

    My two cents (in case there actual bishops reading and learning) is that organists must *must* have keys to the building. This is not negotiable. Unless and until the ward budget becomes such that they can both buy me an organ to practice at home and a large enough house to store such organ, I will be practicing at the church.
    Therefore I need keys. And no, phoning the building guy every week to come and unlock the building is not an acceptable substitute. If I have Tuesdays off this week and the only time I can practice the organ is early morning before the grocery run then that’s when I need to go the building.
    The number of bishoprics that needed to be convinced of this is concerning. You want piano players to fake that they are organists? Then we need keys. I’ve been told there is a list somewhere of which callings get keys and organists are not on it and some sticklers for rules would refuse to give me keys until I refused to accept the calling.

  44. Lisbeth says:

    I am in a ward new to me, and because of Covid and other extenuating factors I have not attended in person. I have been contacted by a member of the Bishopric exactly once. In that solitary text the only thing he wrote was the question of whether I played the piano. I do, as well as the organ, but I didn’t respond. I’m not going through that grief again.

  45. Hedgehog says:

    My original comment appears to have been lost in the ether.

    I’m not sure which category I fit. Not a professional musician. Can play most of the hymnbook on the piano. Love playing hymns. Sight reading generally on a par with my standard of playing, but it’s good to get time to run through a couple of times first, where possible. I’m not an organist. The response of the keyboard is very different before I would even begin to think about feet.

    Loved serving as ward pianist when my husband served as chorister. He doesn’t play, but my goodness he can conduct. Pianist is the best spot in primary, with the piano between me and the children.

    A couple of anecdotes.
    1. Long ago I was asked at the last minute to accompany the hymns for a stake RS fireside. They must have been desperate because I was wearing jeans. But I did have to turn away a soloist for a musical item presenting me with the sheet music for a song I had never heard of, just prior to the meeting, and with no time to go through it with her. It would have been embarrassing for both of us!
    2. I once refused last minute hymn changes demanded by a high council member with no authority to make the request. Turned out it was a special programme requested by stake presidency. The bishop, who was absent had passed on the topic, but not the hymns ahead of time. We had an inexperienced chorister who practiced each weeks hymns with a recording, and one of the requested hymns was in 5/4 time. The high councillor must have gone back in high dugeon because the very next week a member of the stake presidency visited with the sole purpose of changing the closing hymn at the last minute. The change was to something very simple, so not a problem, but I did wonder if I’d have been hauled in front of a disciplinary council had I refused.

  46. Carolyn says:

    @Niki-La: I really like the building key point. I was reading the handbook the other day and it does say that piano/organ lessons in the chapel during the week in order to enable worship are expressly OK. That’s only possible if someone has keys.

    I took organ lessons in college and practiced at the church, but I was activities chair at the time and already had keys for that reason.

  47. In my 20s and 30s (when I still played basketball regularly) I would tell people that organist was the best calling, because it was the only one where you got keys to the church but didn’t have to go to any meetings. Then I discovered a ward that thought we could just borrow keys from someone else each and every time we needed to practice the organ. Can you imagine calling someone to teach gospel doctrine and telling them they can’t have a copy of the manual, but they can borrow one from the bishop when they need it?

    Another rant that is more for the COB than any local leadership. Organs are wonderful musical instruments. Pianos are different wonderful musical instruments. Electronic keyboards that seem more prevalent in church buildings these days range from “reasonable approximations to musical instruments” to “toys for 8 year olds”. There are certainly wonderful electric keyboards out there, but those are not what I’ve experienced at church. That thing in my RS room may be designed to *look* like a piano, but it certainly doesn’t *play* like a piano, and it doesn’t *sound* like a piano. It works ok when you’re playing a hymn. It doesn’t work so well for practicing with the ward choir. And finally, when you’ve been asked to play a musical number for a baptism and show up only to discover there is a keyboard that wobbles when you touch it and doesn’t have a pedal at all, all of my effort in practicing is doomed to turn into a final product that sounds like crap.

  48. I could have written this article! As a musician and active member, I was constantly put in situations that actually caused real medical issues. My mother believed every situation was a blessing and my doctor said no, you need to learn to say no! That was when I was 15! I’m now 72 and I’m very aware of a lack of musical understanding within the leadership of our Church. I doubt it will ever change!

  49. @Niki-La and @Carolyn, I agree with the building key thing. One of the ways I stay sane is that I just don’t practice the organ. I know the hymns well enough that I show up, use the bass coupler, and just let ‘er rip. The only time I practice is if I’m preparing a little extra something before Christmas or Stake Conference. And I have a piano at home that can help me with composing my arrangements — I use it to find the chords I want, write a cadenza, etc. So, basically, I’ve barely practiced the organ in 25 years.

    But. You are absolutely correct that most organists need to practice. I’m sure I could improve my performance, and play the pedals more often, if I practiced more. And even if I don’t practice the organ, I will start demanding a building key in solidarity. That’s similar to how I stand up to priesthood leadership about changing the hymns last minute: I can handle it, but not everyone can, so I view it as part of my union contract to push back in defense of other musicians.

  50. About building keys…when I was learning to play the organ 20 years ago I had a key to my ward building. Then I was told I could practice the Stake Center organ whenever the Family History library was open. When I realized that a neighboring Stake Center nearby had a pipe organ, I went there during the time that FH Center was open. Woohoo! They never locked the pipe organ because the various organists practiced on it often. The pipe organ was so amazing and popular each ward in the building had numerous organists who practiced on it every week. I loved playing that organ, although it was always to an empty room.

  51. My favorite calling in the church is primary accompanist, followed by ward accompanist. Two things:

    (1) To rehash what’s been said, either have a competent chorister or none at all. A bad one is distracting. Ideally, a competent one who will help me keep a steady tempo and direct fermatas/etc.

    (2) PLEASE don’t assume you should give me a second calling (like running youth or primary activities) since I’m “just” an accompanist. I think bishoprics assume I put no more time or effort into the calling than showing up and playing–that is, no more time than the congregants who are attending the meeting. I’m spending an hour or more practicing each week, and I need time for that.

  52. D. Fletcher says:

    I started playing the organ in my ward/stake in October 1985, the same month that the new green hymnbook was introduced. So, 37 years. Since 2005, I have chosen the hymns myself. There are some songs I will not program, and one of those is “Called to Serve,” also known as “Play Ball!”

  53. Chadwick says:

    I too could have written this article! Literally been stuck behind an instrument in my stake for 10 years now. I have other talents, but no one seems to care.

    A few new things to add to the conversation so as not to repeat that I agree with everything that was previously said:

    1. Our stake buildings have a keypad and as an organist I was given a generic building code that works during daylight hours (I think roughly 7-7). I guess I didn’t realize how good I have it.

    2. I too have never been properly trained on the organ, and really don’t have much time for that given personal and professional demands. I use the bass coupler. They get what they get.

    3. With regards to changing songs, the only way I can get people to comprehend is to let them know that changing the song on me last minute causes me anxiety, even if I can play the hymn we are changing. I mentally prepare to “perform” each week, the same way a speaker or teacher does. Sure you could change the speaker topic or lesson assignment last minute and a talented teacher could muddle through, but is that the goal? No. The goal is to reward preparation.
    Anxiety seems to be a helpful buzzword leadership is aware of these days, and it has worked in getting that practice to stop.

    4. The first time I turned down a calling was for choir accompanist. Our director at the time, who I love, had a beautiful voice but no music training. She sure knew how to pick the hardest arrangements that existed. I couldn’t keep up. Quitting that one time opened Pandora’s Box for me. Living through the anxiety of having to turn down a calling helped me to turn down several callings since. It was, in that regard, somewhat a blessing in disguise.

    5. My kids are all piano players + a few more instruments. I worry what future ways to abuse the musically inclined will leadership devise for them.

    6. Lastly, some people are just jerks. I’m so annoyed having been told by multiple people with high callings how they *wish* they could play an instrument because their calling is so much work and mine is so easy. Up theirs.

