Performance and Worship

November 10, 2010 | 25 comments
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musicI once almost joined the ward choir. What’s surprising about this is that I don’t actually sing.

I had just returned to Urbana from a year of research in Germany. As is usually the case, the transition went badly. Before the year abroad, I had been a student taking classes, but now I was teaching and trying to launch a dissertation. There was unexpected financial turbulence. Our townhouse had issues with its structural integrity. At church, several friends had moved out of the ward, and my calling was not a good fit. As the only Americans in our German ward, we had felt connected and integrated, but now we felt lonely surrounded by student families just like us.

One highlight at church was the ward choir. It had the usual mix of talented and enthusiastic singers you would expect to find in a large ward. The difference lay in the choir director, Andrew Larson, then a doctoral student in choral conducting. He knew exactly what the choir was capable of, and what pieces they could perform, and what the members of the congregation were prepared to hear. The choir sang everything from hymn arrangements to Bach, but whatever it was, Andrew got the choir to sing to its maximum potential.

I wanted to join. Andrew made clear that everyone was welcome, regardless of ability, and after church one week I decided that I might just give it a try. Spiritually, I needed something, and the choir looked like it.

That’s the week my wife told me, “I think I’m going to stay after church for choir practice next week.”

Now, my wife has actual vocal talent and choir experience, and we had two small children who needed tending, so that put an end to my choir fantasies. My contribution instead was to watch over the choir nursery, the half-dozen or dozen children who rampaged through the nursery room while their parents had choir practice. If that was my way to contribute to the choir, I was content with it.

I did sing once under Andrew Larson’s direction. The men of the ward were asked to perform a musical number for ward conference, and Andrew led us in an arrangement of “Hope of Israel.” Ever since a bad experience with a stake primary choir, I had associated choir practice with the director yelling that we were singing wrong. Wrong. WRONG!, and that the most important thing of all was that we all stood up in unison. But Andrew could tell a room full of rank amateurs exactly what to do with their mouths and noses and other assorted body parts so that we would sound better. And it worked! The men’s choir sounded so good that we hit the big time—an invited performance in stake priesthood meeting.

Perhaps what says the most about Andrew Larson’s ability is that the choir’s greatest performance, of the Thomas Tallis motet “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” came when Andrew himself was absent. You might say that Andrew had taught the choir correct principles, and then he let them direct themselves. Shortly afterwards, and a year before we left Illinois, Andrew accepted a faculty position at Stetson University.

How do you find someone to replace a choir director like Andrew? The answer is you grab someone new to the ward who doesn’t know any better. The new choir director was earnest, and most choir members continued to participate.

But what the new choir director once said during Sunday School still irritates me: The purpose of the choir was not musical performance, he said, but rather to feel the Spirit. It’s not an uncommon idea, and it’s reinforced by the often re-told (and occasionally re-enacted) story about the visiting general authority who instructs an organist to play a number appropriate for the chapel rather than the concert hall. It’s even sometimes correct; a false dichotomy can be right twice a day, and there are musical selections that are truly bad fits for the setting or the audience. ***cough Hallelujah Chorus cough***

But I believe it’s a mistake to think of performance as an obstacle to spiritual experience. I prefer to think of it instead as an accommodation of the weaknesses of people such as me whose aesthetic and spiritual senses are not neatly separated, and who are liable to miss the spiritual message in a song poorly sung or in a mechanical recitation of unoriginal ideas. I recognize my obligation to learn all I can from whoever is speaking or singing, and I appreciate the struggles of people who are not used to speaking or performing in church. But at times there are spiritual moments that some people will only experience, and devotional messages that some people will only hear, if they are presented with all the skill and preparation that the performer is capable of.

25 Responses to Performance and Worship

  1. Ardis E. Parshall on November 10, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Oh, I heart this. The only time I ever sang in a choir was the brief time in the MTC under Elder Kase (Kasen? something like that), who could take total amateurs, and ones he could only work with for at most two months, and make a choir out of us where for the only time in my life I felt I was actually producing music. He was that good.

    A few weeks ago I ran across an old Church News article about my current ward’s choir in the early 1950s — they had 50 members and were winning awards all over the place, and were tackling some great pieces, according to the list in the paper, apparently successfully. I was excited about that and mentioned it to my visiting teacher, who is our current director of a 10- or 15-member choir. I guess it sounded like I was criticizing the current choir — I wasn’t — and I got the same prim sniff you report: “Well, our purpose is not to produce great music but to bring the Spirit into the meeting.” Those are mutually exclusive ends?

