Song Practice: Not Music to Our Ears

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“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all Song Practice Ladies, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”—Fabricated Quote from Joseph Smith circa 1842.  Today’s guest post is by Matt Workman.

I was in the MTC when it happened, so it caught me by surprise when I was released back into the general population. I was sitting in Sacrament Meeting in an uncomfortable suit and things were going according to the usual pattern: song, prayer, business, sacrament, talks, music, talk, song, prayer.

When the final “amen” was hit, I was getting ready to stand up and leave the chapel when I was stopped in my tracks by a voice that said, “Thank you for coming out to Sunday School today, our opening song will be hymn number 149, and after that Brother Johnson will give the opening prayer and we’ll start song practice.”

Where to start?

First off, I was a little puzzled to be thanked for coming out to Sunday School. Truth is, I hadn’t really come out to Sunday School, I had merely failed to leave the chapel before this new guy got up and started speaking. Secondly, is 75 minutes not long enough to be sitting in once place watching something that’s not exploding? Were there complaints that Sacrament Meeting wasn’t long enough?

Whatever the case, I was stuck in some sort of “Groundhog Day” scenario where the past hour of my life seemed to be replaying, albeit with slight alterations.

While the changes in the meetings were all done under the guise of the Sunday School organization, it was clearly a power grab by the hymnal industrial complex and their newly minted foot soldiers, the song practice ladies. After the prayer and announcements of dubious importance, the song practice lady would get up and lead the congregation in songs that even the most faithful Mormon may not have known was in the hymnal. And no matter how famous or obscure, the song practice ladies almost always favored the longer hymns.

(Note to concerned readers: the term “song practice lady” isn’t really politically correct, I know. But come on, they were always ladies. There were never any “Song Practice Guys.”)

By the early 1990s, renegade song practice ladies were even leading congregations in what could only be described as analog versions of what would now be called mash-ups.

Example: “Did you know that you can sing ‘Dear to the Heart of the Sheppard,’ a hymn you’ve never heard of to the tune of ‘School Thy Feelings,’ another hymn you’ve never heard of. Why don’t you all get out your hymnals and give it a try…”

After a while my friends and I figured out that you could sing, “If You Could Hie to Kolob” to the tune of the theme from the Beverly Hillbillies. No song practice lady ever took us up on our offer to teach the ward this during song practice.

By the late 1990s, the tyrannical reign of the song practice ladies was over and we could all go back to standing up and walking out of the chapel after the closing prayer ends, like normal people. But some remnants of that era remain.

For instance, whenever a new ward chorister is installed, that person will almost immediately start grabbing more real estate in the church program. The most blunt instrument in the takeover is “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” which is almost always deployed during the first week of a new chorister’s tenure. When combined with “I Believe of Christ,” and conducted at a dirge-like pace, the opening and closing hymns can easily eat up 20 minutes of a church service. Then come the directives that the ward will be singing all the verses of the longer hymns, even the loser verses that have been exiled to the small print at the bottom of the page.

Perhaps the most audacious power grab I’ve ever seen came in August of 2000. I was visiting a ward in Salt Lake City and it was time for the special musical number. There was nothing on the program, but the bishop got up and made the following announcement, “The ward chorister has asked for ‘impromptu ward choir.’” He pointed to the side of the chapel I was sitting on and said, “Everyone sitting on this side of the room, come on up and join us here on the stand.”

And that was that. I had just been conscripted into some random ward’s choir. Moments later, I was being forced so scowl my way through a song for the pleasure of a bunch of strangers. I don’t remember what hymn it was, but I’m certain it wasn’t on the topic of free agency, nor was it the perfect ironic choice, “We Are All Enlisted.”

 It is likely ward chorister tyranny will always be with us and there is little we can do about it except sit, smile, sing loudly, and thank heaven above that at least they took all of those Utah songs out of the hymnal in 1985.

So, what do you think? Do you have a tyrannical chorister in your ward? Do you think it’s important to song all 7 verses of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”? Did anyone ward ever have a song practice man? Do tell.

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Comments 19

  1. Yes, he’s a trained pianist. He’s a bit of a snob, and thinks he owns the piano because he kicks everyone off the minute he walks into the chapel. I was at another chapel for institute and a girl wasn’t playing a particular song the right way, he kicked her off the piano. I was embarrassed, but he was oblivious

  2. i am having flashbacks!
    i hope this doesnt come to our ward, our chorister already has authority issues. i could see a rebellion the church has not seen since the war in heaven-i am sure we would lose 1/3 of the ward.

  3. We actually had a guy in our ward who should have been the Song Practice Lady. He was a teacher at the Eastman School and could play a mean piano. He played piano in the primary and would do all sorts of cool things with the primary songs. I miss that guy.

  4. YES I am music director for our ward; serving since september 2005 when hurricane Katrina left us without a piano, organ or chapel. We sang without accompaniment and thanked Heavenly Father that we had a building to meet in.

