An Immodest Proposal

As Sarah noted, Saturday and Sunday bring us our Fall semiannual General Conference.

As part of our twice-yearly ritual, we’ll hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir up to three times: one session of Conference Saturday, one session Sunday, and the Music and the Spoken Word broadcast before the first Sunday session. The Tabernacle Choir, which made its entrance onto the world stage in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago,1 is made up of 360 volunteer singers. It is excellent. And, frankly, I am not a fan.2

It’s not just the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; in general, I prefer small ensembles to large. That was hit home to me this last winter. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has a three-year residency at Chicago’s Harris Theater, and I was able to see two of their three performances this last year. The first was a series of clarinet trios.3 The second was the “Masters of the Keyboard” performance, featuring solo piano, duets, and up to four performers on two pianos.

There’s something powerful about the interplay between a small number of musicians; you can hear each part, and each performer’s nuance can shine through. It’s hard to do if you’re one of 360 people.

Still, the Tabernacle Choir only performs at two of the sessions. Who performs at the others? Basically, various groups that try to imitate the sound and size of the Tabernacle Choir, whether it is the combined Institute choirs of somewhere near Salt Lake, the combined BYU choirs, a choir of MTC missionaries, or even a children’s choir.4

So here’s my immodest5 proposal: let’s diversify our General Conference music.

Note that I’m not suggesting disbanding the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or even reducing the number of sessions at which it performs. That it doesn’t uplift me doesn’t mean that it doesn’t uplift anybody; I suspect, actually, that my dislike of the Tabernacle Choir puts me among the minority in Mormondom.6

But for the other four sessions, why not mix things up a little? A nice double quartet of singers, accompanied by a piano, maybe. Or a normal-sized choir. We don’t need 360 voices to reach everybody anymore; today’s amplification is excellent. And, I assume, the choirs are already amplified—they have to be mic’d, at least, or I couldn’t hear them over the internet in Chicago.

But I don’t see any reason every session has to feature vocals. Why not a string quartet, a brass quintet, woodwind quartet, a piano duet, a trombone choir, or a saxophone quartet?7 The Spirit can touch us even without lyrics. Moreover, these smaller ensembles could accompany the congregational hymn as well as an organ can.

The advantages, I believe, are at least a couple-fold. First, with diversity in musical styles, arrangements, and instrumentations, the music at Conference can touch a wider range of people. Second, switching up the style of music surprises those of us who expect the same thing every time and listen on autopilot, and may just surprise us out of a spiritual stupor.8

Will it happen? No idea. I kind of doubt it. But a guy can dream, right? And, in the meantime, you can find me listening to some essential string quartets.

Show 8 footnotes

  1. See Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music 152 (1989). Quick tangent: if you haven’t read Mormonism and Music, get it, now. It’s worth the price of admission just for Chapter 11, which traces the Church’s take on music from jazz through the Beatles. (Spoiler: the Church was a fan of neither.) Seriously, the book is awesome.
  2. A friend tells me that what I’m not a fan of is actually Mack Wilberg‘s arrangements. Sadly, though, he’s wrong: I don’t like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
  3. That is, clarinet, cello, and piano.
  4. Which I swear I’ve heard at least a couple times.
  5. Not that immodest; the word gets narrowly defined in Mormon life enough without my contributing to it, and the Mormon narrow usage of modesty gets debated enough in the Bloggernacle without my help.
  6. It may even put me in the minority outside of Mormondom: in 2007, it apparently sold out Ravinia just outside of Chicago, and I’m entirely sure that the sold-out audience wasn’t just local Mormons.
  7. Okay, maybe that last is pie-in-the-sky. But this is my immodest proposal, and I’ve heard amazing classical saxophone quartets before.
  8. The only disadvantage I can think of is that the Conference Center was designed with seating for these overly-large choirs in mind; with smaller ensembles, there will be a bunch of empty chairs. But I’m sure that something can be done to prevent the empty chairs from being distracting.

54 comments for “An Immodest Proposal

  1. There is a need to fill up the seats allocated to the choir. Would be unseemly to leave them vacant, save for the eight occupied by a double quartet.

