Please, Please, Sing Out!

July 21, 2010 | 61 comments
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Congregation Singing

I’m currently visiting my in-laws for a few weeks. I attended their ward on Sunday and once again was shocked at the difference in the singing there compared to my home ward. Why don’t members sing the hymns in Sacrament Meeting here?

For fear I offend someone, I won’t say what ward it is. In fact, I’ve run into this same phenomenon elsewhere, including the feeling that I need to get up, go to the pulpit and make the congregation sing the hymn again until they actually put some effort into it. For me, its a bit frustrating.

Its almost like we have developed a cultural belief that loud is irreverent or that singing out-of-tune when you can’t do better is somehow disrespectful.

The truth is exactly the opposite. It is irreverent to sing “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” like you don’t mean it, like you don’t want the world to know! It is wrong to accept the responsibility of being a member of the Church and then refuse to sing “Called to Serve!” You must sing loudly following the stirring beginning chords of “God of Our Fathers Known of Old.” And how can we fail to see they irony in singing “Then wake up and do something more” like we are asleep? Timidity is not reverence!

[I should mention that I am somewhat spoiled in this regard. My home ward has excellent singing, from a wide variety of participants, who sing despite the obviously trained professionals in our congregation who generally intimidate most of us.]

It was only after Sunday’s meeting that I read Jana Reiss’ post, Why Are Mormon Church Meetings So Dull? which made me think that my observation is perhaps just a symptom of the problem. She apparently sees the same thing I do, since she says, speaking of music in Mormon services, “For a supposedly joyful people, Mormons are missing a crucial element of joy that should accompany our worship services.”

I agree. I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers, of course, but I do think that vigorous participation is contagious. Vigor is what I see lacking in the singing in my in-law’s ward. The congregation knows a song must be sung, and so they put in the minimum effort to get it out of the way. Instead of this attitude, we need to remember that putting in the minimum is NOT worship. It is going through the motions. It is the “luke-warm” that the Book of Mormon speaks of.

I don’t think fixing the issue Jana sees requires any radical restructuring of how we worship and how we structure our meetings (although I do think an occasional change from the normal structure can help, simply because of the novelty). I am certain that any improvement will come through members improving how they participate — perhaps by adding vigor to how they participate in worship. The change of attitude would make a big difference.

And personally, I’d appreciate it if we could start with the singing.

61 Responses to Please, Please, Sing Out!

  1. Russell Arben Fox on July 21, 2010 at 7:29 am

    About a week ago, Kristine wrote a post giving a few very smart, concrete suggestions on how a ward (and in particular, a ward chorister) can cultivate a little more “vigor” in congregational hymn singing. It’s well worth checking out.

  2. Kristine on July 21, 2010 at 7:30 am

    Amen! Preach it, brother!!

    It’s funny that you included a picture of the singing at Conference, because I find the singing in the Conference Center particularly anemic.

  3. gomez on July 21, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Does anyone know the reason we don’t stand to sing hymns (apart from maybe the intermediate hymn)? I thinking standing for every hymn would help a bit.

  4. Frecklefoot on July 21, 2010 at 7:36 am

    I grew up in a ward that was very enthusiastic about singing. I was brought up learning I had to sing even if I didn’t want to. Though I resented it at the time, I appreciate it now. It got me to enjoy singing at least a selected number of hymns, if not all of them.

    The only problem I have with the ward we find ourselves in now is that the hymn singing is absolutely ghastly. Plenty of people participate, but the accompaniment is much too slow. Every song ends up sounding like a funeral dirge. Occasionally we had a substitute accompanimentist, and he actually played every song with gusto! It was a pleasure singing any song with him. Sadly, he moved out of the ward and we’ve been stuck with an organist who thinks every song should put the singers to sleep.

    Another problem I’ve had with every congregation since my childhood one is song selection. In my childhood ward, the chorister, who seemed to have that calling for decades, stuck with a “base” set of selections. So, out of the 100’s of hymns in the hymnal, we stuck to maybe 50 of the best. Occasionally we sang one that no one was familiar with, and that was okay, as long as we had two or three other “good ones” for the rest of the service.

    While I know the Brethren want the congregations to get to know and love ALL the hymns, it just isn’t practical. Singing just the best songs from the hymnal taught me to love and look forward to singing on Sunday. Now that all the choristers seem driven to sing every song in the hymnal, my children have grown to hate singing completely. They haven’t found that singing some of the songs can actually be fun. Not only do they have to sing every song like it’s a funeral dirge, they have to sing songs that suck!

    I hope something will happen that will inspire the choristers to return to the ways of my youth, but I doubt it will happen.

  5. Aaron R. on July 21, 2010 at 7:54 am

    “singing out-of-tune when you can’t do better is somehow disrespectful.”

    I’m guilty of tacitly accepting this sentiment. I think it is a hard thing for people lack musical talent to live in the Church. I genuinely wish I could contribute more to the music in our ward. I think, at the very least, I need to sing with vigor. Thanks for the kick up the backside.

  6. Left Field on July 21, 2010 at 8:54 am

    It always annoys me when people choose the congregational hymn as the time to walk out of the chapel during a general conference broadcast. The First Presidency didn’t ask me to speak; they didn’t ask me to give a prayer. But they did ask me to sing one hymn. If they had asked me to give a conference address, I wouldn’t choose the very moment of my assignment to go use the bathroom. Why would we get up and go to the bathroom during the one time during the session when we have a specific assignment?

