I've been sitting on this song for about two weeks, because I figured that just before Christmas was probably not the right time for the release of my latest song. (Not necessarily Christmas related). I've got to say, it's been hard. This song has lyrics that ring true and the music is not only one I love to listen to on repeat, but it's fun to play on piano as well. It's one of those pieces that I will say practically wrote itself, and I'm honored to be the penbearer that was assigned by Heavenly Father to put it to paper. Suffice it to say, I'm REALLY excited about this song. So what is it about? Well, I won't hold you waiting. The song is below, beneath my words on what it's about. You can play the recording as you read along with the sheet music.
A few years ago, President Russel M. Nelson taught about the importance of learning how to "hear him". During subsequent church meetings, church members discussed how they personally recognized that they "hear him". How do you "hear him?" Other church leaders have taught how learning to "hear him" leads to our own spiritual maturity and independence. I'd encourage everyone to run a thorough gospel study search topic on it.
This all got me thinking on a few different streams of thought. Of course there was, "how do I hear him?" But there was also, "how do I teach my children to 'hear him'". This got my music therapist brain going. Specifically, children learn by exploring their environments, specifically through what us adults call "play." They see, hear, touch, and fully sense their environments, and essemble them into theories on how the world works. On a near daily basis, these theories are disproven and revised. We consider adults to have rather stresfull lives, but consider that children are also being exposed to daily experiences that challenge their world view.
And so my next question was, "what do we sense in our environment, that teach us to communicate with Heavenly Father and receive truth directly from him?" The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it cannot be fully be communicated in words. For example, one of my vivid memories growing up, is waking up in the middle of the night, and walking downstairs to stumble on my Dad praying out loud. I don't remember any of the words he said in those moments. But what I can remember is the impression that came over me of the relationship my Dad had with Heavenly Father. More, I felt the desire within me to have a similar relationship with Heaveny Father that my Dad had. It's one I couldn't put to words, but the impressions were unforgetable, and repeatable through my own action. And so began a lifelong quest.
But then there were also experiences I had of hearing Mom bear testimony. Yes, there were moments in fast and testimony meeting. But the more vivid memories I have were non-formal moments when she bore testimony. There were times when people of other faiths knocked on the door to share a scripture, or when she spoke to a primary class about the gospel. One of my most vivid memories though, was her last day as a primary president when I was rather young. She testified in a combined meeting of how much she loved each of the children in the group. She also testified of how much Heavenly Father loved each of them. I had first hand experience with experiencing Mom's love on a day to day basis. I don't know if any of the other children had that concept. But what I came to conceptualize myself, was that if Mom's love for me, which I felt at that moment, was even an inkling of the love that Heavenly Father had for me, than he must love me a whole lot. Again, that mother's love is not a concept that can be put into words. It's more of an impression. But still, that impression teaches of how one can build our relationship with Heavently Father, and receive direct revelation from him.
And so we return to the music I created below entitled Hear Him. It is my hope that those singing it, children especially, will conceptualize how they can personally and uniquely, "hear him". I encourage everyone to use it to their advantage for their children, primary groups, and anywhere else you find yourself teaching this concept clearly, and with renewed purpose.
Edit to add: if you have trouble downloading it from the SCRIBD software, you can also download it here:
"Anyone can cook", so says a chef in the popular movie, Ratatouille. In that same light, I argue that anyone can write music. More than that, anyone can share their personalized testimony through music. Also, the more we do, the more we are able to bring ourselves, and others, closer to Christ.
This is the philosophy I take in Mark Richins Music. I've been able to use this site to share some of my own music. But as I continue writing hymns, arrangements, and children's songs, the more I really crave finding a way that others can do the same thing. There's this perception out there that music, and writing it, is hard. In a sense, yes, some aspects of music and music writing can be hard. However, sharing your testimony through music, for the purpose of bringing others to Christ, doesn't have to be hard.
We often say that we can't fully express something in words. We also say that music has a way of expressing what words fall short on. I know many of us feel this way when sharing our testimony. It's time that we stop limiting ourselves through just words. And that's the reason I've created a new resource. It's called the Make Your Own Hymn Worksheet. (It's an incredibly creative title, I know). It's something I intend to be used by parents, teachers, music leaders, primary leaders, and youth leaders for children and youth of ALL ages. It can be used as an activity to review a recent lesson from primary, sunday school, family home evening, or any other occasion where you learn and review truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
You may be thinking that this sounds a bit much for you, let alone your students or children. I assure you it's well within your reach as well as theirs. With the worksheet, I lay out a few instructions to help inspire you on your way to creating a hymn. Just make two sentences, bonus if they rhyme, on what you learned about the gospel that day, and then follow the instructions to find a melody you think properly expresses the words you wrote. Included with the worksheet are some accompaniments a pianist can play as another person plays around with the notes. When you think you've found something, write it down! All you need is a handy piano or keyboard. (Some handbells could work too).
