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).

From “An Illustrated Dictionary of Words Used in Art and Archaeology”, 1883.

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?


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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31 Responses

  1. Rita says:

    I hate being pigeon holed. I mean, I think I would like to serve in a lot of different callings, but many wards didn’t ever give me a chance. In my current ward, I feel isolated and lonely as a SAHM who doesn’t know many sisters in the ward yet. I know that they are itching to call me to be Primary pianist, but that is the loneliest calling I can imagine, so I’ve told them I don’t want to serve there. Instead, I’ve been a Primary teacher for the last few years. This ward has a hard time finding people who are willing to serve in the Primary. At least I get to interact with one other adult woman this way…

  2. acw says:

    After a similar life to what you describe, I dread church music callings and regret that I made my kids learn to play. Ready for digital player organs. On the bright side, no more music in RS with two hour change!

    • TopHat says:

      Yeah, I’ve put off teaching my kids piano because I know what’s in store for them.

      And with the change, our RS is planning on “incorporating music in the lessons” so it’s still a calling.

      • Andrew R. says:

        We may well incorporate it into EQ occasionally – but there is no piano in the hall.

      • Megan Passey says:

        I’ve also been pigeonholed as the pianist. In my current ward I didn’t tell anyone I play. I kind of miss it now and I hate that music is the first thing to cut when a speaker goes long in sacrament meeting and that they’ve taken it out of RS. I feel the spirit through music more than the lesson usually.

  3. Andrew R. says:

    I guess I have the advantage of being a priesthood holder who is somewhat in demand. Whereas a sister in a singles ward might not have a calling if she wasn’t played the organ. There has rarely ever been a time when I did not hold at least two callings. And, even if I wasn’t technically called as organist I played. At one time, for about 5 months, I was stake clerk, ward primary pianist, a counsellor in the stake sunday school presidency and a stake institute teacher. Our ward met in the afternoon, so even if I had to be in another unit I could always be back for Primary. So it wasn’t lonely, it was a great end to a Sabbath day – being with the children singing.

    Twenty years ago a moved into a ward and was called as the organist, and as a primary teacher. A few months later I was released from primary and called as ward mission leader. Since WML’s are not supposed to have another calling the stake directed the ward to release me as organist. They did so, and I continued to play, and play, and play. Even when I was a counsellor on the Bishopric I often played as there was only one other person who could.

    Eventually they called someone to play the piano – so no organ. He is now on the bishopric and continues to play except when he is conducting the meeting – then he asks someone else, often me (and I play the organ) but sometimes a FT Missionary.

    There is no music calling/assignment in a ward or stake, that can be held by a man, that I have not held. From Stake music adviser to priesthood pianist. I have played for stake conferences, directed choirs at ward and stake, played prelude before temple sessions. We just had stake conference and I turned up on Sunday with 15 minutes to go and was asked to play the organ.

    But it doesn’t define me. And I have never wished I wasn’t serving in a music calling. I love being in Primary (first called age 12, fresh out of Primary – back when it was on a week night). Though I am probably quite an irreverent Primary pianist. In Nephi’s Courage I race the children to the end of the chorus – and I usually win.

    Currently I am Stake Sunday School President and Ward Elders Quorum President – if the meeting changes had not happened I would have been released as stake conference. However, with the changes I can be in other wards on Sunday School weeks (no priesthood) and my ward on priesthood weeks.

    If I am in another ward, which happens quite a bit, I am often asked to play for priesthood opening exercises – that’s not going to happen again. And sometimes I play for Sacrament meetings in those other wards. I have even been back to my parents’ ward (the ward of my youth), when they were away, and substituted for my Dad playing in Sacrament meeting.

  4. Beelee says:

    Respite until I felt pigeon holed. My spiritual calling in life is to teach, and I actually cover teaching callings (and probably need to repent!) but the second people know you can plink out primary songs… After putting in the 7 or so years behind the piano, I finally did put my foot down and say no more music callings. I will do musical numbers if asked, but that’s it. Luckily, they don’t ask often.

    It’s hard to explain, but I started to feel like I had no voice – like my fingers were more valuable than anything else I had to offer to the ward, and that started to grate on me and it started to make me a little angry. Being trapped behind the piano was making me miserable and put me in a negative head space. No regrets that I stepped away.

