Notes from a Mormon Pianist
I’ve been playing piano for about as long as I’ve been a member of the Church- right about the age of 8 is when I started.By the time I was a teenager, I could play most Primary songs and hymns without having to do a lot of practice. My mom had taken organ lessons as a teenager, so she was often pegged as a ward organist or the Primary pianist. I knew my fate would be similar.
As a teenager, I often played the opening song in Young Women’s. I also played the opening song for seminary when we had seminary at someone’s home with a piano. I was even the kind of obnoxious Molly Mormon teenager that refused to play The Spirit of God as the opening hymn in seminary because it’s too special of a song to be sung at 6am by a bunch of tired teenagers.
When I turned 18 I joined Relief Society even though I was still in high school. I played the piano sometimes for them, too.
Then I went to BYU. I was looking forward to BYU because BYU was where all the Mormon musicians were. I could probably go years without a piano calling! (Can you guess what will happen next?)
My freshman ward called me to be sacrament pianist immediately. Because we met on campus, there wasn’t a chapel with an organ. I would get to church early for prelude. My roommate would promise to save me a seat in sacrament, but inevitably by the time I was able to sit down in the congregation after the sacrament portion of the meeting was over, that seat she had saved would be taken by another student who had wandered in late. I spent a lot of sacrament meetings in a seat on the side by myself. It was a lonely calling, especially as a college freshman. And it was taxing- as the sacrament pianist, when the ward music leader planned the musical Christmas sacrament meeting, she handed it all off to me to arrange the program with songs and talks.
The next year I was in an off-campus ward. Immediately I was called to be the ward choir pianist. This meant an extra hour after church for practice most Sundays. There is something about being the ward choir pianist that makes people think you have time to accompany them for their special musical numbers. And in a young single adult ward, special musical numbers are a way for the singers to get in front of everyone and get their name and face recognized by other people in the ward. There’s a lot of peacocking involved in a single adult ward at BYU and I sometimes felt like I was there behind the piano to prop up other people’s egos and airs. I wanted to help out and serve my ward members and “magnify my calling” so I did it. The ward choir pianist in a single’s ward is simultaneously overlooked and demanded-of.
My next piano calling was for a family ward in Provo when I was first married. I was the Primary pianist. This was great. I could knit behind the piano in between songs or during sharing time. The kids don’t care if you mess up and the Primary songs are simpler than the hymns so sight reading is easier. There was that one Sunday, though: Primary program. I played all through sacrament and when it was time for Primary, the Primary leaders thought they should give the teachers a break that week so we did 2 more hours of singing time. Guess who didn’t get a break? The chorister. (And me).
By the time we moved to Oakland, I had had every piano calling in the church except Elder’s Quorum pianist and except for a 2 month stint as an RS instructor, I had been a pianist every Sunday of my adult life. I told our new bishop that I did not want a piano calling. It was great! I got to try new callings. I was on the activities committee, the nursery leader, a YW instructor. I did play the piano for a stake RS performance of Women at the Well, and was asked a couple of times to play for the Spanish ward’s primary. I felt my piano skills were needed, but didn’t define me.
A couple of years ago the Oakland ward asked if I could do piano again. It had been probably 5 or 6 years since I had a piano calling and I knew the pianist I was replacing had been doing it for at least 7 years and was also the unspoken designated special musical number accompanist. I figured she needed the break and so I accepted. I’ve been Primary pianist since. And it’s been fine: I do my knitting in between songs and I play easy songs I can sight read. I also ended up accompanying more special musical numbers.
There was one particularly egregious special musical number. I received an email from a family who wanted their kids to sing on the last Sunday they would be in the ward before they moved. The emailed started with “Is there a time we can practice…” without asking first if I was available or even willing. When I responded with an email outlining my available times to practice, I received no email back. There was no practice. When sacrament meeting came, the family was on the program to sing. When I went up to play, I tried to catch the eyes of the parents for some sort of recognition, but I got nothing and I got no word of thanks. That being their last week in the ward, I did not miss them when they left.
With our recent ward boundary switch, I’ve been asked to be the RS pianist. And while I accepted the calling, I do worry about being boxed in piano callings again. This new ward has so few musicians that a senior missionary plays the piano for sacrament meetings (no organist at all).
Pros to being a pianist: it’s an easy calling I don’t have to practice for. I have to show up to church with pretty much no preparation (unless there’s a special musical number) and I’m not expected to be at any mid-week activity. There are no extra meetings or councils. If I’m feeling particularly introverted I can use the piano as a shield that day. I’ve definitely gone to church for just the 20 minutes of singing time and then gone home. But I’m needed at church and it’s nice to feel needed.
There are cons, though. There’s the expectation you can play anything at the drop of the hat or the whim of every singer. Sometimes you do have to be early (prelude) or late (choir practice) to church. In a ward where there are no other musicians, it’s every week, no exceptions. When I was a YW teacher, I only taught 2-3 Sundays of the month, so if I wanted a week off, it was already built in. There is no break for the pianist and it’s really hard to find substitutes. You also don’t get to sit and listen contemplatively to the prelude because you’re the one providing the music. When you’re pegged as “the pianist” you get overlooked for other callings. All those talks people give about not feeling suited for a new calling, but then they accept it and grow and learn from it? Those don’t apply to you because you’ve got your calling for the next five decades already assigned. It’s also not a calling where you get the opportunity for inspiration/guidance from the Spirit. The ward music chairperson, or the Primary chorister or the choir director pick the songs. Your input is almost never asked for unless it’s, “Can you play this?” It’s not particularly set up for spiritual growth and learning.
Sometimes pianist is a really coveted calling and sometimes it’s not. For you musicians out there: how do you feel about it? Is it your respite? Are you pigeon holed? Or both?