At the end of the day, the definition of a hymn is, "A religious song or poem, typically of praise to God." It doesn't say it's a "perfect" hymn, (whatever that means). It doesn't say "a hymn that has the approval of Mark Richins" or any other composer for that matter. All it has to be, is your testimony. Your words. Your music. The only person it has to be special for, is you.
Finally, included on the worksheet are two open lines of a music staff that can be filled in with music notes. If two lines of music isn't enough for you, your student, or your child, feel free to print off the staff music I have available as well. If you stumble on your very own hymn and setting you've fallen in love with, send it to me through my Etsy account here to get it set in stone. I'll send you back a PDF as well as a recording.
If there is one thing I have heard over and over throughout the pandemic, it's how much we have missed making music as a group. Lately, in my music therapy studies, I've learned of more and more context in the use of group music making to fill personal and social needs. Going into that will be a long process, but just consider the article I've already written entitled "My Pet Peeve on the Song of the Righteous" that goes a little bit into the context. To go into gospel doctrine in short, singing hymns as a group is critical to building the Zion people we are destined to become. Consider the hymn plastered on the home page of this website, "then come before God's presence, in singing worship him, express a heart to full to speak, in one exultant hymn." When we sing, we are praying, and drawing closer to God's presence as a social group.
With that in mind, I have taken on a new gospel study endeavor. I'm going through the hymns published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and finding the doctrines of the hymns, their main messages, and the significance of singing these hymns as a group. Specifically, I'm going through each hymn and answering these five questions:
Having said that, looking at the harmonic portions of the hymn I found some fascinating discoveries. The first stanza begins in G major, and spends a good amount of time there, with just enough V chords to keep the music going. With all the time spent in the "home" chord, there is no question there is a solid foundation for the variations that proceed it. It is such a strong foundation that as the hymn transposes to the key of D, holding the 5th relationship with the original key of G for the next two lines, it almost sounds as more of a suspension that leads to the climactic last stanza. It's this last line that I think is the most musically significant portion of the hymn as it returns to G major, but also highlights the E minor chord through the V/vi chord in the 2nd measure on its way there. This harmonic event, combined with the melodic melasmas in all four voice parts on the word "mount", lead me to believe that the central messages of this hymn lie in this last musical phrase.
I have found added insight on a similar message in the next hymn I'll cover, "Israel, Israel, God is Calling". Stand by for next week's article!
The pandemic has required us to be creative on so many different levels. Church singing time with our children has been no different. I have been impressed by the amount of creativity in providing singing time experiences for primary children. In fact, if you’ve made a singing time video public on YouTube, chances are my wife and I have played it for the kids to watch for our own family church. Our own ward did a virtual primary program as well, with pre-recorded videos that we enjoyed watching. As much as we have been creative, we have also encountered a lot of challenges. Our ward for example, had resumed meeting in person for sacrament meeting with larger numbers not too long ago before being cut back again just this last month with the most recent outbreak. As I’ve continued to observe efforts in providing spiritual experiences at a ward level for children, I’ve thought it might be helpful to lend some of my experience providing music experiences via video conferencing platforms. Below are some tips that I think will promote these spiritual experiences. Disclaimer: Currently, I don’t actually hold a calling as a singing-time teacher. These tips come from my experience working full time as a board certified music therapist through telehealth.
P.S. Please comment through social media or below this post on your struggles with virtual primary. If I can't find a solution, others might. Let's reach out and connect!
The last several years I have developed a pet peeve that may surprise you. It concerns the one of the most beloved scriptures that speak of the role of music in church: Section 25:12 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Whenever the topic for sacrament meeting speakers is centered on music, this scripture is cited. It is usually always followed by ten to fifteen more minutes of something akin to “I’m just so thankful for the hymns we sing” or “I always enjoy singing the hymns at church” with little variation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you all enjoy singing the hymns. Singing the hymns is very important. But there is SO much more to church music then we realize. In fact, singing is vital, and a central component to our becoming a Zion community. If there is no singing, there will be no Zion. When we sing, we ARE Zion.