    A brass ensemble, saxaphone quintet, guitar trio, etc. would encourage conference viewers to infer that these musical instruments were acceptable for Church meetings – including Sacrament Meeting. One of the tenets of the Unwritten Order of Things is that the saxaphone is Lucifer’s instrument, and that the guitar is the instrument of unwashed musicians who wear hair below the ear lobes and with dubious morality.

  2. I’m an audiophile and I love the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when singing in the wonderful Tabernacle acoustics mixing chamber, but the Conference Center is acoustically dampened and quite dead by comparison, reducing much of the appeal for me. The choir should be signing in the Tabernacle and fed to the Conference Center and TV properly miked and mixed.

  3. “One of the tenets of the Unwritten Order of Things is that the saxaphone is Lucifer’s instrument, and that the guitar is the instrument of unwashed musicians who wear hair below the ear lobes and with dubious morality.”

    It’s actually written. Last I checked, in the bishop’s church hand book in the music section, the saxophone and guitar in the list of instruments that aren’t appropriate for sacrament meeting.

  4. Musically brass belongs in a marching band or muted a bit in an orchestra with a lot of strings. Harmonically brass is, well pretty simple and very brassy. A guitar even when fitted with nylon strings is a crude instrument harmonically compared to a violin or cello.

  5. I also greatly admire MoTab, but do not enjoy listening to them. I would love to see some variety in music, church-wide. I think it is ludicrous that we expect the saints in africa to use piano/organ and not drums.
    My husband plays trumpet and yes, I can attest that it is possible to feel the spirit while listening to the trumpet. And sometimes, the organ is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.
    I disagree that hymns are necessarily about the vocals. I happen to be a vocalist-kind of person, that’s what appeals to me in music, but my husband is the opposite. Different music “speaks” to different people.

    I’m currently in the local unitarian church’s choir, and I ADORE our musical selections. Ever going back to a ward choir would be very difficult.

  6. Musically brass belongs in a marching band or muted a bit in an orchestra with a lot of strings.

    Or in a trombone choir (which, incidentally, my wife heard in Sacrament Meeting once; the trombonists were from Julliard and, she tells me, it was spectacular), a woodwind quintet (which, last I checked, included a french horn), jazz quartets and quintets (which, while I’m not advocating for Sacrament Meeting, are certainly an appropriate use of the instrument), symphonic orchestras (with or without mutes), etc.

    And Bryan, in the current Handbook 2, any blanket prohibition on instruments seems to be out. Instead, section 14.4.2 says instruments “with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting.” That says to me that brass instruments with a worshipful sound (which any well-trained musician can produce) can be used in sacrament meeting

  7. The most spectacular number I’ve ever heard in an LDS church was a soloist and a guitar doing “Oh My Father” at a funeral.

    Absolutely stunning. There wasn’t a dry eye left in the congregation.

  8. There is a need to fill up the seats allocated to the choir. Would be unseemly to leave them vacant, save for the eight occupied by a double quartet.>/i>

    Who says the same double quartet has to perform all the numbers. Five of them would fill 40 seats, which the TV cameras could probably work around.

    That says to me that brass instruments with a worshipful sound (which any well-trained musician can produce) can be used in sacrament meeting

    I played a woodwind instrument, but the sound I produced could not really be call “worshipful”.

  9. Sam,
    Amen brother.

    I agree that instrumental music is missed and needed.

    Adam G (#2) I respectfully disagree. Vocal music doesn’t need to be the center of our musical worship and here’s why:

    Mere language, any language, is always insufficient. Music is superior to language and does not need to rely upon words to communicate the same exact message. More importantly, instrumental music can communicate feelings and ideas, spirituality and context in ways that cannot be broached by any of Babel’s tongues. Music is more divine and more eternal than 21st century regional English. Dare we say it, music, the language of the Gods, does not require 21st century regional English.