  7. Ben Park on July 21, 2010 at 9:03 am

    While on my mission, we were teaching a gentleman who was the organist for the local AME Church. Very soul-full fella, we would often sing the great Christian songs our churches held in common after our lessons. He was progressing steadily along with Mormonism…until we took him to sacrament meeting. Coming from a charismatic church that belted out their gospel music like they meant it, one could almost see the sadness in his eyes as he watched our ward’s pitiful attempt to mumble through one of our hymns. He then decided that he didn’t want to investigate a church whose members weren’t excited enough about their gospel to sing it out from their pews. It was a sad day for us.

    This is just a long way to say, “Amen, Kent.”

  8. Mark B. on July 21, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Other than your references to “Called to Serve” and “Have I Done any Good?”–neither of which, in my not-so-humble opinion, are worthy to be included in our worship services–I agree completely.

  9. Sam B. on July 21, 2010 at 9:32 am

    I was amazed, a year or two ago, when someone from the General Primary Presidency came to do a fireside/training/something for the Primary people, when she talked about how congregational singing in the Church was disappearing. Because it was always loud (and good) when I was at BYU, when I was in New York, and now in Chicago. But when I go to my parents’ ward–where I grew up–I guess I can see what she was talking about; still, most wards I’ve lived in (and even the bulk of wards I’ve visited) actually do pretty well in the congregational singing department.

    If that weren’t so, well, I’d be really sad.

  10. document on July 21, 2010 at 9:38 am

    As a ward organist, I lived for prelude and postlude, because no matter the tempo, the volume, or the energy of the song sung, the congregation sang as if a crowd of zombies. I’m much happier now as the stake organist, because the congregation tends to sing much stronger (and are aloud to [gasp] stand if they wish) and with more gusto.

    Now that I’ve been released from the ward level and moved to the stake, I get the opportunity to sit in the congregation during sacrament meeting (I haven’t done that for years) and I sing loudly and with gusto in my voice. I find it strange that I receive odd looks from the people around me.

    I believe that the attitude of singing comes from a gross misunderstanding of music in general. I gave a talk a while back in Sacrament meeting on the sacred power of music. I started by quoting the opening stanza from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony [Ode to Joy], and moved into a talk speaking of the importance of hymns, but also the importance of good music from outside sources. I made the statement in there that I feel the spirit strongly when surrounded by good (and not necessarily just LDS) music. The person who spoke after me (from the high council) immediately stood up and “corrected” me, saying that one could only feel the spirit while listening to hymns.

    I have found that people find music spiritually lacking if it is unfamiliar and doesn’t fit the “cookie-cutter” sounds of generally sung hymns. I use two examples. First off, before a stake Christmas meeting I played “To Sherperds as the Watched Their Flocks”, “Puer Natus in Bethlehem”, and “Now Comes the Savior of the Gentiles” from Das Orgelbuchlein by Bach…I was approached by a member of the stake saying that the music was innapropriate because it was not from the hymnal (not understanding that it is the stake president’s call). The next meeting was in January, I played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” as my postlude, and the same person complemented me on the spiritual music! During a ward service (to which I generally stick to hymn variations) I played “Lord, We Come Before Thee Now” (#162) and one of the bishopric came and told me off for not plying from the hymnbook, when I explained that this was in the hymnbook, he replied that he had never heard it and didn’t believe it! Must I play only the 45 hymns that everyone knows!

    Sorry for venting, I believe the church has a good music program, but the culture surrounding music in the church is horrific. We sing for joy, as a prayer to God! Do we thank God with a frown on our face? Do we praise God only with sackclothe and ashes? Does the Mormon Tabernacle choir _only_ sing songs from our 341 song hymn book, or do they perform other music, inspiring and beautiful.

    “Awake my soul!”

  11. Bob on July 21, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Sooo, in places like Salt Lake and Provo, where they can have Spanish wards and Single wards, why not Singing wards, or Powerful sermon wards (no GAs) for those who want to try them out Mormon style? Why not see what the members want or can do? See how many want to go in that direction. Maybe some drums?

  12. Kent Larsen on July 21, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Left Field — OUCH! Great comment. How we perceive the songs is exactly the problem. If we don’t see them as an important part of worship services then its easy to use them as a “break” in which we can walk out.

    Mark B., I’m sure we all have hymns that we don’t like. These are well known ones that when sung without effort run counter to their messages.

    Perhaps there is something we can learn from singing well even the hymns we dislike.

    Russell, thanks for the link. Kristine is right on the mark.

    I’m sure this is a topic the Bloggernacle has tackled frequently, but I had to let my frustration out somehow!

  13. Craig H. on July 21, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Kent: where is “here?” You mention your in-laws’ ward, but the “here” suggests it’s a regional problem… I’m guessing Utah, but want to be sure.

  14. Kent Larsen on July 21, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Bob (11), That doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. I wouldn’t want to give people the excuse that they don’t have to sing because they aren’t in a “singing ward.”

    The question really isn’t one of importing outside ideas into our Sacrament Meetings. Its one of getting the average member to participate like Church is something enjoyable and worshipful instead of an obligation.

  15. Kent Larsen on July 21, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Craig H., I’m not going to say what city I’m in. It is in Utah, and I have seen the problem frequently in Utah. But I suspect it happens elsewhere also. I can’t in good conscience blame Utah for this.

  16. Allisan on July 21, 2010 at 10:16 am

    I’m also a “music” person (and, as such, have spent and will continue to spend my life as either a pianist, organist, choir director, or chorister) in an Orem ward. I grew up in Maryland and have spent a few years in California, and to my memory they ALL sang like zombies! The only time I really heard a congregation give it all they had was during a brief stint as a stake pianist in Cuenca, Ecuador. To them, singing really was a form of worship! It was fantastic! Naturally, only half of the congregation was on-key, but you wouldn’t believe the spirit in those meetings.

