Retiring Toscanini

We are a storytelling people. Our Sunday lessons are as often built around a scriptural episode as around an abstract principle. Our General Conference talks and magazine articles are brightened by stories. Our family reunions are celebrations of family stories. We want stories from our returning missionaries, not exhortations on repentance and baptism. This trait goes back to the beginning: as early as the 1850s, if not before, our sermons retold our earliest history as a way of solidifying us as a people and establishing our credentials as heirs to the prophetic tradition.

This creates an enormous need for stories, especially those that illustrate gospel principles. We surpass all other “people of the book� in the richness of our scriptures as a source for stories; we have a dramatic two-hundred-year LDS history from which to draw; we have a worldwide congregation from which to mine modern personal experiences. We can draw on secular history and literature.

So, why is it that we so often fall back on the same relatively limited repertoire? You know what I mean. You’re listening to a speaker, in your ward, in your stake, at Women’s Conference, at General Conference, and you hear the first few words of a too-familiar story, and you aren’t sure whether that deep rumbling you hear is the sound of your own groans or the melodramatic tones of an imaginary organ warning you that the villain is about to strike.

For me, it’s the story of Toscanini and the Wyoming sheepherder. You know the one – I know you know it: Wyoming sheepherder writes to Arturo Toscanini, telling him that his only consolations are a violin now badly out of tune, and a transistor radio with a dying battery over which he listens to Toscanini’s broadcasts. If Toscanini’s orchestra will sound a “C� during the next concert, Wyoming sheepherder will tune his violin and have music to keep him company once his radio battery dies. Toscanini’s orchestra sounds their perfect “C�, Wyoming sheepherder presumably tunes his violin, and the speaker goes on to explain the moral of the story.

Only I’ve heard the story so many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, man– er, so many times, that I’ve tuned out by now and never can quite remember what life-affirming lesson I am supposed to draw.

There are multiple reasons for repeating worn-out stories, ranging from the worst excuse (too lazy to prepare far enough in advance to find a new story) to the most charitable (the stories are repeated precisely because they are so dramatic and make the point so well). Perhaps one of the motivations for the “Teachings for Our Times” lessons was an attempt to draw on fresh material; these are, however, primarily expository rather than narrative.

Still, I have a fantasy about taking any church lesson manual that draws on episodes from Mormon history and replacing all the tired, over-exposed tales of a handful of faithful-but-too-well-known pioneers with fresh new ones that make exactly the same point. That is one potential use for the women’s stories I’ve been posting here; obviously, women aren’t the only ones with suitable stories. Everybody has one – we just have to find them.

PLEASE NOTE: Let’s not turn comments into a roll-call of bad stories or bad lessons. I would like to hear your ideas about storytelling in the church, and what kinds of stories you would like to hear, and especially what you might be doing to preserve the stories of your own life and family. DON’T TRY TO OUT-DO EACH OTHER BY REPEATING YOUR MOST-HATED STORIES!! That was my prerogative as author of this post – I do not extend the privilege to you. ;-)

20 comments for “Retiring Toscanini

  1. October 21, 2006 at 10:34 pm

    So true. Often we hear the same story over and over, that when “THAT” story is not quite the same as we heard it, we wonder about it all… not knowing that there are plenty of other credible and linked stories that–if we knew, or even knew about–we wouldn’t have to wonder. (This is also extended to apologetics and Church history.)

  2. DKL
    October 21, 2006 at 10:36 pm

    Granted, I’ve got a personal interest at stake in the matter, But I just don’t understand why anyone would tire of hearing anything at all about Arturo Toscanini or what he has to say. Besides, I’ve never even heard the story that you mention.

    That said, from back when I was in YM (yes, folks, I’m no longer in YM — looks like they finally caught on to the fact that I’m a really poor role model), I remember thinking that there were way too many stories in the Aaronic priesthood manuals about lessons learned on the farm. It wasn’t so much that any single one of them was too much or too tired. It was just the sheer preponderance of lessons learned among agrarians.

  3. Paula
    October 21, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    I’d prefer to hear more from the scriptures, the less usual stories. And, I note, that there are no women in your story above. I’d like to hear women actually included, in more capacities than just as mothers. I’d like to hear more stories about real people behaving well in real situations, not contrived ones. And no sports metaphors in church either. Here, it’s surfing stories that are rather overdone, but no more basketball stories in Sacrament Meeting, particularly if the speaker is the hero of the story, and prone to reminiscing too much. And, I’ve been wondering lately what happened to Especially for Mormons, which was the font from which many of these twinkies sprang. Was there some official pronouncement against it, or did people finally just sick of it?