    I dunno. I agree with you that skillful performance is no barrier to Spirit, whether in music or teaching or speaking or organizing. Do we pretend otherwise because it protects the feelings of the ungifted who try? or to provide an excuse for those who could do better but don’t make the effort? or something else?

  2. James Olsen on November 10, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Thanks Jonathan. I really agree on the ‘false dichotomy’ bit. If the entire (or perhaps even primary) purpose of choir (or sacrament meeting, or Sunday School, etc.) is merely to feel the spirit, then there’s really no reason to attend if one can (and who can’t?) “feel the spirit” more powerfully in other ways.

  3. Kevin Barney on November 10, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Illinois has a great music program, so we always had gifted musicians. As I recall, when I was in Urbana our choir director was also a doctoral student in music (specifically in choir direction, if I’m remembering it right), and he similarly was absolutely terrific. And you’re right, that false dichotomy is just silly.

  4. Bob G. on November 10, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    My wife and I were almost in the same boat. In our case, the ward choir director asked both of us to be in the choir, but we had two small kids, so I volunteered to babysit while my wife went to sing.

    As it happened, my wife kept telling the ward choir director what a good tenor I was, so the director asked a young woman in the ward to watch our kids every Sunday morning as a service project so that both me and my wife could be in choir.

  5. Paul on November 10, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Hear! Hear! “Inviting the spirit” should never be the excuse for shoddy performance. In fact, we should offer our very BEST to invite the spirit into our meetings.

  6. RogerDodger on November 11, 2010 at 7:12 am

    Not to worry. Nobody sings anymore. Nobody knows the newer hymns. We don’t have song practice. Music has taken a back seat. I feel like stopping off at my local protestant church on the way to Sacrament meeting just so I can get my music fix.

  7. jkimballcook on November 11, 2010 at 9:01 am

    The problem, I think, is not in striving for excellence in performance. The problem is when the performance is about the performer rather than the worship. Also, I think that the point of music in worship services is not just to feel the spirit—as others have noted, there are other, more effective ways to feel the spirit without coming to sacrament meeting at all—the point is to feel the spirit together as a community.

    Every so often we’ll get a kid who performs a piano or organ piece in sacrament meeting that isn’t a hymn at all. Maybe it is a piece that has words that are worshipful, but since it isn’t a familiar hymn, not many in the congregation know that and they miss the worshipful aspect of it. Or maybe it is a secular piece, some can surely feel the spirit in good performance of music that isn’t necessarily spiritual. But the point is that if it isn’t accompanied with some worshipful text, or if it isn’t a familiar text that most in the congregation will know by implication, it isn’t worshipful to most of the congregation. While some may feel the spirit, they are feeling it alone and not as a community. The point of communal worship is therefore lost.

    Worship should not be used as an excuse to not give the best performance we can. But at the same time, excellence should not be used as an excuse to give performances that are more about the performer than the worship. So while I agree that the dichotomy is false, it may not be a precisely accurate statement of the real concern.

  8. Aaron R. on November 11, 2010 at 9:29 am

    ‘The problem is when the performance is about the performer rather than the worship.’

    The issue I take with this idea is that music which moves me has often, first, moved the performed; hence it is not inappropriate for their efforts to be a performance of the effect that this piece has had upon them. Surely as a community we can just as effectively feel that spirit of worship in something unfamiliar as something familiar. I do not know why we have to separate the performer from the performance. That’s the equivalent of asking good speakers (i.e. E. Holland) to tone it down because we may get caught up in the rhetoric rather than the message.

  9. Aaron R. on November 11, 2010 at 9:34 am

    ‘moved the performer’

  10. Tim on November 11, 2010 at 10:09 am

    I think jkimballcook is saying there’s a problem when the performer cares more about showing off than sharing something beautiful. I haven’t seen this occur too often, but it does happen sometimes. For example, I remember one missionary companion who showed off by jazzing up “Be Still My Soul.” Epic Fail.

    Honestly, though, I’ve only seen that kind of behavior a handful of times. Right now, I’d be happy to have a little bit of showing off if it meant our ward could have an actual choir. But when 60 in Sacrament Meeting is a good showing, and almost everyone who’d like to be in choir is busy with a demanding leadership calling, that’s not going to happen.

  11. Tim on November 11, 2010 at 10:14 am

    And I disagree with jkimballcook in comment 7 unless the behavior he talks about is taken to extreme. The spirit doesn’t just like “church-approved” music, and sometimes hearing music we don’t know the words to can still be moving for the majority of a congregation.