  54. Jim Wallmann says:

    I agree with all that has been said and have experienced much of it. For the record, if it doesn’t have pipes, it’s not an organ. The electronic substitutes masquerading as organs are more properly called appliances with keys.

  55. D. Fletcher says:

    An addendum to my comment above: I never tire of providing music.

  56. And I literally never tired of singing along to D.’s music!

    Once upon a time I probably fit into (e) (on piano; I don’t play organ). These days I’m closer to (d) as I spend most of my musical time on sax. I haven’t experienced the horror stories here, but totally believe that they happen.

    And Jim, while pipe organs are lovely, Hammond B-3s (with rotating Leslie speakers!) and their equally stunning relatives would probably disagree with that definition.

  57. violadiva says:

    Yes to all of this. As a professional musician married to a professional musician, we’ve seen just about every scenario you’ve listed.
    Some of the most rewarding ways we’ve been able to contribute is when we’re given wide ranging “permission” to do whatever our artistic minds would like to put on. When we’ve invited to plan large scale programs, it can be joyful to see the whole artistic vision come to life without being micromanaged. I would rather not be involved in a program at all than be asked and then micromanaged or have my selections vetoed. My local leaders know that if we do something together for the ward or stake, it will be amazing …. And to just let us do it, no questions asked 😂
    That goes in to the trust and listening you mention.

  58. Yes to all of this. My musical training is primarily on violin and viola, with a little piano. I’ve used it a lot with Primary meetings and activities. My biggest problem is that choir directors think that if I can read music on an instrument, I should be able to sight-sing. No, sorry. I sing by ear. I need time to learn it in advance.

    My husband is an organist. He is largely self-taught. The bishop who asked him to learn just one hymn to be sung weekly in priesthood meeting until he learned a second provided him with 1. an organ to practice on at home 2. food, clothing, and shelter 3. 1/2 of his DNA. “All right, Dad. I’ll try.

    He has faced all of these challenges. Here are two that affected me the most.

    Spouse, phoning from hospital: Tell the kids that Mom and the new baby are fine
    Grandma: I will. Oh, and the missionaries have been frantically trying to get hold of you.
    Missionaries to Spouse: We need you to play for a wedding/baptism in two days.
    Spouse: I’m tied up right now. My wife just delivered a baby.
    Missionaries: But no one else is in town, and we’ve been planning this wedding and baptism for six weeks.
    Any logical person in the Universe: obviously you haven’t.

    Ward: Missionary, missionary, missionary. We’re having a missionary fireside. Everyone in the ward should invite a friend.
    Spouse: Invite your friend and I’ll stay home with the kids.
    Ward mission leader to spouse the night before: Here are the songs we need you to play.
    Spouse: But I’m staying home with the kids while my wife brings a friend.
    Ward Mission leader: you should have known we would need an organist.
    (Friend canceled on me, so the crisis was averted, but I still felt failing missionary feelings.)

    Spouse usually stands up for himself against the obviously impossible, but he’s not so good about saying no to the wildly unreasonable. I’ve had several miserable Christmases when over eager choir directors turned Spouse into a Grinch.

    I will close with a statement my sister once made to a very annoyed choir director. “If I thought you could browbeat talent into me, I would tell you to keep going. But since it doesn’t work that way, can you stop scolding and just let us practice it some more?”

  59. I note that some people are saying “I’m sooo bored, I wish I could do some other calling!” and others are saying “I hate that they assume I can handle both playing *and* some other calling.” All perspectives on this are valid; each musician is different. I personally have changed camps several times. Like, when I was a zombie after kid #4 was born and I didn’t sleep for six months, a nice, simple music calling would have been great. Right now, I’d be very frustrated if I never got a chance to teach; I love teaching. It all goes back to leadership listening and respecting the musicians and not making assumptions about what each person can/should/wants to do.

  60. Carolyn says:

    @Chadwick. Your last point makes me want to quote Pride and Prejudice. “If ever I should have learned I would have been a true proficient!”

  61. You bolstered my habit, whenever I’m sitting on the stand or otherwise have access, of going over to thank the organist for their playing.
    As a side note, I worked in a stake for years with a man who, as far as I knew, had no musical talent. I went to his house once and discovered a very fancy organ in his front room He quite nicely asked me to keep it on the QT because he saw what was quick to happen to those who played. I assume his home teacher was similarly sworn to secrecy.
    Only semi-related. My grandmother became the congregational pianist for both a Baptist church and a Methodist church was she was only ten years old. The musician’s plight is ecumenical.

  62. One more “note” for the comments. When I was the stake music chairman a few years ago, it was emphasized that we should no longer use the term “chorister”. Instead, the person directing the music in meetings should be called the “music leader”. I believe it was because “chorister” also refers to someone who sings in a choir. The handbook mentions ward and stake music “leaders” and Primary music “leaders”, but no choristers. And as I reread the handbook, I learned something new. The term “music chairman” is no longer used. This person is now called the stake or ward “music coordinator”.

    I’ve loved having on and off music callings since I was about fifteen, especially those early years when I served with my mother. More than forty years later, I am currently taking organ lessons. I had no idea what was involved! It is a challenging instrument. Before, I was just a pianist pretending to play the organ.

  63. This is spot on. Thanks for sharing.

  64. nobody, really says:

    I was a featured soloist in college, and my kid plays the same instrument with some serious proficiency on the university level. But, because we play brass, we are considered to be “musically untalented” in church.

    A youth leader once tried to tell my kid to learn to play the organ, since that would be a “real” musical talent that could be used in church. Uh, no, the ability to play a brass instrument with a high level of proficiency doesn’t mean that a person will easily pick up the organ or piano.

  65. WOW! 🤯 You nailed it on the head!!! I’ve been there and done that since i was 12 too. The worst was after I gave my piano to my grandchildren for lessons and I had nothing to practice on and they called me to be the accompaniment for the choir. And from bad experience- nothing worse then a Bishop calling for an impromptu “rest sing” that you’ve never heard before or haven’t played in 20+ years. Also one last thing – for those of us that learned to play the hymns in the old old song book – when them modified all the songs back in the 80s or 90s they did not make them easier to play. 🥴 And now they’re working on a new hymn book again. 🤦🏻

  66. Kristine says:

    nobody, really–happily, the Handbook has recently changed to omit the discouragement of brass instruments in Sacrament Meeting. I hope you and your child will have more opportunities now. And I hope I get to hear more brass at church!

  67. Californian says:

    With over 40 years as a trained church musician [years of piano and organ lessons], thanks for this post, I could write for days on this topic.

    Leadership: Show respect when musicians are performing. You are sitting on the stand often within arm’s length of the pianist or organist and several feet from singers either in front of you (soloists, small groups) or behind you in the choir. Do everything in your power to avoid making distracting noises or movements. And absolutely do NOT talk.

    More than once, I have been performing on piano, usually a special musical number for a soloist or choir; and leaders are literally carrying on a conversation. Not a few words, a conversation! I can hear you even when you whisper! Musicians must listen to perform well and to have a distraction like speaking just three feet from where I am simultaneously 1)playing/listening to my instrument, 2)listening to singers and 3)following a conductor is completely unacceptable. This is a live performance, there is no do-over. After hours of practice and rehearsals, to filter out and try to ignore your conversation causes me to not be able to go fully into the performance zone.

    Please men, don’t touch female (or male) organists while they are playing (prelude, postlude). I appreciate how appreciative you are in expressing thanks, but please do it without touching my shoulders or arms. Again, it’s a live performance and I am actively using those parts, in fact, my entire body; and my brain is on fire coordinating the whole thing.

    @Michinita – staffing problems are stressful, however, if the organist isn’t setting the registration correctly for the hymn and congregation size, and therefore, playing too loudly; that’s a valid problem that needs to be addressed. I recall one organist routinely pulling out all the stops with the swell fully open; and one woman would have to get up and flee because she knew being in the chapel for the duration of the hymn would cause a severe headache.

