In the past several articles I have written on end and encouraged us all to participate more actively in the music at church. Recently, I have reviewed a talk given by President Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on the role of the arts in church culture and it has strengthened my testimony and understanding on the purposes and uses of music in the church setting. Before, I have worked to write for the every-day member. This present article I direct more towards those in the Latter-Day Saint membership who are, perhaps, more professionally trained, as well as those in leadership positions that direct music on a local level. Though I direct it at them, I encourage all others to read, understand and gain encouragement on how much we need you. In short, because music in the church is not about “us,” as professional musicians. It’s about you. It’s about every single child of God that walks this earth.
In the article I mentioned, President Packer indicates a question he invites the professional musician to ask themselves, “When I am free to do what I really want to do, what will it be?” In my own words, "if we had the perfect music program in a local congregation, what would it be like?" As I review what is typical in Western congregations I realize, as President Packer indicates, that we’re climbing up the wrong ladder. I will explain.
Recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has announced the impending creation of a new hymnbook. In describing its new features, they state it “will include existing, new, and updated music to meet the needs of members worldwide. The printed collections will be unified across the worldwide Church, providing the same selection of hymns and children’s songs in each language.” One aspect of it that I look forward to is the inclusion of hymns from other languages and cultures. President Nelson and other church leaders have talked extensively about the gathering of Israel from around the world through missionary efforts. It is amazing to see that manifestation unfold so literally by uniting us in song. It will both literally and spiritually make us of one heart and mind in the establishment of Zion around the world.
Now you’re wondering what the new hymnbook has to do with anything. It is this. As consumers of western music, we do not have a monopoly on stating what music is or how to use it. In fact, there are many behaviors manifest in our traditions that are not reflected in other countries. There are some from many cultures, including the Ewe tribe of Ghana and other African cultures that I will mention, that I think we have a lot to learn from when it comes to church ritual. As I learn more and more about them, the more I discover our eccentricities in western culture, not in terms of what music we use, but in terms of when and how we use music in our social world.
In the western world, as developed through western music, we have a bit of an “us” and “them” mentality. Namely, THEY perform, and WE listen in and enjoy. That is our method of participation per se. In the classical world especially, to participate in music more completely and to appreciate it more adequately audience members are expected to come with preconceived knowledge about the song. We participate by having this understanding beforehand and being mentally involved throughout the performance. If we don’t enjoy it, it’s our own fault. Even apart from the classical realm, western individuals typically listen to music on their electronic devices, some constantly. We participate in that we both sympathize and empathize with the lyrics being sung.
This is reflected in church practices in our same culture. In our meetings, at least those with “strong” music programs, there are choir performances, vocal and instrumental soloists and the like. In these performances the congregation is expected to be quiet and listen. Classically speaking, to make any noise or distraction during the process at all is considered quite rude.
In contrast, there is the Ewe tribe of Ghana, among the many other African cultures. Music is so inherent in their day to day practice that they don’t even have a word in their language for it. When we say “music,” there is no direct translation for the Ewe. More, music is a component that takes place as part of other events. It is not merely a “thing” in and of itself, it is just one of many elements of their day to day culture. Everyone participates in music in some form or another. Whether through dance, singing, or the playing of various instruments, everyone has an important part of music creation. Except for some circumstances, it is not done to perform, or for a group of people to listen closely to per se, it is something done by everyone as a means of communication and as a sense of community.
There is a gem in this tradition we need to learn from. Through participation we can gain more out of a presentation than if we were mere bystanders. If we listen to a lecture, we are not able to learn from it as easily as if there was a discussion. In a discussion, we can raise questions, make points, and lift each other through a learning process to reach an end. Everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner. Musically speaking, solo and choir performances by a small or large group are touching in the moment, but I argue that they are not as permanent and lastingly moving as when a congregational member is able to sing and participate in the music themselves. This is understandable even from a choir member’s perspective. There is so much more we gain by being in the choir singing, than there is when listening to it as a bystander. Like we so often state when teaching or speaking in church, we often learn so much more about the subject than we can hope to convey through the lesson or talk itself.
This principle has been reflected in adaptations in church curriculum through the Come Follow Me program which is being adopted more and more in various church organizations. Musically however, we are falling behind in our understanding. We are making our ideals, as church musicians, to include more and more performances of an individual or group, and less and less congregational participation. To allow the spirit to be made more manifest in our meetings and for the congregational participants to be more permanently affected by the music we use, we need more participant interaction in our musical practices at church.