    When there are “no words to describe”, there is music. A talented instrumentalist can make music literally speak ‘spirit to spirit’ and mingle minds in ways that speech simply cannot. Instrumental music “lives” in this space and has the capacity for developing these advanced ideas and feelings on a higher plane than most vocal music- which often relies too heavily upon language. Many composers use lyrics as a ‘crutch’ for communicating ideas rather than utilizing the rainbow of other musical devices (often due to lack of skill) to fully articulate ideas and feelings. The world’s greatest composers’ most acclaimed works are either exclusively, or at least predominantly instrumental, not vocal.

    Perhaps instrumental music is more dexterous because music speaks to our core, our center of being and awareness. Remember that even our mother tongue “translates” thoughts and ideas from our hearts and minds (a language sometimes referred to as ‘Mental-ese’)to speech and in doing so corrupts it. How many times have we said “that’s not exactly what I meant to say!” Good grief, even the world’s best orators, the lawyers, can’t plainly read or write laws. They are always squabbling about ‘intent’. One more example of the limitation of language and our ‘translation’ takes place when we have an important thought and we stumble spitting it out because ‘it’s on the tip of our tongue’. In all these instances, we’re not just experiencing ‘senor moments’, we’re having a ‘translators moments’ (Gardner, 2011). We can bypass the need to ‘translate’ ideas, and communicate more precisely to each others minds and hearts- through music.

    Music is spiritual for a particular reason. It can communicate complex messages in simple, even primal ways. Like a parable, instrumental music can be understood at multiple levels- depending on the readiness of the listener. If we were to include true instrumental music in conference, (inspired pieces performed by great and inspired artists) we would magnify our messages exponentially.

    Even if you don’t agree with me, we’d at least have a longer reprieve from the teleprompters and “confrunz voices”.

    -‘Translation’ section borrowed from Brant Gardner’s Mormon Stories Podcast on the translation of the Book of Mormon (307-311).

  10. In LDS belief, the deficiency of language is supplied by the Holy Ghost.

    Language is the pre-eminent vehicle of the gospel.

  11. Jenn (8)
    “I think it is ludicrous that we expect the saints in africa to use piano/organ and not drums”

    Perhaps first ask the Africans? In turn they might think Americans should use a Western string band and harmonica.

  12. “they have to be mic’d, at least, or I couldn’t hear them over the internet in Chicago.”

    I didn’t think the internet was that loud, but, then again, they would have to be mic’d to hear them that far away…

  13. “A guitar even when fitted with nylon strings is a crude instrument harmonically compared to a violin or cello.”

    Oh boy.

  14. I hope Moroni and Gideon don’t hear about our ‘policy’ on brass in church. The trumpet is the most important sacred instrument in Mormonsism, Judaism, and Christianity, and we decide to ban it?

    Good grief.

    You know, a trumpet obbligato or a brass ensemble would be so very symbolic and meaningful to the saints in general conference.

    Has anyone else noticed HOW EERILY SIMILAR our policies on music are to those decreed by the Catholic Counter Reformation (CR) of the 16th century? The Council on Trent and further CR decrees decimated musical innovation. The result was a bunch of mostly forgettable and boring pieces which are indistinguishable from one another. Certain instruments, time signatures, forms, styles, harmonies, and ornaments were banned. A few traditional and approved styles were adopted and anything else was heresy. Music became overly pious, prescriptive, simple, low and slow. The CR noose was a response to rebellious anti-establishment thoughts. Redoubled efforts to maintain conformity and more exacting obedience colored policies and sadly, stiffed music.


    It seems contrary to Joseph Smiths advice to ‘teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves’.

  15. Is language the only vehicle of the gospel? What about love, service, sacrifice, example, spirit, etc. Language is vital, but I think there is something more than ‘the law is the word and the word is the law’.

  16. “It seems contrary to Joseph Smiths advice to ‘teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves’.”

    Well according to Sam Brunson the handbook now says “with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting.” Sounds like a principle to me.

    Having seen a few awkward musical numbers where the principle of the church handbook wasn’t followed, I somewhat appreciate some guidelines to encourage music that invites and doesn’t detract from the spirit.

    I have also seen some very appropriate pieces performed on guitar and other instruments that have historically been taboo so I’m not really arguing against the inclusion of instruments.