    Here, I think Karaoke and American Idol and the like have turned singing into more of a way to “show off” than worship or invite the Spirit. We celebrate those who’ve cultivated the ability to sing the hymns like Mariah Carey or Taylor Swift would, and quietly allow the rest to fade into the background (or we ridicule them to that point… something I’ve actually seen a couple of times). So the wards with lots of vocal talent in their midst could be perceived as “good singing” wards, while those with less seem to sing like zombies… but the real problem is that those of us without singing talent think we’re off the hook or something.

    Something I’ve tried that does work, however, is playing the organ just a tidge on the “too loud” side. Then people think no one can hear them :D

  17. Bob on July 21, 2010 at 10:35 am

    #14: Counter-point well taken. But I still think it’s an easy effort to to try a change. On my Mission, in Salmon ID., there were two wards, a young and and old___you picked. Wow! two different kinds of meetings, (we went to all of them). Sometimes small changes make big differences. (Some people would like the Homerun in baseball just another foul ball__what a difference!)

  18. L CLAYTON on July 21, 2010 at 11:06 am

    “… once again was shocked at the difference in the singing there compared to my home ward. Why don’t members sing the hymns in Sacrament Meeting here?”

    Its the trained singers you speak about in your home congregation. They sing loudly because they are confident and others are not afraid to put in a little volume knowing they will still be submerged beneath the trained voices.

    In our ward, when our two or three strong singers are gone almost everyone else cuts back to a whisper to avoid the possibility anyone will hear them.

    I love to sit next to someone who insists they can’t carry a tune but sings anyway, and I sing loud to encourage them. It’s true they aren’t on pitch, but I like the feeling of a participatory event.

  19. Kent Larsen on July 21, 2010 at 11:16 am

    L Clayton (18) wrote:

    Its the trained singers you speak about in your home congregation. They sing loudly because they are confident and others are not afraid to put in a little volume knowing they will still be submerged beneath the trained voices.

    Hmmm, I like to think that is not the case in our Ward, but I can see how it could be true in many places.

  20. Adam Greenwood on July 21, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Sure, where do I sign the petition.

    The spanish-speaking wards in my area are even less tuneful then the other wards. But they sing with a modicum of effort and enthusiasm, so they don’t sound as bad.

  21. Benjamin on July 21, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    My wife and I have a precocious two-and-a-half-year-old daughter who loudly forbids us to sing hymns in sacrament meeting whenever we try, which always amuses those sitting around us. “You don’t sing now!” she says. So that is our excuse.

    I grew up spoiled. The organist in my home ward had an organ performance degree from BYU and used his skills to the fullest. He had unique and powerful arrangements of the hymns burned into his brain (or maybe he made them up on the fly), and played them in sacrament meeting even though this sometimes required the chorister to change the way she conducted (for example, adding a short instrumental bridge between verses). He used stops like a champ, too, mixing it up so that strong hymns (like “I Believe in Christ”) crescendoed to the final verse. I really think this energized the ward because we recognized we were part of something beautiful, special, and unique — not just a standard run-through played primarily because we’re *supposed* to start/end the meeting with a hymn.

    Granted, not every ward is going to have a guy like this. But I do wonder if organists could use some basic tactics, like changing the stops or a few chords at key points in the hymns to help the congregation feel like they’re part of a work of art (which isn’t the point of singing hymns, I know, but still. . .).

  22. John H. Jenkins on July 21, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Personally, I loathe “Called to Serve” and refuse to sing it under any circumstances. I don’t dislike it, I find it actively offensive. I realize other people feel otherwise—more power to them. Let them sing it as loudly and as vigorously as they want, only don’t expect me to join in.

    (I also add the echoes to “We Thank Thee, O God, For a Prophet,” use the words “you who unto Jesus” and “stain Illinois,” and call the capital of China “Peking,” albeit for different reasons.)

    I can understand your frustration, but there are people who are simply uncomfortable singing in public for whatever reason. (Me, I’m told I have a good voice, but I have no training and often have trouble finding the note I’m supposed to sing. It can be tough to “sing like I mean it” when I’m trying out three or four different pitches along the way.) I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the implication that someone is weak in the faith because they can’t or won’t sing, but having grown up in an area with relatively strong musical skills, it’s an implication I’ve encountered several times.

    I do agree that congregational hymns can add enormously to the spiritual quality of a meeting, and they can help forge or strengthen the group identity of a ward or branch. I miss the days when we had singing instruction in Sunday School, because it was a very good way of combating the problem of people not singing because they don’t think they know how, or because they’re not familiar with the hymn being sung. At the same time, I have to respect the right of others to determine for themselves how they participate—or not—in the meeting, especially when it doesn’t actively interfere with my own ability to worship.

  23. Jonathan Green on July 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Congregational singing was too quiet for comfort when we moved into our previous ward. It helped that the ward was soon able to call an organist, but what helped more, I think, were a couple of direct statements by the bishop from the pulpit, asking the congregation to sing louder.

  24. Kent Larsen on July 21, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    John (22) wrote:

    I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the implication that someone is weak in the faith because they can’t or won’t sing

    I’m fairly sure that I specifically excused those who can’t sing (at least those who can’t sing in tune. I’m happy to excuse anyone who is mute or has some kind of impediment to singing.

    “Won’t sing” is perhaps another question. I suppose I could live with some kind of “conscientious objector” to singing, if that was what it was actually about. I also realize that people are where they are, and often need time or help to get over their discomfort with many things (speaking in Church and teaching lessons are also areas where this could come up).

    But I’m really not trying to single out individuals here. If an entire congregation lacks the vigor I’m talking about, then I have a hard time believing its just discomfort or “conscientious objections.”

  25. Kent Larsen on July 21, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Jonathan, that’s my thinking exactly. Much of this problem is solved by good leadership, be it from the Bishop or the chorister or organist — or even from the musically talented in the congregation. A few voices singing with gusto can make a big difference.

