• Uncategorized
  • 20

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?

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

You may also like...

20 Responses

  1. “Bad singing is not going to strengthen anyone’s testimony,”

    You are so right. The quality of the music in Mormon Sacrament Meetings is enough to drive all but the most devout into another denomination.Your plans for SS instruction sounds like a good starting point. You’re right that nobody looks at the conductor, but an accompaniest who knows his stuff, can stop the noise, give some instructions and get the group together. And why not use piano accompanient instead of the organ which few ward members can play at an upbeat tempo?

    One of my favorite experiences at Sunstone Symposium every year is watching Ardean Watts lead the singing while accompanying us on the piano. He interrupts to correct us several time, but we rise to his standard and have a great spiritual and musical experience.

    Do you think there’s any likelihood of Gladys Knight being put in charge of Church music? A dose of pizazz would not hurt us.

  2. virgil says:

    First, I’ll admit my feelings are heavily influenced by receiving organ training from a Protestant organist (though a lifelong LDS church member myself) and having had some opportunity over time to play music for various non-LDS congregations as well as many years for my home wards.

    I think the traditional LDS Sacrament Meeting conductor is unnecessary at best and can have a negative impact in many instances if they aren’t well trained.

    I can’t recall attending services at any other Christian denomination and having a conductor – and nearly all had better music and participation. In some, rather than a conductor, there might be one or more ‘load singers’ on the stand who lead out by voice, but without any arm waving. The other given is that most congregations stand when they sing which improves the focus.

    I almost got to try non-conducted music a few times in church when the conductor was unexpectedly late, but someone would always run up and fill in.

    Given the power of ‘tradition’ within our wards, I think conductors will be with us through the millennium but I’d sure love to experiment with alternatives – and get the congregation standing for all but the Sacrament hymn.

  3. James says:

    I’ll say the idea of training a small number of accompanists at a time to basic keyboard proficiency is a fantastic idea! However, in general, just as the church does not generally get in the business of teaching reading and writing through formal curriculum, I don’t think it should be the equivalent business of teaching musical fluency, either.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree completely with your basic observation (that musical fluency is lacking to our detriment) and I am intrigued with many of your ideas. I think we could probably do more within the context of our current musical callings to weave musical training in with the established practices such as singing time in primary, ward choir, etc. This might be another approach….teach people music without turning it into “class time,” so to speak.

    I will say that my observation as a lifelong member who has been surrounded by music my whole life that the base level of musicality within the church is fairly good. A strong piece of anecdotal evidence I would use is the scope and quality of the choral program at BYU. The non-audition choirs at BYU (of which there at least two or three per semester) are both large (200-400) and as good or better than audition choirs at many other colleges. My mom, at the time she conducted the women’s chorus there (the “entry level” audition choir) was roundly chastised by out-of-state choral professionals for keeping this choir in “hiding” and not touring this group all over the country.

    Now, the reasons this level of musical excellence within the the church at large isn’t following suit are varied and complex. I do think that those of us in the church with formal musical training may be guilty of not (excuse the term) “magnifying our callings” and providing a forum where the latent musical abilities within our wards and stakes can be mobilized to something better than they are now. Breaking that down would be another blog post by itself (at least).

    Last point for now. The fact that conductors have become a largely vestigial calling within the church is a tragedy. A good conductor worth their salt can “tame” their accompanist and command the attention of the congregation, which in turn can significantly improve the spirit in a meeting.

  4. Lori says:

    The BYU music faculty used to host an annual “Church Music Workshop”, where there was instruction on just about every aspect of LDS Church music. I attended twice and learned a lot. It was great for those of us with music training, but no music degrees. I heard that they stopped it because they were just serving the members in Utah – even though I traveled from GA for the last one. I think the last one was in ’96 or ’97.

    Relief Society actually can still have 5 minutes of music training each Sunday other than fast Sunday. Depending on who is in the calling of RS Chorister, this can be just singing one extra song or more involved. In my ward, we currently have a chorister who is teaching singing during this time.

    I actually think the auxiliary meetings are a better place to teach music skills. Then you include the youth too, who wouldn’t attend an adult SS class. Every auxiliary needs a chorister and an accompanist. It’s a great place for training.

    Lastly, music in most Primaries leaves much to be desired as well. There are some basic guidelines that would help tremendously (and many of those were included in the 2010 Primary Sharing Time Program). Teaching Primary-age children to sing was actually one of the most beneficial workshops I took at the BYU Conference.

