Appreciating Music the Way God Appreciates Music

I was asked to speak about “Appreciating Music the Way God Appreciates Music” in church today. Since my initial desires to be an organist stemmed from a less than God-like desire (See A Defining Moment) I decided to share some examples of others in my life who have given me what I consider glimpses of God-like appreciation of music.

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Mom

My mother enjoyed music and desired to give her children the opportunity to explore this wonderful gift. One way she did this was to insist that all seven of us had at least one year of piano instruction. After one year we could choose if we wanted to continue with piano, switch to another instrument or stop music lessons altogether. It seems to me that in this aspect of parenting she reflected God’s desire to have us, His children, discover and develop our talents.

Dad

My father appreciated music also. But in a much different way.

As I was growing up our family moved about every two years. In all the homes that we lived in Dad let Mom decorate, furnish and arrange the house as she pleased. She was given free reign….mostly. All Dad asked was that he be allowed to choose where to place his two music speakers. Now these were not little iPod-sized units. They were not even microwave-sized units. These were 1960’s-jumbo-sized-stereo-floor-speakers. Dad liked his music. Mom liked having a living room. Dad explained to her the beauty of true stereo sound. Mom was deaf in one ear. It never really worked out well. The thing that is amazing to me though is what would happen when I wanted to play the piano and Dad was listening to his music in the same room. Without hesitation he would turn off his music and enthusiastically assure me that he would rather listen to me play. Wow! Who would want to listen to a kid practice piano? To me, that was truly a God-like way to look at music.

Sue and the Choir Director

My friend, Sue, enjoys a great musical talent. She can sing alto. Strong. On key. Even when no one else around her does. Not everyone in her ward choir has that ability. Though it may seem a small thing, her unique talent kept the ward choir together when one sweet sister’s enthusiastic off-key offerings threatened to disintegrate the alto section. After complaints from a few of the women in the choir, a wise choir director strategically placed Sue so as to run interference between this devoted, tone deaf sister and the rest of the alto section, thus allowing all to sing their hearts out in praise the best they could. I think if God had been the choir director He would have done the same.

Richard Elliott

As you probably know, the organ not only has a place for your hands, but also has pedals so your feet can play music too. Mormon Tabernacle Organist Richard Elliott is a wonderful musician and has recently become known for his amazing footwork at the organ.

Several years ago he had some shoulder problems and had to keep his hands off the organ keys for a few months. After recovering, Richard was talking with some friends who asked how his shoulder was doing. He cheerfully explained that all seemed well. His arm was finally out of the sling and he was glad to have mobility again.

“Rick, what did you do during those months you couldn’t use your hands?” a fellow organist inquired.

“Improved my pedal technique!” was his quick response.

I love Richard Elliott’s example of making the best of life’s circumstances.

•••

Adam S. Bennion, a general authority in the 1950’s is credited with saying that: “What we need in this church is better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it.”

In keeping with that bit of counsel I stopped speaking and concluded my talk with a musical number. Though formally known as Richard Elliott’s arrangement of “Jesus, Once of Humble Birth” I offered it as my testimony that God lives and cares very deeply about each of us and the way music affects our lives.

Washington SALSA: Linda Wells

SALSA—Society of Awesome Latter-day Saint Accompanists

Linda Wells from Longview Washington loves playing the organ. So far in her 63 years of life she has served as organist in three different wards. And that’s fine, but more would be even better because, as she says, “Ward Organist is my favorite calling.”

Take a moment to get acquainted with Linda, our newest member of the Society of Awesome Latter-day Saint Accompanists, then go to Questionnaire and tell us your story!

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Linda Wells—Washington

What was the first musical calling you received? When I was still in high school, I was called to be the pianist in Primary. (Primary was during the weekdays back then.) I was very nervous and hadn’t taken piano lessons, only organ. I made it through however.

When did you start playing the organ?  I always wanted to play a musical instrument. My sister and brother were given the chance to play the piano and accordian but they both bombed out. I don’t think my mom and dad wanted to risk the time and money on me. Finally, close to my 15th birthday, my dad said I would get the chance to take organ lessons. My mom and I shared the same birthday. We were getting an organ for our birthdays. I never did figure out if I would get the lower and upper manual. I got to take lessons for three years and I loved the lessons. I dove right in and really enjoyed it. I’m so thankful that my parents let me take lessons.

Do you play any other instruments?  Let’s see. I play AT the piano. I’ll play in Relief Society if the regular pianist is absent. I dabble at the harmonica. I can play a comb with tissue paper on it. I can play the kazoo.

Which instrument do you prefer? I think, yep I know, I prefer the organ.

What is your favorite hymn?  Did You Think to Pray

What is your favorite prelude or postlude piece?  I like to play The Lord is My Shepherd. This is the prelude. For postlude I like to play Lord, Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing. I like that one because I can play it by heart.

What sort of things do you enjoy doing in your spare time? I enjoy playing with my grandchildren and helping out in the kindergarten class where my son teaches and going to movies with my family.

What is one of the challenges you face as an LDS organist? I have never been taught how to use all of the pulls and knobs on the big organ at church to make various sounds. I just play what sounds best to me.