For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads." - Doctrine and Covenants 25:12
To illustrate, some research that has become somewhat popular among church musicians has found that when choirs sing together, their heartbeats sync with each other. Music therapists are aware of this fact. Medical music therapists specifically use this technique to assist in the recovery of cardiovascular patients, especially children in the NICU. They sing to the beat of the patient’s heartbeat, and then change the tempo of their singing to the rate at which the heartbeat should be. (Note: Please don’t try this yourself. There’s a reason music therapy is a board certified profession). This isn’t just a physical thing that occurs though. As the first study points out, part of the reason our hearts fall into sync when we sing is because we are breathing in the same way. We all breathe in at the beginning of phrases, and then exhale at the same rate as we sing the phrase. As the research previously mentioned states, this not only effects our physical heart rates, but our emotions as well. When we sing together, or pray in song, our physical and emotional hearts become one with those singing with us.
That still isn’t all. Cognitively speaking, when we sing, our cognitive attention is drawn to the music as well as the messages being expressed through the music. Everyone singing is then thinking of the very same thing. This isn’t just supported on the cognitive level. Neurological research published in just the last few years has found that when we sing, the neurons activating in our minds sync with each other. This line of research is just barely starting to emerge. But even today, music therapists use this information to model the neuroplasticity of our minds. Through the relationship between music, the mind, and something we call neuroplasticity, music therapists teach stroke survivors how to walk and talk again, and even more. A single blog post isn’t even enough space to scratch the surface of what music therapists can do with this understanding. My point is, when we sing together, or pray in song rather, our cognitive and neurological minds become one with those singing with us.
That isn’t all either, recall that Doctrine and Covenants 25:12 states that “the song of the righteous IS a prayer unto me.” The sacred music we sing is a prayer to our Heavenly Father. Therefore, what we know about prayer informs what we know about church music. The Bible Dictionary published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches us that, “Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other.” We know that in Gethsemane, Christ prayed in desperation that the “cup” would pass from him, which then progressed to “not my will, but thine be done.” The Bible Dictionary further teaches us that prayer, “secure[s] for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them.” As we pray, our hearts are softened, and we become willing to accomplish whatever it is that the Lord asks of us. When we sing together, or pray in song rather, our mind and will aligns with God’s will, and we become a righteous people with those singing with us.
Have you caught where I’m leading this yet? When we engage in community singing, such as congregational singing, we become of one heart, one mind, and become a righteous people. Do I even need to mention Moses 7:18? When we sing with others, we literally become a Zion people. Unity is a powerful thing. The power of congregational singing is a force that we need desperately as we pilot ourselves and our families through the complex issues we have to deal with in today’s day. In the April 2018 conference, President Russel M. Nelson stated that “when we convene as a Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, our meeting rooms become rooms of revelation. The Spirit is palpably present. As we wrestle with complex matters, a thrilling process unfolds as each Apostle freely expresses his thoughts and point of view. Though we may differ in our initial perspectives, the love we feel for each other is constant. Our unity helps us to discern the Lord’s will for His Church.” By extension, when we sing and become one in the process. When we become one we invite the spirit to dwell with us. When the spirit is with us we can receive the revelation we need to tackle the complex issues we face on a daily basis. I hope you can understand now when I say that our frequent testimonies of music in church and “the song of the righteous” only begins to scratch the surface. When a stake is organized in the restored church, it is organized as a “stake of Zion.” We sometimes speak of Zion as something that will happen at some point in the future, but it’s already here. We are already seeing the blessings of it. We are so excited when we see the rapidly increasing church announcements. For me it is exciting to know not just that “the future is now,” but also that “Zion is now,” and the music we sing at church is at the center of it.
And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them." - Moses 7:18
This second portion of the series I’m writing of resources available for church musicians is focused on the church’s Keyboard Course. You can find it at the following link from the music website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints:
The course is lesser known. I’ve been teaching actively for five years and didn’t know about it myself until exploring the church’s music website awhile back. I haven’t heard of other teachers that have used it either. Either way, here are the pros and cons.
As for its positives, looking at the Keyboard Course I can appreciate its method of approaching musical concepts at the keyboard as it’s similar to my way of teaching. It teaches you how to play by finger number, then gradually teaches you about the music staff, presenting steps, skips, accidentals, rhythms and so on. I also enjoy how it incorporates church hymns as much as could be possible according to the new concepts it presents. By the time you’re finished with the book, you should be able to play through another of the church’s published resources, “Hymns Made Easy.” Lastly, it’s free! Since it’s available as a download you could even use it from an I-pad or tablet if you wanted.