    @Dave W – the 70 year old bishop who didn’t know organists play with their feet; many people also don’t know organists wear OrganMaster shoes. When people happen to notice me changing my shoes, they are usually amazed and make a comment, sometimes comparing organ shoes to specialized shoes for sports. Organists’ feet literally dance across the pedalboard!

    Favorite all-time organ playing observation from a SP: “I have no idea how you know where your feet are on the pedals” Me: “Sometimes *I* have no idea where my feet are” (LOL).

  68. Wow, lots of memories! If you’ll let me indulge–I grew up in upstate New York in the 1960s and 70s, in a ward (Schenectady) largely populated by transplanted Westerners. It was extremely common for children (especially girls) to take piano lessons so that they would be able to someday “contribute” to the Church. Someone found a private piano teacher, Violet Oliver, who charged $1.00 for a 30-minute lesson and also, amazingly, owned an organ and taught organ as well. Although a non-member, she was willing to help her students learn hymns in addition to scales, etudes, classical selections, etc. Her yearly recitals usually consisted of half LDS, half non-LDS students. The ward had its own yearly recital that was open to student musicians of all kinds, including vocalists and band/orchestral instruments, and Mrs. Oliver often attended.

    In my family everyone (girls and boys) was required to study piano until we could play a hymn adequately. One of my younger brothers discovered a simplified edition of the hymnbook, published by the Church in 1972 (what a great idea!), and gleefully checked his requirement off early. My next youngest sister and I studied for 8-9 years each, and I also took organ lessons for a year, but the other kids weren’t as interested. This sister and I have both been Primary and Relief Society pianists as adults. Church was totally different before the 1980 switch to a 3-hr. Sunday block. What we called Mutual or MIA, now Young Men / Young Women, was held during the week and included opening exercises with an opening hymn. I frequently played piano for Mutual and often flipped the pages for prelude music, sight-reading. One hymn turned out to be the same music as “O Christmas Tree” (“O Tannenbaum”), which resulted in a grimace from me and a lot of laughing from the teens who were paying attention. (#16 in the old blue hymnbook, “Come, Hail the Cause of Zion’s Youth.” Shouldn’t that be appropriate for Mutual? The lyricist points out that it’s also the tune to “Maryland, My Maryland,” which is what inspired her. That blue hymnbook had a lot of interesting stuff in it.) I (as with all the girls) also learned how to conduct music and had ample opportunities to do so. When I was a junior in high school (age 16) I was called as Primary chorister–Primary was held on a weekday afternoon then, and teenage girls (NEVER boys) were often asked to help out. I was absolutely horrified at the thought, since Primary included both Jr. and Sr. singing times and I had to teach songs, and I gladly–and truthfully–told the bishopric counselor that I couldn’t do this as I had just signed up for after-school Driver Ed. and taking the “late bus” wouldn’t get me to the chapel in time. He informed me that he’d already talked to my parents and my mother would pick me up at school as soon as Driver Ed. ended. To make things worse, I was called literally a week or so before the Primary Sacrament Meeting program. The presidency assured me everything was fine, the children knew all the songs and a special group had been organized and rehearsed for a new one, and basically all I had to do was signal to the kids when to stand up and sit down. That program was one of the most terrifying experiences of my entire life. I felt completely clueless and that the entire congregation was staring at and judging me. But, it never occurred to me to object. Apparently it never occurred to my parents to object. I look back now in total shock that anyone would throw an untried girl into a situation like that. Luckily I survived, and over the next few months I actually learned and improved. (It helped that the accompanist was another teenage girl and we could chat during down times.) By the time the new Primary year began in September (Primary ran on the school calendar back then), I had a part-time job and was more than happy to be released. I was called as the Junior Sunday School pianist instead (remember that?) and was in JR SS, along with the Aaronic Priesthood boys blessing and passing the sacrament, during opening exercises before going to my regular SS class. That, I enjoyed.

  69. I can speak or teach a lesson passably with ten minutes’ notice. I can do it well with an hour of preparation. I can do it very well with two days. I understand that this is not a skill most people have.

    It’s reasonable to assume that the same kind of principle exists for musicians.

  70. wbl2745 says:

    I’ve been an organist since I started lessons when I was 12. Now I’m 68. One thing that wasn’t mentioned is that there is a huge difference between playing the piano and the organ. This may get me in trouble, but a pianist on the organ is a mess. I’d rather hear a piano played well than an organ played poorly. Our stake music director always asks his wife, who has little organ training or experience, to play at all stake conferences. It would be better to either get a trained organist or have her play the piano.

  71. Ivegotgoodearsbutisingflatandcantharmonize says:

    Ever been to Church in Samoa or Tonga? Usually no organist, just a conductor with a big voice and the singing is amazing, with many of them naturally harmonizing. Maybe we are spoilt with a having a keyboard player. One of my current branches (I’m a full time senior missionary) has a pro musician playing and possibly the worst singing I’ve ever heard. The other branch uses the digitized piano version and is even worse!

  72. My two cents – my musical contributions are like burgun’s above. Here in Utah we have three ward organists so we each play about 16 times a year. Our newest organist has started to clash with the music “coordinator” re song selection but she also plays quite loudly so I have started to do the same.

    On the piano side – it would be nice if a chorister or soloist was willing to frame a request in a way that honors the ability (or lack thereof) of the pianist.

    Recently attended Sac Mtg in my son’s mission as we returned for a visit – I got to play an Allen organ which was a 1986 model – I enjoyed it and the ward members were extremely grateful.

  73. Alfredo says:

    The writer started her list with the point that musicians are not machines, and then with her ninth point reminded us that we have machines. The self-playing mode of our organs is seldom used anywhere I’ve been. Or maybe it has been, and I did not know. How do organists feel about managing the machine’s self-playing mode rather than playing when those directing a meeting want a hymn the organist is not prepared to play?

  74. JanellG says:

    AMEN to all of the above! As a teen (30+ years ago) who was a respectable piano player, my aunt showed me “a few things” on the organ. I play the pedals (in my stocking or bare feet which is so not proper technique) and during practice mess about with the stops until I have a sound that seems appropriate to the nature of the hymn. I have served as organist in every ward and branch I have ever lived in, and with practice can play most of the tricky hymns suitably well.

    I was serving as stake organist (which I was called to over the pulpit, incidentally, not a word let alone a request first) when our stake was informed we would be hosting a regional broadcast. President Monson and Elder Bednar would be speaking at our stake conference and it would be live broadcast to all the stakes throughout Western Canada. The stake music chair and I carefully selected and practiced the hymns for the Sunday meeting and I felt calm and prepared.

    Saturday evening after the Priesthood session, my phone started to ring off the hook with Brethren who had been in attendance. “Did you know President Monson expects us to sing O Canada tomorrow? Did anybody tell you President Monson said he is so looking forward to singing O Canada tomorrow? Had you heard…???” NO, WE DID NOT KNOW PRESIDENT MONSON PLANS ON SINGING O CANADA TOMORROW!!!!! There never was any official communication from the stake re the “request” If men in attendance hadn’t told me, or if President Monson hadn’t mentioned it in passing in his talk that night, I would have shown up in the morning with no idea.

    The immediate issue was O Canada is not printed in the hymn book. There is a Church arrangement printed with a page number that gets pasted in the back. I didn’t have it in my book at home. Our building had recently got new hymnbooks that had no O Canada additions pasted in yet. It is now about 9 pm and I have NO MUSIC. Brainwave: where are the old hymnbooks? I found some in the Primary room, ripped a couple copies of O Canada out of them and raced to the chapel organ (very different than the stake center organ) to practice. Like most national anthems, O Canada is a glorious song but not easy to play, and one with which I have a bit of a complex. On the couple occasions I have played it for public occasions I have never, ever, nailed the introduction. I had never played the hymn book arrangement. But I got through it a few times while practicing that evening. Late, that evening.

    Next morning, whoever was conducting the meeting welcomed the 25,000 members joining us via satellite from across Western Canada. The music up to President Monson went perfectly. He raved about how much his time as a mission president in Canada meant to him, how much he loved O Canada and the opportunity to sing it with the Saints. Commence O Canada with a big organ and stops set for a national anthem… and I blew the introduction. Completely and utterly. In front of 25,000 people. There was nothing to do but carry on. The four verses were flawless, the finish was grand, but who actually hears any of that when a packed stake center is on their feet, singing?