  26. Mark B. on July 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Re: Allisan’s comment about playing the organ a bit too loud. I don’t think it’s possible to play the organ too loud. And, played loudly, the organ will provide cover to all those less than professional singers who don’t want their voices heard by their neighbors.

    Jonathan’s comments are spot on. Good music in the ward must start with the bishopric–they need to act as if they care about it.

    And if they ever say “rest hymn” they should be excommunicated on the spot. Those damnable words simply reinforce the notion that music is a sideshow, not an integral part of worship.

  27. Anon for this on July 21, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    As a former hobbyist level choral singer, I enjoy a good hymn and love to sing out. I must admit that in our current ward (non-utah) the tempo is so slow that I have, on occasion, found myself nodding off mid-verse. I will confess that I am prone to lapses of consciousness in church (just don’t tell my wife), but it is both embarrassing and shocking to have this happen during the hymns.

    I must give praise to the organist and chorister in the ward I was visiting last week. The organ was lovely, and the chorister actually directed at the indicated tempo (and possibly a bit faster on some).

    I wonder if the decline in hymn singing has anything to do with the decline in acoustics in most of our chapels.

  28. James Olsen on July 21, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Had a fantastic Bishop growing up, in every way that my young perspective could take note of. And one of his most endearing aspects was how loudly he sang. And completely off-key. I’ve never in my life come across another human so absolutely tone-deaf. And yet he always sang out with vigor. I’m sure he still does. Ironically, the rest of his family was extremely musical. But his loud, off-key singing stays with me – a good metaphor for life.

  29. Mark B. on July 21, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Anon’s note about acoustics reminds me of the comment I heard from someone in the Church Physical Facilities department: the chapels are not designed, acoustically, for music. Instead, they’re designed to dampen the sound of noisy people so that the speakers can be heard.

    Maybe if we’d tear out all the carpets and burlap walls and fabric on the backs of pews things would get a lot better. A good concrete floor, polished and sealed, would be less expensive than carpet, and would do wonders for the sound. (Keep the runners in the aisles–the benefits of not hearing heels clacking as people walk there would outweigh any loss of acoustical liveliness.)

    I’ve known some decent guys in the Physical Facilities department, but I don’t remember any who had any musical sense.

  30. Bob on July 21, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    People always seem to sing loud at a football ralley

  31. Bob on July 21, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    #31: Rally___even off key.

  32. Zack on July 21, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    I wish that the lion’s share of the singing in our church services were handled by a talented choir and/or instrumental group (violins, trumpets, clarinets, guitars, whatever, I’m not picky). Alas, that’s not really gonna happen much of anywhere when we make our wards small enough for (theoretically) everyone to have a calling. There often simply isn’t enough musical talent to go around.

    I used to really belt it out because I knew that’s what a good Mormon is supposed to do. On at least a dozen occasions, well-intentioned seminary teachers, bishops, sunday school teachers, etc… (and probably more than one GA in conference) had told me that singing boldly/loud/whatever would make me feel the spirit more strongly. “If you can’t sing, that’s okay. We want to hear you. If you can’t sing, sing louder than the bad singers” — that kind of thing. My wife, not really liking attention, politely asked me after we got married to try to sing in softer and in a way that it wouldn’t call attention to us. I obliged, and started singing quieter. Usually soft enough that you could barely pick out my individual voice from the people in our immediate surroundings. I felt that I enjoyed the music better and felt the spirit more strongly then. We’re currently in a ward that definitely doesn’t sing loudly. These days, I often don’t sing at all (especially during the sacrament hymn — preferring to read the lyrics and listen to the music, perhaps reinterpretting it and imagining it performed well). I feel that the music adds more to my church experience now than it ever did when I was dutifully belting it out. (I should point out that I wasn’t ridiculous or anything — I was never the person singing loudest. But if you were sitting a couple rows behind me, you could probably pick out my voice singing the bass line.)

    I am suspicious of any claim that a particular practice will invite the spirit more than another. That is, I’m skeptical when someone talks about how spiritual it is to pray in the mountains (most of my profound prayer experiences have come in a bedroom and I don’t think it’s because I’ve been doing it wrong). I don’t really buy it that the spirit leaves the room when a cell phone rings. If I stop feeling the Spirit because someone else forgot to turn the phone to vibrate, it’s probably my fault. Likewise, when someone tells me that I need to sing audibly to feel the spirit, I can’t help but wonder from what part of my baptismal covenant they’re drawing that conclusion.

  33. Jim Donaldson on July 21, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    A major part of the difficulty is that talented and experienced organists are so rare. Most every ward I have been in has used piano players who are struggling with the very different touch of the instruments. It looks quite similar, but it really isn’t. They take things slowly because they have to. Doom is almost inevitable. Played like a dirge, sung like a dirge.

    I also admit that even the normative tempos are much too slow. I teach early morning seminary and it took me about 3 days to realize that I couldn’t reach the high notes of the melody and the tempos were coma-inducing using the church’s recorded accompaniments. In the space age, however, I quickly picked a bunch of my favorites (chosen for their vigor and brevity, after all they’d be sung at 6:15 a.m.), ran the MP3s of the accompaniments through free software increasing the tempos by an average of 18% and lovering the pitch a fourth. It worked wonders. I could sing them all and drag the kids (only 4 or 5) along. Greatly improved and they kids realized that the tunes aren’t that bad if they move along. Teenagers even!

    The pitch thing is maybe not a problem if you have a soprano to lead, but I always sing the bass part in congregational singing just to get through it, so if I was going to be the guy to push it along, it had to be in my range. The girls in the class couldn’t reach the high notes either, so happiness all around.

