When I was 19 years old and a junior at BYU, I took a volunteer opportunity teaching a semester-long “life skills” class at the Utah State Prison.
Maybe it’s not apparent from that one sentence how absurd it was for a sheltered Mormon girl from rural Canada to be teaching “life skills” to a bunch of inmates, but trust me, it was pretty absurd. The closest I had ever been to criminal behavior at that point in my life was sneaking out of my house without telling my parents once to go get a Subway sandwich. I knew, however, that in order to get into a counseling graduate program one day, I had to bulk up my resume with some relevant volunteer experience so when I heard about the opportunity to teach at the prison, I applied to the program and was accepted. After a background check and an unnerving hour-long orientation—wherein I was asked to sign forms acknowledging that the government doesn’t negotiate with hostage-takers, so if that happened to me, I was on my own—I was given a packet of lesson materials and told to show up at the prison next Wednesday.
When I arrived, I was shown by a prison guard to a classroom (with a piano, strangely enough—I’m assuming that was a Utah thing) that had a bunch of chairs set up in rows, and then left alone with my “students.” The class itself consisted of about 30-40 men, ranging in ages from about 20 to 65, and from a wide range of backgrounds, criminal and otherwise. I recognize now that most of them were probably there simply to break up the monotony of the day, but at the time, idealistic young me was pretty convinced that these guys were genuinely interested in learning life skills from a still-teenage BYU student. I’m fairly convinced that I learned a lot more than they did, but we had some great and genuine conversations and the experience remains one that I have reflected on again and again in the nearly two decades since. I have several stories I could tell, but have been thinking about one in particular over the past week.
So, during the semester, the guys in my class had discovered that I played the piano and were constantly asking me to play something for them. I kept telling them I didn’t have any music and had nothing memorized, but they were persistent. On the last day of class, I gave in. I went over to the piano in the corner of the classroom and lifted the piano bench to see if there was any random music in there and lo and behold, there was one (very tattered) LDS hymnbook.
I should note at this point that religion had never come up to this point in the class. I assumed (in all of my sheltered, teenage wisdom, and falsely I might add) that jail wasn’t exactly fertile ground for things of the spirit, and that the last thing these guys would want to do for our last class was sing hymns together.
But I held up the hymnbook and said doubtfully, “Guys, this is the only music I can find–“
And immediately I was interrupted by hands shooting up in the air and men shouting out requests.
“How Great Thou Art!”
“The Spirit of God!”
“Can we please sing ‘How Firm a Foundation’?”
“How about ‘Be Still My Soul’?”
And thus commenced about 90 minutes of the most horrendously tone-deaf, yet remarkably beautiful hymn-singing by those inmates. I would barely finish accompanying one song before hands would go up and requests would start again. One guy offered to be the chorister, and stood in front, waving his arms in no particular pattern. The ones who didn’t know the words just hummed along. I remember glancing up from the piano at one point and seeing this one guy at the back—I can’t even remember his name, or anything else about him, but I remember his face—with his eyes closed, hands clasped together in his lap, softly singing “Be Still My Soul.” It was clear he knew the words by heart.
There were a lot of different topics I considered posting about today, and I’m not sure why this is the one that got written. I suppose after a weekend of feeling bombarded by online ugliness (well, more than a weekend really), I just wanted to give the internet something beautiful, like the image of one prison inmate, in the back of a sparse classroom 20 years ago, with his eyes closed, singing “Be Still, My Soul” like his life or his soul depended on it, because maybe it did. So there you go, internet.
This story will be worth a read. If having a piano at the prison is “just a Utah thing” then yay for Utah. But it sounds like music is used often to help inmates. Thanks for sharing this.
Awesome post. FYI, LDS Church services are held in that prison. My guess is that is how a piano and LDS hymnal found there way into that classroom.
Beautiful story. I home teach a couple who teach institute classes at the Utah state penitentiary in Draper. They have lots of returned missionaries and a few former bishops, former members of stake presidencies, and even a former Seventy in their classes. The Spirit definitely does spend time at the prison, and some of the prisoners benefit greatly from the LDS services and the music.
Back when I was a wayward teenager… I ended up in boarding school in Montana. I went to church once when my parents came to visit, and then later I was able to attend a few times after I turned 18 and was working on a ranch. I had my scriptures, which I read, and I had my prayers, but I never noticed how much I missed the songs of the Saints until they were gone.
I remember the first time we had a baptist minister come in with a guitar on a night we weren’t working. There were a ton of songs that wren’t familiar to my tradition, but she knew how to play “How Great Thou Art”. Being able to connect with others who were trying in their own way to serve others and love God through song, especially when things sing impossibly hard, there’s something about that that transcends creed or dogma. I still sing “How Great Thou Art” in more of a soulful rhythm than a choral rhyme. My kids know that version now because they ask for it at bed sometimes, and I love that sung in solo it comes across as a psalm.
And When I think
His Son not sparing
Sent him to die
I scarce can take it in
That on the cross
My burden gladly bearing
He bled and died
to take away my sin
Then sings my soul
How Great Thou Art
How Great Thou Art
Then sing my soul
How Great Thou Art,
Music is much more important than we realize. Thank you for sharing your story.
And this tiny insect caught in the world wide Web thanks you for your story.
Wonderful story, Michelle! Thank you!
