Music is a wonderfully enriching part of church life, both in worship services themselves and in church culture generally. It’s a blessing in many, many ways—including ways that are light-hearted and fun. Forgive me, then, for sharing the following not-so-serious and rather random stories with a musical twist.
(1) The ward where I grew up was blessed with a strong number of musically talented individuals, including organists, choristers, and singers. One of those in the chorister rotation was an older gentleman who was a retired professional musician. I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me one of my favorite church memories. Here’s the situation: the sacrament meeting went long, and the bishop announced that we would only sing one verse of the closing hymn. We sang the first verse of said hymn and everyone—bishopric, congregation, and organist—stopped and prepared for the closing prayer. Rather unfortunately, however, the chorister himself didn’t get the message. He loudly belted out the first word of the second verse entirely by himself. The split second it took for him to realize he was singing solo was probably one of the most awkward of my young life. He stopped singing with a horrified look on his face, that lonely note just hanging in the air. The poor man took his seat, crestfallen, as the congregation crackled with laughter. I would swear that even the bishop was chuckling during the closing prayer.
(2) During a stake youth fireside when I was a teenager, the speaker based his talk on the Police song “Every Breath You Take.” Instead of understanding the song as the creepy musings of a stalker, we were told to think of the lyrics as coming from Heavenly Father, who is watching over us in all circumstances. The speaker didn’t merely quote the lyrics; he brought a cassette player up to the lectern to play the music. He would play a clip from the song and then explicate its inspirational message for us. This lasted for at least 30 minutes. It was gospel according to Sting: well-intentioned but strange and, in hindsight, undeniably funny.
(3) A professor at BYU told a class I was in that he had saved the sacrament meeting bulletin in which the sacrament hymn was printed as “We’ll Sing All Hell to Jesus’ Name.” (This is, of course, a more-or-less orthographically faithful representation of how the word “hail” is pronounced in certain regions of high LDS concentration.)
(4) Another BYU professor apparently (this one is second-hand) offers his students extra credit if they bring him the bulletin from a meeting in which Hymn #121, “I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger,” was sung. (I personally cannot recall any meeting I’ve been in where it’s been sung.) Particularly priceless are the lyrics to the second verse:
Misty vapors rise before me.
Scarcely can I see the way.
Clouds of darkest hue hang o’er me,
And I’m apt to go astray
With the many, with the many
That are now the vulture’s prey
(5) A friend from grad school came to church with me once. This was one time where I wished our hymn selections had not included “In Our Lovely Deseret.” The line about “despising” tea, coffee, and tobacco is awesome in its own way, but it’s not exactly the best first impression for a curious non-member. (Fortunately, she was able to laugh about it with me afterward.) In its favor, though, this hymn taught me the word “affable.”
Feel free to share your favorite light-hearted music story in the comments.
Robert, I love this post. No penance needed for a light-hearted post!
One of the my strongest memories of goofy church music stories was when I was about six or seven. I was sitting in the pew during the sacrament song when, just as the last line was sung, Harold Madsen (who was bout nine or ten) turned around, smirked over the bench, and sang straight at me, “…of death, of hell, or of the gravy.”
Oh, and when my very proper, five feet tall and…ahem…well-endowed… mother donned an enormous blonde wig, mounds of makeup including false eyelashes, a long red gown with a giant rhinestone brooch right in the center of her chest, and sang a rousing rendition of some song I can’t recall in the ward talent show as “Polly Darton.”
She was the hit of the party and was asked to sing later at the high priests group dinner. And no one knew it was her.
My weirdest and funniest music/church experience is closely related to your experience with The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” This happened to me not once, but twice. First, in my Mia Maid class the teacher brought in a CD Player and Bryan Adams singing “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” the one from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. We were to listen to the song and gaze at a picture of Jesus and imagine Him saying those words to us. A very creepy experience for my 14-year-old self, especially when the song continued to be played at school dances. When I was in college, my visiting teachers gave the same lesson.
Rob, great post.
In example #2 you relate how a speaker utilizes the song “Every Breath You Take” to talk about our Father in Heaven. There is another (just as creepy) song on the same Synchronicity album, titled Mother. Perhaps he should have tried to talk about that one in a gospel context as well?
Love the post, and the Sting song could have other meanings as well. It’s actually not a creepy, stalker song per se, but a song about his wife cheating on him. When you view it that way, the stalking aspect of the song is much more palatable. Anyway, could be used for a talk on fidelity, broken-covenants, marriage, you name it!
In my third BYU ward, the bishop insisted that singing one verse of a song was like “kissing with one lip”, and therefore should never be done. He also had us often sing the hymn “Scatter Sunshine”, and then tell us that the best way to scatter sunshine is by kissing as many people as possible. He’d also remind us to make sure we had sunshine in our souls. That was a strange ward.