  12. Owen on November 11, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Yeah, and the motab accepts people who can’t sing…

  13. WillF on November 11, 2010 at 10:51 am

    I just hope more people choose to learn how to perform music. Our new stake center has an electric piano in the Relief Society Room and an organ in the Chapel that have all the hymns pre-programmed into them. On one hand, it is really convenient when a pianist/organist isn’t available, on the other hand, it does nothing to motivate people to learn to play piano or organ. This raises the question in my mind: can a recording convey the Spirit as effectively as a live performance? I note no, but then I am a biased pianist/musical Luddite.

  14. Aaron R. on November 11, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Tim, I don’t think I misunderstood jkimballcook’s comment. My point is that I am not wholly convinced that we can separate out the effort to perform from wanting to share something beautiful. It is the view that these two situations are mutually exclusive, which is so often promulgated, that is stifling the musical culture in our wards; and why you sense that it would be desirable to have a little more showing off.

  15. Mark Brown on November 11, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    I hate it when the tabernacle organist shows off in general conference by pulling out all the stops and giving those pipes a workout, especially when he performs unfamiliar classical works. And that choir, holy cow, why do they always have to make up new and unfamiliar “Mack Wilberg” arrangements with all those key changes and contrapuntal chord movements? It is clear that they are just showing off, since obviously the old, familiar arrangements aren’t good enough for them.

  16. AndrewJDavis on November 11, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Jonathan, Thanks for bringing this point up. I second the fact that Andrew Larson is a great director — my wife and I sang with him at BYU when he was doing his masters degree there. I have to admit that as I’ve been directing our Stake Choir for almost 3 years now, I have at times said the same thing: that our purpose isn’t just to make good music. You’ve made me re-think why I say that. I think the answer lies in a personal experience.

    As a graduate student, I have sung in a choir affiliated with my (non-religious) university for a few years. We sang many choral masterpieces, as well as many pieces with overtly religious themes. However, there was something lacking as we sang — a conviction of the message. We sang a piece called “I Believe” about how I believe in God even when he is silent. But it was obvious that most of the singers in this 70 person choir didn’t actually believe. They missed at least half the point of the piece. Yes, we sang it well, and it had great musical themes, but there was still something lacking every time we performed it. That lack is what I want my stake choir to fill. Yes, I expect a lot of them, and I expect them to do it right. I expect them to take risks and to sing out, even if they are wrong. I expect them to come regularly, and sing with proper posture, diction, vowels, breathing, and to sing beautifully. But, mostly, I expect them to bare their soul together in a setting where we as a choir strengthen each other. If they failed at this last part, then I think I have failed as a director.

  17. Marcus on November 11, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Word of mouth …. I cannot corroborate … but I once heard from Stephen Brower, formerly at the helm somewhere at BYU-Hawaii, and later a high-councillor in my BYU ward, that aGA of former years by the name of Bennion said, “What this church needs is better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it.” True or not …. just pass it on. I don’t even care if it’s apocryphal!

  18. Marcus on November 11, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Addendum …. I found the reference …. Adam S. Bennion …used to say, “What we need in this church is better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it” (see Sterling W. Sill, Leadership, vol. 3 [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1978], p. 288)

  19. harpchil on November 11, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    My dad was in MoTab when they were rehearsing a piece with Robert Shaw. As they were working out some of the technical details of the piece, he alluded to the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove, but “the dove won’t stay in a cage that’s dirty.”

    And now I’m in a ward where the three most musically inclined men are the EQ pres, the executive secretary and a Gospel Doctrine teacher. Rehearsals are held for about 10 minutes immediately following church, which means those three aren’t able to break free of their other stuff before rehearsal ends. Sigh.

  20. Morgan on November 11, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    So happy to have read this post. While I am not yet a doctoral student, I do have a masters degree in choral conducting. I have had the opportunity to be the director of wonderful ward choirs. The thing is, there is nothing better than directing a church choir (and I would extend this beyond just LDS choirs.) When you have those who have been singing most their lives (i.e. primary singing time, etc,) it’s not hard to get them to produce a good sound. But beyond that, they have a conviction for that which they are singing about. The technique plus the emotion can create something rarely felt in our services.

    One of my least favorite comments I hear from people is, “Well, it is just a ward choir after all.” Why does being a ward choir give us permission to strive for mediocrity? An unrehearsed ward choir is the equivalent of an unprepared talked or a hastily thrown together Sunday School lesson. And I’m sure we can all agree we would rather sit through a well-prepared lesson or talk. We have SO much talent in the church that goes untapped. It’s rather disheartening at times.