If music is so important and so effective, then why don’t we Mormons do a better job at church each week with it?
If you are honest and look at most Protestant and Catholic services, their music is far more moving and speaks more clearly to my soul. At least that is so true for me. Many people tell me our music is just fine, but that is not my experience. Sorry.
We could use our buildings that sit idle during most of the day as music schools and let private teachers raise up a generation of great musicians. The music minister usually has a position in a Protestant church akin to a counselor in the bishopric, so crucial is music to their services. Organizationally we could make changes that might drive improvement.
Preaching and singing.The basics to a good church service.
Michelle, Thank you very much for a moving story well-told. I remind myself regularly that enthusiastic, horrendously tone-deaf hymn singing has a place in the hearts of others, despite its functioning for me as both an aesthetic and spiritual assault. (For years I had to leave Priesthood opening exercises for the “singing”. Thankfully, my current bishop has cut the singing. Most have not noticed, but I’m sure some in the ward having sacrament meeting at the same time appreciates it. Maybe we should occasionally go back to bellowing in 40 different keys at once (yes, I know that requires microtones, but, heck, our crew uses them whenever they sing, commonly compressing a melody with an octave range into a fifth), just to remind that other ward how blessed they are on the Sundays we do not “sing.”
Mike, after decades of music, teaching, and priesthood administrative service in our Church and decades of music service in a variety of Protestant churches, I can agree with you that music is not important in most of our congregations, and is important in Protestant services, even those with singing equally as bad as any LDS singing I have heard. I would measure the importance of music in the LDS Church by its place in line for budget, use of building, purchase and care of instruments, and time of the potential participants. By those measures it commonly comes after everything else including fireside refreshments. Organizationally, we value poisoning ourselves with sugar more than uplifting ourselves or others with music. It has not always been this way. But given the current parameters — small, overscheduled buildings without any choir rehearsal room, overwhelmed bishops with their own career and family obligations, small wards relying entirely on volunteer service of potential musicians residing within their geographically defined wards, limited budgets and restrictions on fund raising – I fail to see how we could make organizational changes that would drive improvement. I would love to hear your specific suggestions. But that discussion is beside the point of Michelle’s post.
I would respectfully suggest that the improvement that would make the biggest difference, would be if we, the members, would just sing. I have served decades as an organist & before that as a chorister, & I cannot recall a ward in which most of the members did not sing. That is not an organizational change; it is a personal choice for each members to decide to sing.
Raised as a Protestant, UCC Congregationalist, my sister & I both sang in choir throughout our teenage years. The music was lovely, but it did not “move my soul” the way simple hymns sung by a ward choir do. My current stake maintains a music library at the stake center, for choir use, which is helpful, but not all the directors choose to use it, or the hymn book. They want something ” new and fresh”. Years ago, Elder Boyd K. Packer had a strong opinion about using the hymns. Over the years, I have come to see the wisdom in his point of view.
Thanks for sharing. Love both posts so far.
@Marivene, I agree, but some ward choirs are so stale they sing the same 8-12 songs every year, same arrangements, with little variation, and to be honest they do not appeal to the rising generation (I’m talking style, not content here). At least new arrangements of classics keep things fresh. The arrangements sung in general conference are so potent, because they take the foundation or the original music and make it even better. I’m talking The Iron Rod, Choose the Right, etc. Honestly, for me, lots of the melodies and harmonies are often a barrier to a higher degree of communion with the hymns. I don’t necessarily think this is by accident, but if President Packer felt so strongly about memorizing hymns, some degree of evolution is necessary. If we believe in continuing revelation, surely we can supplement the classics with new inspired works.
But who am I? I’m just a mediocre musician who thinks a violin can be just as risky in sacrament meeting as a trumpet. I may have forgot to specify the best verses for “Kolob” on mother’s day, but I started a new tradition of singing the star spangled banner in sacrament meeting which lots of people avoid, so that makes up for it, right? ;)
I volunteered for the same program at the prison in Draper in the late 1990s. It was a humbling, eye-opening, paradigm-shattering experience for me, though our classroom didn’t have a piano.
Specific suggestions for better music:
Get rid of the hymnal. (Ok ,keep it but don’t use it as a limiting device, but as a spring board)
More music, less blabbering. Encourage more instrumental and voice performance by youth and adults with the interest.
Borrow music from protestants, like we used to do. Here is a personal favorite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXDGE_lRI0E
Stand when singing. I swear we should own the song: “I am bound for the promised land.” You can’t stand singing that and not feel it.
Guitars.* (associated with hippies and heroin in the minds of the WW2 generation.
Interesting comment and essentially correct. But like so many other contrasts between my ward and evangelical churches nearby, do you do it out of duty and guilt, or out of love and devotion? If the later you don’t have to try and memorize the words to the songs, they stick in your head spontaneously for most of the week. Singing is contagious, it helps when others around you are enthused, but how to get the ball rolling is difficult. I look forward to singing protestant hymns, I dread the droning and moaning in my ward.
Mike, standing while singing is a good idea. It’s pretty common for the intermediary hymn though – helps get the wiggles out too. But we should note a lot of people really don’t like singing.
What a beautiful post! I’m so impressed at your courage in being willing to share what you could give to people in such a different setting, and with such major challenges. Bravo!