I don’t have the irreverence to do it in Sacrament Meeting, but whenever “Onward, Ever Onward” is sung in EQ or other gatherings, I add flourishes to make it sound like a football fight song.
I used to feel worse about this until I caught our full-time missionaries doing the same thing at a ward meeting. :)
I can relate to item 3. One week, when our bishopric counselor (who is very much from Utah) said that we’ll next sing, “We’ll Sing All Hell to Jesus’ Name,” my wife and I just couldn’t help from busting out laughing.
I remember taking two investigators to church and we sang the millennium song. One thought it was the weirdest hymn ever the other thought it was extremely moving.
The one who liked it turned out to be crazy.
Was it Robert Kirby who wrote a column about being told to sing a hymn every time he had naughty thoughts, and consequently was turned on by hymns?
My favorite special musical number in sacrament meeting was in the late 80s/early 90s: a rendition of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” sung by a leadern’s daughter to one of those karaoke tape player/amplifiers.
“Flaaaaeeeey, flaaaeeeey, fly away. You let me fly so high.”
Nothing since has been quite as inspiring as those long portamento fly notes sung by someone with 2-inch bangs.
I think that single incident may be what brought about the hymns only policy in so many wards (but I’m no historian).
I sat through a fireside explaining how Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” was like Lehi’s vision.
What is it with pop music and firesides?
A nonmember friend of mine came to my farewell and I asked him what he thought, and he said that singing “Called to Serve” made him feel like he was at a baseball game. Since then I always think of it as a fight song.
Great stories, everyone. #3 and #11 made me laugh out loud.
You’re right: I’m probably not doing justice to Sting’s lyrics. I like your interpretations. Have you considered the fireside circuit? :)
Awesome. Perhaps your next post should be “Are pop singers inspired?”
Before my wife and I were married, she was present at a stake conference where “In Our Lovely Deseret” was sung with ASL translation. “Hark,” repeated three times in the chorus, is rendered in ASL by the translater striking her vertically-extended index finger against her temple, three times quickly in succession. This amused our kids and has become a family home evening favorite with ostentatious ASL-style participation. I now have a calling that permits me some discretion over the sacrament meeting hymns. So occasionally we get to sing “In Our Lovely Deseret.” From the stand I get to watch both the ward members’ snickers and my childrens’ demonstrative “harks.”
Great stories, Robert! Fun post.
“I’m a Pilgrim” is so difficult to play that I make it the family test hymn (my kids have to be able to play all the hymns to quit piano lessons)–not that it will ever come up in a future church meeting.
Our favorite is when my sister-in-law came home from a mission in Hong Kong and taught the kids that the chorus to “Carry on” in Chinese is “wong ching chong, wong ching chong, wong ching chong”–which is how they’ve sung “carry on” ever since.
I served in the Thailand Bangkok mission in the early 90s. One of my companions had a unique way of um, singing, hymn #260 “Who’s On the Lord’s Side?”. At the end of certain lines in the song, he would close the hymn book with a loud, rousing “thump”, in rhythm with the song.
It went like this:
Who’s on the Lord’s side, who? (thump)
Now is the time to show! (thump, thump)
We ask it fearlessly (thump)
Who’s on the Lord’s side, who? (thump, thump)
We recently sang that hymn in a ward sacrament meeting. I started to softly play the hymn book rhythm during the song. My wife looked at me with a mix of censure and amusement.
I sat through a Relief Society Enrichment meeting where the speaker first assigned us a personality color and then finished up with a recording of Barry Manilow singing “I Made It Through the Rain.” He did a voice over throughout the song. He kept saying “I know how you feel sisters, your unappreciated, but by golly youv’e made it through the rain.”
When we were children, my sisters and I thought “He lives, my ever-living Head” was one of the most hilarious lines ever to sing. We made up an alternate and irreverent litany of continuations for the phrase “He lives, _ _ _ _ _ _” as it appears over and over in the song. Incidentally this game can also be played with “There is no end to _ _, there is no end to _”
I always thought “Called to Serve” ought to have remained in the primary book as it is not really that appropriate for a Sacrament meeting. I try to dissuade its scheduling, but if someone insists, I usually go to the piano and pound out the left hand in octaves, since it sounds sort of insipid and ridiculous on the organ.
In our ward in Canada, the counsellor announced the closing song as “Lord accept our true deviations.”
It’s not just an LDS thing though. I remember a newspaper column in which the writer talked about his aunt who always sang “Lead On O Kinky Turtle” in church.
Our organist, a music professor, played a very moving arrangement of “Three Blind Mice” during the prelude music once. His wife recognized it and made him stop.