As for its cons, there are a plethora of other method books out there for only a few dollars each and available from most locations that sell sheet music, including Amazon. With that in mind I’m not too surprised I haven’t seen much use from this book. The entire book is in black and white, so it may come off as a bit boring for younger students. In addition to that, it presents new concepts rather quickly, so it would be more suitable for an adult who is able to focus more than for a child who may find it boring. Lastly, as I’ve said before for the New LDS Organist course, as helpful as this resource may be, it still doesn’t replace an actual teacher. A teacher would be able to help you understand the concepts more quickly and adapt lessons to your individual level. As you approach playing hymns by the end of the course a teacher would be able to help you get the music at an appropriate tempo, so it doesn’t bore or frustrate the congregation. They’d also be able to help you accompany for a congregation, as this can present a new set of challenges.
Still, from an overall standpoint, if you have no resources, no teacher, no piano, and no funds to provide for either of those this would be an effective way of learning on your own if you’re absolutely committed to it, more-so for adults than for kids. If you don't have a piano, you'd be able to take the course to a church building as often as it's open and available to practice on the pianos they have there, perhaps when a family member is in a meeting and you're stuck with one car. After taking this course you could also begin using the Hymns Made Easy to even accompany for your local ward or branch.
Have you used this course? Whether as a teacher or a student I’d love to hear your feedback on this course.
… and it’s up to us to both play it and heed it’s call. I’m not talking about a United States president or anything related to government politics. I’m talking about church musicianship. I came across a few scriptures in Corinthians today that caught my attention and resonates with musicianship in the church:
Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?
This had a very real meaning to Paul and the people of Corinth that he was teaching. In his day trumpets were used as armies were going to battle. Trumpet calls in war were battle cries, increasing vigor and courage in the individual soldiers and fear in the opposing army. As a fun example, you can get some perspective from these snippets from the video series of Tolkien's "Lord of The Rings" and "The Hobbit".
Consider also the story of Gideon in Judges 7 of the Old Testament when he managed to scare off an entire host of Midianites with a small army of 300 just by giving each a trumpet and having them play as the Midianite army advanced on them. The Midianites retreated in fear and not one life was taken that day.
In the same way, we have a spiritual battle that we are calling to arms in our church meetings with a foe even uglier than the trolls and orcs of Tolkien's books. Every day we are faced with increasing pressures from the adversary in a multitude of forms be it peer pressure, self-doubt, rationalization, or the increasing social norms that the church actively speaks against. We have a spiritual battle that requires us to put on the armor of God to fight against “principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Just as the trumpets called the men of old to don their physical armor, we need a trumpet that calls us to don our spiritual armor of God. That trumpet, in our day, comes through our church musicianship, and I mean that quite literally. Remember the trumpet calls of ancient times, and the theatrical examples from from the Lord of The Rings series. Now consider this video, pay attention to the trumpet call at the beginning, you can't miss it:
IInvigorating isn’t it? It’s even more invigorating when you experience it in person. There’s a very real difference between experiencing music live than when you hear a recording. There’re just some things that our current technology can’t convey through electronic speakers.
Now reconsider the scripture from Corinthians, “if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” Is this striking home yet? Consider the effect of an "uncertain sound" on an entire army headed into battle. Hardly encouraging. We can't let ourselves get away with "uncertain calls" in our church music either. I’ve spoken before about performance anxiety at church, and fear of showing off. These issues have become so prevalent that it’s stopping us from giving us the rousing call to arms that church music has to offer, to don the spiritual armor and fend off the adversary on a weekly (and daily) basis. Singers? We need your voices. Conductors? We need your visible expression and passion. Pianists and organists? We need those invigorating tempos. Organists? We need those Mixture III’s and IV’s, you have a REAL trumpet available at your fingertips. Don’t back off. Don’t let self-doubt or judgmental criticism from your peers bring you down, or let your musicianship and musical cravings waver. We need you. Your church family needs you. Your church leaders need you. In the words of Elder Holland, (I’ve taken liberties with the text),
I am looking tonight for [musicians] who will not voluntarily bind their tongues but will, with the Spirit of the Lord and the power of their priesthood, open their mouths (and hands) and speak miracles. Such [music], the early brethren taught, would be the means by which faith’s ‘mightiest works have been, and will be performed.’”
