Small Favors

September 30, 2007 | 33 comments
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I headed to the organ after choir practice. Twenty minutes till Sacrament meeting started — enough time to quickly run through the hymns and play some prelude. I knew what hymns we were singing (the music director e-mails me once a month), and none were too difficult. Suddenly the chorister approached me, with a worried look on her face. “There’s been a few changes to the music,” she began.

This was a potential problem.

I’m not really that good of an organist. I’m mostly still coasting on those piano lessons I took twenty years ago. I sit and practice something a few times a week on the piano, but nothing serious or sustained.

On the flip side, though, most hymns aren’t very hard to play. And after decades of being a pianist or organist for various wards and quorums, I’ve played the hymns a lot. At this point, I’ve got many of the more familiar hymns — We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet, or I Know That My Redeemer Lives — practically committed to memory.

Our chorister knows this, though, and she looked worried. That was a bad sign.

The new hymns came at the request of our high council speaker. She held out a list of numbers. I glanced at it. A few easy ones, and . . .126? What was that one? I turned to 126. It was a hymn I’ve never played — I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard it played. And it wasn’t going to be an easy one.

How Long, O Lord Most Holy and True is a 2/2 hymn in the key of E minor. It’s got about a thousand different accidentals, with different voices moving at different times. I ran through it for the first time, fifteen minutes before Sacrament would begin. I absolutely slaughtered it. I missed accidentals, botched the timing, just completely killed it.

The ward early-birds were steadily filing in. (Hopefully, they thought I was trying something weird and avant-garde for prelude.) I played over the hymn again, and then again. I was getting a little better with it, but was still light-years from good.

This was going to be bad. On an unknown hymn like this one, the ward would totally rely on the organist to carry them. My inability to correctly hit that weird D-C-sharp-C-natural melody meant that the congregation would completely botch that line, too. This was going to be ugly.

I looked at the program, and tried to come up with a contingency plan. 126 was the closing hymn. Maybe I could sneak out during the high council talk, find a free classroom with a piano (if they weren’t all tied up by the other ward), and try to practice this more. But what if the rooms were all busy? And how would I know when to scurry back to play?

The second counselor came over, five minutes before Sacrament started. “So you got the message about the new hymns,” he said. “126, How Gentle God’s Commands.”

What?, asked the chorister.

“Yep, How Gentle God’s Commands. 126, isn’t it? Oh, wait, I guess it’s 125. Anyway, that’s the closing hymn for today.”

Thank you, God, for small favors.

33 Responses to Small Favors

  1. It's Not Me on September 30, 2007 at 12:55 am

    That’s funny. We’ve had some issues in our ward recently with one of our choristers using unfamiliar hymns that the organist (who happens to be our ward music chairperson) can’t really play and the ward can’t really sing.

    We’ve had some difficulty getting a handle on this, as we (the bishopric) feel that we have a responsibility to ensure that sacrament meeting is spiritual and contains as few distractions as possible to give the members the best opportunity to worship and feel the spirit. Our chorister thinks it’s a game and thinks sacrament meeting is a great place to be practicing “new” hymns.

  2. Ray on September 30, 2007 at 1:13 am

    Oh, Kaimi, talk about memories. There are a couple of hymns that I used to dread seeing on the list for future Sundays – especially since I can’t bring myself to play songs that are meant to be played at 120 at 60 just so I have a better chance of hitting all the notes. Really, I don’t like to sing “The Spirit of God” like it is a funeral.

    The worst experience was when I wasn’t listening to the announcements and started playing the opening hymn that was showing on the wall – from the last ward’s meeting. Yup. That was me.

  3. Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) on September 30, 2007 at 2:50 am

    #1, I see your point, but when, exactly, are we to practice unfamiliar hymns?

    Kaimi, do you usually play an actual prelude, or just run through hymns? This is the first ward I’ve ever been in where the pianist has played a “real” prelude. I am thrilled. She does this on a cheap keyboard in a ward of about 60 active members where she is the only pianist. Sometimes she does arrangements of LDS hymns and every once in a while sneaks in something classical. Don’t tell! It’s the best thing that ever happened to the music program.

    Ray, you are awesome. We’ve got to speed these hymns up a bit. Especially the Spirit of God!

  4. Alexander Schreiner, Jr. on September 30, 2007 at 3:03 am

    After 40 years as a Ward Organist I can play anything out of the Hymnal. What really bugs the congregation is that I follow the metronome markings; I refuse to play the hymns like they’re funeral dirges. Years ago our ward chorister also happened to be the conductor of the Burbank Symphony (California). He never took all of the verses in the hymns at the same tempo; you were dead if you didn’t watch him like a hawk. The hymn that took the cake was his interpretation of “Master, the Tempest is Raging” which he took at least 2 times faster than marked.