  17. I triple-dog dare one of the Tabernacle organists to put just the smallest bit of “In-a-gadda-da-vida” into one of the hymn intros in one of the sessions. I pulled it off in Sacrament meeting for the closing hymn a few weeks ago when one of the speakers made a casual reference to it during his talk.

    It was a monster hit.

  18. I know that guitar is not specifically banned anymore – I’ve even accompanies choirs and duets in sacrament meetings with my Martin Dreadnought (so it wasn’t even a classical guitar).

    I agree with Adam G. – music enhances the words, but words are necessary. Not always, in every case, but the “default setting” should be for words (but then, I’m an English PhD).

  19. I decry the organ illiteracy of the church.

    Mozart called the pipe organ “the king of instruments,” and in the right hands, it is incomparable. There is nothing like experiencing the vast range of sounds a fine organ in an acoustically appropriate hall (like a cathedral, or the Tabernacle) can produce–from soft, flute-like, and delicate, to a sound so immense (not just loud in decibels, mind you–any amp and speaker with enough wattage can do loud) that it fills the whole space and reverberates through the pews. You feel like you’re not just hearing it with your ears, but the sound envelopes your whole body.

    That said, I can’t blame the average Mormon for thinking that organ music is boring and the church is kind of backwards for using it exclusively in worship services. Pitifully few ward organists have any formal organ training. They think an organ is a synthesizer, and they play it like a piano, and the results range from boring to painful. Other churches pay their organists, so they actually get training.

    Since that isn’t an option, here are some ideas:
    1) We could try to increase the quality of our organists by encouraging leaders to leave people in the calling for a long time, and then develop training resources, like regional organ workshops. This is much more feasible in the United States than elsewhere. But then, most meetinghouses in the developing world don’t even have organs. They come standard with something that looks kind of organ-like, but doesn’t have a pedalboard or true registration (just a switch to select the “piano” sound or the “organ” sound). And in most such countries, taking music lessons is not a standard part of growing up, like it is in the U.S., and there isn’t much talent to draw on.
    2) We could follow the author’s suggestion and allow more flexibility in musical style. But this presents significant problems: string quartets aren’t very good at accompanying congregational singing, and require just as much if not more raw talent, albeit on different instruments. Bongo drums, brass instruments, and rock bands are loud enough to accompany a congregation, but would change the feel of the meeting. Hymns are designed for congregational singing; pop, rock, rap, etc. not so much. We’d have to offer parallel “traditional” and “contemporary” services, like some Catholic and Protestant churches, in order for everyone to attend where they feel comfortable. That would require us to restructure our system of geographical ward boundaries. Or we could specify different musical standards by region of the world, but that would undermine the worldwide unity of the church, and people in Africa used to traditional African drums in church would feel even less connected to what they see in General Conference. Most denominations that have tried to adapt to the times with rock-music services have experienced a decline in attendance, because if the experience they offer is spiritually indistinguishable from a contemporary music concert, how are they relevant? Finally, in my personal opinion, I don’t believe that contemporary music feels the same to its fans (even if they find it uplifting) as traditional sacred music does to those who enjoy it. I think it’s not merely a learned preference; I think the two are inherently different.
    3) We could continue the way we do things now, and hope and pray and encourage more people to learn to play the piano and organ.

  20. Travis #26

    Idea 2 is a lot of organizational and cultural change just to get some variety of music.

    I think your idea 1 is a good idea that could be easily done. I was ward organist for less than a year last time I did it. I would have definitely attended regional workshops. That would have been fun!

    The organ is somewhat of a lost art. Even when one of the tabernacle organists does do a grandiose solo piece (like at the Christmas Concert or Music and the Spoken Word) people tend to wrinkle their noses and think it’s weird. And though Mozart called the Organ the “King of Instruments” he also died over 200 years ago. It probably is a little backward to expect people to feel the same way as he did.

  21. Doesn’t the Church call service missionaries to teach organ/piano/choir in places where such skills are rare? If not, maybe they should.

  22. There has been a manifesto opening the door on playing the guitar in sacrament meeting? Yippeee!

    That’s almost as good as allowing caffeine on BYU’s campus!