  4. christopher johnson
    October 21, 2006 at 11:23 pm

    Plain and simple: I want to hear stories about the speakers\’ lives. I want to hear about their personal reflections and recognitions of gospel application. Such stories are the result of journal writing and other forms of character exploration. I naturally feel more uplifted when I feel that the speakers are experimenting carefully and thoughtfully with the teachings. I love it when the stories are close to the speaker and burn their authenticity into my heart.

  5. el_godofredo
    October 21, 2006 at 11:35 pm

    You know, my dad is fond of saying, “Why don’t you just sell that damn violin? or why does that clumsy kid keep falling down? or Can’t you tell you are being carried?” But one pioneer story I won’t get tired of hearing is the Martin-Willey handcart story. Yes, I know there is a lot of blame that can be thrown around, but the lessons from that story to me are monumental.

  6. DKL
    October 22, 2006 at 1:43 am

    el_godfredo has a good point. Without really bad cliches, cartoons like this one wouldn’t be funny at all.

  7. Wilfried
    October 22, 2006 at 3:55 am

    Thanks, Ardis. If you ask me the question “what you might be doing to preserve the stories of your own life and family”, I owe a lot to blogging. Without the invitation to blog at T&S, I would not have started recalling some of my Church experiences in the past and writing them down. Quite a few people use the blogosphere now to share their personal stories. The feeling to have readers and see comments is invigorating. Moreover, these stories are from real-life, and readers easily recognize own experiences.

    As to the repeat-stories we hear in Church, I do not really mind. I only wish that visiting authorities would keep track of the place where they told a story… It’s a little embarrassing when a GA comes to a (multi)stake conference abroad and tells exactly the same story as 4 or 5 years before, and perhaps even the same as ten years ago, at the same location.

  8. October 22, 2006 at 7:46 am

    I just don’t understand why anyone would tire of hearing anything at all about Arturo Toscanini or what he has to say. Besides, I’ve never even heard the story that you mention.

    I’m getting tired of him reading this post, though I have to admit, I’ve never heard the story. (As an aside, my first thought was “Gee, can’t they buy the poor guy a battery too?).

    Many people repeat stories because they have bathos for brains…. though, after all this (including the repetition of an earlier theme in this thread) … my favorite introduction of a speaker was “and here is Brother X, he always tells stories from his own life.”

  9. Chad Too
    October 22, 2006 at 11:19 am

    Wouldn’t a violinist have asked Toscanini to have the orchestra play a “D” rather than a “C?” Or better yet, a Concert “A?” I can’t imagine any string player asking for a “C.”

  10. Sarah
    October 22, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    a) I’ve never heard that violin story. I’m having trouble getting any spiritual message out of it though.

    b) I’ve stopped hearing most of the really bad (the birdies with the kid under the garage door — I heard it I think 9 or 10 times in a single year at its peak, and I haven’t heard it at all in two years now, though to be fair, I also haven’t been in Relief Society in two years) ones a while ago.

    c) Now, though, we have people in my ward who tell the same personal story over and over. One particular story was said on one occasion in Relief Society (again, two years ago) and since then, that sister has been asked to repeat it at least a few times in Sacrament Meeting, once in Sunday School (on the day when I cashed in my “Get out of Primary Free Today” coupon) and, most regrettably, other people now repeat her story all the time. The moral of her story is one of our ward themes for the year — the advice she gives at the end is printed every week in our bulletin. I now am extremely reluctant to follow that advice, I’m so annoyed, and it’s actually something I’d ordinarily enjoy doing.

    d) I’d like to hear stories that I can reference in any published material (other than un-footnoted lesson manuals) at all. I’m tired of nurses’ shoes at Sunday School and kids without last names who always get the right lesson out of any situation. History is complicated and people routinely make bad choices and learn from them without subsequently doing something cute or meaningful. And people (females, non prophets, non Mormons) have last names, for crying out loud.

    e) The only audience that hears my stories is my family and the kids in my Primary class, who (the eight-year-olds) are always suitably impressed by my stories from Spanish Civil War prisoner-of-war camps (obscure wars are ALWAYS good for moral lessons) and that one time when I slept through six weeks of my life and pretended I didn’t know that you have to actually drop a class if you don’t want to be in it. I think if I ever speak in Sacrament Meeting it’ll probably be the one and only time (I’ve never done it, actually) so I try out all my material on them, and file away the best stuff for future recall.