A sacrament meeting in San Diego, in the 1970s: There’s an opposing vote during ward business in sacrament meeting. The conducting officer, brand new in his role and extremely self-conscious, is so flustered, he scarcely knows what to do. The bishop prompts him to say, “Brother So-and-So, we’ll be happy to confer with you after the meeting. Just come to the bishop’s office and we’ll address your concern.” Then, gathering his wits to continue with the next item on the agenda, he announces to the congregation, “We’ll now prepare for the administration of the sacrament by singing hymn no. 80, ‘I Stand All Opposed.’ Not realizing what he had said, he sat down. Someone nudged him. He blushed deep red, stood again, corrected himself with the real title … and as I recall, no one in the room quite managed to get through the rest of the meeting without having to stifle the overwhelming urge to laugh uproariously. True story. I was there. One of the best moments in the history of the church …. maybe in all of history.
A few years ago, for several weeks running, our ward program listed an Intimidate Hymn.
We were working on a family musical number several years ago. The guys had decided to sing “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy”. Several of us had been married a few years and were struggling with infertility. No one could make it through the last line without busting up: “some poor fainting, struggling seamen (semen), you could rescue, you could save.”
They picked something else to sing.
Our ward organist twenty years ago was a man with a graduate degree in organ performance–he was good. But the greatest test of his skills happened one day when one of the reed pipes on the organ went nuts–it suddenly started making sounds like a giant whoopee cushion. With one hand he switched the organ off, then grabbed his hymnbook and leapt to the piano, and hit the next chord in time. His face turned red and he struggled mightily not to laugh out loud, but he didn’t miss a beat.
At least once every December for many years our family went out with my cousins to carol neighbors, ward members, friends, and relatives (those still in that area still do this), and #210 “With Wondering Awe” was one of the most fun to sing. Our 4-part harmony was really good, but the best part was that each verse got faster and faster. We’d just rip through the end of the 4th verse, still all together.
Whenever I direct the congregation singing that song, it is all I can do to maintain a steady tempo.
Several years ago in my student stake, at a Stake Priesthood meeting, a counselor in the Stake Presidency entitled his talk “Who Are You?” He peppered it with quotes from a “song that was popular during my youth, that you’ve probably never heard.” I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that this fine brother probably doesn’t watch much TV, and thus doesn’t realize that many of us in attendance associate the song with CSI. I, for one, couldn’t stop hearing the song in my head and thinking of the TV show every time he asked, “Who Are You?”
Once during a meeting in the MTC we sang “If You Could Hie to Kolob.” An Elder from France sitting in front of me and my companion turned around and earnestly, and loudly, asked, “If you could WHAT to WHERE?!”
My son (when he was three) once popped up on the organ bench (I’m the Ward organist) during the closing hymn and turned off the organ.
Once during a district meeting on my mission, we decided to sing “In Our Lovely Deseret.” Only me and one of the sisters knew the song, so the others were just going to follow us. We had to stop after the first phrase, though, since the sister and I started laughing so hard we just about fell on the floor – for some odd reason, we had both spontaneously started singing the words to the tune of “Can You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables.
At a “missionary fireside” (3 stakes, everyone was to bring a non member), the closing song was: Hie to Kolob, all the verses. Seemed a little deep for investigators.
My husband thinks “Choose the Right” is the republican party fight song. When ever we sing it in church he pumps his fist a bit and emphasizes the parts that we should “choose the right.” I’m torn between smacking him and laughing!
My wife and I taught the 5 year olds in primary a few years ago. One week, we taught a lesson on temples. We decided to teach the kids how to sing “I love to see the temple” as part of the lesson.
It went great until the last line, when this set of twin boys suddenly bust out laughing. We asked them what was so funny, they wondered aloud why were singing about a “sacred doodie.”
When I was on my mission in Norway 40 years ago there was a very real musical competition between the Oslo I & Oslo II branches. The II branch was more well-to-do and the I branch was always struggling to catch up. One Sunday the II branch had an investigator who was a classical guitarist perform some pieces by J.S. Bach in Sacrament Meeting. A few weeks later the I branch had one of their members perform; she was a real cute blonde with hair down to her waist. She got up with her guitar and played and sang Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Very interesting Sacrament Meeting.
Some of you may have attended the broadcast of the dedication of the Palmyra Temple. And you likely noticed something a little, er, off in the hymns sung by the choir in the celestial room. As a member of that choir, I’d like to go on the record to clear our name. :)
The hymn arrangements were entrusted to a well-meaning brother who unfortunately turned the requested hymns into rather florid numbers with lots of interludes and key changes between the verses. On their own, the arrangements may have raised an eyebrow or two for drawing a little too much attention to themselves in that context, but we learned them without any trouble.
The problems arose on the day of the dedication. They had wheeled in a rented electric organ to accompany the choir. It was painted white, but the back of the organ was covered with a black mesh to conceal the loudspeakers. Apparently, someone involved with the broadcast production had decided that the black mesh was unsightly on camera, so they covered the back of the organ with a piece of white-painted plywood. The result was that we could not hear anything but the lowest, rumbling pedal tones, and those only faintly. The organist tried to remedy this by turning up the volume, but this only made the sound distorted and clipped. So when we got to one of that good brother’s wildly modulating interludes, we could neither when to come back in or what key to come back in on.
