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.
“After some careful prayer and thought, we’d like to call you as our ward organist.” Is your heart racing yet? “What about my own prayer and thought” you might ask, “I don’t consider myself proficient enough to play” you might think. Yet at the very core of your concerns is probably, “I don’t want to feel like I’m showing off.”
It is to no surprise that these concerns plague the thoughts of Latter-Day Saint musicians judging from the heavy number of scriptures that emphasize humility. Christ himself teaches, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” as well as, “and whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). At the very least is the chapter devoted to humility,
You’d be surprised at how many people share your concern. I’ve had it myself, especially as a young church organist newly called at just 16 years old. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to serve a mission and attain a music degree from Brigham Young University – Idaho, during which my thoughts have changed completely.
The scriptures are full of paradox’s, and in contrast to Christ’s teachings on humility he also teaches “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works…” (Matthew 5:16). Ironically, it’s in the same chapter in which he states that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” So what’s the secret then? How do you resolve the ambiguity between these two scriptures? Elder Uchtdorf gave some clarification in some words he addressed to priesthood holders in a general session of conference,
we discover humility by thinking less about ourselves. It comes as we go about our work with an attitude of serving God and our fellowman.”
And there it is, straight from a prophet of God. We are not serving anyone by downplaying ourselves. By continuing to downplay our talents and succumbing to our fear of our talents being exposed, we continue to dampen the power of the spirit who is ready and willing to uplift and support the members of our congregations. In comparison is a quote from my own grandmother, “burying your talent is a grave mistake.”
The key difference is exemplified by Christ himself. In the great war we all participated in during our premortal lives, Christ tells our Heavenly Father, “Thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2). He performed the greatest act in the history of eternity, but he gives all the glory of that achievement to his Heavenly Father. It is up to us to follow Christ’s example and do the same. To finish Christ’s words
The work we have is pivotal. It is critical. We cannot afford to downplay ourselves and our musical prowess in turn. In Matthew 6, using Joseph Smith’s translation, Christ states “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single to the glory of God, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matthew 6:24). Going back to Moses, remember that Heavenly Father’s entire work and glory is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). As we bring out our best, we are participating, in a very real way, in God’s entire plan of salvation, in bringing his children closer to him.
“So what do I do?” You might ask. Bring out your best. There are plenty of resources out there to improve the musical prowess at church. Look over lds.org/music. If you are a church organist, don’t be afraid to use some of those brighter stops, yes, even the Mixture III or IV, even those reeds marked in red. Look into free accompaniments you can use from time to time. There are several available with a quick search online for free or cheap. Carsonhymns.com has plenty of information on them and even some excellent arrangements free to use as well. If you don’t have a church music calling, don’t think you’re out of the hook. Your ward music chairman would probably love to know of your talents. I challenge you to find them and tell of them of your willingness to help out. I can promise that as you participate musically both at home and at church, you will find a greater connection to Heavenly Father yourself, greater peace at home, and greater peace and joy in your associations in your local congregation as well.
Yes, I mean you. There is a dearth spreading throughout Latter-Day Saint worship, especially in the United States. It is the fear of singing. It shows its ugly face more broadly in the simple task of any musical involvement at all. Every congregation is different, but there are many where the singing voice is barely audible above the organ, and many fear to make their talents known, for fear that they’ll be used. I find it curious. Western Civilization is known for its individualist culture. We push our children to be competitive, to be the best. We are one of few cultures where we DON’T co-sleep with our newborns, or even sleep in the same room. From the get-go we push them to be independent. While our hearts may do belly flips, we also push them out the door to go on missions, go to college, get jobs for themselves and be their own people. We praise the individual person. Yet at the same time, when it comes to expressing ourselves musically, our heart beats sky rocket, our palms get sweaty and we start puffing like we’ve run a marathon. How is it that the same culture that pushes its people to be themselves, is also afraid of the musical expression of the common man? In African cultures for example, music is a community event. When one person begins playing a rhythm, the whole community starts joining in song or dance. Music involvement in the United States means opening I-Tunes and plugging in our earphones. Let me be clear. This is NOT musical involvement. This is musical spectatorship.