  5. corktree says:

    As choir director of a large ward with a plethora of talent and yet very few choir members (when I’m not pulling teeth to get attendance for Christmas and Easter), I think this is an issue but I think the solution is broader perhaps? There is certainly no lack of talent and training in general as far as voice and instruments go (in larger areas), but there is such a lack of desire to make that a part of worship that I DO think something needs to come from the top to kick people in the pants! (I realize in smaller areas, more focus needs to be put on accompaniment instruction and conducting)

    My sympathetic Stake Music Director (and Bishop’s wife) has often told me that we could actually issue callings to get people to attend choir without them acting like we were asking for their blood. But, of course, many of the talented individuals that won’t come to choir, will sing a musical number. Why is the perception different? I personally prefer to hear unified choral pieces and strong congregational hymns than a solo, but I know not everyone feels the same.

    So, yes, I think a class that got people excited about really feeling the power of music as a spiritual experience and helped people to make more of the congregational hymns would be amazing, but I think people would moan and see it as a chore and complain first. Until it started to actually make a difference, it would be hard for people in general to understand. Though, I really like the idea of a “music and movement” class. Might be just the thing to spark interest just because it sounds a bit wacky in church. Also, for many, perhaps a class where they learn the history of the hymns, while simultaneously helping them to feel like part of a large choir and not just individuals in a sea of monotonous voices, would go a long way for stronger congregational hymn experiences.

    And I think we should stand for any extra congregational hymns. I know I don’t always want to, but it almost always focuses people’s attention on their singing more and has a great effect.

    I don’t know…I think the way people view music in church in general needs to improve first.

  6. Jessawhy says:

    Mr Mraynes,
    Lots of great ideas here.

    I think I mentioned this in one of your other installments but maybe not. I’ve taken to singing hymns without my hymnal. It helps me focus on the conductor more and notice my volume better (I try to be louder, too). It’s also fun to see if I can remember all the words to all the verses and I usually can.

    Our biggest problem is that sometimes our organist goes rogue and will improvise a few bars between verses or at the end. Then the conductor rolls her eyes and shakes her head. Any spirit felt in the song evaporates over this pettiness.

    Oh, and I want to disagree with James (no offense, I was disagreeing with you before I knew it was you)
    BYU is not really an accurate sample of ward members across the country, let alone the world. A non-audition choir still probably has 10 times the musicality of your regular ward member (imo).

    In fact, I think the stereotype that Mormons are musical (and yes many are, you and my husband included) is part of why many Mormons don’t sing during church. If you feel like the people on either side of you were singing in touring choirs at BYU, you are less likely to sing out if you say . . . didn’t even get into Women’s Chorus your freshmen year (not that I know anyone like that.) 🙂

    Perhaps I sense a divide: the musical elite, and the rest of us. So, my question is do you think this class would help people who are not musical overcome their fears of singing next to great voices?

  7. kristine N says:

    How about we teach music in primary? Singing time is already a part of primary, but it’s usually pretty basic, only focused on learning words and basic melody. I suspect the senior primary especially get kind of bored just learning a bunch of songs. Injecting a little more theory into the teaching might keep at least some of them more involved longer.

    Of course, teaching music instead of just songs in primary would require longer singing times and trained music educators, not just entertainers, so this proposal faces the same problems adult teaching would. The only thing it really gets around is the embarrassment of some effective teaching techniques (movement especially).

  8. mr. mraynes says:

    Thanks for your impressively thoughtful comments!

    Course:

    I think your point of encouraging piano accompaniment when appropriate (i.e. lack of talent in actual organ playing) is critically important. When pseudo-organists have to slow the tempo of hymns in order to play them, we lose the spiritual impact of the music, and their intended character. Playing the piano would enable many keyboard players to perform the music as it was intended by the composers. Of course not having the organ is a trade-off in itself, but for me the tempo is even more important than the timbre and volume of the accompanying instrument.

    And, uh, I think that Gladys Knight will not become the Church music czar anytime soon, no matter how cool that would be…. 🙂

    Virgil:

    I was interested in your contention that conductors might actually inhibit the unification of congregational singing. The better trained the people are, I think you are right. So it is to be hoped that a music education program in the Church would eventually lead to the discontinuation of the calling of music directors. Until that time, however, I think conductors (when heeded by the singers) add a lot to the unity and character of the music.