This is not to say no to many of the musical traditions we have. There are times and places for performance. But I think there is more time and place for congregational singing than we give credit for. The purpose of the music in the church is not to be beautiful in and of itself. It’s not to have music for music’s sake. The purpose of music in church is for the uplifting of the individual who attends. It is beautiful, yes, but it’s beautiful for the sake of uplifting the members. It pulls at our heartstrings and literally entices us to choose the right. In that way, it does not draw attention to itself because it is not about the music, it is about the messages inherent in the music. The point of the music is to draw attention to the messages within, and to carry it into the hearts of the individual member.
To illustrate further, I have many examples in my profession as a music therapist. When working with a developmentally disabled adult experiencing physical challenges, I may invite him to shake a given shaker to contribute to a piece of music that I play with him. Through this, in a way, you could say that I’m teaching him how to use the shaker and to contribute musically, but the success in the operation is not in the piece being beautiful in and of itself. The success in the operation, and the data we report to other professionals, is when the individual is physically moving his or her arm, something he may not have ever done before… in his entire life. Yes, it happens, regularly I might add. In parallel, I may sing a song familiar to an elderly individual with Alzheimers with them singing along, and have a discussion throughout on when they’ve sung it before. The success is not in the piece being beautiful in and of itself, the success is the individual finally remembering the family they would sing the song with, and the family being moved to tears in consolation of being finally remembered and acknowledged by their ailing parent. (You can watch Disney’s Coco for a tear-jerking example).
So now that I’ve downplayed the use of performances in church, what really is the ideal? It’s a question I’d love to open up for discussion through your commentary on this blog and other social media. In a culture centered on the implementation of performances, how can we involve the congregation in our weekly church music with increasing musical influence? I have a few thoughts from my own brainstorming.
First, we should acknowledge how we have traditionally involved the audience before. In musical presentations we have often had a choir sing the first several verses of a hymn and invited the congregation to join on the last verse. This is typically done as a “big finish.” Second, growing in popularity are free accompaniments used by the braver organists among us. They enhance the text sung by the congregation with frequent reports of being moved to tears. I think these should be used more in our weekly meetings, especially to add and draw attention to the themes of the messages given in the weekly meetings. My third brings me to some new heights I’d be curious to see implemented in every day practice. We all know the words and melodies to some polyphonic music we have in our children’s songbook. I’m speaking specifically of Janice Kapp Perry’s “A Child’s Prayer” and “Love is Spoken Here.” The melodies are sung separately and then together for the third verse. In this combination, the messages of the differing verses are beautifully intricated together like a glove just as much as the melodies, teaching us even more then the verses convey separately. As we all know the melodies already, it would not be too hard to implement in a sacrament service. This said, I think it would be great to see music composers writing more music like this, inviting for simple but polyphonic participation in church congregations. Fourth, interactions between the choir and congregation could be accomplished, not necessarily in call and response, but by the congregation singing, and the choir singing a descant or the sort.
In conclusion, these are my own ideas, but I’d love to hear more from all of you. I have written this article from the perspective of a music therapist. One trained to yield non-musical results through musical participation. I’d love to hear from those of you from other backgrounds; from the lay member of the church and from those with professional experience and knowledge in music and church music specifically. We so often resort to performances to bring off the musical results that we hope will move the bystanders in the process. But in this effort, we are moving in front of the pack in a way that leaves others behind in the deeper understanding of the inherent messages the music conveys. Sure we love the performances, but there is more to be gained. Think for example, of the Latter-Day Saint classic “Love One Another.” When it’s called for in a sacrament service, we don’t even have to open the hymnbook. We can sing it verbatim without a second thought. Often we think, with one verse, that it was too easy, maybe not even moving. Yet to allude to Ammon’s teaching King Lamoni, we are caught in our guile. While we arrogantly sang along, we were also citing the words of Christ from memory. Not only that, we were all verbalizing, at the same time, the highest of all the laws and commandments of the gospel; of loving God and loving one another. We did it from memory. It was a part of us and a part of every single member of that congregation we sang with. For a brief 15 second period of time we were all of one mind, thinking of the same topic, and of one heart in our desire to follow Christ’s council that we sang. Ironically, we were even of one heart physically as each of them matched the tempo of the music we sang. In my view, we need more songs like this; though not necessarily one verse and not necessarily quoting scripture word for word. We need simple texts and simple melodies that teach the simple doctrine. We need these texts to help us all become of one heart, one mind, and to become the people of Zion that we are prophesied to become… across the entire world.
I'm a sacred music enthusiast. I'm one of those people that attends church for the music just as much as the sermon, one of those people that give an evil glare at the people who leave for the congregational hymns, (Ok no, not really).