    For prelude I typically play something classical, mainly JS Bach, Handel, or Wagner. Last Sunday I played Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” on the organ for postlude. A few years ago, after 3 months, the bishopric finally figured out that I was playing music for “The Lord of the Rings” for prelude and postlude. I think they finally caught on because the teenagers would hang out in the chapel after Sacrament Meeting listening to the great themes from “LOTR”!

  5. Patrick on September 30, 2007 at 3:21 am

    Great story, Kaimi! Having been a chorister and singer for many years, have several observations:

    First, as church musicians we must never be afraid to provide feedback to our leaders. If they are asking something of us that is unrealistic or unreasonable, we need to (respectfully) tell them so. Sometimes they don’t understand what it really takes to make music happen in our meetings, and we need to educate them! I’ve always been blessed to work with leaders who had at least some appreciation of this truth.

    I have to agree with #3 – since we no longer have the Sunday School “practice hymn” time, we have to find other ways to introduce our congregations to the less familiar hymns. In my experience, the most critical part is communication between the chorister and the organist. With the proper advance planning, it can actually be a positive experience for everyone.

    As for #4, I expect (and demand) that my accompanists follow my tempo. But then, I am a bit of a tyrant ;). Granted, it is not unknown for the chorister to be clueless – but it is still the chorister’s job to lead. If you feel the chorister is missing the mark, rather than fight for control of the hymns during the meeting, you need to communicate (there’s that word again!) beforehand and discuss how the various hymns should be handled. Much better to pull together than separately.

  6. Rob G on September 30, 2007 at 6:02 am

    My ward (Nashville area) actually does have a weekly practice hymn after sacrament meeting. Not only does it allow us to practice the more obscure hymns, but it gives primary and sunday school teachers some time to set up their classrooms before the torrent of kids comes rushing in.

  7. el_godofredo on September 30, 2007 at 11:45 am

    I guess I’m the fourth-string ward organist. Or in actuality, pianist, as I don’t know how to play the organ. Anyway, if we really get in a pinch, I will tell them which hymns I will play that particular day. I don’t care what is in the program, there is a list of about 60 hymns which I feel comfortable playing. If it isn’t on my list, I won’t play it because I will find out that I am playing about 5 minutes before opening prayer.

    I do play for Priesthood almost weekly, and I think that I drive the chorister crazy because I really don’t pay attention to him, I just play the hymn, sing along if I feel comfortable, and I figure that he will just have to follow along with what I’m doing. It isn’t my calling (I wasn’t called and set apart to play) so I figure that I’ll do what I want. Life is too difficult. Come January though, we won’t have a real piano, and I’ll have to play on a toy-like keyboard. Yuck.

    As for difficult hymns, I think in general we should mix in new, lesser known hymns just once every Sacrament meeting, but maintain some sort of program so that they get repeated often enough so that they become familiar. I like singing “the classics” as they feel very comfortable, and that feeling is part of the reason why I go to church on Sundays.

  8. Miguel on September 30, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    This goes along with #5\’s comment that we shouldn\’t be afraid to give feedback —

    It\’s also important to note that visiting high counselors are not in charge of the meeting. The bishop still presides, and hopefully you know your bishop well enough to let him know that the meeting would end on a disastrous note if he followed the high counselor\’s suggestion. He doesn\’t want that any more than you do.

    Miguel

  9. terceiro on September 30, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Our old ward in Provo used to do a practice hymn and I loved it, but we\’ve moved and now we\’re stuck in a ward where I feel most weeks like I\’m the only person who isn\’t singing sotto voce. And as much as I love the standards, I have some strong feelings for some of the less popular hymns; I wait the day when we sing \”Saints Behold How Great Jehovah\” in Sacrament meeting. That\’s a great hymn.

  10. Ann on September 30, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    #9, I agree. I used to be in the same ward as Doug Stott, who wrote the words to “Saints Behold.” I always love singing that hymn, because it makes me think of my stalwart old friend.

    Even with two weeks notice, our top-notch organist bumbled on “For All the Saints.” Some of the hymns are tough to play.

  11. Behind the Infamous Veil on September 30, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Alex #4
    Love the handle!

  12. Ivan Wolfe on September 30, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Alexander Schreiner, Jr. is my new hero.

  13. Kristine on September 30, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    It is actually possible to teach new hymns in Sacrament Meeting without killing a meeting; you just have to plan ahead. I try to introduce 4-6 unfamiliar hymns a year, in the following ways:

    1) The organist includes it in the prelude for a couple of weeks.
    2) The choir sings it (either a little souped up, or straight from the hymnal as part of a choral prelude), or an instrumentalist plays an arrangement as intermediate music.
    3) 2-3 weeks after the choir does it, the congregation does it as intermediate hymn or closing hymn. If it’s a tricky melody, the organist plays the whole hymn once through as introduction.
    4) 4-5 weeks after the first time, the congregation sings it again.
    5) 8-10 weeks after that, the congregation does it a third time.
    6) It’s programmed once more within 6 months.