    Hymn singing is often the first impression a visitor gets of what membership in this Church would be like. If you don’t sing, you miss an opportunity of bearing testimony.

    In all the scriptures/instructions/guidelines about singing, there is NOTHING about how well you do it. Saying “I don’t sing because I’m not very good at it is the same as saying “I don’t pray because I’m not very good at it.”

    I hope that any of you who have complaints about the music program in your ward are sincerely trying to help improve and enrich it by participating.

  5. Quick note: the ward music director is a slightly different animal from the Song Practice Lady (I honestly don’t know the real name of the calling) that only existed from 1988 until sometime in the late to mid 1990s. They were usually two different callings, and the latter was often staffed by an eccentric member of the ward. While I have known several male ward music directors, I’ve never known of any man who had the calling I’ve labeled “Song Practice Lady.” (And I was on my mission for some of this era–two years, to be exact–and went to dozens fo wards during that time, so I had a decent sized sample to draw from.)

    But silly humor aside, Mark, you bring up some excellent points that members of the church would do well to heed.

  6. One can’t improve musically if people are not given the opportunity because they are told they are not good enough to play, or contribute.

    Aside from that, I think the post was suppose to be lighthearted. at least that’s how I interpreted it.

  7. #7 True; no one had ever taken time to make members familiar with them ! My adage is “every classic hymn was once an obscure hymn”

    Hymns unfamiliar to your ward should not be used as part of the Sacrament service as it throws the spirit out of whack. Better to have them played as instrumental prelude music and as special selections. After the congregation’s heard it awhile, use it as a rest hymn.

    #5 MW I’ve often wished I had time before Sacrament meeting begins to do a little informal singing as a congregation, but we are “chatter-day-saints” right up to the hour, and sometimes a few minutes afterward! I’d still like to know what exactly a “Song Practice Lady” actually did.

  8. I did find that many of the hymns that were weekly staples in my home ward were never sung in Utah, and many Utahns I met were not familiar with them. But because they are familiar to me, I have nostalgia for them. Can’t think of the title now, but there is a sacrament hymn with two printed versions, two separate melodies. The one that is never played was the version we sang in my home ward, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard that version done again since then, never in Utah. Our ward chorister was a music and theater professor, also the director for Hill Cumorah Pageant, so I assume he chose the versions that are musically best. He was also not opposed to throwing in the lesser known verses of hymns to get the full message. I miss those days!

  9. Hawk – you must be thinking of “While of the Emblems We Partake.” I quite like both versions, but it’s been years since I’ve heard the “other” version sung.

    The problem is, the “new” hymnal (it’s been 25 years now!) has some wonderful hymns we never sing. I have a weekend gig as an organist for a wonderful Lutheran congregation, and they regularly sing a lot of the hymn tunes that are in our hymnal, but rarely get sung. The problem is, we have no effective way for congregations to learn those hymns – and we are often reluctant to program hymns no one knows. It’s truly a “catch-22.”

    I fondly remember the days when we had Sunday School hymn practice – and each month a new hymn would be taught to the congregation. As painful as it sometimes was (“Let’s sing verse two again . . . “), it served a valuable purpose.

  10. I’m with those who see value in practicing less familiar hymns. And I definitely believe in singing all seven verses of “Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” if you’re going to bother to sing any — good luck finding a speaker who can teach a better message through a talk than that hymn does. And, at least occasionally (like, ever), sing the extra printed verses of any hymn you sing regularly — they’re there for a reason, and, usually, the best verses are the last few. If you’re going to do verses 5 and 6 of “How Firm a Foundation,” prepare the congregation for a half-beat rest at the end of the refrain lines (because “sti-ill” works, but “sti-i-ill” doesn’t) and be ready to sing it and lead it that way.

    I’d suggest looking at the repertoire of a ward, both more and less familiar, and leaning heavily toward the more familiar, but building familiarity with a small pool of less familiar (maybe one not-familiar) hymns which get heavier rotation until they’re more familiar. Maybe have the ward choir perform it before introducing it for congregational singing — that way the ward members have heard it, and the choir members are ready to provide a solid base of sound for them to sing with. But select them with care, with an eye toward singability (range, in particular — save the high-high notes and low-low notes for choir pieces). If it just doesn’t work with your ward, and people just aren’t getting it, then dump it and pick another. There are lots of fish in that sea.

  11. I wish there were more Sacrament hymns to choose from. One is used every Sunday so it doesn’t take long to feel like you’re duplicating. I was told that the Sacrament hymn should refer to the atonement; so I have used both “Rock of Ages” and “How Great Thou Art” and got no complaints.

  12. I’m a big fan of singing all of the verses of the longer hymns, BUT if and ONLY if the organist/pianist can play it in a manner that makes singing all of them worth the time. My ward has a very wonderful organist whose ability is one that channels the power of the spirit through his playing and makes everyone want to sing. Contrast this with a post at another Mormon blog I read recently where the author visited a ward with so little life in the hymns that people were already falling asleep.