    At the end of the meeting, President Monson did stop by the organ with his lovely smile and “I so wish I could play!” I thought “Well, if you did, you would know to never pull a stunt like that.” I got plenty of praise and many sympathetic smiles after the meeting, until I ran into my 13-year-old cousin, Lance, in the hall. Very matter-of factly he says “So, O Canada was a new one for you, huh?” Yes, Lance, yes it was.

  75. Joleen Brimhall says:

    Amen, sister! Your story is mine almost. It’s a good thing we love music and feel the spirit through it.

  76. Relegated to the organ bench says:

    This post and the comments have been incredibly validating.

    I’m a pianist but I took a couple of years of organ lessons in high school. And I’ve had a music calling ever since. Some of those experiences have been rewarding—like when my husband and I were called to serve as pastoral care volunteers at the U of U hospital and I played the piano for the sacrament meeting services at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. But others… not so much.

    We have a young family now (soon to be four kids six and under), and I have been the ward organist and choir accompanist for the past six years (in Utah where there is a deep bench of those who play). I have a child who wails whenever I begin the long walk up to the organ bench to play the closing hymn. Tuning out her sobs to try to follow a music leader who cannot keep a consistent beat but hisses at me to follow her more closely during the hymns has taken all joy out of playing.

    Once after a particularly hard Sunday in which I watched helplessly from the organ bench as my husband shepherded three screaming children out of the chapel, a bishopric member commented on how stressful it must be. I told him honestly how much I hated Sundays. He was speechless.

    All of this is to say that some of us are very tired and need a break. Our new baby is coming in two months and I fully intend to take a six month maternity leave from playing the organ, if not longer. Maybe someday playing music at church will be enjoyable again.

  77. Based on all the feedback, I feel like I need to add an item to the list which boils down to “just because I can [a] don’t assume I can [b].” So, just because I can [play the oboe/participate in choir/sight-read/play Primary songs/etc.], don’t assume I can [read the bass clef/perform a solo/handle the organ/sight-sing/write original arrangements/transpose/conduct the choir/deal with children/deal with adults/teach music lessons/hold down a music calling while also juggling a toddler/etc.]. “Music” encompasses so many different skill sets.

  78. Michinita says:

    Alfredo: My parent’s branch has no one who can play. (We all grew up and moved away.) One of my mom’s callings for a while was to run the auto play on the keyboard. She spent so much time learning how to use it, and was always frustrated by it’s limitations. Every time I talked to her she had a new story about how the keyboard had foiled her again. It played the wrong song, or not enough verses, or much faster than her congregation could keep up with. But mostly that the person choosing the hymns apparently didn’t have access to a list of what the piano had and they had to change songs mid meeting several times each month when they discovered the programmed song was not in the keyboard.

    Re singing in Polynesia: I spent three months in Fiji. The first Sunday was a musical feast. Such singing! No keyboard. Then (sadly) someone found out my roommate and I played piano and asked us to. Adding the Western harmonies really messed up the Fijian harmonies they had been using. After that I prayed every week that the electricity would be out so the keyboard wouldn’t work, and they could sing for real again. It worked sometimes. If I’d had my head on straight I would have just played melody.

  79. Michele Uhi says:

    I agree 100% with everything you have said! I, too, was called at 12 years old to be the choir pianist and 13 to be the ward organist. I would literally go home after every choir practice for the first several months crying because the choir director and the choir members were so mean! If I made any mistakes they would yell at me and make me feel horrible! I did learn how to accompany choirs and individual musical numbers, but it was a tough way to learn! I have constantly struggled with not being given sacrament meeting songs until I had to ask the bishopric while I was playing the prelude! That happens almost every Sunday. I am a pianist, but I’m expected to play the organ almost every Sunday. I have figured it out, but I don’t like it. I have even had a ward that I had been in but our wards were split and I went to the new ward and the old ward still expected me to play for their choir. Their choir director is extremely demanding and a perfectionist and practices were 4-5 nights a week for 2-3 hours! I finally said “No!”. They wanted me to play because they didn’t have anyone in their ward who could play the songs that the director wanted. I told them, “I’m sorry, then you need to choose songs that your pianist can play!” You wouldn’t go to another ward and say, “You’re Relief Society president is better than ours, so we want her in our ward.” Nobody would do that! Anyways, thank you for expressing what so many of us feel! I’m going to share this on my ward Facebook page.

  80. Kay Card says:

    I really appreciate reading your message. Very timely, well written and important. One thing you might consider adding is for bishops and stake presidents to utilize as many capable musicians as they can. I’ve been an organist since age 13 and am now 74. I moved into a ward whose organist has probably served for 30 years and unless the bishop wants to “rock” the proverbial “boat” nothing will change. I’ve served as a co-organist, shared the wealth and been blessed. I’ve been a ward organist while teaching Primary, Gospel Doctrine and as a RS president. Because of a surgery early this year I was released from my primary music calling. Now I have no music calling and it hurts my heart. But I’m trying to learn patience and humility, hoping that in the future someone will hear me through hearing Him. Sorry for the rant but I do love what you have shared

  81. Kristine says:

    Kay, this is the problem I have seen most often in my own experience–not musicians wanting to do other things and getting burned out, but musicians who jealously guard their callings and make life difficult for bishops and ward music coordinators who try to let others participate.

  82. I’m an organist & pianist that thankfully can play anything on sight, but I really resented this being taken advantage of over the years, from being called as a primary pianist while still in primary as a child, to playing organ and conducting stake choirs with a newborn strapped to me.

    This type of lack of consideration for those involved in ministering through music comes from the top though. Many years ago I was involved in the music for a special conference with an apostle in attendance. Many hours of work were put in arranging and rehearsing choir pieces to create a special event for all the congregation, and 48hrs before the message came down that the apostle would only have hymns from the hymn book and preferred songs of the restoration. Some swift re-arranging and incredible commitment from the choir and organist enabled us to pivot the programme overnight, including new arrangements but I always wondered what would have happened if we’d just kept the original programme?
    On the day, the apostle interrupted the organist in the middle of the introduction for the closing hymn, so he could wax lyrical about the meaning of the final verse of the hymn. I particularly enjoyed watching him jump out of his seat when the organ and choir then launched into a counterpoint/descant arrangement decidedly not from the hymn book in that final verse that we had thrown together the night before. Petty of me, but I still get a kick out of that.

  83. Spencer says:

    Most of this is on target, except for the male leader vs. female accompanist parts. I’m a man who has been playing in church since I was 12, and most of the inconsiderate requests and behavior I’ve experienced have come from choristers and ward music specialists who have mostly been female. So I’m not falling for the “men are mean” narrative. I’ve never received any imposing requests from leadership. Playing in church has really been a great opportunity for service and my way of sharing my testimony. It does not concern me at all when I’m not thanked, which is vanishingly rare. I didn’t come to be thanked. I came to express thanks.

  84. Such a good post. Music callings are always demanding and require very real skill. I’ve had good and bad experiences over the years and think we can do a lot better. Some ideas:
    ~ When an accompanist is not quite an expert, it is incredibly helpful to share the calling with someone who is more experienced. I wish it were feasible to provide real technical music training to ward musicians, but at the very least, new or young accompanists can benefit from a mentor within the ward. Organists often get unwanted and demoralizing feedback from uninformed non-musicians in the congregation. They instead need a person who can give legitimate musical feedback that is constructive and supportive.
    ~ People in music callings are often left to function completely outside the council-based organizational structure of the ward and stake. They rarely get ward or stake-level training. This means they are either micromanaged or ignored. Ward music coordinators are lucky if they are looped into the sacrament meeting planning process. Even though they are allowed by the handbook to be invited into the ward council, I’ve never seen that happen. Likewise, Primary music leaders may never be included in a presidency meeting in which music decisions are made that they then are required to execute. It doesn’t have to be this way!
    ~ People love music, but they also love to criticize ward musicians. It can be a standing joke to complain about the chorister or old-lady organists, for example. That’s shameful. The best thing people can do to contribute to the music is to sing the hymns instead of zoning out or critiquing those who are actually participating. A counselor in my bishopric regularly thanks the ward for singing so beautifully after every hymn. The congregation makes a difference!