    Occasionally, someone will notice and complain about “this one again?”, but not all that often, and over the course of a few years, you can actually broaden a congregation’s repertoire significantly. Not that expanding repertoire is a goal in itself, but there are a lot of beautiful texts in the hymnbook that can matter to people’s spiritual lives if they become familiar. “High on a Mountain Top” is great, but it just won’t do when what you really need is “I Wander through the Stilly Night.”

  14. It's Not Me on September 30, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    #3 wrote: #1, I see your point, but when, exactly, are we to practice unfamiliar hymns?

    I suggested priesthood and relief society opening exercises. The chorister/music chairperson could coordinate practicing the same hymn so when it’s sung in sac mtg it’s no long unfamiliar.

  15. LRC on September 30, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    #1 – The current hymnbook has been around since 1985 – that’s longer than some bloggers’ memories here. If there are still unfamiliar hymns after 22 years of the same 300 songs, somebody hasn’t been providing enough variety for musical worship. Start implementing Kristine’s program outlined in #13 immediately :-)

  16. Kevin Barney on September 30, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    In our ward they put some contraption in the organ that can play the hymns automatically. Just after they installed it, I came to church and the organist was sitting up there and the prelude music was playing, but her hands weren’t moving. It kind of freaked me out until later when she explained the system to me. But it is set up so that someone has to manually advance it after each verse, so someone still needs to sit there and push a button now and then.

    Our actual organists actually play, but if the singles ward doesn’t have anyone who can play, they just use the automated system.

  17. Heather O. on September 30, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    The RS does, or should, have a time for practice hymns. In my last ward, it was even called “music appreciation”, and the RS presidency should budget 5 minutes for it. I am the chorister, and I am having some fun introducing new songs and singing songs that are familiar, but sugn infrequently. Today we sung “Thy Holy Word”, which is a pretty little hymn that goes with the conference theme that I had never heard. We sang it for the practice hymn, and even though the sisters had to concentrate, and didn’t sound terrific on the first verse, we got through it. It was fun.

    I do try to have the meeting end on a familiar note, however, as we are the end of the day, and I like to think that people are affected by the last bit of music they hear before they leave the building. But maybe I’m just kidding myself about the importance of the RS closing hymn.

  18. Mark B. on September 30, 2007 at 11:46 pm

    Glad to hear that you began an acquaintance with “How Long O Lord . . .” Kaimi. There are too many hymns that we just never sing–and it’s particularly hard in the wards and branches where nobody can play a keyboard instrument.

    Kawai builds an electronic organ/piano for the church that has a number of the hymns programmed into it. But, that number is limited, and they tend to be the old standards–why include “We sail the ocean blue” aka Who’s on the Lord’s Side? and exclude so many others.

    Kristine deserves a MacArthur genius award for not only thinking of that scheme but actually implementing it. Now, if we only had a choir and one decent organist and a good conductor in our district of five branches!

  19. Rosalynde Welch on October 1, 2007 at 12:11 am

    Speaking of unfamiliar hymns, on the rare occasions that I’ve thought of hymn 122, I’ve always thought it was “Through Deep’ning Trials.” Only tonight, at stake choir practice, did I realize it was “Though Deep’ning Trials.” You learn something new, etc.

  20. Blain on October 1, 2007 at 1:33 am

    14 — Unfamiliar hymns in priesthood opening exercises in my ward would not work well. I do think, however, working them in with the RS and YW would be good friendly amendments to the list Kristine put together at either 1.5 or 2.5. Just having a body of voices with the melody figured out (even a little) helps a lot.

    OT — I’ve been told that the proper term for the person directing the music is “music director,” as “chorister” is supposed to refer to a member of a choir. Anybody knowledgeable able to confirm or refute that?

  21. Hans on October 1, 2007 at 2:26 am

    “why include “We sail the ocean blue” aka Who’s on the Lord’s Side? and exclude so many others.”

    Actually the correct title for that hymn tune is “A Life On the Ocean Wave”. Some of my favorites are “The Old Oaken Bucket” aka “Do What Is Right”, and “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching” aka “In Our Lovely Deseret”. And of course “Scotland the Brave” aka “Praise to the Man” and “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie, the Old Grey Goose is Dead” aka “Lord Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing”..