    • TopHat says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one. I feel like I’m being ungrateful with this post, but it is really isolating and yeah, your fingers are more important than other things you can offer

  5. Patty Johnson says:

    I’m currently the RS pianist, but was told that my calling goes away with the new schedule. I’m kind of a crummy pianist, but I rather like trying in a smaller (hopefully friendly) group. I’m sad to lose music in RS, if that’s not happening everywhere maybe I can advocate for an opening hymn. My mother (an excellent musician ) was ward and stake organist most of her life. She did serve in a RS presidency for a few years. She was much more comfortable playing than teaching and was really appreciated and recognized (I think, from my perspective). Music was a giant part of her identity.

    • Andrew R. says:

      The guideline says, “Relief Society meetings will not begin with an opening hymn or prayer but will conclude with a closing prayer. Hymns may be used to enhance a lesson as appropriate.”

      So there is definitely scope for a hymn from time to time, as the teacher feels it would “enhance the lesson”. And since there are still to be musical items in Sacrament meeting RS may be one of them.

      So, nothing says we have to release RS Pianists. Only that their work load will be less.

  6. Risa says:

    I was RS pianist in my last two wards and for the most part loved it. I was also primary pianist at one time in both those wards and the primary program was always a struggle. In one ward I was called to be the primary pianist 6 weeks before the program.

    What I hated was people who had no musical ability just expecting that they could put a piece of sheet music in front of me and I would know how to play it without practicing. I’m a good sight reader, but not that good.

    I think the only thing my current ward misses about me in my absence is that I’m one less pianist at their disposal.

  7. Terina Holmes says:

    You described my life, except for the BYU part. We are a military family, and we’ve moved several times. In every ward, except for one, I have had a piano calling. Every. Ward.

    Right after we were married the family ward we were in asked me to be primary pianist. Fine. The problem was that I worked full time, taught piano after work, and then sat in primary for two hours every sunday. I knew only the few people in primary. My visiting teacher was someone I had gone to HS with. We spoke right before we moved, and an older lady said ‘we didnt even know you were here!’. Ugh.

    When my husband deployed, and I had miscarried 7 months before he left, and we had only lived there 3 months before he left, my bishop wouldn’t allow me to be moved from primary pianist. Apparently I was requested for many callings. And because he knew I was drowning, he more or less protected me and kept me where I was.

    My current callings?? RS pianist. Choir pianist. Activity days leader.

    My grandma played the organ for years. She played until she physically couldn’t. I love music. But I am more than a pianist. I can teach, lead, and work. Its frustrating. And amazing.

  8. AdelaHope says:

    I’m glad you wrote this, TopHat. I’ve had good and not-so-good times behind the piano, and I feel like you have captured the essence of what it is to be the designated Ward Piano Woman. I’m not begrudging of the time I spent there, and I do wish that the nature of being the pianist was more about the person than the service she provides.

  9. Rebecca J says:

    I love playing the piano and like having an excuse to practice, since I won’t make time for it otherwise. I’m in a ward with lots of piano players, so I’m enjoying having my turn.

    That said, you are 100% right about being pigeonholed. It’s not ungrateful to wish you could do something else for a change. Especially if you’re being taken for granted. But mostly because you are more than your fingers. People shouldn’t assume that piano is all you can/want to do.

    People also shouldn’t assume that just because you play the piano, you must also be able to play the organ and/or direct music. If you play the piano, obviously you know something about music, but you don’t necessarily have the skills to be good choir director or Primary chorister. These are all very different jobs.

  10. JeffK says:

    My spouse is a talented pianist/organist and has spent many years pigeonholed into music callings, starting as a ward organist in high school. She serves willingly, but has had many of the same frustrations you describe in your post.

    Several years ago I served in a bishopric. I made it a point when extending music callings to speak frankly about this too-often pattern of pigeonholing musicians in the church. In some cases, people were genuinely happy to have another music calling. In other cases, people were relieved when I told them it was okay to tell me they weren’t looking forward to yet another stint behind the piano, and that we’d find someone else.

  11. Hedgehog says:

    I love music callings, and definitely relate to enjoying the piano as a shield. I was released as primary pianist back in January, but since my husband is on the high council and we are away from our home ward half the time (either that or I’m blacklisted!) I haven’t actually been given a calling since. Though in the past I’ve served on all 3 auxilliary presidencies, which at the time, included playing the piano as well.