    James:

    I have to agree with Jessawhy that BYU is a poor sample of the musical abilities of the Church as a whole. Outside of the Mormon belt wards are lucky to have one or two people with passable musical talents. Outside of the states wards might have no one with training in the Western traditions that provide the foundation of our sacred music.

    You are right, however, that the Church does not undertake the cultural education of its membership in most cases. Members really need to be able to read (in order to study scriptures, teach, give talks, etc.) but the Church doesn’t have a regular reading curriculum. Perhaps it is asking too much to have a music course to inform members. But we can dream, right?

    Lori:

    I think there is one major flaw with your proposal to have music instruction in the auxiliaries: the need for multiple teachers with fairly sophisticated musical training. Many units will be lucky to have one person truly capable of teaching this course; stakes might not even have anyone and would have to rely on couple missionaries, for example.

    I love that the RS in many wards has a five-minute music time, but I can’t see how that is enough time to cover anything in the needed depth. Also, the idea of a five-minute music presentation in priesthood is kind of laughable as things stand now. Which brings me to…

    Corktree:

    You have hit on the most important point of all: The Church has a dysfunctional relationship with music, at once embracing it and keeping it at arm’s length, distrusting its seductive power. We see it as spiritually potent on one hand, and kind of decadent and even silly on the other (hence my comment above on how a musical moment in priesthood might be received). We need to see Church leadership address Church music in a direct and clear manner if this is to be corrected.

    Jessawhy:

    WIthin the Church we certainly have the musical elite and the musically disenfranchised. The elite, like me I suppose, constantly long for more musical depth in our worship and propose lots of stuff to make it happen. Meanwhile, the musically disenfranchised are overwhelmed with their perceived “tone deafness” and prefer not to even try because Sister So-and-so is so much more talented than they could ever be.

    This entire paradigm is needless! With a little training in a welcoming and fun environment, all members of the Church can learn to be musical (even if their capacities will vary). Does everyone need to feel like they are able to sing an operatic solo in Sacrament Meeting? Of course not! But everyone should feel like they connect to God through musical means. And a little training could go a long way towards developing that.

    Kristine:

    I’m with you that great musical instruction in Primary is a wonderful and needful thing. But what about all the youths and adults? Do we just abandon them to their own musical fates and train up the next generation only? I think that will take far too long and leaves to many people without the benefit of a musical dimension in their worship.

  9. Sam B. says:

    mr. mraynes,
    Although in a broad sense, I agree with what you’ve said, I’m going to have to disagree with you and Jessawhy on the musical abilities outside the Mormon corridor. In my current ward, I can think of 6 men offhand who are very capable pianists. I know there are at least a handful of women, too. And those are just the people I know of. (Although I was surprised in my last ward at how few pianists, other than me, were in the Primary.)

    And the last couple wards I’ve been in, the Aaronic Priesthood conducts the music in Priesthood opening exercises. For the most part, they do a horrendous job, but their leaders are nevertheless spending some amount of time engaging with the concept of conducting.

    On conducting: I was an instrumentalist, not a singer, and have been broadly exposed to band (and marching band) conducting; choral conducting is a different animal, and one I really don’t understand. Which means that, when I’m conducting, you get hard beats. Which often surprises congregations.

  10. Dora says:

    When I was in YW’s, my brother and I were privileged to take conducting classes with Rowan Taylor on Saturday mornings. Brother Taylor offered these classes for free to the whole stake, but we were the only ones who took advantage of it, thanks to my father. And while I’ve conducted a bit throughout my years in the church, nothing really compares with learning to do the fermatas on “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” on those Saturday mornings.

  11. James says:

    Ok, a sample of BYU students probably doesn’t represent the full demographic cross section of your average ward in the N. American church; however, I think my point still holds some water in that even this group of relatively untrained musicians acquits themselves fairly well year in and year out. I could point to non-BYU examples as well.

    Another musical training idea – I think institutionalizing choral programs at LDS institutes could be a very worthwhile thing. Not just as places for LDS music, but as places where choral music of all types could be explored outside the limited sacrament meeting paradigm. In my experience, if a choir director can produce a musically satisfying experience, a lot of those “choir lurkers” start coming out in droves. What better setting than an institute where an actual choral program can help people experience something like this? It could even be opened to the at-large community as an outreach tool.

    Maybe by giving people a taste of this sort of thing in this setting would result in a better effort at the ward levels over time and “re-enfranchise” a lot of people.