  11. October 22, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    I can’t believe you don’t know the Toscanini story! It was a favorite of David B. Haight who used it most recently in October 2001 here, having included it in his 1997 book Light of the World; Jeffrey Holland retold it here in 1984, mentioning that it had come from a David B. Haight talk, probably DBH’s conference talk of October 1981 (the “People to People” talk — I can’t figure out how to make the link to the Gospel Library section of work). It’s made its way into innumerable local talks, in my experience — and here it is in a Utah state government document! (Here’s hoping all those links work right when I click “submit”.)

    Chad, you’re right, it’s an A. What do I know? I played flute in the high school band, and we tuned to C. Or rather, we all blew C and fiddled with our mouthpieces and pretended we understood what we were supposed to be doing to tune the squeaky things. Now Mr. Craig is gonna track me down and take back my good band grades …

    Paula, when I referred to women’s stories posted “here,” I meant the ones I’ve been putting up on T&S recently. Sorry for any confusion. Do you get a chance to work in the less-told scriptural stories in talks or lessons?

    Good comments, everybody. Despite our varying feelings about the stories we hear and the ones we’d like to hear or tell, we’re all agreed that stories are a big part of our cultural style.

  12. Hans Hansen
    October 22, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Speaking as a cellist and high school music teacher, I have always tuned string instruments to a Concert “A”. I’ve never heard this Toscanini story.

  13. MLU
    October 22, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    One of the things I love about Mormon culture is that the emphasis is upon patterning our lives after traditional stories–such as those found in the scriptures or in more recent history.

    We don’t deify artists and poets, pretending that innovation and “creativity” form the standard. It’s okay to repeat humble truths, quoting the prophet and the scriptures and our faithful stories ad infinitm without feeling that it is ad nauseum.

    It’s wonderful, of course, to find new stories in our new circumstances–a way of “likening the scriptures”–but this is less a way of innovating than it is a way of keeping the old (and eternal) alive in our times.

    I think the world would work much better today and we would have more peace and propserity and joy if the larger culture had kept Longfellow
    and passed on Whitman.

  14. Kevin Barney
    October 22, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    In priesthood today the lesson was based on a detailed recounting of a famous bank robbery from the 1980s that occured not far from here. The connection between the story and the moral, which as far as I could tell was grounded in the robber’s meticulous four-year preparation for the job and the need for us to prepare, was strained. But I was thrilled to hear a story I hadn’t heard before. Using a fresh story rather than a tired old retread makes all the difference in the world. (Enough about the Marsh cream incident, already!)

    (But I have to admit, I had never heard the Toscanini story, either.)

    I agree with the poster who prefers stories from the teacher’s own life. Those are usually fresh (unless she has told them before), and since I usually care deeply about the people in my ward, the story automatically has more resonance for me than something from Especially for Mormons would.

  15. queuno
    October 22, 2006 at 5:53 pm

    The Toscaninny story must be a Utah thing. My wife (raised in SLiCk) had heard it, but I had not (despite my Utah roots, the Toscaninny story apparently didn’t migrate with my parents to Big Ten country).

    That said … I’ve often said that the Church uses a scriptural shorthand — we don’t read scriptures as much as we recite them (quick — you recognize instinctively what 1 Nephi 3:7 and Moses 1:39 are about, long before you recite them in your mind). It’s akin to the John 3:16 banner at football games (my BYU roommate and I did a poster of a 1 Kings reference at a BYU/Utah game in 1989). Someone on the ‘nacle said that we don’t much read Nibley as give thanks for knowing that HE’S done the analysis and footnoted it for us to refer back to if we ever really need it. Just knowing the footnotes are there comforts us into thinking we don’t have to read it ourselves.

    There’s a joke about a guy who goes into a bar having an open mic comedy night. Patron after patron gets up, staggers to the mic, and yells a number (“13!” “11!” “5!”), each of which is followed by uproarious laughter. The new guy turns to his neighbor and asks what’s going on, and receives this answer: “See, we’ve all heard each other’s jokes so often, that we’ve just assigned them numbers now.” The new guy figures this can’t be that hard, so he walks up to the mic and yells, “42!”. The bar is deathly silent. Mortified, he makes his way back to his stool only to hear a passing comment: “Some guys can’t tell a joke.”

    That’s how I feel about most of the stories I hear in Church. We’re just passing shorthand.

    Anyway, the story I want to see retired is any story that is a variation on the classic O Henry story (the one with the combs and pocketwatch chain). The original was OK. The variations need to be banned.

  16. October 22, 2006 at 6:51 pm

    Y’all should read the Friend more often. Now that the editorial policy restricts the tales to ‘based on true events’, the variety of stories about how people live and encounter the gospel in ordinary day-to-day ways has increased.