  85. Kristine says:

    Spencer–men don’t have to be mean; they have all the authority. They always have the last word, and that can be especially frustrating when you’re a woman who knows music dealing with a leader who doesn’t. (I know it’s frustrating to be a man in that position as well, but the gendered aspect of it amplifies the sense of unfairness, imo.)

  86. Robin V says:

    Great post, and so many interesting comments.

    Em, your post caught my eye. When I was a youth in a Pennsylvania ward, we had an exceptional organist. She was playing prelude music – not hymns, but appropriate classical pieces – for a stake conference. The visiting apostle commented several times that he preferred “hymns of the restoration,” and the stake president finally asked this good sister to switch to the hymn book. She had worked hard to prepare the prelude music, and was crushed, and offended. I’m not sure she ever returned to church.

    On pianists playing the organ: in our midwestern ward, we had a period where we had no organists. The bishopric reached out to five or six of us pianists, and asked us to use a podcast to help us adapt our skills to organ playing, and then we took turns playing the organ until someone with real ability moved in. The podcast was really helpful (The New LDS Organist Podcast), and I enjoyed stretching my skills a bit. It didn’t extend so far as to using the pedals, but it made playing the organ at least a possibility. I still enjoy subbing once in a while.

    A funny story: once when I was a missionary in South America, and playing piano for Sacrament Meeting, the congregation started singing before I started playing. I quickly realized they were not in the right key, and there was nothing I could do, so I just stopped playing and let them carry on a capella. They did fine!

  87. Carolee says:

    Thank you for this! It is spot on. I am skill level e on piano, though my organ skills are only average. I use the pedals for easy prelude music, but use the bass coupler for hymns so I don’t risk messing up. I’ve been in music callings my entire life, since the Sunday I turned 12 and graduated from Primary and was sustained as Primary and Jr. Sunday School pianist, rarely serving without one, often in addition to other callings. I love playing the organ in church, but love it most when it’s not my every week calling. I’m currently in a ward where we job-share the calling and I just play one Sunday a month. That’s my favorite way to do it, because it keeps me in practice and it’s easy to switch weeks with someone if I will be away on my assigned week. It also gives us music people the chance to have a non-music calling without undue burden. I am currently also serving as Primary pianist and, although I should be appreciative of a calling where I don’t have to give it a second of thought to it during the week, I wish I could also job-share that calling because I miss being with adults. Often I will leave church not having had time to speak to another person and I miss having the stimulation of hearing a lesson. So, although I enjoy being able to share my talents and provide music, it does often come at a sacrifice and I welcome those times when I can serve in a non-musical calling.

    One comment about taking advantage of musicians: I am happy to freely accompany special musical numbers for church services, but I have also at times worked as a professional accompanist. There have been a few occasions where (generally) high school students from church have asked me to accompany them for their solo and ensemble contests. They have been surprised when I tell them my going rate for the service. We can’t expect pianists to offer their services for free outside of a church setting. Some people don’t understand that an accompanist can be a paid profession.

    I have been in many situations where last minute musical requests have been made and I usually try to accommodate, but also educate leaders that choirs need a lot of advance time to prepare and not everyone can switch hymns last minute. But one experience that is very sweet to me came when I was stake music chair and the Stake President asked 2 weeks before Stake Conference if I could organize a special musical number with a missionary choir to bid farewell to a departing Mission President. He was very apologetic when he informed me that the only opportunity I would have to rehearse with the missionaries would be at their zone conference in just a few days. I reluctantly told him I would think about it and let him know. I was tempted to immediately refuse and ask him if he knew how difficult it would be to come up with an arrangement that would work for a bunch of non-musical young men with a few women thrown in the mix. I prayed and almost immediately came up with a medley arrangement of three missionary-oriented hymns that would be easy enough to do with one rehearsal. The hymn transitions and arrangement came to me much more easily than my talent would allow, so I knew that I was blessed and inspired beyond what I deserved based on my attitude to the request. That experience humbles me and reminds me that my musical gifts are given to me to bless others, as well as myself. Even when I have been many times overwhelmed with musical responsibilities (especially during the Christmas season), and at times when I have moved to a new area tempted to hide my musical skill, I am still grateful to be a “music person”.

  88. Kristine says:

    Carolee–I love that story and the lesson you drew from it. Thank you!

  89. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    When our stake was realigned 17 years ago our new ward had one organist, but because she often dealt with serious mental illness issues she was often not in sacrament meeting. The only other pianist besides me was in the Tab Choir and couldn’t get home in time for sacrament meeting, so I became the de facto ward pianist for sacrament meeting. Once the congregation got used to the sound of the piano they were more reverent during the prelude and sang with more gusto during the hymns. As I only play the piano on the side and play another instrument professionally I told the bishop that I was not a good enough pianist to accompany the ward choir that he wanted to get going nor did I have the amount of time that it would take to just make the accompaniments passable. I wasn’t trying to be difficult, I was just telling him the truth. After that he looked upon me as someone who was somehow flouting his authority. My husband, who was the ward music chairman and is also a professional musician tried to talk to the bishop to explain my response about the ward choir. A new person moved into the ward and when she wrote on her new member survey that she had some piano and organ experience I was unceremoniously kicked out of my calling. That was fine with me. Actually, it was a relief.

    While I’m no great pianist this poor new sister had no business playing the prelude, postlude, hymns and accompanying the choir. Sacrament meeting was a painful experience for everyone. My heart ached for her. The poor new organist begged to be released after six weeks because she knew that she wasn’t up to the demand plus she had terrible performance anxiety. Her anxiety was off the charts terrible. She was released. My husband put me back in to play the piano for sacrament meeting, but after the first Sunday the bishop ordered him to never use me again because he (my husband) couldn’t keep me under control! This bishop considered our ward to be his personal fiefdom and his word was law. After that experience I refused to take any music callings in the ward except for primary (conducting or playing piano).

    Bishops need to understand that when ward members express to them that they lack the necessary skills for a particular music calling or that they deal with serious performance anxiety they aren’t trying to be difficult. They are being truthful. Sure, some skills can be learned fairly quickly if there is someone who is qualified to teach those skills. Other musical issues can’t be learned in just a few weeks. Surely the truth, especially in a church setting, ought to be honored!

  90. 1. The smartest posting on the pragmatics of current LDS music-making-and-breaking I’ve seen. Thanks so much for writing and sharing it.
    2. It should replace 3/4 of the current music section in the handbook. Since that won’t happen, I hope all the approving readers here will evangelize leaders with it, via persuasion, etc. (We’ve already got the long-suffering down.)

  91. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    Carolee, many times my husband and I have been asked by ward or stake members to play at their child’s wedding reception, parents’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration, etc. They are almost always shocked when we state that we charge a fee for our services. If they take umbrage with us we simply ask if they paid or are paying for the flowers, refreshments, photos, etc. When they say “yes” we gently remind them that we are professional musicians and that this is one way that we earn our living. If the people are good friends of ours we will usually perform gratis and state that our gift to them is the music.

    One officious man began to give us a lecture about how we’d covenanted to use our talents in the temple. My wonderful husband replied that Jesus taught that the laborer is worthy of his hire. That shut the bully up because who can argue with Jesus? Since that time if we get a lecture from someone about covenanting to use our talents in God’s service (or alluding to it) we just use that quote and leave. What we’ve discovered is that it’s the wealthiest members and those with “higher callings” who complain the most about us charging for our services. People less wealthy never quibble about the price. Isn’t that interesting?