  12. mr. mraynes says:

    Sam,

    There are no doubt a lot of wards out there who have strong musical resources, and others who don’t. We live in an inner-city ward that just barely gets by (though ironically I don’t currently have a musical responsibility in the ward). But your point gives credence to my point that the Church has the necessary infrastructure (able members) to implement some musical instruction.

    Regarding conducting, I’d love to see the clarity of “hard beats” as opposed to the nebulous sort of conducting we often see that renders conducting meaningless and encourages people to ignore it.

    Dora,

    What a wonderful opportunity to work with Brother Taylor. This also addresses the issue of the “musical elite.” If anyone were a part of that group, it would be Rowan Taylor. But he made himself available to be put to use as a resource. No doubt many of your fellow stake members were still intimidated by his expertise…

    James,

    I must say I really am excited by your idea of adding musical instruction to Institute course offerings. That would be a wonderful venue for instruction that could really affect the Church in a far-reaching way over time. Can we all agree to talk about this idea and slowly lobby for music classes in Institute?

  13. James says:

    Would be happy to brainstorm more about “institute-izing” musical curriculum within CES. I think there’s a lot of potential there, too. Jess can give you my email if you’d like to talk further off-blog.

    Also, fwiw, choral conducting has plenty of marcato, but there’s a lot of variation in there as well given how the human voice produces sound (particularly in its in response to the conducting) vs. mechanically produced sounds of different instruments. It’s not (or shouldn’t be) wishy-washy, but tends to require a “softer” touch than instrumental conducting, in my experience.

  14. isobel says:

    i’m sorry, but am i the only person who thinks this post is a load of crap?

    the fundamental reason the standard or quality of music in the mormon church is so low is because, as opposed to other faiths, the church doesn’t budget money for the hire of professional musicians. that’s it, that’s pretty much the only reason.

    begging the question, is that a bad thing? well, considering that the church instead prioritizes perpetual education, humanitarian relief, and other such charitable funds directed toward addressing basic human needs, probably not.

    one could argue that music is a basic human need (it certainly is for me), that the arts sustain in a way often transcendent to other methods of aid. don’t get me wrong– i hear you on all that. but many of the things you’re suggesting have been tried and have failed. let me give you some examples.

    when i was growing up in my very average sandy, UT ward there was a designated “music hour” in the block (probably more like 20 or 30 minutes) just before sacrament meeting wherein one enthusiastic sister would attempt to educate the masses. as you can guess, this was canceled in later years due to prevailing attitudes akin to those you find among forced or guilted ward choir membership. many ward members complained of feeling like they were in primary all over again.

    for four years of undergrad i held your well-praised position as ward chorister and, with the aid of a competent organist and also given the direct relation of the calling to my professional area of expertise, was able to implement many of the ideas you suggest. i found it very rewarding, and received a lot of very positive feedback from ward members. but when i wasn’t so fortunate in the receipt of my calling in my graduate school ward, i was at first pretty scornful of the woman who received the calling instead. she couldn’t speak english, she didn’t know a downbeat from an upbeat, couldn’t read music, and was fairly new to the church, so she didn’t even know any of the songs. what, i thought, is the point of her appointment!? then, one sunday, i realized: looking around, there were 3 or 4 people in the congregation quietly signing the beat patter, mouthing the words and smiling encouragingly. after the meeting several of them offered to help her prepare for each week’s meetings outside of church. she was making new friends, they were helping her with her english– THIS, my friends, was the truest form of religion i’d ever seen. far be it for me to insist that “professional standard” music was what this congregation really needed. i’d totally just got served.

    this could lead me straight into some seriously tangential rants, but i have to point out that your whole approach to this music thing is pretty western– choirs, keyboards, choristers, hymnals. yes, church music is western, protestant, new england. but your complaints sound like they’re coming straight off of an over-educated, over-privileged, western supremacist soap box. what the heck kind of relevance do keyboard lessons and downbeats have in other global countries with their own musical methods, traditions, and cultures? without researching or even just wondering about that, i have a hard time condoning any sort of “institutionalized” approach to curing the mediocrity minus of the music in the mormon church.

    and finally, to all you sad whiny ward choir directors out there, calling people to be in the ward choir is about as antithetical to the nature of community music making as trying to force a two-year-old to do, well, anything. imo, wards should not be REQUIRED to have a choir, but should organize out of sufficient desire, on a ward-by-ward basis. that way the guilt, the competition, the grudges against the seeming “holier-than-thou” actual musical professionals who refuse to join (ahem, that’s me) will magically disappear. try that on for building unity in a ward.