  17. Paula
    October 22, 2006 at 6:56 pm

    Ardis, I should have been more clear. I mean that for stories I’d like to hear more of, I’d like them to actually include women. I can’t think of many in the classic Mormon twinkie canon. Except maybe the little girl who runs toward her dad when the train is coming, and he still pulls the switch to save the train and it kills her. Gads, I hate that one. As for the other question, I teach Family History in SS (which I dearly love) and so don’t really do lessons where I use the scriptures. I did give the 24th of July talk, and included stories of my very ordinary ancestors, with women featured.

  18. Paul R
    October 25, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    Great post. We are definitely a story telling people, with good effect for the most part. But I must admit my silent groans during Sacrament meeting and my complaints to my wife after meeting when I hear the same story for what seems like the tenth time that month. The Deacon’s quorum manual is filled with stories. I groaned when I read the material for a recent lesson on avoiding temptation and it included the story I must have heard countless times about the stagecoach driver that stayed as far away from the edge of the cliff as possible. I was determined NOT to subject my deacons to this story. Despite my determination, it provided a good organizational narrative for the lesson, so I prefaced my telling of the story with “I know you’ve probably heard this a gazillion times before, but…..” I was shocked when (a) my deacons reported they had not heard it before (I’m convinced that they were too busy making spit wads to be listening all the other times it has been told) and (b) that it worked really well in framing the lesson.

    I must say, however, that I like my stories to be complicated, messy, and with less sugar than the standard manual provides. In that light, this past Sunday the lesson was on obedience. I disliked the list of stories (which I read as designed to encourage obedience without a corresponding encouragement toward thought). I used all the scriptures and we discussed the importance of obedience. I then ended the lesson telling a brief rendition of the My Lai Massacre (Vietnam War 1968). I mentioned that most of the soldiers participated and some claimed later that they were simply obeying orders. I wondered if I was complicating things too much for twelve year old minds. I asked what this had to do with our lesson on obedience. One deacon’s hand shot up immediately: “being obedient does not excuse us from thinking and standing up when we are told to do something that is not right.” He is obviously being taught well at home. I basically said “amen” and ended the lesson.

  19. preethi
    October 25, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    Let me tell you a little story:

    It was the fall of 2001. Having moved to Utah with my family a little over a year before, I was as yet relatively unfamiliar with the Church (I moved from good ole Dixieland). One hectic day, however, a now-dear friend left a little note accompanied by a candy bar for me to lift my spirits. Thus began a deep and lasting friendship that led to my introduction to the fulness of the gospel.

    I had been Christian for many years before this, but had always had some concerns about certain aspects of doctrine. Finally, I had found a church that understood the true gospel of Jesus. The problem, though, was that my family was vehemently against my joining the Church, thus commencing a long process of pleas, tears, and sadness, punctuated by engulfing joy. Finally, soon after my 18th birthday, I was baptized.

    Fast forward several months. I was now a freshman in college, and was still absorbing, spongelike, the teachings and culture of the church. While many things did seem familiar, much was newfound territory that, while exhilirating, was certainly expansive. Then, during that first General Conference, I heard a story that I had never before heard, being unfamiliar with the Church: a story of a man simply needing an “A” (yes, it is an A) to tune up his old violin. From that A, he would be able to not only tune one string, but would be able to tune all the rest. Or, having learned a little, would then know the direction in which to turn.

    As a violinist of nearly 15 years at that point, imagine my pleasure at hearing something so utterly familiar when so much had been simply hard. And now, having heard the story many, many times, I still rejoice each time I think of it, because I still learn new things from it. I still enjoy reading scriptural stories, despite how often I’ve heard them, and perpetually learn new things if I put forth effort.

    Perhaps there is a reason for repetition of stories.

  20. Ardis
    October 25, 2006 at 5:13 pm

    I confess to great impatience when church members complain about the same-old same-old doctrine preached at every Conference. “When are they going to teach us something new?” they whine.

    Anybody want to join me for dinner tonight? I’m serving crow.

    Commenters’ general unfamiliarity with the Toscanini story, and especially the two last posts — one in part about the power of a “tired” story when it is new to someone else, the other about an old story cherished for its very familiarity — leave me feeling like I’ve just fallen into the very pit I’ve been warning other people about. “When are they going to tell me a new story,” I’ve been whining.

    That doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop digging out new stories and promulgating them whenever I have an audience. It *does* mean I will remind myself to be more charitable when I hear a twice-told-tale again.

    Thanks to all for a great discussion.

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