    RE: Comment #7 – Not be contentious, but I can’t help but whole-heartedly disagree. The times I’ve had my inbox filled with “Thank you I really felt the spirit” comments, or an unusual barrage of complements on a choir performance (dare I use that word?) were not times I directed an arrangement of a hymn, but times I introduced the choir and congregation to a new piece. We do not have a closed cannon on our music in the church and we should not act as though we do. When we perform only hymns, we close off the diversity of the spirit through music that will reach those who are new to our faith, new to our culture, or who want to scream if they ever hear “Because I Have Been Given Much” one more time! I think when David O McKay “If it’s beyond their reach, let them reach for it,” it can be applied to music in the church as well as doctrine.

    Let us all strive to better the music in the church, thus enriching our worship services, thus enriching our lives!

  21. kristine N on November 11, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    There is nothing more distracting from the spirit than poorly performed music. I’d rather a performer do a good job, even if it is about him/her, because I’m more likely to feel the spirit if I’m not distracted by off-key singing, lack of rhythm, bad tone, or any of the other myriad things people do and don’t do that contribute to poor performance.

  22. jkimballcook on November 11, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Tim and Aaron,

    I think we are closer on this issue than you might think from reading our comments. I don’t think we should avoid unfamiliar music, or good music. All I’m saying is that there is a little more to the concern underlying these attitudes than just the false dichotomy that Jonathan identified.

  23. Kristine on November 12, 2010 at 12:00 am

    I think it’s odd that when members of the congregation are unmoved by a talk, we most often blame it on the listener’s failure of attentiveness or charity, but we blame the musician if the congregation isn’t moved by a musical offering.

  24. Mystic Michael on November 12, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Boy, can I relate to this! Our ward recently lost a talented, skilled, highly-experienced choir director – very much in the Andrew Larson mold – who finally asked to be released because he could no longer endure the petty sniping from some of the members (who resist any challenge and change), and the lack of strong, resolute leadership from the bishop. As a result I, as the choir president, have also asked to be released.

    Together we had developed a bold blueprint for excellence of musicianship, combined with an aggressive agenda for community performance & community engagement. The bishop wants the community engagement. But he’s afraid of the excellent musicianship – and the measures that are necessary in order to achieve it.

    Once again, the forces of orthodoxy, mediocrity and fear have triumphed. If it is indeed true that “…the glory of God is intelligence”, then why is there comparatively so little of it in the Church?

  25. document on November 22, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I know that I am writing this 10 days after the last post, but I couldn’t resist. I haven’t been lurking for 10 days because I had a baby born on the 12th!

    Anyway, two favorite quotes from here:

    “I think it’s odd that when members of the congregation are unmoved by a talk, we most often blame it on the listener’s failure of attentiveness or charity, but we blame the musician if the congregation isn’t moved by a musical offering.”

    “That’s the equivalent of asking good speakers (i.e. E. Holland) to tone it down because we may get caught up in the rhetoric rather than the message.”

    Amen. A-men. A-(freaking)-men.

    I struggle with the performance concept in the church. As an organist, I generally don’t follow the baptist approach to the organ and change much around except registration during congregational singing. But special musical numbers are not hymns by nature. I played, during Christmas season, “Lord Christ, God’s Only Son”, an Advent hymn prelude from Das Orgelbuchlein by Bach. We have a small 16 rank pipe organ here. Prior to performing the piece, I went to the front, read the lyrics for context, then played the prelude. It made all the difference in the world. I think to play a Bach piece (other than Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) for a congregation without lyrical context will confuse them as to the purpose of the music.

    But then again, my ward here is a little different than my previous. When I was choir director in my previous ward, we had two rules, #1, no Janice Kapp Perry, and #2, no Sally Deford. OK, it was more of a UOT. It was amazing sometimes the responses we would get from choir numbers we would perform. At Christmas time nobody blinked when we sang “O Holy Night”. Yet, at Easter we sang “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown” directly from the Hymn book, and had numerous complaints that we were “drifting” from the hymn book. Again, we sang “I Believe in Christ” to the tune of Ave Verum (with organ, it was wonderful), with nothing but compliments and tears, but “Behold, the Great Redeemer Die” put to Ave Maria brought in complaints.

    The rule goes that if someone in the congregation doesn’t feel the spirit that day, then you are obviously performing.