Music and the Church IV: Musings on Ends, Means, and Musicians

by mr.mraynes

My wife and I enjoy yoga. We’ve attended classes together with a variety of teachers, and I’ve been struck how radically different each teacher’s approach to yoga can be. We found instructors can be categorized into two classifications: those who teach yoga to attain certain fitness goals (ends-based) and those who practice to savor the experience of doing yoga (means-based). It was my experience that teachers of the second category gave classes that were more enjoyable and more memorable. In other words, those classes have “stuck with me” as meaningful life experiences.

I find that music’s role in our religious life has a similar dichotomy. Is music present in our meetings only for the sake of bringing the Spirit, or do we participate in musical worship because the process of singing/playing/listening is fulfilling in and of itself?

From the way we discuss music in church, it appears most people fall into the ends-based camp. They seem to favor the idea that music only exists to bring the Spirit into the meeting, and if that does not occur, the music is for naught. I find this can be illustrated by the customary “that music number was wonderful” remark that precedes the delivery of a talk. This statement seems to imply that “now that we’re feeling the Spirit, we are ready to receive instruction.” The music becomes preparatory (and therefore ancillary) to the proper activities of worship.

Yet our doctrine espouses a different philosophy regarding music. In D&C section 25, God reveals to Emma Smith that the “song of the righteous” (which I take to mean musical offerings, both sung and played) is a prayer to the Lord. In other words, making (or listening to) music is worship, just as much (or more so?) than listening to a talk.

Like music, prayer can also be conceptualized in this dualistic fashion: Do we pray for results (blessings), or is the act of praying where the value can be found? In the end, the answer should be both, though I believe this occurs most often because the fulfillment that comes from savoring the process becomes a valuable end unto itself.

In several talks, general authorities have shared anecdotes in which they reign in a musician who has overstepped the bounds of appropriate church music (the performance didn’t conform to the desired goal). On one occasion, the authority was sitting on the stand in a stake conference, waiting for the meeting to begin. In his words, the organist was “giving a recital of Bach organ music” and the music got progressively louder as the congregation’s chatting similarly crescendoed. Finally this leader could take it no longer. He went to the organist, instructed the player to play only from the hymnal at a very low volume. In the leader’s opinion, this immediately brought the Spirit and fixed the problem of the organist flaunting their talents in a sacred venue.

Two issues are at play in the above story: First, the question of what kind of music is conducive to spiritual occasions and public worship. This question has been addressed and discussed in previous posts in this series. Second, the narrative illustrates the interesting relationship between the Church and its musicians. On one level we venerate musicians because they “have been blessed” with extraordinary abilities, godly gifts that make them fit for musical expression. On the other hand, some Church leaders and members are distrustful of professional musicians. Among the reasons for the distrust: Musicians have artistic (read: difficult and self-promoting) proclivities, they tend towards flamboyance, and they can be more liberal than the general membership.

This simultaneous reverence and dismissal of church musicians results in making music itself all but unapproachable to the lay membership. There is an idea that either “you’ve got it or you don’t” when it comes to musicality and that when you don’t you are better off staying as far away as possible. All the above assumptions are just plain wrong. Music making is for everyone. Everyone should be able to worship God through music.

Like any form of worship in our church, music is created by lay membership. Some have received more training than others and therefore are more accomplished in performance. But that fact does not diminish the value and meaning of music making by those whose performances may be less polished (or utterly unpolished!). Music is not just for the elite. It is a skill that can and should be developed by everyone.

For those of us who make music our profession, it is a trade we have developed for years in order to support ourselves, no different from any other trade. Years of hard work eventually result in mastery. Hard-earned skills, always in demand, then can lead to just remuneration.

Yet because of the Mormon value of consecration, musical talent is innately viewed differently than another professional skill, like accountancy (even though every ward has a lay accountant!). Mormon musicians are asked often to give freely of their professional skill in order to enrich the spirituality of church meetings. I have noticed, however, that the expectation of consecration bleeds outside of Church situations. For example, the Utah market drives down the price of piano lessons there, to the point where highly qualified and capable teachers earn 25% less than teachers elsewhere (I should mention this figures come from my own experience, not from any scientific study). When I finished my degree in piano performance, I decided I owed it to my colleagues to raise the tuition that I charged my students. Almost all the parents I worked with were disapproving of this and some quit. I capitulated to others whose children I feared to lose from my studio. When I moved away from Provo I immediately raised my rates for private lessons and no one ever questioned me about my significantly higher rates.

This is just one example of many. Providing wedding music, accompanying young Mormon musicians at competitions, and other situations arise where Mormon acquaintances offer very little compensation for professional services rendered because musicians have a “special gift” from God and are in fact commanded to share that talent.

Let me first say I am happy and fulfilled to consecrate my musical talents in church assignments. I also love giving free gifts of my abilities to friends and loved ones. But musicians are hard working professionals (and amateurs) who deserve both credit for their hard work in developing their skills, as well as fair payment when the situation merits it. Musicianship is not just a gift God hands us upon birth. It is a laborious pursuit that requires great sacrifice and persistence.