  12. Dani Addante says:

    When I learned to play the organ, my teacher told me that I didn’t have to accept to play in sacrament meeting at the last minute. Since I was a beginner at the organ, it took me at least a month or so to learn a new hymn, especially since the organ requires you to play with your hands and feet.

    Something interesting I’ve noticed is that it’s usually women who are skilled in piano and organ at church. I rarely see a man doing a musical calling at church. In fact, when my husband was in charge of the music in EQ, he (being an organist) would usually play the piano for them. When he couldn’t attend, because of work, he had a difficult time finding a man to play for EQ, since the men didn’t know how to play the piano well enough. He finally solved this problem by asking a woman to play for EQ opening exercises.

    • Andrew R. says:

      Interesting. In my current ward, of twenty years, there had been no sister who could play for sacrament meeting. Only the men, only two of which could play the organ, and one of those died over gives years ago.

      • Patty Johnson says:

        We have a fabulous gentleman organist and several other men and women who can play the piano. Our organist often plays cool hymn introductions or harmonic variations for the last verse.

  13. Becky says:

    I’ve been playing in church since I was in primary in a military ward and the adult primary pianist was sent on an extended TDY. After growing up in places where any kind of piano skill was desperately needed, I’ve been blessed to live and serve in wards where I’m not the only pianist available and my other skills have also been valued. I’ve had a balance of music and non-music callings. I dread leaving my ward and ending up stuck on the bench.

    It can be a very isolating calling. And I have definitely found my skills and work taken for granted so consistently that it can be deeply discouraging. Once in a singles conference I accompanied a soloist on a particularly difficult piece. I had spent many many hours preparing. Far more, I am certain, than the singer. After the piece was done, we both sat on the front row directly in front of the podium. The visiting authority looked directly at her and acknowledged her by name for her work and talent. He did not even glance my way. In another instance I did a piano solo in Sacrament Meeting on one of my last Sundays in a ward I had attended for seven years. Afterward someone said to me “I didn’t know you played piano!” This despite the fact that I had accompanied a musical number or the choir an average of at least once a month while attending that ward. Yeah. Accompanists tend to be invisible. Mostly I don’t let it bother me. But some days it is maddening

  14. Em says:

    Henceforth and forever, amen and amen. I have been pianoing officially or unofficially for years. The first several years in our ward I was the choir accompanist, despite not owning a piano so practicing involved me going to the church, by myself, when it was empty, to practice. Not my favorite, and not an effective way to do it. I started to feel like I was drowning and I had crying breakdowns about how I was treated (I was just the music making machine, it was not my place to choose music or veto music I couldn’t play) and eventually asked to be released. That at least was liberating — since then I’ve pretty much always asked to be released when I’ve felt my tenure in a calling was done. I’ve played unofficially for YW and RS, and I was the primary pianist for about three years. I don’t totally mind it for the reasons you stated — not much outside time commitment, its nice to feel needed. But we also have only five people in our ward who can play — a man and a woman who alternate for the organ on Sundays, and then three others (including me) who can play piano. One has a chronic illness, so really its just a handful of people who rotate our way through primary. I imagine my return to primary piano is imminent as I am at least 25 years younger than all of our other players and their aches and pains can make the calling onerous.

  15. Spunky says:

    I hear you! I stopped playing and practising piano when I went to college because I didn’t want to play in church. When I married and I bought a piano, I kept our piano ownership as much of a secret as possible, for the same reasons as you. Even in highschool, I found people were demanding and even insulting, I.e. “oh, you don’t play as well as your younger sister,” “you need to work to get better” (on sheet music handed to me 60 seconds before). and more. It isn’t worth it to me.

  16. Tica says:

    Yes!! Both! I have had piano and organ callings going on 20 years now with a short break when I lived in a place where there was no piano. I am thankful for opportunities to use the musical skills that I have worked hard to develop. For me, I especially enjoy the challenge of learning a difficult piece of music, like for a musical number. And that is when I feel like I connect with people, as we’re practicing one on one together or in a small group. I agree that playing in meetings does tend to be isolating though. I am currently playing in Relief Society, and it is a pretty normal occurance in our crowded little room for me to get blocked in by chairs while I am playing prelude. No one seems to notice. Every once in awhile after the song I will climb my way out to sit on a chair during the meeting, but often end up deciding it’s not worth making everyone move and just sit at the hard bench hiding behind the piano the whole time. Also, I would really like to experience what it feels like to have an “inspired” calling that helps me grow and reach out in different ways. I feel like these never ending music callings are often much more of a pragmatic thing than based on inspiration. And lastly, I am so tired of the stress that comes every time I have to miss church and try to find a substitute (especially for playing the organ) from a very limited pool of people.