    i could go on– clearly i’ve thought long and hard about everything to do with this topic for years and years– but at the end of the day, what is the point? you can organize, educate, institutionalize and colonize all you want, but at the end of a post like this all i see are eyes rolling, especially in the healthy utah wards, and looks of confusion and bewilderment on the faces of all the others.

    the point is not, what annoys me about this situation, but what do they want? what do they need? and who am i to tell them what they want/need?

    keep it simple, sister. it’s already too complicated.

  15. Alisa says:

    I think there can be hope for music education. About 20 years ago, my stake (or maybe the larger Church, I don’t know), instituted a 15-minute music lesson time at the beginning of Sunday School. Everyone would stay seated after Sacrament Meeting and my dad, the chorister, would instruct the ward on theory, phrasing, dynamics, and parts. We’d practice singing hymns as a ward. It only lasted a little while, maybe a full year, but I learned a lot from that time.

    I was the primary chorister recently, and the president wanted me to teach the kids more about music. The problem was, I was very stressed about getting them to learn the lyrics of the required songs for the program. These songs were so difficult and the ideas so abstract (versus concrete nouns that kids can remember), and the entire primary was so small and young in age that it was hard to get them to sing at all. And, we hardly ever had time to really sing my favorites and theirs. This is my largest complaint about what has become of singing time.

    I also think that real conducting might be a bit more nuanced than what a child can handle, so there should be adult education in music. I come from a musical family where each child took 10 years of piano, two members sang in the MoTab, and music was taught almost weekly in FHE. Yet I still lack the ability to excel in conducting beyond keeping time and don’t feel like I can lead out very well. Conducting needs to be taught deliberately.

    And if war choir were allowed to practice during Sunday School instead of being a 4th hour, I think attendance would increase. I might actually go.

  16. mr. mraynes says:

    James,

    I’ll get your e-mail from Jessawhy. Good points on choral conducting. My comment on “hard beats” was that it doesn’t really matter if the conducting we see in church is uniformally choral in style, just that conductors know how to establish a good tempo, regulate it, and give some musical guidance in the gestures. People with instrumental conducting backgrounds shouldn’t feel uneasy about conducting congregational singing. That said, choral techniques could be taught in a church music curriculum!

    Alisa,

    Amen on all points. I remember very well when my ward held a concerted “singing time” that included some music education. Lasted about a year, maybe less? I wonder why it was aborted? We need to start this up again.

  17. isobel says:

    the fundamental reason the quality of music in the mormon church is so low is because, contrary to other western christian faiths from even before the time of bach, the church doesn’t budget money for the hire of professional musicians. that’s it, that’s pretty much the only reason.

    begging the question, is that a bad thing? well, considering that the church instead prioritizes perpetual education, humanitarian relief, and other such charitable funds directed toward addressing basic human needs, probably not.

    one could argue that music is a basic human need (it certainly is for me), that the arts sustain in a way often transcendent to other methods of aid. i hear you on all that. but many of the things you’re suggesting have been tried, and haven’t done much to transform the musical experience in lds services. let me give some examples.

    when i was growing up in my very average sandy, UT ward there was a designated “music hour” in the block (probably more like 20 or 30 minutes) just before sacrament meeting wherein one enthusiastic sister would attempt to educate the congregation. this was canceled in later years due to prevailing attitudes akin to those that exist among forced or guilted ward choir membership. many ward members felt like they were in primary all over again.

    for four years of undergrad i was the ward chorister and, with the aid of a competent organist and also given the direct relation of the calling to my professional area of expertise, was able to implement many of the ideas you suggest. i found it very rewarding, and received a lot of very positive feedback from ward members. but when i wasn’t so fortunate to get that calling in my graduate school ward, i was at first pretty scornful of the person who received the calling instead. she couldn’t speak english, she didn’t know a downbeat from an upbeat, couldn’t read music, and was fairly new to the church, so she didn’t even know any of the songs. what, i thought, is the point of her appointment!? then, one sunday, i realized: looking around, there were 3 or 4 people in the congregation quietly signing the beat pattern, mouthing the words and smiling encouragingly. after the meeting several of them offered to help her prepare for each week’s meetings outside of church. she was making new friends, they were helping her with her english– THIS, my friends, was the truest form of religion i’d ever seen. far be it for me to insist that “professional standard” music was what this congregation really needed. i totally just got served.