  92. For a while, we had a stake president insisting that we should sing “familiar hymns” so that everyone would join in. It took a little while to persuade him that “familiar” is subjective. There were hymns that were familiar to many people that weren’t familiar to him. We asked if he would care to make a list of those hymns he personally was familiar with, because otherwise, we couldn’t guess. He was generally a pretty good and sensible leader, and he soon dropped the subject and left it to each ward to determine what hymns were “familiar” enough to sing.

  93. Ruth Eldredge says:

    I am weeping with relatability. I could have written this, along with dozens of other musicians I know.

    I’ll add this: musical training to the level of church service costs money. Lots of it. Church funds can be and have been spent to train people on music.

  94. One time in Relief Society the teacher asked me the last second if I would play a song from the Primary Songbook .It happened to be the most difficult piece in the entire book. I attempted and it didn’t go well. The Relief Society president came up to me afterward and apologized for allowing that to happen. (It wasn’t her fault.)

    What non-musicians sometimes fail to understand is that we musicians are the ones that take the risk of being humiliated or embarrassed if we make mistakes. That is why it is important to show respect for us by following the great advice in this post.

    I once took a class that covered some basics of simultaneous interpretation from the foreign language I was studying into English. The instructor told us that very often people hiring interpreters will treat them terribly and push them around. She cautioned us to never allow that. We needed to stand up for ourselves and train clients on the proper etiquette and treatment of interpreters. I never ended up becoming an interpreter, but I found her advice very applicable to being a musician at church. We have to train ward and stake members (including leadership) how to treat us. We need to hold the line when others make unrealistic or inconsiderate demands.

    I’m glad to hear that professional musicians like Caralee and Wayfaring Stranger are holding the line when it comes to performing gigs outside of church.

  95. Jim Wallmann says:

    Although not a professional musician, I studied organ for years. For prelude music, I have always played classical organ music and sometimes tasteful arrangements of LDS hymns. I have never gotten any push-back for this. In fact, about ten years ago, then-apostle Russell M. Nelson was the visiting authority at our stake conference in December. For the Saturday evening session, one of my prelude numbers was Bach’s setting of “In dulci jubilo.” In his remarks, Elder Nelson mentioned that this was one of his favorite Christmas hymns.

    By the way, the stories about President Nelson’s memory may not be exaggerated. I was sitting behind the podium and saw that he, without notes, thanked everyone by name (including me) who had participated in the program. After the meeting, while greeting members, my wife shook his hand and noted that her husband had played the organ in the meeting. Without missing a beat, he said, “Pleased to meet you, Sister Wallmann.”

  96. Carolyn says:

    One thing all these comments have made me realize is that I have a duty to stand up for other musicians. I love serving at Church and whenever I visit a ward that seems to be lacking in pianists I will volunteer to fill in. But the fact that I can play any hymn does not mean others can. So in the future when leaders ask me how much advance notice I need, instead of saying “none” I think I’ll respond “its polite to give at least two weeks notice to ward musicians.”

  97. Thomas Parkin says:

    Just to tell a story.

    When I was a teenager, I often played prelude music, esp for Priesthood meetings. Mostly I’d improvise. Lots of major 7s and minor 9s. Beautiful but not tinkly sweet LDS feeling stuff. No one noticed. I mostly played on the piano, but would sometimes switch to the organ. One time I was improvising on the introduction to Stairway to Heaven on the organ. One of the Elders, a kid who would be a housemate of mine in another state a few years later, came up to me and whispered, “I know what you’re doing.”

  98. Chadwick says:


    Your comment to me is the heart of every Mormon internet discussion. You are piano proficient, yet you will support my needs/limitations as a fellow musician in solidarity. Thank you times 1 million!

    This correlates to so many things. I’m male, but I can hold space for, support, and listen to women. I’m cisgender but can still be an ally. I appreciate the reminder to support each other like this.

  99. Nonmusician says:

    I don’t play, sing, or conduct, but my teens do, so I hope no one will mind if I add one thing leadership should remember:
    Pianos need to be tuned. Professionally, and regularly.

  100. Californian says:

    @Spencer, It’s unfortunate you have experienced inconsiderate behavior from lady musicians. I’ve worked with many talented, kind, and humble LDS musicians; but some (both women and men) are temperamental and arrogant; and they sometimes throw other musicians under the bus. Along with the numerous challenges mentioned here, this is another dark side of being a musician.

    My lived experience as a woman reflects what @Kristine said about male authority and final say. It’s demoralizing when you are an LDS woman watching LDS men manipulate or easily get what they want when the women have been told no, or their expertise isn’t good enough or when women have had to fight to be included:

    *For years, my mentors who were competent, dedicated female musicians, tried to get the stake pipe organ repaired; but they couldn’t get authorization from male leadership. Then, a musician moved in and almost immediately got leadership to authorize and pay for the repairs. He was smug about it too. Although I was happy the organ was finally repaired; it made me sick thinking how the exceptional women who taught me how to provide quality music in worship services weren’t taken seriously, but the new guy was instantly. And so why, did I expect to be treated differently when…

    … a new electronic organ needed service. I painstakingly played every key on the Swell, the Great, and the Pedal for every single stop and provided a detailed list of pitches that need to be voiced to the FM group. Apparently, even though I was a trained organist with decades of service to the church, my expertise wasn’t good enough. They called a male organist from another stake and got his opinion. He checked out the organ and agreed that my assessment was correct; then the church paid to voice the organ. If he had done an assessment on a new organ in his building, I am quite certain the FM group would not have called me to approve his work.

    *An interfaith Christmas concert: performances were two evenings in two different LDS buildings. In the planning meetings, the LDS leader was trying to arrange it so his buddy from the other church would conduct the Hallelujah Chorus [Handel’s Messiah] at BOTH concerts; thereby excluding the other director: our own LDS Stake Music Chair who was female. Really? Would the LDS leader have tried to pull this stunt if the SMC sitting in those meetings had been a man? I disagreed with the leader, insisting it was only reasonable for each director to have a turn. It was a battle, which wasn’t resolved in one meeting; but I was livid and refused to give up. Somehow, I won: she directed one night and he directed the other night.


  101. @ Spencer, I’ve seen women leaders behave badly, too. I didn’t include those stories because I was focusing narrowly on a few formative years in my youth, and those incidents all involved men. Please note that I didn’t blame men; I just stated that when I was ages 13-15, I had problems with adult men treating me badly. There are many layers to that dynamic: adult/child, non-musician/musician, male/female, etc. But statistically I’ve had more incidents with male leaders, because men are always the bishops and stake presidents who preside over major meetings.

    If you want horror stories about female leaders bungling their communication with me, I assure you, I have ’em. The worst was the toxic primary president who never stayed in the room while I was leading singing time, then assumed that I hadn’t prepared anything for the children to sing on Father’s Day, then announced in ward council that the children would sing a song that she had chosen, then when it came time to sing, she beat me to the stand, grabbed the mic, and announced that she wanted only the senior primary boys to come up. The girls looked bewildered, I was shocked, and the boys walked up to be handed sheet music to a song they didn’t know. It was awful.

    Unfortunately, I was pregnant with my 3rd child at the time, and a side effect of that was constant hormonal weepiness. When I tried to confront her in an adult way to point out that she should have *talked* to me instead of making a series of assumptions, I started bawling so hard I couldn’t talk. It made me look like a hysterical crazy person who was over-reacting, and that meant that she completely dismissed me. I had a very legitimate grievance, and I wanted to resolve it appropriately to prevent further such incidents, but that didn’t happen.

    If you read my article as me claiming that men are all bullies who pick on women, please try reading it again.

  102. Jennifer says:

    Amen, and amen to the original post and to the responders. I have advanced degrees in music and 50 years of experience as a conductor and musicologist. I’ve seen so much bad behavior from stake leaders that I wonder how they ever feel the spirit. A friend of mine (he may have posted above) and I recently commiserated about the generally low aspirations of church leadership for music in our church, and he observed that “we live far below our musical privileges.” It pains me when musicians who only want to bring the spirit to our meetings, who have training and competence, who have testimonies and seek guidance in their callings are treated disrespectfully by leaders. I’ve seen people so badly hurt by this that they struggle with their testimonies — *how could that person have been inspired to be so hurtful and rude?* I have had the privilege to work with dedicated, talented, well-trained, hard-working LDS musicians in callings ever since I joined the church in 1981. It’s one of the most soul-fulfilling aspects of my time in the church, and one that I cherish. And yes, D, never stop reveling in your music-making. You are so lucky to be in a place where it’s cherished. Bless you, church musicians. You are doing important work, and despite what some people think, you are doing it with humility and faith. The song of the heart is a prayer unto God.

