I once almost joined the ward choir. What’s surprising about this is that I don’t actually sing.
I had just returned to Urbana from a year of research in Germany. As is usually the case, the transition went badly. Before the year abroad, I had been a student taking classes, but now I was teaching and trying to launch a dissertation. There was unexpected financial turbulence. Our townhouse had issues with its structural integrity. At church, several friends had moved out of the ward, and my calling was not a good fit. As the only Americans in our German ward, we had felt connected and integrated, but now we felt lonely surrounded by student families just like us.
One highlight at church was the ward choir. It had the usual mix of talented and enthusiastic singers you would expect to find in a large ward. The difference lay in the choir director, Andrew Larson, then a doctoral student in choral conducting. He knew exactly what the choir was capable of, and what pieces they could perform, and what the members of the congregation were prepared to hear. The choir sang everything from hymn arrangements to Bach, but whatever it was, Andrew got the choir to sing to its maximum potential.
I wanted to join. Andrew made clear that everyone was welcome, regardless of ability, and after church one week I decided that I might just give it a try. Spiritually, I needed something, and the choir looked like it.
That’s the week my wife told me, “I think I’m going to stay after church for choir practice next week.”
Now, my wife has actual vocal talent and choir experience, and we had two small children who needed tending, so that put an end to my choir fantasies. My contribution instead was to watch over the choir nursery, the half-dozen or dozen children who rampaged through the nursery room while their parents had choir practice. If that was my way to contribute to the choir, I was content with it.
I did sing once under Andrew Larson’s direction. The men of the ward were asked to perform a musical number for ward conference, and Andrew led us in an arrangement of “Hope of Israel.” Ever since a bad experience with a stake primary choir, I had associated choir practice with the director yelling that we were singing wrong. Wrong. WRONG!, and that the most important thing of all was that we all stood up in unison. But Andrew could tell a room full of rank amateurs exactly what to do with their mouths and noses and other assorted body parts so that we would sound better. And it worked! The men’s choir sounded so good that we hit the big time—an invited performance in stake priesthood meeting.
Perhaps what says the most about Andrew Larson’s ability is that the choir’s greatest performance, of the Thomas Tallis motet “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” came when Andrew himself was absent. You might say that Andrew had taught the choir correct principles, and then he let them direct themselves. Shortly afterwards, and a year before we left Illinois, Andrew accepted a faculty position at Stetson University.
How do you find someone to replace a choir director like Andrew? The answer is you grab someone new to the ward who doesn’t know any better. The new choir director was earnest, and most choir members continued to participate.
But what the new choir director once said during Sunday School still irritates me: The purpose of the choir was not musical performance, he said, but rather to feel the Spirit. It’s not an uncommon idea, and it’s reinforced by the often re-told (and occasionally re-enacted) story about the visiting general authority who instructs an organist to play a number appropriate for the chapel rather than the concert hall. It’s even sometimes correct; a false dichotomy can be right twice a day, and there are musical selections that are truly bad fits for the setting or the audience. ***cough Hallelujah Chorus cough***
But I believe it’s a mistake to think of performance as an obstacle to spiritual experience. I prefer to think of it instead as an accommodation of the weaknesses of people such as me whose aesthetic and spiritual senses are not neatly separated, and who are liable to miss the spiritual message in a song poorly sung or in a mechanical recitation of unoriginal ideas. I recognize my obligation to learn all I can from whoever is speaking or singing, and I appreciate the struggles of people who are not used to speaking or performing in church. But at times there are spiritual moments that some people will only experience, and devotional messages that some people will only hear, if they are presented with all the skill and preparation that the performer is capable of.