In like manner, the general membership of the Church who buy into the “musical talent” myth need to be gently encouraged over and over to participate in full musical worship. This does not just apply to performing, but also to active listening to church music. Listening is a skill that we have not yet begun to cultivate as a church, though it is just as important in the musical process as creating sound.

This point bring us full circle to the question of ends versus means: Ends-based musical activities focus on the precision and beauty of a performance. Means-based music values the active experience and beauty of music making itself (no matter how proficient) and recognizes the spiritual power inherent in playing, singing, and even listening.

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.

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17 Responses

  1. Dane says:

    “This simultaneous reverence and dismissal of church musicians results in making music itself all but unapproachable to the lay membership.”

    Replace the words “…and dismissal of church musicians results in making music itself…” with “…and dismissal of women results in making women themselves…”, and I (as a male musician) have a little new insight into the quandary of church feminism. I’ll have to think on that for a bit.

  2. mr.mraynes says:

    Dane:

    I thought the very same thing as I wrote those words…

  3. Alisa says:

    The means v. ends comparison really resonates with me today. I attended my LDS ward for the first time in months since having a baby and was able to see things – for good and bad – after the little break I had.

    I really wish we’d have an organ or other musical number playing during the sacrament. Other churches have communion music to facilitate meditation. Instead, all I could hear was kids talking, protesting, crying – it sounded like commotion. Don’t get me wrong, I love kids and welcome them in the sacrament service, but I feel that, with their presence, the goal for silent meditation during the sacrament is an ideal more than a reality. I think some music could add greatly to this ritual – think of what the organ in temple chapels adds to the meditation that goes on there. I think we only do music before the sacrament to bring in the spirit (an end), but not as a means to worship during the service.

  4. mr.mraynes says:

    Alisa,

    I’m quite certain the reticence to play music during the sacrament stems from the worry that music would DETRACT from the sacred nature of the ordinance. Again, worry from leadership that the power of music would overwhelm the spirituality of our worship.

    I’m with you. Like the soft music in the temple waiting room, this could facilitate the reverence of the sacrament, especially in “family” wards.

  5. CatherineWO says:

    When I was growing up (in the 50s) in a Salt Lake City ward, music was much more a part of our worship service. Both of my parents sang in the ward choir, which rehearsed every Sunday afternoon and tackled some pretty challenging pieces. There was almost always a special musical number in sacrament meeting and often two. Soft organ music was always played during the passing of the sacrament and we had a full string orchestra for stake conference (that stake still does this, actually).
    Even in my adult years it was common for the sacrament meetings before Christmas and on Easter Sunday to be all or predominantly music. As an adult, I was serving in a music calling when a letter came to us from the First Presidency instructing that all sacrament meetings should be centered on gospel teaching (via speakers). I got the idea that music was to be more of a condiment, not the main course.
    These changes over the years have been a disappointment to me, as I have always felt that music was a form of worship in and of itself and often more effective in teaching the gospel than many talks I have heard.
    On a more positive note, however, I was in a sacrament meeting a few months ago when a particularly fine musical number was presented and the speaker who followed suggested that sacrament meeting should stop right there. He changed and shortened his talk in an effort to not distract from the music.
    [I won’t even get into the way church members take advantage of musicians outside of church meetings, as you mentioned. That’s a rant for another day.]

  6. James says:

    Lots of good points, I’ll come back around to comment further, but one quick observation as an aside. The phenomenon of charging lower rates for services in Utah is not just a music thing. Having grown up in Utah, I can attest from personal experience there is often (though not always) almost a sub-conscious attitude that drives expectations for the cheap/free/special treatment in many areas, not just music. That said, your observation is certainly valid…it’s just part of the broader cultural makeup.

  7. Jessawhy says:

    “Music making is for everyone. Everyone should be able to worship God through music.”

    Spoken like a true musician. 🙂

    But seriously, Brandon, I really liked your post. You have such a great series here (have you been asked to put these together for the Exponent publication?) and I hope that they will be a resource to members and church leaders alike.

  8. mr.mraynes says:

    Catherine,

    Your past sacrament meetings sound really great, at least musically. Perhaps these things will prove to be cyclical, and such practices will return to prominence.

    James,

    I suppose you are right that the “cheap” attitude permeates Utah culture in general. But I have to think few Utahns would go to a lawyer or doctor and expect to get a lower rate because they happen to be fellow saints (no doubt it does happen occasionally). My more substantial point, that musical abilities are viewed more as God-given rather than a professional skill developed through serious effort, I think still has merit. Of course people recognize the need “to practice”; I just doubt Mormons look at “practice” as analogous to studying for the bar exam or the boards.

    My own family is a case in point. After I received my doctorate, my aunt good-naturedly pointed out that I’m not really a doctor–meaning a medical doctor, of course. Yet I have spent the same amount of time (longer, actually) in school for my degree! Doesn’t the title apply to me with the same legitimacy?

  9. corktree says:

    I think my thoughts on ends vs means in church music has evolved over the last few years. I’m not sure there isn’t some overlap between the two in regards to focusing on the beauty and musicality of the performance. I used to feel very conflicted as ward choir director when I wanted so badly to get the sound I envisioned out of my choir. I thought that if I focused on that alone at any moment, then I would be destroying any chance of us feeling and communicating the spirit of the message in the music. I have since learned that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it’s still hard to find the right balance.