  22. Hans on October 1, 2007 at 2:55 am

    “I’ve been told that the proper term for the person directing the music is “music director,” as “chorister” is supposed to refer to a member of a choir. Anybody knowledgeable able to confirm or refute that?”

    chorister
    1. A singer in a choir, especially a choirboy or choirgirl.
    2. A leader of a choir.

    A leader of congregational singing is not a chorister.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=chorister

  23. RSR on October 1, 2007 at 6:56 am

    Last-minute changes can be an organist’s nightmare. Nothing too egregious has ever happened to me. In my last ward, however, the stake president was visiting for ward conference and, during his talk, requested that the closing hymn be changed. I wasn’t playing that day, but I saw deep anxiety on my fellow organist’s face. She pulled it off fine (manuals only)–glad it wasn’t me, though!

    Speaking of hymns never sung, has anyone _ever_ heard a congregation sing #121, “I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger”? The second verse may have the funniest lyrics in the hymnal: “Misty vapors rise before me. Scarcely can I see the way. / Clouds of darkest hue hang oe’r me, And I’m apt to go astray. / With the many, with the many, That are now the vulture’s prey.”

  24. Patrick on October 1, 2007 at 8:53 am

    Further to the use of the term “chorister,” it is not used in the Church Handbook of Instructions for Music. The congregational singing is led by the Ward Music Director; the choir is conducted by the Ward Choir Director. Admittedly, the term “chorister” is widely used to describe the former. I can at least defend my use of the term, having led many choirs over the years…;).

  25. CS Eric on October 1, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    I’m the organist by default–the only other pianist is afraid of the organ, and the only way the bishop would let me be the primary pianist was if I’d do the organ, too.

    It has been rare in my years of playing to have a director who really knew his/her stuff. There have been several (substitutes, mostly) whose hand-waving has nothing to do with the actual tempo of the song. What I do instead, then, is to follow their singing. The hands don’t always match the tempo, but the voice almost always does.

    Sometimes it’s harder in primary. One of the songs this year alternates between 3/4 and 2/4. I don’t think any of the four sisters who have tried leading it have had any clue as to the time change.

  26. MMcN on October 1, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    Nice story, and if I hadn’t gained confidence in your posts over the years, I’d have thought you were setting us up.

    I’ll bet $100 there’s not a high councilor in the Church that knows How Long O Lord.

  27. Ray on October 1, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    #26 – MMcN, Contact me at fam7heav at juno dot com. I will give you an address to which you can send the check.

  28. Mark B. on October 1, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    I’m not a high councilor any more, but I’ve served as the president of the high priests quorum in my stake, and I know “How Long O Lord.” In fact, I suggested at the luncheon after my son’s wedding that I had thought about using that for the opening song–if we had had one.

    Anyway, I’ll take cash. I don’t believe in settling bets with checks.

  29. Sarah on October 2, 2007 at 11:03 am

    I don’t know why we don’t have an elective Gospel Doctrine class (like the temple prep one, or the teacher training, or whatever) that just consists of singing for an hour. It’s all pre-approved doctrine, there’s full participation, and it would improve the sacrament meeting experience greatly. And hey, insanely busy people can still be in the choir.

  30. Kristine on October 2, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Sarah, I once taught a 10 week “Ward Choir Prep” class, where we did some general music appreciation, history of music in the church (w/lots of hymn singing), and basic sightreading/sightsinging technique. I think it was a lucky fluke that I managed to talk a bishopric into it, though. It was a lot of fun, and I think it improved singing in Sacrament Meeting, as well as giving a boost to the ward choir.

  31. Matt Evans on October 2, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    a 10 week “Ward Choir Prep” class

    I love innovations like this.

  32. Adam Greenwood on October 2, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    Same. I might suggest it if I werent’ completely unqualified.

  33. David M. Newlin on October 9, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Well, brethren and sistren, this has been an excellent training disucssion.

    My only additon to the excellent thoughts here is that if you think organ playing is a challenge, try it on one of the 30-40 year old Wicks pipe organs that are installed throughout that era of Stake Center. My claim to fame is that I am the only person I know that can make it play s o f t l y – which IS saying a whole lot. I am cetain that my \”beast\” (with whom I have fallen in love after 30 years of electronic organs) really is a living thing and capable of so many shades of sound that electronic organs (even the newest Allen instruments that are such wonderful additons to our meetinghouses) are not even close.

    At that, we have Hymn pracitce right after Sacrament to allow the teachers to get set up; need to get more disucssion on the background of the hymns and YES, I have played \”I\’m a Pilgrim, I\’m a Stranger\” for prelude and postlude, thereby confusing the vast majority of the congregation, who think I have become whatever passes for avant-grade in their minds; as was said by (I think) Hugh B. Brown, we musicians are tempermental, but most times more temper than mental.

    Sincerely, the only male organ player in our Northern Arizona Stake.

    Bro. David