President Monson specifically speaks of priesthood service here, but the same rule applies to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are all invited to come “feel and see” the gospel for ourselves. And no, musical involvement isn’t a far stretch from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many are familiar with the scripture in the Doctrine & Covenants saying, “The song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.”
We can’t get the promised blessing if we don’t perform the indicated commandment.
Many years before the restoration of the gospel, a man named Charles Wesley wrote seven rules for congregational singing at church. He stated,
“Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.”
The term “songs of Satan” is a bit strong. But to put it in a modern perspective, how loud are we singing when we’re in the shower? Or on our own in the car? And yet in the middle of a congregation with everywhere from 150 to 300 people drowning us out we suddenly clam up. Wesley continues,
Congregational singing is a community event, and as I’ve said, and will keep saying, those that sing together stay together. As you participate in congregational hymns, and music throughout the meeting, you will find yourself growing in your bond with your congregational family, find yourself growing more passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and find yourself with that much more energy to perform your calling, to reach out to the people you’ve always wanted to say hi to but couldn’t muster the courage, to take that extra ministering visit for your assignment, to go the extra mile in whatever your church responsibilities are. In the words of a childhood classic,
Sing, sing a song
Make it simple, to last your whole life long.
Don't worry that it's not good enough
For anyone else to hear
Just sing, sing a song.
- "Sing" from Sesame Street
Many of you may be thinking “It’s hard enough to get the family together to read scriptures, now you want us to sing?” To this my answer is a resounding YES. I have implemented it into my own family’s scripture time and it has had many, many benefits. But besides my own word, you can take the first presidency’s too. Here’s a statement directly from them on the topic in the preface to the hymnbook. "Ours is a hymnbook for the home as well as for the meetinghouse. We hope the hymnbook will make a prominent place among the scriptures and other religious books in our homes. The hymns can bring families a spirit of beauty and peace and can inspire love and unity among family members.”
- LDS hymnal, Preface
Having said this, I understand that many do not consider themselves to be very musical and would use that as a reason to not include singing in a daily family scripture study. I would invite you to reconsider. Here are seven reasons why:
1. You’re already doing it
You do not need to be musical to sing in front of your family. These are people that hear you sing in the shower, with the radio in the car, and are sitting right beside you when you sing congregational hymns at church. They know what you sound like, and they love you anyway.
2. There’s technological help
You don’t need a pianist in your home. Even if you don’t want to sing a cappella, the LDS Library app has recorded hymns you can play right from your phone to accompany you and your family’s singing. There’s also an LDS music app provided by the church that provides all the hymns, children’s songs, and more. To be honest, this was the only way I was able to get my own family in on this idea. Now that it’s been done though, my family has insisted on singing each day even when I’ve been reluctant to do so.
3. Hymns establish a routine
If there’s anything I’ve learned as I study child development, it’s how critical routine is. Positive routines create a sense of consistency and security that children become accustomed to. This is one reason that family scripture study is so important in and of itself, let alone their exposure to the scriptures. Music has always been a very important part of culture and religious rituals as a means of unifying the participants. It’s actually been backed by research as well. The family that sings together, stays together.
4. They offer fast spiritual impact.
I will admit that in my own family, there are many days that we are so exhausted by the end of the day that we have to push really hard to get some scripture reading in as a family. Hymns offer a great way to offer a big spiritual impact in a very short amount of time. Most hymns are only about 2 minutes long when you sing all the verses. Singing a single verse (heaven forbid) can take less than 15 seconds (go ahead, time it). Even when you’re exhausted it doesn’t take much to whisper through a quick hymn and offer a short family prayer before hitting the sack.
5. The hymns will stay in your thoughts
We all hate those songs that stay in our minds and play over and over incessantly. If those songs are hymns though, think of the positive impact that would have on your day. The fact that music helps us memorize and learn concepts has been backed by research too. When a list of words are spoken to an individual, and another list of words were sung, the words that were sung are more consistently remembered. It helps us learn the ABC’s, so too it can help us learn and remember important principles of the gospel.