What is one of the blessings you have received through accepting the call to serve as an organist? This is the third ward where I’ve been the organist. I’ve learned how to play for the congregation without getting nervous. I know if I pray before I practice and play on Sundays, I do a much better job. Heavenly Father has called me to this position for a reason and He trusts me to do my best. As long as I try to do my best, He will bless me with more ability. I can only hope and pray that I’ll always be able to play.

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Thanks for introducing yourself to us, Linda!
Are you or someone you know ready to join SALSA? Just go to the SALSA questionnaire, fill it out and submit. No cost, no obligation, no contract and no fine print. Just a wonderful opportunity for lds organists to get acquainted!
btw If you accepted the call to sit on that organ bench, you are awesome!  If you think you’re not, please see The Calling.

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Does Anyone Watch the Music Director?

Watching this amazingly expressive child in the video clip below got me thinking about various musical religious practices. Check it out. I’d love to work with a music director with that much passion!

Religiously speaking, I love The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormon or LDS church).

Musically speaking, there are a few things that baffle me. Like, why is there someone up in front of the congregation waving their arm every time we sing a hymn? Choirs, I can understand. But congregations?? I don’t get it.

In my experience, the LDS church is the only religious organization that has someone do this. Some churches have cantors that lead congregational singing. But they lead out with their voices, not their arms. And it seems less like musical directing and more like being the lead voice in a group sing-along. You know, if at least one person sings loud enough the vocally shy are more likely to participate.

More often than not, the organist fills the role of the music director—setting the tempo, leading the congregation with a clear introduction, a well-timed pause, a nod of the head and off we go.

Personally, I play better when I can follow the lead of a competent music director. I love the synergy and the feeling of unity that comes with that kind of teamwork. But there have been more than a few times that the music director has told me, “Just do whatever you want. I’ll follow you.”

I’m wondering how it works with other organists. So, I put together this highly scientific poll to find out how often LDS organists are able and willing to follow their arm-waving music directors. If you are now serving, or ever have served as an LDS ward organist, you are invited to take the poll below.

For more highly scientific organist polls go to the Polls page.

If You Ever Play the BYU Marriott Center Organ

Several years ago I asked my organ teacher, Doug Bush, what I would need to do to be able to play the organ at the Marriott Center. “Be on the list,” was his quick reply.

“Okay. Put me on the list,” I boldly requested.

He patiently explained that it was not as easy as it looked and I needed to have more experience; that there were a lot of things I needed to know and that generally he required a Junior level standing in the organ program or successful completion of  the AGO Service Playing Exam. And besides that, there really wouldn’t be much opportunity for me to play there because students or faculty were asked to play at most of the events held in the Marriott Center. The only exception might be the BYU Women’s Conference held every spring.

Determined to be an organist at Women’s Conference some day, I spent the next two years preparing for the AGO exam. As promised, after passing the AGO Service Playing Exam, my name was added to the Organists Approved to Play Marriott Center list.

And then I waited. Patiently. Sort of. For the first couple years, anyway.

I finally gave up this year and resigned myself to never playing at Women’s Conference. Ever. And of course, that’s when I was asked to play. (Why didn’t I give up sooner?)

BYUWC_2014_1

It was a great experience. And just in case you ever get asked to play the organ at the Marriott Center, here’s my List of Things That Are Really Nice to Know Before You Play the Marriott Center Organ:

  • There is not a “practice organ” in a private, safe, secluded room. There is only one organ in the Marriott Center and it’s the real deal, out in the middle of a big, huge, lonely arena.
  • The “on” switch is above the manuals on the left side.
  • To choose a memory level, open the drawer below the draw knobs on the left side of the manuals. If you can’t find the hidden drawer, just get off the bench quickly, in desperation to phone a more experienced organist to tell you where the stupid thing is and your knee will find the drawer very quickly. (I’ve got the bruise to prove it!)
  • Practice headphones are kept at the organ, on the floor, to the right of the pedalboard. It’s a good idea to use them, but it’s also very helpful to not use them at least once before you’re playing in front of a live audience so you get a feel for the sound coming through humungo speakers throughout the arena and not just the little wimpy tink-tink through the headphones. (Besides, it feels so good to sit in an empty arena and just play LOUD!)
  • During an event the HVAC system moves a lot of air. Taping your sheet music down is a must. But even books can be affected by the breeze. Use paper clips or pencils, or your metronome, or anything to keep your hymnal open to the right page throughout the whole hymn.
  • The lights on the organist are bright. The lights on the music are not. To get a feel for how it’s going to be, have an organ practice session in a dimly lit room while someone shines a flashlight at your face.
  • Counting out loud is not just for kids at piano lessons. The delayed-sound-travel phenomenon can get very distracting. Watch the conductor, count aloud, sing the hymn—do what you need to do to keep yourself focused on where you are, not where the congregation is.
  • Enjoy the moment. As Albert Schweitzer said:

If you are called upon to play a church service, it is a greater honor than if you were to play a concert on the finest organ in the world…Thank God each time when you are privileged to sit before the organ console and assist in the worship of the Almighty.