Even with the liberties I take in the text I consider this to be every bit as applicable. Speaking as a music therapist with a pending certification there are very real and evidence based physiological and psychological effects of music on the person. I believe that music can heal our hearts, minds and bodies just as literally as Christ did in his mortal ministry. Remember that for Joseph Smith, when he reached out to find the truth, that Satan bound his tongue to prevent him from the prayer that lead to the first vision. It is the same Satan that is causing church musicians to waver in their courage and shy away from the quality of music that they are capable of. As Joseph Smith did, I invite us all to pray and then to work our hardest to bring the music that we need into your local branch, ward or church congregation. It will be more and more critical to our spiritual well being as we steadily continue through the latter-day turmoil that approaches with the second coming.
This blog is dedicated to helping others come to Christ through musical participation. As a part of that, I will be beginning a new series of articles commenting on resources that are available for Latter-Day Saints and other Christians to improve their musical craft and magnify their musical callings in church. A lot of it will be directed towards resources available for those called within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who have music callings; those of you who have limited musical training, but with a strong desire to help those around you come to Christ through the music you implement in your weekly meetings. For this first post I will be commenting on Dr. Don Cook’s course for beginning LDS organists.
For those of you who aren’t aware, this course is available for free, and through direct MP3 download at this address:
It includes a set of twelve podcasts all directed to teaching beginning organists, and especially those who play piano who have little to no experience on the organ. There is a packet of supportive materials available as well. I must say, those supportive materials were very valuable to me as I began exploring the organ.
I became aware of this course many years ago, back before my mission when my grandma pointed it out on an LDS news article. I had been playing piano for several years, which sparked my grandma’s thought to let me know about it. I looked up the course, found an old mp3 player, and begin listening to the materials. Honestly, I didn’t have the luxury too often of having the church organ all to myself, so I would frequently just listen to it at home in my bedroom. (I was a bit of a music nerd, probably drove some musicians in my ward through the roof with all the questions I came with). Anyway, it got to the point I would be found practicing in the chapel on a weekly basis… I was sixteen years old and would practice after our weekly activity nights. It wasn’t too long after that the bishopric found out. I was called as ward organist six months after I originally downloaded the course, still sixteen years old. I wasn’t perfect. I carried a slow tempo a lot. I also happened to pull out the 8’ trumpet a few more times than typical which got a few raised eyebrows from the bishopric AND stake president (remember, I was sixteen). But in the end, I contribute a large amount of my musical development to that experience.
So here’s my review of the course. Among its strengths is it flexibility of use. You can download the course whenever you want, listen and practice whenever you want, and at your own pace. Because of its format on podcast, I was even able to go back and listen to selected chapters as my understanding of the music organ deepened. Among my favorites, if I recall correctly, was chapter three, “Playing Prelude Music that Invites the Spirit.”
Another strength is the credibility of the course’s author. Dr. Don Cook is a professor at BYU, who teaches organ pedagogy. The courses break down the organ components into small steps that I was able to understand very well as a budding and mostly self-taught musician. There were no technical terms I didn’t understand and it was all applicable to my understanding of the piano. I learned very well what the difference was between the piano and the organ, and the strengths of the organ in accompanying a congregation.
Now to its weaknesses. It is very important to understand that this course does not replace a private organ teacher. Through this course I was able to learn the basics of the organ, using the pedal, playing hymns with legato lines, registration, and on. What I would have gained through private lessons from an experienced teacher at sixteen years old is using appropriate tempos for different hymns, as well as added depth in understanding organ registration. It was several years later that I was also able to take lessons from Sister Rebecca Parkinson who teaches at BYU-Idaho. There I learned so much more in organ technique and the appropriate amount of legato vs separation when playing individual lines in a hymn. Even at this point, with degrees in piano, and a pending graduate degree in music therapy, I look forward to eventually taking more organ lessons down the road to build my understanding.
In the end, I would highly advise you taking this course if you are even remotely interested in playing the organ. There is a dearth of organists even in the professional world of organ outside of the LDS church. If it’s any incentive, organists at other denominations are high paying jobs and are in high demand. The church itself is growing rapidly. Due to its fast-paced growth, professional musicianship is having a hard time keeping up with demand. In your own ward you probably have one good organist. What happens when your ward splits into two? Or that one organist has had enough? In short, WE NEED YOU, and your skills are vital the continued growth of the church and the gathering of Israel that President Nelson so often speaks of. Don’t let the organ itself intimidate you. As I explored the organ at my own pace I fell in love with it more and more. The richness of timbre available through the organ is like no other. There’s a reason it’s called the king of instruments.
Finally, I know that others have utilized this course successfully. If you are one of those people, please leave a comment below on your story using the course, how much of a help it was to you and where you are now in your development playing the organ. I’d love to hear from you, and future takers of the course will benefit from your insight.
