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.
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).