  17. Allyall says:

    I was called as a ward organist at 17 with another laurel, we alternated weeks. I was told it was my destiny to always be a pianist. It hasn’t worked out that way for me. I’ve held a wide variety of callings and been in musical talent blessed wards. However the big eye opener for me was when I got a job playing piano for another denomination. $325 a month to play for Sunday services and Wednesday choir practices. It was fascinating. They valued my time and skills so much they paid me for them! I got to compare my beliefs with theirs and it strengthened My testimony. I do sometimes feel invisible when I play at LDS services so I try to thank and acknowledge fellow pianists. Your skills are valuable and needed.

  18. SC says:

    I know quite a few Mormons who force their kids to study piano “so they can play at church.” I feel bad for their kids who are being offered up as sacrificial lambs for an institution and not simply studying an art or developing a talent that they love or have an obvious knack for. Putting kids on that altar just feels wrong to me.

  19. Living in Europe is quite different from those experiences. We are a minority and a lot of us are converts so we don’t have those problems that occur in crowded wards. We are 150 active members: families, singles, students, young and old, rich and less rich.
    As a musician I have played the piano in RS and Primary, of course, but most of my time I’ve had different callings like teaching and presiding.
    At 57 and after being a member for more than 30 years there are three basic principles I live well with:
    1) Never accept an invitation that doesn’t meet your schedule. I’m a busy woman and I need my recreational time.
    2) Tell the bishop when you need another calling. The kingdom of the Lord isn’t built by underchallenged or burnt out servants.
    3) NEVER EVER let a non-professional conductor lead the music. When I play the piano I’m the chef, leading the congregation with my breath and my body movements. The conductor can make the hand waving she/he thinks is conducting but she/he has to adjust to me. No exceptions. I mean, would you ask a medical doctor to be the participants of a first aid course? You would ask her/him to teach that course, I guess.

  20. Em says:

    I wonder how church members would react if the prophet told adults that they needed to become musically proficient — not that everyone has to go force their children into lessons, but that you, the adult, need to start practicing “I am Mr. Middle C.” Obviously that would be an unfair and inappropriate injunction because not all buildings around the world have keyboards, and access to lessons are a privilege (would all current pianists suddenly be forced into unwilling teaching, an entirely separate skill?)

    But my point with the hypothetical is, piano/organ is the ONLY calling, up to and including the prophet, that requires professional training to be able to do it. There are plenty of paid church office jobs that need professional training, but in terms of ward-level work, music is it. By not learning music, ward members who pride themselves on NEVER turning down a calling are actually tacitly refusing a calling by disqualifying themselves.

    I say this mostly out of disgruntlement because there have been murmurs of a ward choir reforming, but we are very short on pianists and I want to sing, not play!

  21. CS Eric says:

    It seems like I am the exception here. As far as I am concerned, Primary pianist is the best calling in the church. I’ve done it long enough that I know almost all of the songs, so it is low-risk for me. I also get to hide behind the piano when the kids do something funny. I can hide behind the piano and laugh as much as I like.

    One of the things I enjoy most about being the organist is that it isn’t unusual for the only mention of Christ during the entire meeting to be in the Sacrament hymn, and I am the one who gets to lead the congregation in the only couple of minutes of Sacrament meeting where we really do worship Him.

  22. rtmtbc says:

    Yep, this was my life. I usually didn’t mind too much. Like you said, it’s not a lot of preparation and work outside of church. But I really wanted to experience other callings.

  23. Alan says:

    I’ll admit to being one of those people who often feels pigeonholed. Even worse, I’m one of those who actually is an organist, as opposed to a pianist (studied with a Tabernacle organist); very few “organists” in the Church actually know what to do with an organ, so most of the time, our accompaniments for the hymns are abysmal. Yet the ONLY two things that we do all together are to take the sacrament and sing hymns! I agree completely with this quotation from a former director of the Church’s Education Department: “What we need in this church is better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it.”

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