  13. refugee: “While of the Emblems We Partake” Yes, that’s the one! I still hear the ‘old’ version in my head whenever I see it on the page.

  14. Re#9 It’s interesting how “regional favorites” develop. My Spanish language hymnbook contains several (that were sung regularly in Mexico) that no longer exist in English. I’ve spent the last 15 years learning them in language they were originally written in. (“If the way be full of trials, weary not” and “Unanswered Yet, the Prayer thy Soul has Pleaded,” are two examples that come immediatley to mind.)

  15. “Dear to the heart of the Shepherd” is a great and lovely song. I don’t know why you wouldn’t know it. We sing it in my ward often.

    I guess the singing of all verses of the songs is in tune with the First Presidency’s message in the beginning of the hymn book saying it is best to sing all verses of the song whenever possible.

    We had a mixture of blokes and sheilas conducting during SS time practice. I can’t really remember if they were power-hungry or not but their time was severely watched by the bishopric member incharge so they didn’t go overtime.

    Our ward went through a phase of changing chorister and pianist/organist each week ona rotating basis. The ward music coordinator thought it was a good idea to allow all who had the talent and wanted to, to have a go. So it was good to see a different face each week for 4 weeks in fromt of the congregation. Now we just have a different one out of desperation because people don’t show up on time or they’re away on stake assignments so a stand in needs to be found 5 minutes before meeting starts. So it’s still a different face each week but not by choice.

    An interesting thing I have learned from some missionaries and ex-Americans now Aussies, is that we sing the songs faster here in Australia than you over there in America, so I can’t respond to the ‘dirges’ comments, although I do think some of the songs are sung too slow anyway.

  16. This is hilarious! 
    As an oft-called “song practice lady”, I do admit to fantasizing about “mash-ups”! Our current “song practice lady” is working her way through the “lesser known” hymns. There are actually A LOT of “lesser known” hymns (some lesser for a good reason) ! I did have a former “song practice man” in my life. It was my High School Seminary Teacher. He had a passion for the hymn “If You Could Hie To Kolob”. He felt it was “an entire sermon in a song”, and that we should “sing the sermon” every Friday morning. Which we did. I still cringe every time I hear that hymn being announced! 🙂

  17. I have as you would say “a song practice man” yet I do not feel as you do towards music. In D&C 25: 12 it reads
    ~12 For my soul adelighteth in the bsong of the cheart; yea, thedsong of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads. ~

    So with this verse when I sing I am filled with the spirit of the lord, for as the lord asks us to forever abide with him, the only way to possibly to do so is to sing praise unto his name.

    The power of music does not just extend to this earthly mortal state but will forever continue onward into the life here after. Also on my mission I was, and am, still able to bring the spirit and blessings into family’s homes by playing or singing a song.

    I once had a random sister, whom I had never known before, approach me and tell me about the power of music. She said, ” As I was with my husband, who is a world renowned violin maker, we were sitting at our quiet home when we were contacted by a mission president in Africa whom wanted to know if we would donate 50 violins for some of the missionaries and the locals there from south Africa. As we contemplated the time and money and the large burden placed upon our shoulders we hesitated, but soon with prayer and fasting we determined that we would do so. As we sent the violins to the Africa we soon received a call from the mission president saying that these violins, which accompanied a non lds choir of 100 or more members, invited the spirit so strongly, due to the lds selection of music that was played and sang, that slowly over time the entire choir was converted and baptized into the fold. As we hung up and contemplated this thought we realized how what seemed a burden at the time turned into a enormous blessing for ourselves but more importantly many others.” She continued on to tell me that, ” Proper Music is the only thing that can come as close to Christ as anything except being at the temple.”

    So although the songs at time may carry on for a while in sacrament, many souls are forever changed because of it. I know that my life has, and also many others lives, have been changed because of the power of music.

    Anything can be viewed half way empty or half way full, but it is our decision to decide as to which we view it as, and also in which the ways we use. Music is God’s gift given to all man kind, Music is the spirit.

    If you are felling negative towards aspects of any gospel principles, I challenge you to look at it as half full, to proceed to find joy in all of our Lord and God’s creations. To do and be as Christ did, which is to always love, be happy, and serve.

    ~”It can be full of joy and happiness, or it can be full of misery. It all depends upon you and your attitudes, for your altitude, or the height you climb, is dependent upon your attitude or your response to situations.” (Ensign,Nov. 1974, p. 80.) (President Spencer W. Kimball, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints)~

  18. I joined the Church in 1969 at the age.of 16. I learned the hymns that were popular with the older members. Many of them Texans. As more and more Utah and Idaho LDS moved here and were called as chorier the hymns I was used to got pushed aside. They were not popular where they came from. Now I almist never hear the hymns that I grew to love so much.

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