You’re squirming anxiously in your seat in sacrament meeting as the speakers are giving their remarks. You wouldn’t know how interesting their talk is, much less the topic, as you’re thinking of the tricky pedaling position you’ll have to play for the closing hymn. The closing speaker gets up and you begin to wish they would just speak forever. Gradually you watch the time tick to the dreaded “five after the hour.” Ten or fifteen minutes later they begin a statement with the words “to summarize” and your heart skips a beat as you realize they’ll be ending soon. A few minutes later they begin bearing testimony and then your heart really begins to race as your impending doom draws closer. Then comes the dreaded “amen” repeated by a muttered response from the congregation you’re expected to accompany at that very moment. Oh the anticipation. Our sacrament services all follow the general pattern and we tend to know exactly when our turn is coming. It doesn’t really work in our favor.
If your hands are getting sweaty before getting on the organ, or your mind is scattered with no hope of focus as you play, you’re not alone. Performance anxiety is a thing that even professional musicians must combat. It may or may not comfort you to know that even professionals who have been performing for years still have to battle performance anxiety. It has been ten years since the first time I was asked to give a musical presentation in sacrament meeting and since then I still get nervous when asked to play. Some days I’m confident, others have trembling and sweaty fingers. I was surprised a few months ago when accompanying the congregation, that even though I wasn’t feeling consciously nervous, my hands were getting sweaty as though I were. My body was giving physiological responses quite independent of my current mood. It honestly became a frustration for me as shaky and sweaty fingers are far from the ideal for playing on a keyboard. Through the years, and especially throughout my formal music education I’ve developed a list of tips that I use consistently and have helped me immensely when playing music in front of other people.
1. Prepare in a way that builds muscle memory
Notice I said prepare, not practice. We all know the adage “if ye are prepared ye shall not fear.” This goes beyond that. When our conscious memory is compromised we then must depend on our unconscious memory, and that which is innate. If you build muscle memory, it can and will take over when our minds are anxiously concerned on what the congregation is hearing. Build muscle memory through lots of repetition. Be warned though, once muscle memory is developed, it takes a long time to go away. Make sure you’re not repeating the same mistakes over and over, or they will creep up when you’re playing for the real deal.
2. Practice in the area in which you will be playing
If you’re playing the organ in a chapel, practice on that organ. Even after hard practice, performing in a foreign area can impede even the best prepared pieces. This can be difficult depending on the restrictions on building access in your local area. Regardless, by practicing on the actual organ and physical space you will be performing in later, you can gain a sense of territory and familiarity that becomes your “zone” when the time comes to play in front of others. The only difference between your practice session and the church service is the presence of other people. But remember that they are now in your zone. You just do your thing. A caution though, bodies and clothing absorb sound. Whatever volume you had the organ at with an empty chapel, you’ll have to raise it considerably to get the same effect you had before without people present in the pews. It’s a change you’ll notice the first time it happens. If you don’t currently have access to the organ beyond Sunday services, I’d suggest having a conversation with a Bishopric member about it.
3. Let the anxiety exist
Getting anxious about your level of anxiety quite literally exponentializes the problem. The anxiety is there. Let it be there. Then, focus even harder on the frame of mind you had in which you practiced. If you adopt a different frame of mind in which you practiced, your output will be quite different. It may be a challenge, but it is crucial to remember the frame of mind in which you practiced, and to play from that perspective. If needed, take a moment on the bench before you play to collect your thoughts. Everyone will wait. Everyone follows the organ anyway.
4. Try out this breathing exercise
When those closing speakers are wrapping up and I notice my heart starting to race and my fingers getting sweaty I’ve come across a breathing exercise that is used by other professional musicians that has helped immensely. Breath in for four counts, hold for four counts and breath out for eight. Repeat as needed and double the numbers as needed, doing patterns of 8, 8 and 16 and so on. This technique becomes more effective the more you use it over a long period of time. As you do you’ll notice your heart rate slowing down and your mind becoming a little more at ease. This is especially useful as it can be done completely inconspicuously. Even if you’re on the stand with everyone watching, no one is going to notice you doing a peculiar breathing exercise.
5. Give the glory to God
Us western folk have a unique culture of performing and self-glorification. Paradoxically this only worsens the expectations on us when giving musical output, especially for the more introverted among us. Remember though, that you are doing this to glorify God and to bring others to Christ. Your musical output isn’t about you at all, so you have no need to worry about what others may think about it. I have expanded more on this topic in another article.
