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.

Feeling Inadequate? Congrats! You’re in Good Company

Several weeks ago I was asked if I would be the organist for our upcoming stake conference. Yes, of course! I love the feeling that comes when leading a large congregation at the organ. The power that comes through their singing inspires and adds strength to my music, which encourages more singing, which inspires me further…and so on, and so on.

With all the great organists we have in our stake, I was very pleased (and surprised) that I had been invited to participate this time. And what added more to my joy was that the hymn selection was a great lineup of bold hymns, all of them begging for an awesome, let all the stops out, last verse arrangement. Furthermore, the meeting would be held at the new Provo YSA building that houses a brand-spanking new, state of the art, 3-manual Johannus organ with digital settings that change an American Classic organ into a French Romantic or German Baroque. Ahh, just think of the fun I could have with prelude & postlude. This was going to be organist heaven!

But (and there’s always a ‘but’) as I sat in front of the console yesterday, trying to get acquainted with this, uh, digital monster, I panicked. Who am I to be doing this?  I thought. This is way more instrument than my familiar little 9-rank Wicks. Why did they ask me to do this? Why not Ruth Ann or Kyle or any of those other really good organists?

And then (gratefully there’s always an ‘and then’ too!) two things came to my mind.

First, one of those ‘inspirational thought’ emails that has been circulating for years. It’s the one that points out many of the faithful men and women that God worked with in spite of their human-ness. You’ve probably read it at some point in your life, but here it is again:

Noah was a drunk. Abraham was too old. Isaac was a day dreamer. Jacob was a liar. Leah was ugly. Joseph was abused. Moses stuttered. Gideon was insecure. Samson had long hair and was a womanizer. Rahab was the town prostitute. Jeremiah and Timothy were considered too young to be useful in the ministry. David had an affair. Elijah was depressed and suicidal. Isaiah preached the Word of God while naked. Jonah ran away from God. Naomi was a widow. Job went bankrupt and lost everything. John the Baptist ate bugs. Peter denied Christ. The Disciples fell asleep while they were praying. Martha was a worrier. The Samaritan woman at the well was divorced…many times. Zaccheus was too small. Paul was too religious. Timothy had a stomach ulcer. And Lazarus was dead. Yet God used them all…even the dead Lazarus!

Then second, Elder Eyring’s counsel from October 2002 General Conference came to my mind:

There will be times when you will feel overwhelmed. One of the ways you will be attacked is with the feeling that you are inadequate. Well, you are inadequate to answer a call to represent God with only your own powers. But you have access to more than your natural capacities, and you do not work alone.

The Lord will magnify what you say and what you do in the eyes of the people you serve…What you say and do will carry hope and give direction to people far beyond your natural abilities and your own understanding.

Okay. I get the point. God does not let a little human inadequacy stand in His way. We can’t “stump” God. When we are less than our best selves He doesn’t look at us and say “Oh…hmm…well I didn’t know that was going to happen. Nothing I can do now!”

That’s not how He works. God is there for us. Always. He stands ready to help. We just need to ask.

The bottom line? Playing a larger instrument in stake conference is somewhat new territory for me. I feel inadequate. That’s okay. We all are in some way. God doesn’t need people who claim to be the best, only people who are willing to let God work with them and bring out His best.

When Receiving Is Better Than Giving

When I was young and would vocalize my Christmas wish list, I was often reminded that it was better to give than to receive. Though I’m sure my parents were just trying to help me think beyond my own childish self-centeredness, I sometimes thought I was being told that it was bad to receive. This idea was perpetuated through my adult life with the occasional misunderstanding of words such as independent and selfsufficient—bringing the message that to receive help or assistance was not good and was, in fact, an indication of my own lack of moral character.

The holidays bring many opportunities for giving. As musicians we may feel a particular need and desire to give of ourselves at this time since Christmas is so closely connected with music in our culture. I appreciate those who bring the Spirit of Christmas into my heart by sharing their musical gifts. We learn through the life of the One whose birth we celebrate that sharing our gifts with those around us is one way we can show our love for Him.

I have been taught that when we are serving our fellow beings we are serving our God. Generally this doctrine is discussed from the point of the giver. The take-home message is that giving is good. And it’s true. Giving is good. There is much joy to be found in being generous and kind. But is it really better to give than to receive?

Let’s look at that concept again—when we are serving our fellow beings we are serving our God. To me it means that when we are the one being served we stand as representatives of God. This suggests that we have the responsibility and opportunity to receive gifts from others in a similar way that He would receive them—with joy, acceptance, gratitude, and appreciation. He does not respond this way because the gift is perfect, but because His love is perfect.

This is a wonderful season of giving and receiving. My Christmas wish for you is that you may feel the joy of giving and receiving in your heart—this Season and always.

Merry Christmas!

A Mercy In Disguise?

This posting is directed to the organist who sent this plea for help to the Discussion page:

Most of the organists I know who have taken any type of lessons through schools have learned to be creative, enhancing the text with registration, proper use (or non-use) of pedal, volume, soloing out a part on another manual, key changes, etc.  My ward music chairman has asked me to be VERY conservative and feels that most of the things I do are calling undue attention to the organ, which is not my intent. What should I do?

I have a great deal of empathy, but not a lot of solid answers—just a few random thoughts that hopefully will bring forth some much more practical responses from others.

I was in a similar situation for a short time, but a recent change in ward leadership brought much relief to my frustration with the ultra-conservative music guidelines that had been imposed. This answer to my prayers reminded me of a favorite C. S. Lewis quote:

Meanwhile, little people, like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage.  If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated.  If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.

So the way I see it, I got what I wanted not because I somehow deserved it or that my faith warranted this blessing, but because I’m a wimp! In my mind this means that God knows that you are much stronger than I am, much better equipped to handle this situation than those of us who have leadership-supported musical freedom in our callings. God trusts you to come through this with your love and faith strengthened.

I think Laura Story’s song Mercies In Disguise puts it very well:

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
And what if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise

Not to dismiss the challenge that you face, my friend, but could it be that this frustration is a way to bring you closer to God…a mercy in disguise?