  23. I think the point is being missed here. It’s all about giving the Saints the opportunity to participate. Sure we can give 4 concert what-have-yous the spotlight for 10 minutes, and they would no doubt be fabulous, but I think it’s about spiritual experiences. For primary children, very green missionaries, and young single adults now get the opportunity not only to attend conference, but to sit behind the prophet. While such experience should not solidify a testimony, it’s still a Mormon moment for those involved. I still remember my HS choir got to sing in the Church Office Building, where we were thanked afterward by Elders Haight, Faust, and President Hinckley. That was a special moment for me as a 17-year old.

    I like the MoTab. I think a volunteer group of that size that sounds that good is very impressive. The other little choirs that get thrown together, not so much. But they’re having a moment.

  24. I can’t help but be irked by the word “worshipful”. Is that really a word?

    The spirit can speak to us through a variety of means, in a variety of ways. When we ban one particular thing, then we make it impossible for us to feel God’s love through that thing. The MTC has a great sound, and they have perfected it. But it isn’t to my taste. For me they are pondorous, even tedious. But this is true ONLY to me. Others can be touched by their music. Good for them. But others may be touched by a quiet guitar, or by a melodious trombone, or even a good drum solo. Isn’t God everywhere? Can’t he inspire a drummer to help us feel His love, or to feel the spirit? When we narrow the range of acceptable music, I believe that we constrain the way God speaks to us. It is as if we are saying to God: “You must speak to us in this particular way. You must!”

    But God may have other things to say to us. Things that we don’t expect.

    If we allow trombones in sacrament meetings, then we will have an occasional painful music experience. But don’t we anyway? A reverent but off tune solo is just that… reverent…and off tune.

    So, let’s let God speak to us in a variety of voices.

  25. I agree with Chadwick–the point of the large choirs is to give as many people as possible the opportunity to participate. I sang with a combined BYU choir for conference back in 1989, the session where Jeffery Holland (then president of BYU) was sustained as a GA. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten.

    I’m also an organist (master’s degree) so I’m completely partial to the organ. To me, it just isn’t church without the organ. I recognize that others feel differently. General conference is the only time I get to hear the organ played well (since I am not the ward organist in my ward). It is really the only time I get to hear inspiring LDS church music ever. The organ is the only single instrument that could accompany those large groups of singers (and there is no room for an orchestra in the conference setting).

    I love MoTab too and think that Mack Wilberg is just about the most brilliant musician alive today.

  26. Ya’ll are way off base. The fiddle has long been known to be the “devil’s box.” Nonetheless, humbled to have been allowed fiddle and guitar accompaniment to vocal numbers on multiple occasions in sacrament meeting and in other church meetings and activities as well. Not everyone likes Bluegrass, Old Time Appalachian, or shape note singing and harmonies as my husband and I do (note that those are three somewhat overlapping but fairly distinct musical traditions–none of them bearing much resemblance to western pioneer music or current Mormon hymn singing with a couple rare exceptions), but we’ve garnered lots of positive comments as well.

    I will say that there is much “spirited” American traditional gospel and hymnody that doesn’t really bring the spirit for me as do most LDS hymns, but there are others that (again, for me) far surpass them–like “What Wondrous Love”–especially if sung a capella, in a misty hollow, or floating along the Shenandoah.

    I don’t think music is so universal after all.

  27. Our ward has been spoiled by the innovative organ music we hear. Some may only notice the glaring examples, but I have been enjoying the extra notes, stop changes between verses, and appropriate tempo that our ward organists routinely employ. A previous ward had one of the organists who played for pay at the afternoon sessions of one of the large protestant churches.
    We even had extra instruments for the primary program. Good organ music is the foundation, but hurrah for supplements.

  28. The addition of the orchestra and now a handbell choir to the MoTab ensemble has refreshingly expanded the repertoire of the Sunday broadcasts and concert programs, like the annual Christmas show. But the Conference gig is a different animal. It supplements the primary menu of spoken messages, and is akin to the prayers in invoking God’s blessings. Conference is focused on the spoken messages, not on providing a concert experience, which the MoTab can do and does do.