6. You’ll learn more hymns
There are more than three hundred hymns in our hymn book alone, let alone the children’s songbook. Of these three hundred, we probably only sing fifty of them on a regular basis, and that’s a high estimate with sacrament hymns included. It’s beginning to be termed the “sealed portion” of the hymnbook. If you’re up to a good challenge, you can take on the venture of learning and singing through all of them. Having the LDS library app is a great help to this, as you can have it played for you to help you and your family learn the melody. Again, you don’t need to be a seasoned musician to learn the hymns. Also, there are many that are very applicable to a family routine, such as “Come, Let us Sing an Evening Hymn” and even the classic “God Be With You till we Meet Again.” The first was used as Sacrament meeting used to be done in the evenings before the three-hour block. Now that evening Sacrament meetings aren’t a thing anymore, it can still be a thing in our families.
7. It will increase your music skills
It’s true, and you don’t even need to put any extra practice time in. As part of my degree in music I was tasked with four semesters of testing on my sight singing skills, my ability to look at a melodic line on paper and sing the correct pitches without any assistance from an accompaniment of any sort. I can undoubtedly say that I barely scraped through them, and my past teachers will attest. Since implementing hymns in our daily scripture study though, my sight-reading skills have soared, as attested by myself and some of my current professors in graduate school. It has been an invaluable asset in pursuing my music therapy degree. As for you, who knows? You may find yourself joining the ward choir someday. They could certainly use you!
All in all, modern prophets have promised an added sense of love and unity in the home when the hymns are sung, and I can testify to that effect myself. Singing hymns has been a great experience for me and my family and I would encourage you to make it a part of your own family scripture study. In our time, Satan is constantly bombarding us with things that invite and entice us to do evil (Moroni 7), in contrast, the hymns of the church are available to invite and even entice us to do good. As you implement this in your own home, you will find for yourself that, “a hymn a day keeps contention away.”
Most people have a short list of music they listen to again and again that gives them motivation and energy. These are the top 10 LDS songs that I keep coming back to. Mind you, it's a quality list. I worked hard to edit it down to the top 10. It wasn't easy.
1. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
This made the top of my list. I'd talk about why, but then I already have in another blog post.
2. Savior Redeemer of My Soul by Rob Gardner
I could write a whole different blog post about this one. Reading the lyrics alone gives a sense of it's personal and intimate nature. It's written in first person, as an individual in a personal prayer with their Heavenly Father. Here's a version performed by Jenny Oaks Baker, Dallin Vail Bayles and the American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic
3. Nearer My God to Thee by Vocal Point
This particular arrangement came out when I was serving a mission and it's motivating power immediately struck me. The hymn itself became a favorite when I sung it in church choir as a young priest. It was that point I learned in a powerful way that pain and grief can be turned around as a stepping stone to draw closer to Heavenly Father and feel of his true and very real love for you.
4. Glorious by David Archuleta
This song is cheating, as it was originally written and sung by Russ Dixon, but later performed by David Archuleta for the I'm a Mormon campaign. This song reminds me that even though I am one, single person of many, I still have gifts and talents unique to me, and that those gifts will continue to weave into a beautiful life as I continue to grow and nurture them. We each have unique gifts and talents given to us, and there is no individual that is ever replaceable.
5. Gethsemane by Claire Ryann and the Crossbys
Hearing and feeling of God's love for you cannot be communicated more innocently than from the mouth of a young child, and the music makes it that much more powerful. I admit I start to tear up as I hear "Gethsemane, Jesus loves me." It just simply cannot get any purer than that. #PureMusic
6. What Shall we Give? by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
This one is cheating too, as it's the movie gets me in this one just as much as the music. Still, as I watch this I am filled with desire to raise a family that becomes very good at being late for family dinner because of some simple act of service they performed on their way home. No one has followed Christ's example in that regard better than Thomas S. Monson who passed away this past week. Think of how much a better place the world would be if we made this principle a fundamental part of who we are.
7. Primary Medley by The King Singers (arr. by Ryan Murphy)
For those of you who are not of the LDS faith, primary is the LDS church's version of children's Sunday school. The pieces included in this medley are songs that are often sung in these classes. They were strung together by Ryan Murphy for the funeral of a child who had passed away. I never realized how touching the words of He Sent His Son would be in a funeral setting before I heard this piece: "How could the Father tell the world of sacrifice? of death? He sent his son to die for us, and rise with living breath."