  103. Jennifer says:

    Amending my second sentence: from priesthood leaders at all levels, from ward to GA. And also, I have seen excellent and affirming behavior from leaders at all levels. But most do need sensitivity training!

  104. Becky C says:

    I love ALL of this. Someone else commented about it but I want to emphasize – it can be so hard to fully engage with the spirit of a meeting when you are also making sure the music is happening. And that goes double when it’s music that I’m just barely pulling off by the skin of my teeth. So even if it seems like everything has gone smoothly I might have been robbed of needed spiritual strengthening on top of having been worn out by giving up all my recent free time for practicing.

    At this point in my life I have become pretty militant on pushing back on last minute requests. And when I was recently a stake music chair and was asked to step in for last minute events I was pretty firm that not only would I not step in but I would also not pass the stress down the line by asking any other musician. And I explained why. I hope some leaders have learned from those experiences.

  105. Ivegotgoodearsbutisingflatandcantharmonize says:

    @Thomas Parkin wins the prize for the funniest story – Stairway to Heaven!

  106. @Alfredo. You asked “The writer started her list with the point that musicians are not machines, and then with her ninth point reminded us that we have machines. The self-playing mode of our organs is seldom used anywhere I’ve been. Or maybe it has been, and I did not know. How do organists feel about managing the machine’s self-playing mode rather than playing when those directing a meeting want a hymn the organist is not prepared to play?”

    (I’m the writer.)

    I rarely see the autoplay get used, but that’s because if I’m in the room, I’m playing in person.

    I think the autoplay button is . . . okay. I really prefer a live person at the instrument, because the auto-play feature sounds robotic to me. Correct notes, and adjustable tempo, but not much in the way of dynamic variation or other humanizing nuance.

    I know that the last two units I played for — I was pulling double duty in my assigned ward, plus volunteering at the Spanish branch because they were AWESOME — they used the autoplay feature when I went on vacation or got sick and I couldn’t find a back-up. I would make a reasonable effort to find a substitute, and if that failed, I’d text someone in the bishopbric or branch presidency and say “You’re on your own for two weeks from now, good luck.”

    Tangential aside:

    This led to a humorous moment when I tried texting the branch president that I’d be out of town because my grandmother had died, and I tried sending it in a brave but failed attempt at Spanish, and I accidentally implied that I’d killed her. That led to an even more humorous moment when a Spanish-speaking member of the branch presidency replied that it was fine and they’d do an autopsy on the organ. (He meant “autoplay.”) I retaliated with a description of all the horrible things I’d do to them if I came back to find “my” organ dismembered, or if I ever caught them near it with oscilloscopes. It culminated in me saying that I would start quoting “unrighteous dominion” scriptures at them in Spanish — and I’d deliberately use a *really bad accent* to torture them.

    We all got a good laugh out of that one.

  107. @Relegated to the organ bench, I totally hear you. One of my children (who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism as a toddler) once had a meltdown in Sacrament Meeting. I had two small children, my husband was ward clerk — he’s always ward clerk — and sometimes he’d be a few minutes late to SM because he was pulling records, or finishing up his notes from bishopbric meeting, or whatever.

    So, those Sunday mornings, I would wrangle two little kids into the car and drive to the church, and rush them inside, then abandon them in a pew while I raced to play the opening hymn. And they’d normally sit there quietly until my husband arrived, but one Sunday . . .

    . . . my husband took longer than usual and wasn’t there when the Sacrament hymn started. And then my 6.5 -year-old with autism (who could, naturally, read words fluently and could also usually follow the melody line) appeared at my elbow halfway through the 2nd verse of the opening hymn. Here’s the scene, as recorded in my blog at the time:

    Gail: [Gritting her teeth while playing the Sacrament hymn] Go sit down.
    Kid: [standing in full view of the congregation while placing his hymn book down on the top organ manual (keyboard), thus creating dissonance] But I am having trouble following along!
    Gail: [Still playing] Go. Sit. Down.
    Kid: [Wailing] But I am lost! Show me where we are in this song!
    –I wish to note that during his distraction, I didn’t make any mistakes. (That I recall.) But after he had finally gone back to sit down, it all caught up with me and I lost my concentration briefly. I should also note that I am a much, much better parent when I have my hands free!

    So, yes, I completely echo and amplify the message that a musician cannot simultaneously perform musically and be a parent. I’ve lost track of the number of ward choir directors (and bishops) who genuinely thought I could play for ward choir while my (small, autistic, anxious, ADHD) children sat unsupervised.

  108. Most of our married life (22 years), I have been a Ward Music Director/Chair and Choir Director. For almost as long, my wife has been Ward Accompanist, Choir Accompanist, and/or Primary Accompanist – sometimes all 3 at once. Working together, she has taught me a LOT about having proper expectations of my accompanists. Every time I work with a new one, I ask them if there are any hymns they absolutely hate to play or have major difficulty with, and then I make an effort to avoid assigning those as hymns. When we have special musical numbers by ward members, I make it a point to give them a hand-written thank-you card.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to serve with Bishoprics and Stake Presidencies who have an understanding of what goes in to preparing music and have never made outrageous demands. They have always been willing to discuss issues with me and find a compromise that we can all be happy with. That said, in one ward we had a serious dearth of trained pianists, let alone organists. At one point, my wife was the only person there who was proficient enough to play for Sacrament meeting. If she was out ill, it fell to me to play, and I (generously) label myself an intermediate piano student at best. I had a handful of simplified hymns I could play, and the Bishopric didn’t have a whole lot to say about it. They took what they could get.

    As a music director, I’ve learned a few things over the years:

    1. A lot of church accompanists did not learn to play piano while following a conductor. People who took choir, band, or orchestra in school learned how to watch a conductor and read music at the same time. People who only took piano lessons (without being part of an ensemble) may not have developed that skill. I’ve had situations where I’ve had to tell the accompanist to just set a tempo, and I’ll follow them and try to make it look good. Having an accompanist who follows me is a blessing that I try not to take for granted.

    2. There *are* people in the congregation who watch the director. Not everybody, but enough that I can tell. It is immensely gratifying to have somebody come up afterwards to tell me they enjoyed my conducting. The one that I love to remember was a visitor who caught me in the hall to ask me where I learned my particular beat pattern for an odd time signature. She said she had been a music director for 40 years and had never seen anybody conduct that one as clearly as I did (I think it was a 3/2 or 9/8).

    3. Conducting requires study and practice like any other musical skill. Maybe not as much, but developing a personal style while making sure it’s clear enough for people to follow can take some time. Glancing at the instructions in the back of the hymnal is a great place to start, but it ‘s no substitute for training and repetition. The way I conduct now is different from how I conducted 10 years ago, because I’ve tried to incorporate feedback about what works and what doesn’t from other people.

    4. Always ask; never assume. This applies to a lot of things, but with respect to music, I try to remember that just because a musician is proficient in one skill, they’re not necessarily proficient in every skill. My wife is an amazing sight reader, but she’s weak with syncopated rhythms. When dealing with choir numbers especially, I try to work with accompanists to make sure a piece is within their skill and comfort levels, not just throw it at them and expect them to play it perfectly. I would rather have them turn down a piece than get frustrated and burn out.


    We once had a guest organist who had grown up taking organ lessons on an ancient pipe organ in a cathedral in Europe. As a (somewhat) experienced director, I was in awe of what he could do with our chapel organ. We had a brief discussion before the meeting of how he wanted to play one of the hymns, including an improvised introduction and interlude(s). I had to tell him to just give me a nod a measure or two before he finished, and I would bring the congregation in. It was an amazing experience, but his family moved out of the area a couple weeks later and I never had the opportunity to work with him again.