  29. I want to second the idea of calling senior couples who can teach organ performance in an area. They could combine it with a performance venue, and give lessons one-on-one during the week. Out in the “thin-terlands” of Mormondom, they might be assigned an RV to live in as they spend two or three weeks at a time in one city. It us something the Church could try out as an experiment first, starting in Utah.

  30. It’s a great idea, but I doubt there are very many senior couples who are qualified to teach organ performance. Nor can one really learn very much useful about organ performance in two or three weeks.

  31. They used to have trained organists who would travel to different places and teach 6+ week courses. I believe that one of the Tab organists got a start this way. I’m thinking it might have been Clay Christiansen, but I’m not positive.

    My stake has a trained organist (me) living right in it’s boundaries, and they simply have zero interest in offering that training to others. I’ve offered several times and been either completey ignored or turned donw with lame excuses as to why it can’t be done.

  32. We have a professional organist (working for free on Sundays of course) in our ward. I actually think his musical additions detract (distract?) from the meeting.

    The stake capitalized on his talents by hosting an organ concert/ sing along hybrid recently. I don’t know how well attended/ received, as I did not participate.

    Our stake has hired non-LDS bands for special events/ dances (2 occasions I know of). Kinda funny that we’ll play heathens but not our own members for these services. But I guess they are innocent of priestcraft out of mere ignorance. :-) Actually, I’ll be performing with one of these groups, though cannot in good conscience accept pay myself. Strange conundrum.

  33. eljee, just out of curiosity, why would your teaching have to go through the Stake? Is it a matter of marketing (i.e., you need them to get the word out)? or do you need to use a church organ for the lessons? or you want them to assign certain people to learn?

  34. So not a fan of lay members teaching piano/organ lessons pro bono. I got put into that position in India and it was horrible. The expat member I replaced tried to warn me, but I ignored him because the members were so eager to learn. So I showed up on Saturday nights. The lessons lasted two weeks. After an additional three weeks of no shows, I gave up. Church was 30 minutes away and I felt bad keeping my driver late at night for nothing. Three months later the members starting showing up and asking where I was. Really? I think when something is free it’s not valued.

    I didn’t know how I thought it would play out anyway, considering I had five students (only one of which had a keyboard at home) and only one keyboard at the church. And when I wrote notes on a white board they really got mad. I think they seriously thought learning to play an instrument didn’t require learning how to read music and how to count. It was awful.

    I play the piano but not the organ. However, I’ve been ward organist twice (am currently the ward organist). My current stake, Irvine CA, sent someone to teach me about the stops, etc, but we didn’t cover foot pedals. He said we can later once I get comfortable, but I’m just not sure I have the time to go there. I’ve learned how to get by without.

    If I got called to serve a music instructor mission I would not be happy. To do it on the side as a missionary, sure, but otherwise it would be unbelievably frustrating.

    My guess is that, in another two generations, no one will know how to play the organ anyway. The arts have been cut out of our lives at the expense of the pigskin. Utah is the only place where I get to serve away from a musical instrument as it is, and I’m really not even very good!

  35. This is a slippery slope. If we tried this we might end up as just another Mega church with Christian rock music.

  36. Unfortunately, just because one can play the organ doesn’t necessary translate over to being able to teach someone else how to play. I’m basically a self-taught pianist/organist, and while I would feel comfortable in instructing someone about our ward or stake organ, teaching someone from scratch how to play is not something I would be comfortable doing.

  37. Our very capable ward organist also plays weekly for the local Episcopal church. Not sure if she does it for pay or simply as a service.

  38. I was recently called as a ward music chairman. While I think brass is acceptable and the instrument category of angels and heaven, I think people good enough to play at a high level are few and far between. While I consider my calling evidence of the truth of all my personal views and music preferences, I doubt I’ll have the opportunity to do much in this realm.

    I’d wager that most of the lack of variety is due to a lack of proactive members requesting to participate. I shouldn’t have to be a PI to sneak around finding about people’s talents and encouraging them to share!