8. Be Still, My Soul by Gentri
I grew to love this hymn when I performed the piano solo arrangement by Larry R. Beebe. It was a trying time in my life when I was practicing it, and whenever I've played it since all those memories of the time come rushing back. I enjoy this particular arrangement because firstly, it's a very touching story and you can't help but tear up as you hear it. Second, you can tell from the arrangement and the performance that each phrase and each word is being carefully thought out as they sing it. The words combined with the piercing harmonies have a way of validating all of your personal and present trials as you listen.
9. O Savior, Thou Who Wearest by Sally Deford
Sally Deford is such a wonderful composer and arranger, all of her many pieces are magnificent. This lesser known arrangement in particular is no different. The hymn is more commonly sung around Easter, though even then, it's difficult to play on the organ, so it isn't sung that often. Here Sally Deford took the words and set them to the tune of KINGSFOLD, (More commonly known in LDS culture as If I Could Hie to Kolob). It's a genius setting, as KINGSFOLD is already a favorite tune among many Latter-Day Saints. They make the words sink into your heart so much the more effectively.
10. Silent Night by Peter Anglea Beckenhorst
There is no Youtube video for this arrangement. I fell in love with it when singing with the Civic Choir at Illinois State University. It steers away from the commonly known melody, though it keeps the same rhythmic structure. The effect leads to a reflection on a personal yearning in the soul. At some point, I look forward to using the arrangement in some sort of church Christmas program. It's not a matter of "if," so much as "when."
Click on the following link to find all these videos on a Youtube playlist! I wasn't able to get Silent Night on there, so I added a bonus video.
Since leaving for my mission more than six years ago, I have never been in the same ward for longer than a year. Each area in the mission only lasted months, after the mission came singles wards both outside and within BYU-Idaho that changed from semester to semester. Even after getting married we ended up moving to various apartments, and then completely out of state, and now in graduate school I anticipate having to move at some point for an internship, and to wherever I may find a steady job.
While the instability has brought some challenges, it has been interesting to get the broad perspective of musical contribution in each ward. I’ve been in wards that wouldn’t even try to form a choir, wards that would give a respectable attempt to put together a choir for a Christmas number each year, as well as a remarkable ward that would put on a musical number every week, some by a choir, others by smaller ensembles. In many of the wards I've attended there have been music leaders that were frustrated by a lack of participation in their ward choir, congregational singing, or the like. One choir leader in particular would show up faithfully every week, even though her and the choir pianist were the only people who would show up. (It was about the same time my wife was working with a difficult pregnancy, so I was struggling to participate as well). All this is to say, there are many wards and congregations that struggle to maintain an adequate music program. This is a bit of a heart breaker for those passionate about the monumental influence that music can provide for ward functionality. Surely in a church run by Jesus Christ himself, the music program would not be neglected as it is?
the church is growing faster than the musical education of its members. This is not to say that music education is lacking, rather, it's a testament to the remarkable growth of the church. Imagine a ward that has one good organist that has been playing for years, and perhaps enjoys doing so. If she needs she could possibly call on one other person to sub for her, although that individual may not particularly desire to play the organ each week as a regular calling, or have other callings that prevents him from doing so. Then the ward splits into three. Now there are three wards that need a qualified organist, and only two of them has one who is able to do so. The solution? We need members and music leaders who will think outside the box, challenge social norms, and figure out solutions to the challenges that the growing church has to offer.
I'll give an example. In the midst of participating with the struggling ward I mentioned earlier I was also tasked with writing a research paper on the size of Bach’s church choir. Interesting topic right? Bach, uncelebrated in his time as he is now, was a Lutheran Church organist. His works span the simplest of songs for the beginning keyboardist to some of the most complex and chromatic masterpieces. I’ve played some of his works for piano, though also admit to avoiding them as well. They are well worth the effort, but demand a lot of it. Anyway, part of the assignment incorporated a letter in which Bach vents to a comrade about the sparsity of the choir he had to work with. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it?) I can provide the source for anyone who may want to read it themselves. In this letter Bach states that he could manage a decent performance if he had regular attendance by two people of each voice part. This was interesting for me. While there are many wards struggling on a musical level, in Bach’s opinion, all we’d need for a good functioning ward choir is two people per part. That’s a total of eight people in a choir.
difficult, you might thing about arranging a meeting with a bishopbric to call eight people as section leaders, two per voice part, which would provide for a great core for a choir that could be filled out by other volunteers from there.