In the past several articles I have written on end and encouraged us all to participate more actively in the music at church. Recently, I have reviewed a talk given by President Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on the role of the arts in church culture and it has strengthened my testimony and understanding on the purposes and uses of music in the church setting. Before, I have worked to write for the every-day member. This present article I direct more towards those in the Latter-Day Saint membership who are, perhaps, more professionally trained, as well as those in leadership positions that direct music on a local level. Though I direct it at them, I encourage all others to read, understand and gain encouragement on how much we need you. In short, because music in the church is not about “us,” as professional musicians. It’s about you. It’s about every single child of God that walks this earth.
In the article I mentioned, President Packer indicates a question he invites the professional musician to ask themselves, “When I am free to do what I really want to do, what will it be?” In my own words, "if we had the perfect music program in a local congregation, what would it be like?" As I review what is typical in Western congregations I realize, as President Packer indicates, that we’re climbing up the wrong ladder. I will explain.
Recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has announced the impending creation of a new hymnbook. In describing its new features, they state it “will include existing, new, and updated music to meet the needs of members worldwide. The printed collections will be unified across the worldwide Church, providing the same selection of hymns and children’s songs in each language.” One aspect of it that I look forward to is the inclusion of hymns from other languages and cultures. President Nelson and other church leaders have talked extensively about the gathering of Israel from around the world through missionary efforts. It is amazing to see that manifestation unfold so literally by uniting us in song. It will both literally and spiritually make us of one heart and mind in the establishment of Zion around the world.
Now you’re wondering what the new hymnbook has to do with anything. It is this. As consumers of western music, we do not have a monopoly on stating what music is or how to use it. In fact, there are many behaviors manifest in our traditions that are not reflected in other countries. There are some from many cultures, including the Ewe tribe of Ghana and other African cultures that I will mention, that I think we have a lot to learn from when it comes to church ritual. As I learn more and more about them, the more I discover our eccentricities in western culture, not in terms of what music we use, but in terms of when and how we use music in our social world.
In the western world, as developed through western music, we have a bit of an “us” and “them” mentality. Namely, THEY perform, and WE listen in and enjoy. That is our method of participation per se. In the classical world especially, to participate in music more completely and to appreciate it more adequately audience members are expected to come with preconceived knowledge about the song. We participate by having this understanding beforehand and being mentally involved throughout the performance. If we don’t enjoy it, it’s our own fault. Even apart from the classical realm, western individuals typically listen to music on their electronic devices, some constantly. We participate in that we both sympathize and empathize with the lyrics being sung.
This is reflected in church practices in our same culture. In our meetings, at least those with “strong” music programs, there are choir performances, vocal and instrumental soloists and the like. In these performances the congregation is expected to be quiet and listen. Classically speaking, to make any noise or distraction during the process at all is considered quite rude.
In contrast, there is the Ewe tribe of Ghana, among the many other African cultures. Music is so inherent in their day to day practice that they don’t even have a word in their language for it. When we say “music,” there is no direct translation for the Ewe. More, music is a component that takes place as part of other events. It is not merely a “thing” in and of itself, it is just one of many elements of their day to day culture. Everyone participates in music in some form or another. Whether through dance, singing, or the playing of various instruments, everyone has an important part of music creation. Except for some circumstances, it is not done to perform, or for a group of people to listen closely to per se, it is something done by everyone as a means of communication and as a sense of community.
There is a gem in this tradition we need to learn from. Through participation we can gain more out of a presentation than if we were mere bystanders. If we listen to a lecture, we are not able to learn from it as easily as if there was a discussion. In a discussion, we can raise questions, make points, and lift each other through a learning process to reach an end. Everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner. Musically speaking, solo and choir performances by a small or large group are touching in the moment, but I argue that they are not as permanent and lastingly moving as when a congregational member is able to sing and participate in the music themselves. This is understandable even from a choir member’s perspective. There is so much more we gain by being in the choir singing, than there is when listening to it as a bystander. Like we so often state when teaching or speaking in church, we often learn so much more about the subject than we can hope to convey through the lesson or talk itself.
This principle has been reflected in adaptations in church curriculum through the Come Follow Me program which is being adopted more and more in various church organizations. Musically however, we are falling behind in our understanding. We are making our ideals, as church musicians, to include more and more performances of an individual or group, and less and less congregational participation. To allow the spirit to be made more manifest in our meetings and for the congregational participants to be more permanently affected by the music we use, we need more participant interaction in our musical practices at church.
