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