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.
“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.”
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).