My Sacrament Meeting Talk on Music
A few weeks ago I was asked to speak in my ward sacrament meeting on the role of music in our worship services. I’ve talked about music in many stake music workshops but this is the first time I’ve actually done it in a sacrament meeting. I thought I’d share it with you….
The Role of Music in our Worship Services
My second day in the mission field was spent taking a 3 hour train ride from Barcelona, Spain to a town near Valencia. As I stepped off the train my district was there to greet me…my new companion, 4 Elders, and a missionary couple. Before they even said hello they asked me if I could play the piano. Apparently they were desperate in that small branch. They hadn’t had a pianist in quite some time and the members were anxious to have accompaniment in their meetings. When I replied that yes, I was a pianist, they informed me that I would be teaching piano classes starting in a couple of days. Wow, I could barely speak the language and I was expected to know a whole new set of vocabulary words that the MTC had not taught me like quarter note, half note, measure, and rest. I left those 7 students and that area 6 months later not knowing if I had made any impact on those budding pianists, It wasn’t until several years later when I received an email from the mother of one of those students letting me know that her son was the pianist for all of the ward and stake events. His parents made the great financial sacrifice to get him the additional musical training he needed. I was impressed by those families’ willingness to save up their money in order to purchase pianos or keyboards so their children could practice at home the hymns that they had been learning in their lessons. These were not families of great means but music was important to the members of that branch, so important that every Sunday night at 6:00 they all showed up for choir practice. It was the social event of the week. I remember working with that branch choir that typically sang in unison. They didn’t believe me at first, but I somehow convinced them that they were capable of singing two part harmony. We divided the men from the women, worked on their parts and when they were able to put it all together singing in harmony they were absolutely thrilled. Every two weeks when the choir performed they did so for their children because in that congregation of 50 there was not one adult that wasn’t on stage singing in the choir. The experience serving in that small branch of Castellón, Spain helped me gain a greater appreciation for the music in our worship services. These members were willing to sacrifice much for their music.
What does the music in our Sunday services mean to us? Are we full participants or do we ignore the call to “lift up your voice and sing”?
Dallin H. Oaks told of an experience he had visiting a sacrament meeting…
“I had finished a special assignment on a Sunday morning in Salt Lake City and desired to attend a sacrament meeting. I stopped at a convenient ward meetinghouse and slipped unnoticed into the overflow area just as the congregation was beginning to sing these sacred words of the sacrament song:
’Tis sweet to sing the matchless love
Of Him who left his home above
And came to earth—oh, wondrous plan
To suffer, bleed, and die for man!
My heart swelled as we sang this worshipful hymn and contemplated renewing our covenants by partaking of the sacrament. Our voices raised the concluding strains:
For Jesus died on Calvary,
That all thru him might ransomed be.
Then sing hosannas to his name;
Let heav’n and earth his love proclaim.
As we sang these words, I glanced around at members of the congregation and was stunned to observe that about a third of them were not singing. How could this be? Were those who did not even mouth the words suggesting that for them it was not “sweet to sing the matchless love” or to “sing hosannas to his name”? What are we saying, what are we thinking, when we fail to join in singing in our worship services?”
In the Preface to our hymnbook the First Presidency states: “Inspirational music is an essential part of our church meetings. The hymns invite the Spirit of the Lord, create a feeling of reverence, unify us as members, and provide a way for us to offer praises to the Lord. Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns. Hymns move us to repentance and good works, build testimony and faith, comfort the weary, console the mourning, and inspire us to endure to the end.”
I brought a non-member friend, an opera singer, to a Christmas concert by the Orange County Mormon Choral Organization. She was really enjoying the music and afterward expressed how much she loved and was impressed by the choir’s performance of Magnificat, a very difficult and gorgeous classical piece often sung by choirs in the academia world. However inspiring she found that song, it was actually the final number, “I Believe in Christ” which caused tears to flow down her cheeks. As an Evangelical Christian she would likely not have heard that uniquely Mormon hymn before, yet the power of the doctrine in the words and music were overwhelming causing an undeniable emotional response.
We too can have powerful spiritual experiences when we listen to and sing the hymns, the primary songs, or other inspired music.
One Sunday I attended a sacrament meeting in another stake. My piano student was presenting the musical selection, a piano arrangement of a well-known hymn. He had spent several weeks practicing and preparing. It’s not easy for a 16-year-old boy to do something like that in front of his church friends so I was there to lend my support. I slipped in and sat on the back row. The ward was a little noisy. (But I think we all get a little spoiled in our ward which tends to be so reverent.) I was certain though, that things would quiet down when he began to play. After all he was well prepared and played so beautifully. I thought, surely this hymn would help invite the spirit into the meeting because after all, that’s what music does. As we heard the first few notes coming from the piano people started standing up, lots of people, and they walked out. Most of them were children and teenagers, perhaps wanting a drink of water or to stretch their legs or something. Two women sitting next to me had been chatting during the first speaker and they continued to chat during the musical number. When it became apparent they weren’t going to be quiet I tapped them on the shoulder and went shh. They stopped talking. While I said nothing, inside of me was crying, “Don’t you understand what you are missing? You are missing out on the best part of the meeting, an opportunity to feel the spirit. This is not an intermission, a chance for a restroom break, a time to chat with your neighbor. This is your opportunity to listen, to review of the words to the hymn in your head, to allow yourself to feel the Spirit of the Lord, and to teach your children to do the same.”