    For me, hearing a badly performed piece makes it VERY difficult to feel the spirit. But I also don’t feel the spirit JUST because a piece is performed perfectly. I don’t know, it’s tempting to say that a congregation can feel what they desire to feel from the experience, regardless of the testimony of the musicians or the clarity of the performance, but I don’t know. I’ve known people that have taught when they felt void of the spirit, but still managed to instill spiritual inspiration in their students. And there have been times that I directed and didn’t feel what I thought I should, but it didn’t change the message that others received.

    So, I agree with the means-based description of musical appreciation and participation that you mention at the end, and I think that is the best way to approach this with ward members to give them better experiences with music and worship, but where does that leave perfecting the performance to the best of our abilites? I guess that’s my real question. How important is the quality? I still get frustrated when I can’t get what I want out of my choir, and I try to remind myself that it’s not important and to just let it go, but it’s something I still struggle with I guess.

  10. Davis says:

    “I have always felt that music was a form of worship in and of itself and often more effective in teaching the gospel than many talks I have heard”.

    I believe this is true. I also believe that it is something that can be experienced any time you wish. It is pretty easy to listen to excellent music and feel the spirit in your own home – or car – or where ever. It is a bit more difficult to listen to someone give a talk. Sure, there are talks from the GAs you can listen to, but you can’t listen to your neighbor’s testimony any time you want.

    Music is not the primary part of our meetings, the sacrament is. Music helps, and is great, but I do not see it as having equal importance.

  11. mr.mraynes says:

    Corktree,

    I am in the same boat with you: Bad performances make me cringe more than feel the Spirit. But I suspect this isn’t a good indicator of the spiritual value of any given musical performance. Rather, I think it probably indicates both you and I have some work to do on ourselves…

    Davis,

    I think you are right that the sacrament is the central feature of our worship. But after that I think any ranking is up for debate. What comes in second: prayer, music, talks? Most in the Church would answer “talks” (I’d guess), but I think prayer and music are more effective in affecting us spiritually.

  12. Davis says:

    “Most in the Church would answer “talks” (I’d guess), but I think prayer and music are more effective in affecting us spiritually.”

    I agree with you 100%. Most of the church (including me) would answer “talks”. That is why music is something of a sidebar and always will be. Most of the Church considers it to be just that – Something extra that is very nice.

    I do not disagree with any of your statements. I just think you are in the minority in your views on the priority music should hold. Music is a personal thing, and should be used in worship on a personal level – where ever and when ever.

    In a large group setting, due to exactly the preferences and priorities we are discussing, music will always be something extra.

  13. Deborah says:

    I’ve really enjoyed this series — thank you!

  14. mr.mraynes says:

    Davis,

    Well, I suppose I am in the minority; I am when it comes to almost everything that I believe!

    That said, I think the majority of Mormons would disagree with your assertion that music is “something extra” with regards to public worship. As a group the LDS value music’s spiritual role quite a bit. But it is true that next to no one would give music primacy in any sort of religious/spiritual hierarchy.

  15. James says:

    The reason hymn singing ranks second behind the sacrament as the most important feature of our church meetings is because it is the only element that ALL of those in attendance are invited to actively engage in the worship service.

    There’s a reason why we have as much (or more) musical performance as First Presidency in General Conference.

  16. Glenn Gordon says:

    I realise that these posts are old news now, but I am so glad that i found them and was able to enjoy your thoughts. As a church musician since joining the Church at 13 (more than 40 years ago) and immediately being called as Junior Sunday School pianist, I have seen all of the good, bad and ugly that can come from trying to fulfil a music calling. I have even had a general authority years ago jump up after I played the hymn introduction at Stake Conference and berate me for playing too fast and so we sang it the slow way they did back in Utah (I live in Australia and we tend to sing at a more lively pace here in most wards).

    I am fortunate now to be in a musically talented Ward where they suffer through my accompanying the choir and playing for sacrament every other week. The spirit comes through the music – participation is the key. If one comes to church and refuses to sing the hymns (as many of our youth including my own children refuse to do) then those blessings and spiritual uplift is denied. I feel sorry for wards that don’t sing. They are so sad…

    Likewise, I feel the spirit when I hear amazingly virtuosic performances by people of incredible training and skill. I am very fond of Phillipe Jarousky, the French counter tenor at the moment – to hear those runs and ornaments sung with absolute confidence and musicality brings me to tears – as does a beautiful instrumental performance. Perhaps I am an aging sentimental fool, but music has so enriched my life that I would love to have more of it uplifting our faith.

    By the way, for years as Ward Music Chairman, I always organised our Christmas sacrament meeting as a carol service where the Christmas story was read out interspersed with congregational singing of carols and special choral and solo items. Everyone felt uplifted. I generally chose unfamiliar carols for choral items to enhance the experience. I defy any music loving person to listen to great contemporary sacred pieces like Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium and not feel the spirit.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Good luck in your career.

    Glenn

  1. April 19, 2010

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