    it’s worth noting that your approach to church music education is pretty western– choirs, keyboards, choristers, hymnals. yes, church music is western, protestant, new england. but keyboard lessons and downbeats might not have the same relevance in other countries, places with their own musical methods, traditions, and cultures. this is one reason why i’m wary of an institutionalized approach to music in the mormon church.

    one of the biggest questions this post raises is, is it the responsibility of the church to provide music education for its community/membership? that’s a tough question. historically speaking, churches have been pretty much the healthiest and most consistent supporters of the arts throughout history. but in our case, the mormon case, if the church does not pay for professional music/musicians and insists the members join together and figure out how to make due, then one could argue it is the church’s responsibility to train/educate, perhaps similar to our regular leadership training sessions. i sense that this is somewhat the line of logic followed here. but the fact of the matter still remains, however, that music is a skill set, one that requires a LOT of practice, motivation, desire, and even on the most basic level, talent. some people will never sing on key or be able to keep a beat. what then?

    i also think that calling people to be in the ward choir is about as antithetical to the nature of community music making as trying to force a two-year-old to do, well, anything. imo, wards should not be required to have a choir, but should organize out of sufficient desire/interest, on a ward-by-ward basis. that way the guilt, the competition, the grudges against the seeming “holier-than-thou” actual music professionals who may choose not to join (ahem, that’s me) might dissipate. it would do a world of good for ward unity.

    i’ve thought long and hard about this topic for years and years– but at the end of the day, those interested in the cause of mormon music need to ask themselves, what is the point? i think the point is not about us, but rather, what do church members, particularly those who aren’t lucky enough to have had a good or even basic musical education, want? what do they need? i think a broader, more inclusive approach to music in the church always leads to healthier relationships and more positive meetings. i support the idea of keeping it local, and keeping it simple.

  18. Emily U says:

    I agree with mr. mraynes that the biggest barriers to better music are in competent keyboardists and conductors. And while I think generally educating the ward population about music is a good thing, I don’t think it would be the most effective way of elevating LDS music. I concur with virgil that most other Christian churches I’ve visited have better music, and it’s not because they have a more musically educated populace. It’s because they have professional organists and choir directors. There is simply no replacement for that.

    Mormons will never have professional musicians or clergy, so I agree that the stake providing piano/organ lessons is a very good idea. It may be necessary to hire someone outside the Church to conduct these lessons, and I think the Church should be willing to make that financial investment. And it would need to be a long-term investment. It takes more than a few months of lessons to be come a competent keyboard player. Importantly, the church would need to recognize the investment that people put into their music training and USE them. I think it is tragic when people like mr. mraynes are not given musical callings – not that music is the only thing he could ever do. But don’t call someone who has no clue what they’re doing if there’s someone who does!

    And as mr. mraynes very astutely mentions, keyboard competence is not enough. Musical leadership is needed. Perhaps weekly lessons from keyboard instructors would provide that, or the central leadership of the church could offer televised master-classes on musical leadership. Or stakes could offer this training if they have people qualified to teach it. I think for congregational hymn-singing, the proper person to provide this leadership is the organist. Again, as virgil mentioned, other churches never have a conductor, and their congregational singing is usually superior. I think the conductor in sacrament meeting is utterly unneeded. And I think the organ is ideally suited to accompanying hymn-singing, not the piano. The piano is simply not loud enough, not can it maintain sustained notes like the organ. Furthermore, it’s actually impossible to play bass and tenor parts on the piano for some hymns – the notes are too far apart. The bass notes are written to be played on the organ pedals. That said, if a ward has no one that can play the organ at all well, a too-slow tempo is an absolute killer to the spirituality of hymn singing, so in that case it’s better to just use the piano.

    My ward has a decent amount of musical ability, but like corktree and Jessawhy, our choir attendance is low. So that’s one area where I could see an in-church musical class being useful. It could teach people sight-singing and part-singing so they’d feel more comfortable singing parts in a choir. I think part-singing can be scary for people. A class like that would also undoubtedly improve congregational singing.

    I think isobel’s comment about these ideas of church music being very western is important. It may be a big reason why the Church doesn’t do more institutionally to further musical education. But, the music during General Conference is totally, unapologetically western. Our hymnbook is totally western (and totally, how do I say this? white. – It doesn’t even have a spiritual in it for goodness sake). My point is that I don’t think the Church is making an effort to become international in its music. So why not focus on making the western music we are doing better?