    One time our ward ran out of organists, and we used a guy who played the accordian by ear, so we had oom-pah style polka bass harmonies for most of the tunes. But at least they moved along. He still plays the piano for priesthood sometimes. Good times.

  34. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 21, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    When I was on my mission in Japan, I learned that when you heard a truck coming down the road playing a melody, it was not selling ice cream but picking up your trash. Each city had a different melody. One Sunday morning my companion, who played the prelude for Priesthood Meeting on the organ, lit into a majestic arrangement of the garbage truck song. One person after another came up and said they hadn’t heard the hymn before but it was very familiar.

    As far as I can see, anyone who condemns a singer or musician for performing a piece not in the hymn book is violating the 13th Article of Faith as well as D&C 121. The Tabernacle Choir is the official musical face of the Church to the world, and they perform an eclectic mix of pieces, from classical to African folk songs, right there in the Tabernacle and Conference Center. There is an official LDS choir songbook with a number of songs that are not in the hymn book. and the EXAMPLE of the hymnbook is that there are many hymns of the larger Christian tradition that are suitable for adoption by the Saints. Anyone who can’t stand to hear an unfamiliar tune is taking the same position as those who say “A Bible? We have a Bible and need no more Bible!” They are complaining because they are offered more of the good things God has placed on earth for our edification and joy. They are demonstrating they don’t have enough familiarity with the Holy Ghost to tell them if something is compatible with reverent worship, but must rely on trote behavior instead. They are slothful servants who have rejected the admonition of D&C 58, to “do many things of our own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.”

    I recall Boyd K. Packer remarking that he felt the enthusiasm a ward expressed in singing with gusto and in saying “Amen” to a talk were indicators of the level of engagement and spiritual enthusiasm of the congregation.

    Bruce McConkie, as a Seventy, supervised the missions in Jpaan and would come out to meet with the missionaries every six months. At one of these training sessions he asked for a volunteer to come up and sing a hymn with him, and my companion raised my hand. McConlie asked me which song I wanted to sing, and I suggested “Come, Come, Ye Saints”. He said “You start”. I barely made it through the first verse, trying not to break into laughter, as Elder McConkie gave the most tone-deaf rendition of that hymn I had ever heard.

    After letting me sit down, he asked us what we thought of his singing. None of us was willing to be known for insulting a GA, so he turned to his wife Amelia. She said “Bruce, you were terrible.” He then explained that, whiel he could tell us the details of how William Clayton came to write that hymn, he had no ear for music. He said that many people are tone-deaf to the Gospel, and we should not waste too much time as missionaries with those who simply lacked the talent to hear the voice of the Holy Ghost. I noticed that he still tried to sing with each hymn, just that he didn’t do it in his normal dominating speaking voice.

    I recall from my Church History institute class that Heber J. Grant was also notorious for having a tin ear. Of course, he did not let that stop him from persisting in singing.

    It seems to me that musical talent is something that will naturally have high variability from ward to ward. On the other hand, except for those who are terminally tone deaf, I think a lot of people just need more training in how to sing.

    Now we get to the real problem. Who gets taught how to sing any more? The only place where all church members get the opprotunity to actually practice singing, and learn a song, is in Primary. We no longer have song practice during Sunday School or any other meeting. No practice in singing harmony.

    This is compounded by the fact that our larger American culture is out of the habit of group singing. People who go to bars might get on the karaoke machine and embarrass themselves, but in American popular culture there are no songs suitable for group singing that we all know the words and melody to. We aren’t expected to be able to sing the songs of our universities. At a Christmas party, nobody wants to even assay a run at what used to be old favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Up On the Housetop”, or “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”. We don’t sing the National Anthem. There are not enough people who learn to play piano or guitar to accompany a family gathering or a party, and the player pianos that we used to gather around, squinting to read the words as they spun down the roll, are mostly antiques. We have electronic keyboards that play lots of songs, but they showcase the instrument, and don’t allow for sing-alongs of multiple verses.

    Given all the loss of the habit of group singing for the “silent majority”, it is surprising that anyone in a congregation besides those with choral training or instrumental music training ever get around to singing.

    My recollection of Japan when I was there on my mission circa 1970 was that the people there still had a tradition of group singing that was inculcated in school and which they resorted to at any Church party. Karaoke was invented in Japan because people already enjoyed singing at parties, not only solos but also in groups. Some things I have read indicate that Japan is going the way of the song-less USA. If so, that is sad.

    If I were the ward music coordinator, I would get together with the choir director and set up a program of deliberately teaching a specific hymn every month. I would have the choir practice it a couple of times, and then have it on the program every Sunday at some position for a month, with the choir members understanding that they were being asked to lead out. Maybe it would be the opening hymn, the “rest hymn”, or the hymn at the start of Priesthood and Relief Society and Young Women. And of course, I would want to ensure that the chorister and organist had practiced together leading the music at the speed indicated in the hymnal, if not faster. Perhaps the chorister could even be given a minute to introduce the song, tell some of its history and significance, to prompt the congregation to sing meaningfully.

  35. Paul on July 21, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    The music program of the church is defined by people who are in the older, slower, and quieter stage of their lives and they wish we were too. They are interested in background music for setting the scene for their reflections and revelations. Music best achieves its purpose as a vehicle for doctrine! Look at an excerpt from this talk from Elder Jay Jensen. Warnings about the risks of anything that smells like a performance, and advice about using your doctrine checker-offer while singing reverently. Listen carefully to the words chosen. The words that pop up are “responsibility–2X”, “approve”, “ensure”, “doctrine”, “reverence”, “softly”, “dignified”, “sacred”, “disappointment”, “diminish”. Are you being prepared to sing out? I think lots of what we have in the church comes from the repeated application of wet blankets. Of course we should be more reverent, of course we should be more spiritual. Of course music should be worshipful. Everything Elder Jensen says is true. But every talk about music includes wet blanket text and voila the sputtering fire of Mormon musicality and many a wet blanket local leader.