President J. Ruben Clark said “We can get nearer to the Lord through music than perhaps any other thing except prayer.”
I believe the music we allow into our homes has a direct impact on the quality of the music in our worship services and in our ability to feel the spirit when listening to sacred music. If children and youth are exposed to nothing more than modern rock, country, or hip-hop music at home they are less likely to understand a higher level of music, instead thinking of spiritual and reverent music at church as boring, dull, and lacking a dance beat. As I drive my kids around to their various activities I usually have music playing in the car. I’ve always loved listening to the radio but as my children have gotten older I’ve become increasingly aware of the lyrics and have found myself changing stations frequently due to inappropriate content. We discovered something wonderful that we bought for each car, a cheap little convertor that plugs right into the tape deck making it possible to listen to an iPod in the car (that tells you a little about the age of our cars.) After getting this fabulous contraption, we’ve been able to listen to the music we put on our iPods rather than leave what we listen to in the hands of some random radio employee. We’ve listened to Beethoven Symphonies, Chopin Concertos and hymns performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. There is a peacefulness present during our drives…a noticeable lack of yelling, teasing and contention, replaced by love, patience, and the spirit.
Elder Douglass Calister of the Seventy said: “If we could peek behind the heavenly veil we would likely be inspired by the music of heaven, perhaps more glorious than any music we have heard on this earth.
When some music has passed the tests of time and been cherished by the noble and refined, our failure to appreciate it is not an indictment of grand music. The omission is within. If a young person grows up on a steady diet of hamburgers and french fries, he is not likely to become a gourmet. But the fault is not with fine food. He just grew up on something less. Some have grown up on a steady diet of musical french fries.”
Gordon B. Hinckley said, “Enjoy music. Not the kind that rocks and rolls, but the music of the masters, the music that has lived through the centuries, the music that has lifted people. If you do not have a taste for it, listen to it thoughtfully. If you do not like it the first time, listen to it again and keep listening. It will be something like going to the temple. the more often you go, the more beautiful will be the experience.”
Let us allow the music in our homes to supplement the music in our worship services. LDS.org has an abundance of resources available. On that website you can listen to the hymns and Primary songs. You can learn how to sing the hymns including the parts using the interactive Church music player. You can even learn how direct the hymns using the interactive conducting course. On LDS.org you can order the hymns and Primary songs on CD, or purchase hymnbooks and Children’s Songbooks, and they are all very inexpensive. Our current hymnbook was published 27 years ago, and yet still there are many hymns that are unfamiliar to us. Why? Let us challenge ourselves to learn these hymns, sing them in our homes, teach them to our children and listen to recordings of them.
In my home we sing various hymns for Family Home Evening. Several months ago we opened the hymnbook to “Welcome Welcome Sabbath Morning”, not exactly the hymn you’d choose for a Monday night and it wan’t even familiar to our kids. But, we sang it anyway. It became my son Jonathan’s favorite hymn. He memorized the words and taught himself to play it on the piano. Abby reported that Jonathan and Madeline would sing “Welcome Welcome Sabbath Morning” at the top of their lungs as they walked to school each morning. I wonder what the neighbors thought.
Hark! the Sabbath bells are ringing;
Hear the echoes all around.
List! the merry children singing!
What a pleasing, joyful sound!
Ev’ry tender note entreats us,
Bids us come, nor longer stay.
On our way the music greets us;
Hasten, hasten, come away.
We know very little about what our role will be once we leave this life. But we do know that it will involve singing and choirs.
In 1 Nephi 1:8, Nephi spoke of his father’s dream, “he saw the heaven’s open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.”
In Mosiah 2:28, King Benjamin preparing for his death says, “at this period of time when I am about to go down to my grave, that I may join the choirs above in singing the praises of a just God.”
One Sunday evening I received a phone call from my brother who had moved to New York City and had just attended sacrament meeting in his new ward. He was so excited because he had never experienced music in a sacrament meeting quite like what he encountered that day. It was about the singing. He said, “everyone sings, LOUD!”. He was blown away by their enthusiasm, their volume, and especially the fact that everyone was singing. His wife received a welcome packet in Relief Society with a letter that read, “You’ve probably noticed that this ward loves to sing. We hope you’ll join with us and sing with vim and vigor”. When Joe and I visited New York we were so anxious to witness the musical phenomenon of the Manhattan 1st Ward, and we were not disappointed. The organ began (and if you think I play loud, I have nothing on that organist) and every single person in the congregation held their hymnbooks high and started to sing. I have never in my life heard a congregation sing with such power, such intensity, such enthusiasm. It gave me chills and I became emotional. The spirit was very strong in that sacrament meeting that day, I think in part due to the fact that every member was engaged in the music of the meeting.
My hope is that we as members of this ward, we will more fully participate in the music of our meetings. With careful planning it is not difficult to arrive a little early to sacrament meetings, to sit quietly in the chapel listening to the hymn preludes, allowing ourselves to be spiritually prepared for our most sacred meeting of the week. It is a simple thing to open the hymnbook and sing the words, teaching our children to do the same. It is not hard to listen to the musical numbers performed in our meetings with reverence and respect, listening to the words, allowing ourselves to feel the spirit. And for those who enjoy singing or want to learn how to sing better, it is an easy thing to stay after church an extra 45 minutes to sing with the choir.
The Lord, upon giving instruction to Emma Smith for the creation of a hymnbook said, “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me an it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads. Wherefore, lift up thy heart and rejoice.”