    Anyway, this comment is way too long. There’s so much improvement needed, and I think many good ideas have been shared here.

  19. amelia says:

    i have to say i agree with pretty much everything isobel said. you see, i mostly am a dissenter with this post. not that i think anything mr. mraynes as said is wrong; just that i think it’s completely impractical in the church. and i happen to think that implementing any of these suggestions would take away from time (already too precious a commodity) spent on more important things at church. frankly, if there were any unified instructional effort to improve the spiritual experience of church meetings, i think it should target teaching and public speaking.

    and i say this as a musician (pianist/pseudo-organist/pseudo-chorister) who has held every music calling possible at the ward level. i say this as someone who *hates* the funereal dirges that get passed off as hymns so often in church meetings. i say this as someone who is greatly irritated both by keyboardists who don’t know enough to follow my tempo (at the very least) when i conduct and choristers who set inappropriate tempos (both too slow and too fast [yes i have had too-fast tempos, though it’s rare]) when i play. i say this as someone who cringes on a weekly basis at the tepid, timid, chord-rolling piano playing in RS. and i could go on about my problems with music at church. in other words, i probably share every single complaint anyone who has commented has about music in the mormon church.

    but i disagree with one basic premise: that “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.”

    i think bad singing strengthens lots of people’s testimonies all the time. i think even people who sing off key and haven’t the faintest idea about anything to do with how music works experience spiritual benefit from singing themselves. i completely concur that “unified, committed hymn singing will certainly bless the lives of all who attend our meetings.” i would *love* to be in a meeting where all the singing was of such a high caliber. but it’s not going to happen in the mormon church. not unless we bite the bullet and hire professional organists, pianists, and choristers. of course, i would rather spend the money on hiring professional preachers and teachers, first, but that’s even more unlikely to happen.

    what can we do? i think we can have actual in-service training for the musicians who have callings. make it a part of the calling. i think we can try to facilitate getting musicians to the church to practice during the week so they’re not up there on sunday fumbling through a hymn they haven’t played for a few months. but that’s about it. i don’t like it, but i just think there are far, far more important things that need to be addressed about the quality of our sunday services than the music. and i think that, despite its frequently poor quality, the music at church often does feed people spiritually. even if some numbnut chooses hymn #1 for relief society (really? a hymn with a line only for men’s voices in RS? right. happened in my ward a few weeks ago).

  20. mr.mraynes says:

    Sorry not to have responded for several days. The ship of this post has most likely already sailed, but here goes.

    Isobel, Emily, and Amelia:

    I’m going to respond to your comments all together since they seem to overlap in several ways.

    First, let me ask Isobel to read parts one and two of my series on Church music. In those I question whether our music should be so limited in its style to protestant hymnody. This third post was written with the intent of approaching the church music repertory as it stands today, not that it is the best possible musical style for our worship.

    Now, regarding the “need” for professional musicians to “improve” our music, I absolutely disagree. And I would discourage any move towards hiring musicians for worship services. It goes against our Mormon paradigm of consecrated talents and efforts.

    The point of my essay was that we don’t need professionals; we simply need some direction on how music works. I’m not even that interested in making us better pianists or conductors (though I’m certainly supportive). More critical in my mind is teaching lay members to understand some basic musical principles. I think people who are musically literate take these skills for granted. Those who don’t have such training are likely too embarrassed to ask about it and just do their best.

    Let me retract my statement that “bad singing doesn’t build testimonies.” It can. But unified singing can and would be more effective in this. I don’t propose to make everyone into soloists. But I think we can work on being more unified in musical worship–that is an element of Zion.

    We don’t need professionals to accomplish this–as previous commenters noted, we have ample musical capability in our membership to implement some of these things.

    I do concede that Church resources are limited and perhaps this is not our most pressing need. Good thing it is not up to me, I suppose!

    One last point: I highly doubt any ward has implemented any of my suggestions here. Several people have talked about a 15 minute or so sining time associated with sunday school. My ward used to do that too, and it doesn’t remotely resemble an organized music curriculum. In my experience, it was nothing more than “ward choir” time for the congregation used to rehearse a lesser-known hymn. That is a poor use of time, and that’s why nobody does it anymore.

Leave a Reply