    From May 2007 General Conference:
    Music in Church meetings and classes should facilitate a spirit of worship, revelation, and testimony. For sacrament meetings, the bishopric or branch presidency is responsible to select or approve music. They ensure that the music, the words, and the musical instruments are sacred, dignified, and will promote worship and revelation. Music becomes a performance when it brings attention to itself. Years ago, I was responsible for the music in a meeting where a special musical number was a performance. It was a disappointment. The spirit of worship was diminished.

    Hymns Invite Revelation

    Hymns “create a feeling of reverence.”7 The words reverence and revelation are like twins who like each other’s company. When the Seventy and Presiding Bishopric are invited to meetings with the First Presidency and the Twelve, we are reminded to arrive early and reverently listen to prelude music. Doing so invites revelation and prepares us for the meeting.

    President Packer taught that a member who softly plays “prelude music from the hymnbook tempers our feelings and causes us to go over in our minds the lyrics which teach the peaceable things of the kingdom. If we will listen, they are teaching the gospel, for the hymns of the Restoration are, in fact, a course in doctrine!”8

  36. Paul on July 21, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Did you notice that? If your music appears to call attention to itsself, an important person will vividly remember it against you the rest of his life. Not many sins are in that category.

  37. Mark B. on July 21, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Sorry, RT Swenson. I don’t know if anyone else made it to the end of your comment, but those quoted words in your last paragraph qualify you for instant excommunication. (You may start calling singing “resting” when you start having the “rest sacrament” or a “rest prayer” somewhere in your meeting.) Music isn’t there for a kyukei. It’s the only communal worship we actually do–unless saying “Amen” counts. (Not for much–although it’s a good thing to do.)

    There’s a corollary to “not all the good worship music in the world is in the hymnal” and that is “the hymnal is intended for use in a lot of places other than worship services, and there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s not appropriate for sacrament meeting.”

    People who insist otherwise haven’t listened to the counsel of the church leaders about music, or haven’t read the introduction to the hymnal or the text of some of the songs in there.

  38. JamesM on July 21, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    My personal pet peeve is the fact that many men who sing with gusto in priesthood meetings refuse to sing out in mixed meetings (i.e. sacrament meeting). I don’t know what the explanation is, but it’s like there’s some manly man thing going and the guys don’t want to let on to the women that they’ll sing out…like we don’t want to give the women the satisfaction of seeing our emotions come out through the music or something. What a joke.

  39. MarenM on July 21, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    My Dad has one volume: vigorous. I try my best to follow his example. I figure if I can’t hear myself over everyone else, I’m not doing it right. (Not that others need to hear me over themselves- you understand.)

    Also, can I put in a plug for singing all the verses and not just the ones that fit between the two lines of music? Seriously, we’re missing some of the best parts of certain songs. The most glaring example is If You Could Hie to Kolob, but there are others as well: Sweet is the Work, The Iron Rod, How Firm a Foundation (did anyone else notice how we sang all 7 verses in last year’s RS General Meeting? Hooray!), Behold the Great Redeemer Die, Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire, Though Deepening Trials, etc. (Sorry for the threadjack.)

    RTS: we still practice singing unfamiliar hymns in our RS class. Are we behind the times? Do others no longer do so?

  40. Kristine on July 21, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    Actually, the MOST glaring example is 191–Behold the Great Redeemer Die, where not singing verses 5 & 6 means we leave Jesus on the cross.

  41. gomez on July 22, 2010 at 3:52 am

    A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief doesn’t make much sense unless you sing all 7 verses.

  42. Jos. Jr. on July 22, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Probably because mormon hymns are dull, difficult to sing dirges. First thing I noticed when I joined as a convert.

  43. Bob on July 22, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Remember ‘Sing Along With Mitch’? Mitch was on TV with groups of singers backing him up. There was a bouncing ball above a line of the song’s words. My mom would sit a home and try to out sing them. I have been in churches where this is done.
    Soooo, let’s set up a big screen, pipe in the big Church organ with the tabernacle choir..and try to out sing them?

  44. Mark B. on July 22, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Actually, the even MOST-ER glaring example is “Come Follow Me” where omitting the last two verses leaves you in the middle of a sentence, right after a dependent clause, no less.

    (Some earlier editions of the hymnbook actually had it punctuated correctly, with a comma after “If with the Lord we would be heirs”. But then someone must have awakened one day and said, Oh, no, we can’t end this song with a comma.”)

  45. Left Field on July 22, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Then there’s the Star-spangled Banner, where stopping after the first verse leaves you without the foggiest idea whether or not the flag still flies or whether Ft. McHenry has fallen to the British.

  46. Kenji on July 22, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    (SPOILER WARNING!)
    .
    .
    .
    It didn’t.

  47. BevP on July 22, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Odd that no one seems to have mentioned the second verse of Hymn 119 – “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God…”
    and the rest, “But servants of the heavenly King may speak their joys abroad”.
    I live in a small ward in the far southwest of England, and sometimes the singing, among folks many of whom have had no musical training and can’t read music, is glorious indeed. There are times when I am sure there are more people singing than the chapel can hold. Our tiny Relief Society sounds quite wonderful. What a privilege to be among people who love to sing the hymns of Zion.

  48. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 22, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    I put the term “rest hymn” in quotes because I don’t know any other term that identifies the typical congregational hymn in the middle of the Sacrament Meeting, following the first speaker. I appreciate it when the chorister invites us to stand up; a lot of us older folks have circulatory problems in our legs and they literally go to sleep. It’s not just the 2 year olds that fidget.