Anyway, there are many solutions one can come up with if you're committed to finding a solution and are willing to pray for guidance. In my ward I’ve had the great experience of being a ward music chairman. The new ward I’ve been in, from what I hear, has had their own struggles with musical output in the past, along with the other two wards that meet in the same building. Yet as I’ve worked with the other members with music callings I’ve been coming to the sense that the only thing preventing a ward from participating confidently in ward music, is having a music leader that is able to draw out the musical skills from the members. I am of the firm opinion that every human being has musical capacities within them. (I’m sure some of you readers may disagree, we should chat). What a successful ward music leader must do is have the skill and confidence to draw all those musical capacities out of them. We may have to think creatively, work with weird ensemble groups, or with all sorts of setbacks, weird harmonies or slow accompanists. Regardless, I know it is both worth it, and possible. John Rutter, who writes for choir ensembles, has said, “a church without a choir is like a body without a soul.” So for those in struggling wards, don’t give up hope. Keep fighting. Keep thinking outside the box and challenging local norms. For those in musically successful wards, I would encourage you to reach out to others who are not so lucky to give feedback, encouragement and instruction. There is a lot of need out there. Music can knit our hearts together and soften the hardest of hearts. As musical output grows across the church, so too will the spiritual power in every ward and congregation.
I came across this video today, I think it has great meaning for Ward choirs:
A RECENT music composition caught my attention last week. It was written by a former colleague of mine, David Jones, who is currently a pursuing a doctorate degree in composition at Rice University. The piece is called Soliloquy for Violin. Here is a recording performed by Lauren Anderson, who will be performing the piece for her own graduate violin recital this coming January. Just a warning, it isn't for the musically faint of heart (...or ear rather).
QUITE THE piece isn't it? As I said, it may be difficult to grasp by the everyday listener. I myself am no musicologist, but I'll offer some bits of explanation that may help in the process of appreciating the music.
FIRST OF all, in the description under the YouTube video, David Jones says the inspiration for the music began when he saw the empty cicada shells near his home in Houston, Texas. It was funny to me to read this. I grew up in the Midwest area where cicadas are an everyday thing. I often forget they're out there, regardless of how loud they can become during the day. It caught my wife off guard the first time she came out to see my family. Due to the humidity in addition to the screaming cicadas I seem to remember her saying she felt like she was in the middle of some South American jungle. For those who haven't heard a cicada, here is a video with a good depiction of what they sound like. Their call can be heard for miles around.
MANY APOLOGIES for those who have a disliking for bugs. They're also known to be quite large. They're several inches long, and larger around than your thumb (and completely harmless at the same time... I promise). Anyway, their song is something I grew up with that I've even grown quite fond of, similar to the beating rain of the summer storms that would pound on our ceiling as I would fall asleep at night. The shimmering of the violin brought back many memories of my childhood. It's a shockingly similar sound to the cicada.
WHAT DAVID mentions specifically is their shells they would find in their yard. They can be slightly alarming, especially for a mother who's children bring them inside, eagerly showing off their prizes. Here's a pic below.
DON'T WORRY, it's just an empty shell. They're even more harmless than the cicadas that come out of them. In the picture you can see the hole along the back where the cicada pulled itself out, complete with wings, ready to fly up to the tops of the trees to find a mate.
THIS IS where David Jones' story becomes touching and personal. The piece is called a "soliloquy." A soliloquy, per dictionary.com, is "an act of speaking one's thoughts aloud when by oneself or regardless of any hearers, especially by a character in a play." This happens a lot in drama. For a Disney example, think of all the characters taking a few moments to sing a song about their dilemma. "Let it Go" from Disney's Frozen is actually a pretty good example. During the song, Elsa sings through her thought process as she decides to quit hiding her "icy" gifts. In the case for Soliloquy for Violin, the character of the play is the composer himself, with no words involved. The description he gave with the YouTube video describes the thoughts he transcribed into the music,
our home and belongings destroyed by floodwaters was devastating. In the time that followed, many hands reached out to help us as we salvaged what we could from our old place, found a new apartment, and began rebuilding our lives. We couldn’t be more grateful."