    I submit that familiarity and unity are most important with general conference hymns. There are many barriers such as this in the church – ceremonies, ordinances, the sacrament prayer, the same every time. I think this provides both an aid in remembrance, but also it acts as sort of a barrier. It is easy to tune the repetition out, but when we actively open our hearts and minds, the Spirit can make old things fresh and bring new edification as well. Thus the hymns become like the Savior’s parables – they are merciful to the lazy and are miraculous to the diligent and awake.

    General conference hymns are so repetitive so we can focus on the only variable – the words.

    A final thought. It used to annoy me when mostly quiet hymns were sung. But since my mission I grew very sensitive to loud noise and I appreciate the contrast more than ever. Even a few years ago in Priesthood session when ‘Choose the Right’ was sung slowly and softly, I appreciated it.

  39. Sam, I do teach privately for pay, and I don’t go through the stake to do that. I was talking more about teaching a 12-week or so free organ course and marketing it through the stake. My concern was more that our stake does not seem to care about the quality of the music in its own sacrament meetings enough to provide training for the organists in our wards. This was in reference to the more general discussion about whether the Church should send out musical service missionaries to teach people to play the organ. Having Church-sponsored organ instruction is simply not a priority in my stake, even though they have access to a teacher with 17 years of experience instructing beginning ward organists. I’m guessing that many stakes might like to provide that kind of training, but don’t have anyone who could teach. My stake has someone who could teach–me, but they have no interest in offering a class. I just can’t reach as many people privately, and most of those people can’t afford to take private lessons or can’t commit the time long term. I cannot afford to teach private students free of charge, at least for more than a few lessons. Having a group class with 5-10 people at once for a set number of weeks is a much more efficient use of my time, especially if I am not getting paid. Access to an instrument is another concern. I do use our stake center organ sometimes to teach private students (or, more often, I go to their buildings), and I don’t ask for permission… I just do it. But if I were to offer a group class at the stake center (which is the only option, I don’t have access to any other organ), I really would feel that I needed to go through the stake to do so.

  40. I lived in the ‘mission field’ and was called to be ward organist when I was 12. I would have felt very alone were it not for a free newsletter from the BYU music department for ward organists (pre-listserv and e-mail era). I think it was called ‘Ward Notes’. It had little articles on setting the stops, things to know about the most common church organ brands, advice on easy hymns, and oddly, a lot of LDS folk music history. The nice thing about it was that it kept coming for a few years. That was helpful.

    Once, my stake organized an organ ‘Super Saturday’. I learned a few ‘tricks’, but it didn’t really make me a better organist. The thing is, it takes 10 years for a musician to become proficient on ANY INSTRUMENT. Period. End. of. report. If you are wondering how long it will take before your precious little Johnny will stop sounding like his 1/4 size violin is torturing cats, take a deep breath and hold it for at least 10 years. You can’t train someone in 6 or 12 or even 52 weeks to be a good organist. Presto- amateur pianist turns into organist! Not. Are we thinking with our corporate hats on? Did someone just finish reading the book ‘6 weeks to excellent project management’? Good grief. How insulting to the expertise needed to wield the ‘King of Instruments’!

    I’ve got a good idea. Let’s suggest to the brethren a few 6 week or even a 3 month training sessions to get ward members to the point where they can cover the ward/regional legal issues. We’ll have the church’s retained lawyers from Kirton & McConkie go around the country and give workshops on ‘everything you need to know to provide legal work for you local and regional church units’. We’ll enroll saints with really advanced reading skills, so the legal stuff will just be a finishing touch. If you can read, you can litigate. What else is there to it?
    Mmmm, I think we could replicate this model for heart surgery as well, we’ll call out Elder Nelson to get us started. He can do a world-wide tele-training.


  41. Eljee (#41), sarcasm aside, here are things that great ward organists and wealthy ward members did for me from time to time. Without these generous interventions, I would not be a trained organist today. The workshops didn’t help me very much, but these efforts were God-sent service.

    A modest proposal to help grow a budding organist . . .

    1) Provide organ lessons 1-on-1. Commit to a long period of time (a year, 2, or 10).

