Music and the Church III: On music education
by mr. mraynes
In the two previous installments of this music and church series, several commenters mentioned the lack of musical education among church members. This third post will consider how adding a musical curriculum could improve not only the musicality of our congregations, but also their spirituality.
Although the answers may seem fairly obvious, we must consider where our general musical knowledge is lacking (and whether that even matters), how broad should the curriculum be, and whether or not there is room in the already-busy Sunday School hour for such a course.
First, what are the significant gaps in musical knowledge that limit the effectiveness of our sacred music? The most obvious concerns for many wards is a lack of keyboard players and proficient conductors. I doubt the keyboard issue could be dealt with during Sunday School. If each ward had a small keyboard lab and a competent keyboard teacher it could work. But that is simply unrealistic to expect, even for a healthy ward. Keyboard lessons, however, could be organized by the stake, teaching two to four students at a time, with only one or two keyboard instruments in a room (say, the chapel). These lessons would have to be given during the week or on Saturdays, perhaps over the course of three or four months.
Conducting is an entirely different matter. Every member needs to know how conducting works–not necessarily to make conductors out of them, but so they can interpret what conductors tell them with their motions. These lessons can certainly be offered in any ward during the Sunday School hour. When I mention conducting, I should clarify that I do not refer to learning conducting patterns. Those are adequately explained in the back of the hymnal and anyone can at least pick up a two, three, or four pattern by reading about them there. The critical issues that need to be covered in a Sunday School music class are feeling strong beats (especially the down beat), how to keep a steady tempo, how to start the music, and how to stop it. No one ever discusses this stuff, but that’s where the conducting work really happens.
What kind of a curriculum teaches that stuff? Well, honestly it would be a curriculum that more closely resembles that of Nursery rather than Gospel Doctrine. Movement would be absolutely necessary to feel rhythm: dance, clapping, toe tapping, etc. Also, body movements would be explored to understand what each gesture communicates to the group watching them. No doubt this class would feel alien and silly to many Mormons today. That doesn’t really bother or deter me, though.
Leadership of music is another important question that needs to be visited in individual congregations. Being both a pianist (slash faking-organist) and conductor, I know very well that the real musical power in church lies with the keyboard player. They are the ones who actually establish tempo, tell people when to start and stop, and determine how much time the singing congregation gets to take a breath before starting the next verse. In this ubiquitous musical power arrangement, the conductor is actually superfluous and really should just sit down. Tomorrow, take a look around your congregation. See how many people actually look at and try to follow the conductor. You’ll be the only one not staring at your hymnal in a “If You Could Hie to Kolob”-induced stupor. (I know there is some wonderful allegory for how the greater organization of the Church works here, but I won’t even try to formulate that today.)
So this brings up a philosophical question: Do we need a conductor in Sacrament Meeting? Can’t we just let the organist guide as along our slow slog through the sacrament hymn? I would vehemently argue that we do need a conductor (and not just because it is my profession!). Congregational singing is all about unification of many people in heart and mind. Listen in sacrament meeting, and you will find the music is rarely unified at all. Typically two hundred people are singing to themselves, the general result being a mumbly, barely-passable hymn sound. No one even tries to unify in the mood and character of the music, let alone enunciating words and singing pitches in unison. But if the congregation knew how to follow a conductor, and the conductor knew how to lead a group of amateur singers, I contend our singing could reach a much higher level of spiritual effectiveness while achieving true congregational unity.
Other musical topics that could be usefully added to a Sunday School musical course could be some basic music theory to aid member’s music reading (probably focusing mostly on rhythm and pitch-gesture direction [i.e. this part goes up, this part goes down, here it stays the same]), and basic vocal skills. Again, covering basic vocal skills would push many far out of their comfort zones. But I have no doubt that if President Monson gave a talk about the spiritual imperative behind congregational music skills, members would get over their shyness.
So are such skills truly necessary for the spirituality of our congregations? Since music is so basic to our worship traditions, I must conclude that it is. Bad singing is not going to strengthen anyone’s testimony, but unified, committed hymn singing will certainly bless the lives of all who attend our meetings.
Now it is your turn. How would the music curriculum look if you were charged with creating it? How would you fit it into the traditional Sunday School lineup? (My solution is to have a twelve lesson curriculum and assign maybe thirty members to take the class at a time. Within a year or two most active members will have been through the course and are ready to take it again. As President Hinkley wisely stated, repetition is the law of learning.)
What have I overlooked (lots, no doubt), and where might you disagree with my assertions?