    One of the commentrs suggested we sing all the hymns standing. There is no question that we can breathe and sing better, not just louder, when we are standing. That’s why choirs stand while singing.

  49. Blain on July 22, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    22 — I always sing “…stain Illinois,” but I quite yoo-hooing unto Jesus about 1985 with grateful relief.

    24 — I know of a conscientious objector friend of mine. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him sing. His wife is one of the excellent organists in our ward former choir director and has an excellent singing voice. The whole family plays full-sized recorders quite well, and he served a tour as Primary chorister (he’s very good at mouthing the words and waving his arm correctly).

    27 — I’m at your level. Our recently-released bishop and one of his counselors were both participants in the choir, and that helped. A year or so ago, priesthood opening exercises included “Teach Me to Walk in the Light of His Love,” and the director requested the Aaronic priesthood to sing the first verse, the Melchizedek priesthood to sing the second, and everybody join in for the third. It was a little hokey in plan, and it failed miserably as the AP didn’t sing audibly. The singing counselor was conducting that week, and he chastised the AP for this and encouraged them to sing out. Not necessarily the best way to present it, but a good point, IMO.

    34 — Excellent points. My brother was in Sapporo in 1970 — he sent home pennants from Expo for me. Perhaps we should talk.

    38 — I sing out both places. I learned to really sing out when I was in a very small (Institute) choir, and, if I didn’t sing out, you couldn’t hear my part at all. I don’t have a great voice, but it’ll do. I’m happy to be outsung by those who have better voices, and I figure it makes a little cover for those who aren’t going to sing louder than what they hear.

    39 — I say “Hell, yes!” I’ve been visibly upset when good verses get dropped out — cutting down an intermediate hymn to just one verse really annoys me. I love all seven verses of How Firm a Foundation, but the refrain lines in verses 5 and 6 do require some attention, as they’re a beat short of text. 1-4 and 7 work quite well out of the box.

    45 — I was unable to sing that one this Independence Day. I got through the first verse, and lost it half-way through the second, and got somewhere in the middle of the third. I was too familiar with the events it recounted (thanks to the History Channel) and it was to emotional. So I stood and tried not to sob.

  50. Mark B. on July 22, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    “Intermediate hymn” works just fine. Though standing is in fact a useful break for all of us (and wonderfully concentrates the mind, and gives our diaphragms a chance to move, etc., etc.) “rest” carries with it the horrible implication that what we’re doing is just an interlude between the real meat of the worship service. And, sadly, too many of our congregants appear to have fallen into that heresy. A doctrine of devils, indeed.

    Words matter, and “rest” as a modifier of “hymn” should be consigned to the ashheap of history, the dunghill of false ideologies.

    And, please don’t take my joking about immediate excommunication seriously. Even if I were serious, what could I do? :)

  51. manaen on July 22, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    I always sing “energetically.” I figure it gives the other poor singers cover to also respond to the hymns — and the good singers feel compelled to step it up to cover my sounds.

  52. Jeremy on July 23, 2010 at 1:13 am

    Congregational music in the Church, in my experience, is dreadful and depressing. In my Utah County ward it not only fails to invite the spirit but I think it actively drives it away. It conveys a profound apathy. It is a seriously detriment, and a sad reflection on us as Church members.

    Part of it, I think, relates to our decades-long obsession with efficiency. That obsession has served us well in many ways–we’re good at building buildings at a breakneck pace, not to mention getting relief supplies to the far reaches of the Earth with lightning speed. But in all our efforts to do the Lord’s work efficiently, I think we have lost touch with the physical and emotional experience of worship. Worship, in my opinion, has a framework somewhat akin to an aesthetic state. And as our painted-cinderblock buildings attest, we’re just not that into beauty.

  53. Alison Moore Smith on July 23, 2010 at 1:21 am

    Kent, I’m a singer and I don’t sing out much. The hymns just bore me to tears. Except for maybe Called to Serve and a handful of others.

    Last week in Gospel Doctrine, an older woman told how she took her foster son’s iPod away because he was listening to “hip hop and all that trash.” I pondered whether or not I should pipe up with how much I love hip hop, the louder the better.

    Honestly, though, I think this starts at the top. The Mormon Tab (my sister and brother-in-law are in it, as well as half the people I was in A Cappella with at BYU, I love them, it’s not personal!) — whenever singing in conference, Spoken Word, etc., almost always stick to the gentle and ponderous. Only on tour and in “other” concerts do they do the best stuff (my opinion, of course).

    I’m totally with Gladys Knight. The music in the church is pretty boring. My sis wants me to join MoTab. That is so not happening. But Knight’s choir I would die for.

    Give me some spirituals and some gospel and let me clap and sway. I’d kill to sing Ain’t Got Time to Die or Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel in church. I’m telling you, that’s when the Spirit moves me.

  54. Kent Larsen on July 23, 2010 at 8:54 am

    Allison, the stodginess of the hymns in the hymnal is out of our control for the most part (baring a letter-writing campaign or something). There is probably some theory that explains how they get chosen — a least-common denominator in ability to conduct the spirit or something.

    But, I do think that the only way you’ll get to be able to sing the spirituals from the hymnal is if we sing music energetically, so that a larger portion of the Church sees energetic singing as conducive to the Spirit. [Of course, that will likely take decades].

  55. Gaila on July 23, 2010 at 9:25 am

    I don’t mind an intermediate labelled “rest.” To me it means the “pick-me-up” from the speeches we need “rest” from.

    And I’d like to blame a lot of this very real problem on two things. Bringing up children with any serious degree of music training has gone the way of farm chores. (No real skill developed because it’s not a “have to” anymore.) So we’re suffering some from the shrunken pool of those who can lead us, both literally and among those who direct/dictate “what is best.” (Keep it dull instead of any hint of performance.) And secondly, I agree, community singing has disappeared. How long has it been since you’ve sung My Grandfather’s Clock or She’s Coming ‘Round the Mountain When She Comes? (Toot-toot.)