    When one of our kids was a newborn, my wife was asked to play the organ for a funeral at the church. The baby, while in the sling, spat up all over my wife while she was playing, and she just had to carry on until the end of the hymn then get cleaned up as best she could. That was the first of many, many funerals we have provided music for. It became so frequent that we eventually put together a funeral hymnal of all the ‘greatest hits’ – all the hymns that were especially appropriate for a service. We arranged it by key, so she could use it for prelude/postlude, and included traditional non-LDS hymns so that non-member families would hear familiar comforting music as well. While helping a Bishop plan a funeral service for an elderly woman, I was able to suggest some traditional hymns that her family (who were members of other faiths) would be more likely to recognize. One of her adult sons (who had his own challenges) kept trying to persuade his siblings to let him do a rap number at the funeral. We finally settled on some music that I think they all appreciated, but no rap song.

  109. Susan Hill says:

    All the comments are fabulous as well as the main article! I have been ward organist since I was in the ninth grade. I am a professional accompanist. I love playing but I also think it’s nice to be noticed. I have played for several funerals and weddings with barely a thank you. I also have a particular pet peeve when any member of the bishopric gets up and says thanks for the music whether it’s a solo special number or the choir. I don’t think they realize that people have practiced and practiced and would like to have a bit of validation for their hard work. Great article and amazing comments!

  110. I am a very longtime lurker on this site, and as a pianist/organ of the category (d) variety, this post rang true. Thanks for articulating this.

    I’ve been fortunate to mostly have understanding leaders over me when in music callings, though I felt pushed around as the 12 yr old priesthood pianist.

    When moving from one ward in our Midwest stake to another branch in that same stake, we arrived for church our first Sunday 2 minutes before the meeting and I was asked to play the organ. I agreed and it went fine, but am happy that this does not happen often!

  111. Carolee says:

    Susan Hill’s comment about hardly ever receiving thanks reminded me of a time when thanks went far. Our Stake President was visiting our sacrament meeting on the Sunday that a musical number I had put together was performing. It was a double quartet of a Rutter piece that was quite challenging. And anyone who has put musical numbers together knows that getting 9 performers together to rehearse is a big challenge, totally apart from the challenge of preparing the music. But it was really beautiful. Not only did the Stake President praise and thank us at the time, but he got the names of everyone in the group and wrote us each a thank you note, sent through the mail, expressing appreciation for how our music added to the spirit of the meeting. It meant so much to see evidence of his gratitude.

  112. Kristine says:

    Carolee–that’s a good point. I have a little collection of thank you notes Clay Christensen sent me when he was bishop and I was choir director, and I treasure them.

  113. Californian says:

    Thanks to everyone. The variety of comments of the raw, ridiculous realities took the OP and ran with it. What’s going on behind the scenes, in front of the entire congregation and sometimes beyond. @JanellG, your O Canada|President Monson experience broadcast to 25,000+!!! Virtual hugs for your courage!

    I was wondering if funerals would be included, seems appropriate they have finally been mentioned as the comments seem to be winding down.

    Huge shout out to all LDS musicians who arrange their schedules to accommodate funerals, usually with very short notice. Over the years, I have been so grateful soloists were gracious and willing to sing at my LDS relatives’ services (out of town) in their respective wards.

    For me, I usually consider it an honor to be asked to play at a funeral, except for these awkward experiences:

    *A convert passed away and while our bishop was trying to coordinate the funeral, the family pushed back: adamant he was Catholic. Their reaction was understandable… up until the point where they found out the Catholic musicians would need to be paid, but the LDS musicians would provide all music gratis. You know who provided the music.

    *A family came from out of town to handle the funeral of their loved one. They claimed the deceased was from our ward; yet no one, including the old timers, remembered this person. Back in the day, when The Yellow Pages were commonly used, our ward was listed first. Honestly, we wondered if this family just opened the Yellow Pages and called the first ward they saw. Yup, I went with a soloist to the funeral home and we handled the music.

    Wondering if I should add an additional phrase to the scripture:
    “When saw we thee a stranger,
    and took thee in?
    or naked, and clothed thee?
    Or when saw we thee without music,
    And provided “psaltery, organ and song” at thy funeral?

  114. I’m late to this discussion, but let me add that the proper way to comply with 14) is to lean over and say, “Thank you!” and walk away. Or to wait until postlude is over and then say thank you. Do not attempt a conversation with someone who is in the middle of playing an instrument! It takes more concentration than, say, driving a car.

    Also, for the pianist newly called as an organist who is panicking upon realizing that these are two completely different instruments, let me plug the free Organ Tutor resources from Dr. Don Cook, BYU organ professor (organtutor [dot] byu [edu]). But note that they’re intended to teach organ the methodical way from the basics, whereas the more common situation is probably just a pianist who needs to learn bad organ in one week just well enough for it to be passable.

  115. videojester says:

    Let me second the comment about “chorister” (outside of LDS circles at least, it generally means a person who sings in a choir) vs. “music leader” (the official name of the calling in the church handbook). This post is mostly about what keyboardists have to put up with, but for the official arm-waver, maybe they would get a little more respect if they were regularly called by their official title, at least by the clearly music-savvy people commenting on this post.

    Also, regarding #7 & 8 in the OP: This sounds great for “talent-rich” US wards, but that requirement would eliminate just about every non-US LDS congregation that I have been a part of. My experience is limited to the Spanish-speaking world (Chile and Spain, mostly), but I think music ability is something you appreciate much more when you’re in a unit that doesn’t really have any. As a choir director in one of those wards, we did a lot of a cappella and karaoke (pre-recorded track) numbers. Congregation singing was always a cappella, with everyone playing “pick your own key” but usually coalescing around one (or two) keys by the end of first verse. :)

  116. Loursat says:

    The way to make the job of the chorister/music leader more respectable is not by changing their title, but by making sure that the person in that job knows how to do it.

    This requires some degree of engagement by a member of the bishopric. In my experience, which includes several decades and at least thirty wards or branches in different parts of the United States and the world, there’s a less-than-even chance that anyone in the bishopric is aware of this issue, and that’s before we get to the question whether the bishopric has the background knowledge to do something about it.

    The good news is that it’s not very complicated. Bishoprics that are made aware of this are usually capable of getting up to speed quickly if they can find an experienced person to give them a little bit of guidance. From there, it’s a matter of making sure that the chorister/music leader has basic training, the opportunity to practice, and the basis for a constructive working relationship with the organist or pianist.

    For everyone involved, the first, most difficult step seems to be understanding that music callings require training and preparation. The assumption that leading music just amounts to random arm-waving is disturbingly common, and it’s deadly for the quality of our musical experience.

  117. It occurs to me that I should emphasize one more point. Those who are called as the chorister/music leader all too often think they know what they’re doing when they really don’t. They have grown up thinking that leading music is random arm-waving. Or they have studied the diagrams of rhythm patterns in the hymnal. Maybe they’ve had occasional experience with stumbling through hymn-leading in Relief Society or priesthood meetings. They have no experience of actual music-making. The music leader sometimes thinks that because they have been called to be in charge, the musicians should just do what they say, regardless of the leader’s level of competence.

    I don’t blame people for thinking this way. It’s a natural result of the dismissive way we often deal with music in the Church. I have often felt sympathy for an untrained music leader who is earnestly trying to do something they are unprepared for. It’s not fair that we put people in that position.

    Again, the good news is that it’s not complicated to fix this. When bishoprics take on the organizational responsibility of setting the proper expectations, musicians are almost always very good at making things work. (Of course, good things sometimes happen even when the bishopric is disengaged, but a little effort by bishoprics would go a very long way toward improving the general state of music in the Church.)

  118. Debbie Isenhart says:

    I am the chorister in my branch and I am also the pianist for Primary. On top of all this, I am also the backup pianist for sacrament and the first counselor in the primary. Yes, I bear a very heavy load, but it’s so worth it.

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