This is not to say no to many of the musical traditions we have. There are times and places for performance. But I think there is more time and place for congregational singing than we give credit for. The purpose of the music in the church is not to be beautiful in and of itself. It’s not to have music for music’s sake. The purpose of music in church is for the uplifting of the individual who attends. It is beautiful, yes, but it’s beautiful for the sake of uplifting the members. It pulls at our heartstrings and literally entices us to choose the right. In that way, it does not draw attention to itself because it is not about the music, it is about the messages inherent in the music. The point of the music is to draw attention to the messages within, and to carry it into the hearts of the individual member.
To illustrate further, I have many examples in my profession as a music therapist. When working with a developmentally disabled adult experiencing physical challenges, I may invite him to shake a given shaker to contribute to a piece of music that I play with him. Through this, in a way, you could say that I’m teaching him how to use the shaker and to contribute musically, but the success in the operation is not in the piece being beautiful in and of itself. The success in the operation, and the data we report to other professionals, is when the individual is physically moving his or her arm, something he may not have ever done before… in his entire life. Yes, it happens, regularly I might add. In parallel, I may sing a song familiar to an elderly individual with Alzheimers with them singing along, and have a discussion throughout on when they’ve sung it before. The success is not in the piece being beautiful in and of itself, the success is the individual finally remembering the family they would sing the song with, and the family being moved to tears in consolation of being finally remembered and acknowledged by their ailing parent. (You can watch Disney’s Coco for a tear-jerking example).
So now that I’ve downplayed the use of performances in church, what really is the ideal? It’s a question I’d love to open up for discussion through your commentary on this blog and other social media. In a culture centered on the implementation of performances, how can we involve the congregation in our weekly church music with increasing musical influence? I have a few thoughts from my own brainstorming.
First, we should acknowledge how we have traditionally involved the audience before. In musical presentations we have often had a choir sing the first several verses of a hymn and invited the congregation to join on the last verse. This is typically done as a “big finish.” Second, growing in popularity are free accompaniments used by the braver organists among us. They enhance the text sung by the congregation with frequent reports of being moved to tears. I think these should be used more in our weekly meetings, especially to add and draw attention to the themes of the messages given in the weekly meetings. My third brings me to some new heights I’d be curious to see implemented in every day practice. We all know the words and melodies to some polyphonic music we have in our children’s songbook. I’m speaking specifically of Janice Kapp Perry’s “A Child’s Prayer” and “Love is Spoken Here.” The melodies are sung separately and then together for the third verse. In this combination, the messages of the differing verses are beautifully intricated together like a glove just as much as the melodies, teaching us even more then the verses convey separately. As we all know the melodies already, it would not be too hard to implement in a sacrament service. This said, I think it would be great to see music composers writing more music like this, inviting for simple but polyphonic participation in church congregations. Fourth, interactions between the choir and congregation could be accomplished, not necessarily in call and response, but by the congregation singing, and the choir singing a descant or the sort.
In conclusion, these are my own ideas, but I’d love to hear more from all of you. I have written this article from the perspective of a music therapist. One trained to yield non-musical results through musical participation. I’d love to hear from those of you from other backgrounds; from the lay member of the church and from those with professional experience and knowledge in music and church music specifically. We so often resort to performances to bring off the musical results that we hope will move the bystanders in the process. But in this effort, we are moving in front of the pack in a way that leaves others behind in the deeper understanding of the inherent messages the music conveys. Sure we love the performances, but there is more to be gained. Think for example, of the Latter-Day Saint classic “Love One Another.” When it’s called for in a sacrament service, we don’t even have to open the hymnbook. We can sing it verbatim without a second thought. Often we think, with one verse, that it was too easy, maybe not even moving. Yet to allude to Ammon’s teaching King Lamoni, we are caught in our guile. While we arrogantly sang along, we were also citing the words of Christ from memory. Not only that, we were all verbalizing, at the same time, the highest of all the laws and commandments of the gospel; of loving God and loving one another. We did it from memory. It was a part of us and a part of every single member of that congregation we sang with. For a brief 15 second period of time we were all of one mind, thinking of the same topic, and of one heart in our desire to follow Christ’s council that we sang. Ironically, we were even of one heart physically as each of them matched the tempo of the music we sang. In my view, we need more songs like this; though not necessarily one verse and not necessarily quoting scripture word for word. We need simple texts and simple melodies that teach the simple doctrine. We need these texts to help us all become of one heart, one mind, and to become the people of Zion that we are prophesied to become… across the entire world.
I'm a sacred music enthusiast. I'm one of those people that attends church for the music just as much as the sermon, one of those people that give an evil glare at the people who leave for the congregational hymns, (Ok no, not really).