  56. Nathan on July 24, 2010 at 10:16 am

    I’m one of those piano players now faking it on the organ. In my current ward there are four people who “volunteer” to play the organ; we all have other callings. The other three “organists” are also piano players, whom I gave a five minute organ-playing-crash-course lesson to (which I received from my mother, who really does play the organ). I don’t play the foot pedals, I don’t mess with stops. I don’t claim to be an organist. In our ward we have not had a ward choir functioning for years. Our choristers have not had any particular conducting ability and follow the organ more often than not (and usually don’t sing). We definitely don’t do ourselves much service when the music roles are haphazardly filled as side jobs. I do make an effort to keep volume a little up and the tempo where I enjoy singing (upper end of recommended, if not a touch faster).

    I have always been involved in music. I have had to make a conscientous effort to not be critical of others musical ability (my own flaw). As I have improved in this area, I realized I personally miss a lot in the message of the music as I worry about technical points too much. What I have begun thinking is congregational singing is one of the best times to obviously experience Zion (at least being unified). It should help us to realize what unity is like when listening to a sermon, participating in a class, partaking the sacrament, or praying. If we are to ever establish Zion we need to stop making personal decisions for our own personal reasons. We need to take opportunities to participate as a group. The different way to think of the question about singing could be:

    “I will sing not because I’m a good singer, but because it will unite me with my brothers and sisters in the congregation.”
    or
    “I will not sing, not becuase I have no vocal ability, but because I have no interest in joining with this congregation in their worship.”

  57. Steve Sluder on July 28, 2010 at 12:48 am

    Kent – Amen, Amen and AMEN!!!!

    In my opinion, the main thing missing in our church music is emotion. A friend told me about her ancestor who joined the church early in the restoration and described the feeling as “fire in my bones”. Do we feel fire in our bones as we sing the hymns? Do we contemplate the sublime concepts expressed in the words of the hymns? “I Stand All Amazed” should bring tears and profound gratitude for the Savior, EVERY time we sing it.

    I’ve been a member of the Saints Unified Voices choir for almost 8 years and have participated in more than 150 musical missionary firesides from coast to coast. President Hinckley was our greatest proponent, having encouraged Sister Knight to organize the choir and share her musical heritage with the church. Black Gospel music is filled with emotion. Few people outside of Utah have any idea what is going on musically in the rest of the church. As more and more persons of color come into the church, they bring their traditions and music. If you attend church in Atlanta or the inner city of St Louis or Harlem, you just might hear a choir singing an upbeat, gospel song in Sacrament meeting. I’ve lived in Utah for the past 4 years and have been disappointed with the lack of acceptance for anything just a little bit upbeat or soulful in church.

    One Sunday, I tried to explain it to a brother in the High Priests group. I told him that I knew from personal experience that a person could feel the spirit with loud and energetic gospel music. His response was the spirit only comminicates in a “still, small voice” and that what I felt was NOT the spirit of the Lord. I’m convinced that some folks would be happy if we limited church music to a capella Gregorian chants.

    I can only add… Sing Out and make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord!

  58. Blain on July 28, 2010 at 1:26 am

    57 — Good points. And cool — I’ve been a fan of Saints United for a long time. I wish y’all were closer so I could join in. I love Southern Gospel music, and talked about creating a Mormon Southern Gospel Choir just so I could sing in it (but I don’t know how).

    The Holy Ghost is not a wimp. He’s not scared of guitar music, nor a little clapping and swaying. He’s been there for me in some places where the inside of my head was a lot worse than a little clapping and swaying.

  59. Allisan on July 28, 2010 at 11:18 am

    To quote Steve Sluder,

    “In my opinion, the main thing missing in our church music is emotion.”

    I need to respectfully disagree. I don’t think anyone who’s ever been to one of our fast and testimony meetings would ever doubt the abilities of the LDS to publicly express emotion. No, I think too often we mix up emotion with feeling the Spirit, when really they are two very different things. Remember, the Lord was not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in the still small voice. That’s why we don’t shout and clap in our meetings, because reverence brings the Spirit more surely than emotion does.

    If anything is lacking in our worship, especially the music, it’s sincerity, not emotion.

  60. Steve Sluder on July 28, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Gee Allison… you sound amazingly like the brother in my High Priest’s Group!

    Crying while bearing your testimony is not the kind of emotion I’m talking about. Emotion is the result of feeling the spirit, not the cause of it. I have experienced the shouting and clapping (in our chapels) that you disparage. I hate to tell you this, but the spirit of the Lord was there in abundance. Sister Knight describes it best when she says that the mere mention of the name “Jesus” makes her want to move and shout. You may think it disingenuous of people who claim to be “moved” by the spirit in this way, but I am telling you it is just as real as anything you may feel from the still, small voice. There is definitely more than one way to feel the spirit.

    Your comments are evidence that there are some folks who just don’t get it… sadly.

    See here: http://www.linescratchers.com/?p=678

  61. Allisan on July 28, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    Sorry to have offended you so much to have put you on the attack, Steve. I grew up in Baltimore, I love bible-belt gospel music with a passion. You’re right, and I didn’t mean to infer that you can’t feel the Spirit while clapping and shouting. Of course, you can feel the Spirit doing all kinds of different things, but we don’t do all of them in the chapel during Sacrament meeting. I’m inclined to trust Church leadership in the kinds of music they’ve specified for use in our most important and sacred meetings of worship. If I was’t, I wouldn’t waste any time grumbling about it, I’d just go sing for someone else’s church.