    2) Set aside time with a young organist to just ‘talk organ’. Take ’em out for a coke and write down on napkins, some of your best stop settings, chat and laugh about that devilish fingering on that Bach piece, tell ’em about your favorite methods book(s). Chat about modulation riffs to transition from one hymn to another. Tell funny horror stories of organ playing gone wrong. Joke about the time when you (insert “oops organ moment” here). Put mistakes and learning in perspective. Tell them how you handle criticisms from ward members. Offer very POSITIVE and targeted tips and feedback at the level of the organist. (Be sure they appreciate and want a music friend. Don’t just give unsolicited ‘help’).

    3) Buy them organ music (skill books, prelude books, sheet music) at an appropriate level. Donate some of your old organ books. Once, an elderly organist with arthritis cleaned out her closet and gave me grocery bags filled with organ literature. This really encouraged my progress!

    4) Ask them to play duets with you (piano/organ, organ/organ, etc.) We all learn so much playing with better musicians. Work pieces up together for sacrament meeting, stake conf, or even a community concert.

    5) Find other continuing ed organ events (other stakes, churches, universities, etc.) and ask your mentee or the group if they want to pile in your car and go with you.

    6) Point out piano/organ concerts in your community (universities, other churches, concert halls) and invite the other organists to come with you.

    7) Training organists costs money. There isn’t any way around it. I had a wealthy ward member who was a benefactor and angel. Instead of giving all your money in a fast offerings, consider helping a talented young musician(s) in your ward. Investing in them is investing in the church’s music. It will reap benefits for decades to come as they in turn serve countless wards and stakes in a ‘magnified’ musical way.

    *Buy them concert tickets
    *pay for music books and sheet music (continuous need, but every bit helps)
    *pay for their organ/piano/theory lessons
    *give them a school scholarship to take organ/theory/piano lessons
    *pay to send them to music competitions
    *buy them a home organ console
    *buy them organ shoes
    *etc. etc. etc.

  42. J.A.T.–I don’t think anyone is saying that a 6 or 12 week organ course is going to make someone a completely proficient organist. I see such a course as a gateway to further learning if the person desires it. I have had several private students begin with me after a 12-week stake class whetted their appetite. Prior to taking the stake organ course, these people had no idea what the organ could or should sound like or what they even needed to learn. A 12-week class taught by a knowledgeable teacher CAN make a difference. The group organ classes offered at BYU are semester courses, which is about 12 weeks. I taught those classes for three years in grad school, and plenty of students who took them left being able to function well in a ward organist calling. No, they were not stellar organists. But they were light years ahead of the average ward organist out there.

    Private lesson are a huge commitment for many people with regards to both time and money. I have taught private students in the past at hugely reduced rates if I felt they had the desire to learn and make that type of commitment. Those kinds of people are fairly few and far between. People can often commit to 12 weeks and then decide if they want to continue with private study.

    Your suggestions above are all excellent, and I have enjoyed the times when I’ve had just the right young person to mold in that way. Most of the people I have worked with are not those “young organists”, they are middle-aged homemakers with several children who just got called to be ward organist and are trying to squeeze in just enough practice time to not make fools of themselves on Sunday. Your suggestions do take time and money. I myself cannot afford to take on many long-term private students free of charge. Free or reduced-rate lessons, for me, are only for a select few students who truly have the desire, potential, and commitment to benefit from it. Most of my paying private students rarely practice as it is(because they are busy moms)and tend to cancel lessons any time something comes up. I don’t think that free lessons would really benefit this type of student. If anything, they need to pay more so that they take it more seriously. Most every lesson that I teach involves dragging my 3 kids to the church to play in the nursery while I teach. I homeschool my kids, and I am also the Primary president, so I am extremely short on time. But I can commit to 12 weeks, 12 lessons those students would not have had otherwise. Ironically, the one reason I’ve been given for our stake not providing organ training is that they think people are too busy to take time our for it.

  43. Just saw a solo singer + Tabernacle Choir as backup. It’s a start. Maybe somebody’s reading T&S. ;)


  44. #37: I had no idea the Simpsons had already pulled this off. Life imitates art (except nobody actually sang it in our ward, just 10 notes of intro mixed into the actual hymn intro).

Comments are closed.