"DURING THIS difficult time for my family, this piece became more deeply personal. It became an opportunity for me to express some of the frustration and pain I felt during the ordeal of the flood and the process of rebuilding. What began as a simple exploration of cicada shells transformed into a journey of loss, grief, recovery, and new beginnings."
THE LAST line I find especially meaningful, "What began as simple exploration of cicada shells transformed into a journey of loss, grief, recover, and new beginnings." What a great fact of life we all receive opportunities to receive at varying times in our lives. Even now, forest fires are continuing to rampage California, leaving many people homeless, their belongings consumed by fire. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose everything you own to a natural disaster. In David's piece I particularly get a sense of the pain involved as it becomes more dramatic as it goes a long.
YET THE prospect of a new beginning brings hope. One of my favorite scriptures is found in Ether 12:4 "Whosoever believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world." For many people, we can be the means of bringing that hope to life. David Jones mentioned many people who came in to help them recover their home after hurricane Harvey. As a part of this holiday season we all have some way or another to reach out and restore hope and confidence in those in less fortunate than us. I think that as we reach out in fulfilling others' hopes, our own desires for new beginnings and fresh starts can be made even more real. More, just as the Cicada loses its shell to become a more perfect version of itself (complete with wings and musical functions) so too we, as we serve others and work through our new beginnings, find more perfect versions of ourselves that are more like our Heavenly Father, and more like the person he wants us to become.
The last few days I've had to curb my music arranging appetite to spend more time finishing an informal research study I've been conducting as part of my graduate degree. It has yielded some rather fascinating aspects that have perked my interest being the father of an 18 month old. (Today is actually his 18 month birthday, Happy Birthday Daniel!)
Anyway, to make a long story short, I was struck by a book by Daniel N. Stern that was recommended to me by a fellow grad student. He did an in depth study on the unique relationship between a mother and her infant child. (It's titled, "The First Relationship" for those who want to read it). In it he focused on some of the most minute behaviors that both mothers and children exhibit in their interactions with each other. It got me thinking about the intimacy of that relationship. A relationship so strong that spouses often feel jealous or neglected. Fast forward to further in the study, I found in my own survey that while formal musical training predicted high levels of musical confidence, musical confidence did not predict how frequently a parent would musically interact with their child. At first I was rather disappointed as this result completely disproved my hypothesis I had written a few months before. Regardless, as I got to thinking about it, it made perfect sense.
Let me explain. We innately use music as part of various activities at home with our children. We sing them good night, we sing to them as we play, we sing to them to pass time in the car. It's an incredibly adaptive parenting skill that makes parenting a whole lot easier. (That's actually the main point of my entire paper). How lucky we are then, that we don't feel self conscious in front of our infant children. How could you feel self conscious singing in front of your two year old? Any parent that has held a newborn infant in their arms will acclaim to the sweet innocence they sense in their arms. One of the greatest things about working with children is their acceptance. They love you as you are, mistakes and all. And because of this we innately feel comfortable singing to them, no matter how horrible, off pitch, or off rhythm we are. They simply lie there, stare at you, and love you all the same. #PureMusic can't get much purer than that.
This got me thinking about the intimate nature of music. There are many, many songs composed that have been written for significant others. Most music out there is written about love. But more than the topics we choose to sing about, is when we use them. Music takes a part in so many intimate settings. Even if we are not performing the music ourselves, it is often been played by a musical device either electronic or nonelectronic creating romantic moods out of thin air. It adds to my personal testimony of the power in music. Christ loved people individually. He went to them in groups, but more especially one on one. This is how he healed, this is how he taught Nicodemus of the Sanhedrin. Recall also the story where he kicked out the "mourners" in the house of a so called deceased child, so it would be just him and the family of the child, just before he revived her. Christ was able to create intimate settings that enabled him to more powerfully minister to the people he served. So too can we use music to make for more intimate environments around us, helping us to more effectively bring those around us to Christ. I'd honestly like to see more singing done, not just at home, but in informal meetings across the church and the community. I know wards and congregations will find themselves being drawn together more closely and intimately as they share music in more of their meetings, both formal and informal. It will help all of us, individually, and as a church, to overcome all of the challenges that come our way.
I'm a traditional christian 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).