To make matters worse, the sound technicians for the broadcast had plugged the organ directly into their sound board. As a result, all of the other hundreds of thousands of people watching the broadcast could hear the organ just fine. The only people who couldn’t hear organ were the Brethren, the forty or so people packed into the celestial room, and, of course, the choir.
Two years later, when they dedicated the Nauvoo Temple, they flew in members of MoTab…
I’m an organist, and I have an embarassing story that turned into a great memory. It was during Stake Priesthood meeting, and after the opening hymn (and a room full of people going back into the Cultural Hall, I naturally had most of the stops of the pipe organ open [read: loud]) and the closing prayer, I shifted off the bench to my pew. While I did, I wacked with my foot the High G on the pedal board with the heel of my shoe (organ shoes have a raised heel) and it got stuck and I literally fell off of the organ, stumbled, and landed in my pew. The man in the presidency, who had a great sense of humor, without missing a beat, just said, “We’d like to thank Brother [me] for his Solo.”
Another time, a young man in our congregation who is an aspiring young concert pianist was asked two hours before to play a number at stake conference. He had absolutely no repetoire of church music. When he told them that they said to just play something nice then. So he played his most recently mastered performance piece: Samual Barber’s Sonata for Piano…all fifteen minutes of it. Post-modern and much of it sounding to the untrained ear like pounding on the piano at random. I was playing the organ that night so I got a great look at the stake president’s face…which was white.
When I was about five, we learned “You Light Up My Life” in ASL in primary (a year or so after the height of its popularity). We sang and signed it in sacrament meeting. The part I remember most (besides the sign for ‘light up’) is how the primary chorister would tear up every time she exhorted us to practice harder because her non-member, deaf boyfriend was going to come to that sacrament meeting and we were going to be his first exposure to feeling the spirit. It made perfect sense to five-year old me. Older me thinks the whole thing was incredibly inappropriate.
In my youthful seminary days, we used to ‘give’ sacrament meeting programs. One of my favorite memories is a fellow seminarian playing on her accordian the piece “Whispering (while you cuddle near me)”. Still makes me laugh.
A few years ago, I was a member of one of the downtown SLC “demographic wards,” in a stake with so few children that anyone within the stake boundaries who has Primary-to-Young-Adult children goes to one ward in that stake. As a result, the median age in our ward was over 70. We single and married members tended to sit in the same area of the chapel. As you might imagine, hymn singing in our ward tended toward the ponderous. One of our number, a young married woman and a fantastic soprano with a degree in music, also had a young daughter who was usually cross and restless by the end of sacrament meeting. More than once, we noticed her singing a little more loudly than usual and pushing the tempo, which (remarkably to me) tended to get the chorister going a little faster, too.
I also regret to this day that one of my favorite professors at BYU, who was also on my stake’s high council, only spoke once in the ward I was in, and was given only five minutes (after a ward member went WAY too long), since his talk, among other things, referenced lessons he’d learned from KISS songs.
Whoops–I meant “Primary-to-Mutual-age children” above. My kingdom for an “edit” button.
The part of “In Our Lovely Deseret” that cracks me up is this verse:
They should be instructed young
How to watch and guard the tongue,
And their tempers train and evil passions bind;
They should always be polite,
And treat everybody right,
And in every place be affable and kind.
I couldn’t sing it I was giggling so bad.
As a child, my husband misunderstood the correct lyrics to a popular hymn. “Jesus once a humble bird” confused him greatly. He always wondered when Jesus’ life was he a bird.
And of course, singing “I am a Child of God” changed for me forever with, “and he has sent me here, has given me an earthly home, with parents kind of weird!”
I wish with every fiber of my being that I could take you back in time with me to the Provo Tabernacle for a certain–now somewhat infamous, in hindsight–BYU singles’ multi-stake, musical Christmas fireside that took place around 2000 or 2001. The song: Kenneth Cope’s “His Hands.” The singer: a female BYU student whose name I no longer recall, which is probably a good thing. Although I do not question the sincerity of her interpretation of Cope’s song, on that December night it definitely came off to me and probably others as *shockingly* theatrical, even borderline blasphemous. Reflecting back upon that performance, her rendition of the climax of the song (“they pierce them, they pierce them, he lets them, because of love”) in particular caused me, my roommates, and pretty much everyone else in attendance, I assume, to ask ourselves whether she was truly revering our Savior as she flailed for dramatic effect or whether she was instead pulling a Life of Brian on us. We sat there in awe, speechless, as the song ended. ‘Twas definitely more awkward than spiritual, much like the Police and Bryan Adams experiences described above.