Amateur Music in the Church

I was recently thinking about music in the church. To be specific, I was wondering about the church policy of not hiring professional musicians, but simply plugging the best available members into any slot where they can conceivably fit. I have been ward organist myself, despite my complete lack of training on the organ. Our current ward organist is Logan’s lovely and talented wife, who has also (I believe) had no formal organ training. This is not to critique her efforts (or my own); we have both done pretty well, I think, especially with liberal use of the Bass Coupler button.

I have also, while living in New York, attended the Manhattan First Ward. The organist there is no mere pianist-pressed-into-service, but a bona fide, trained specialist in the instrument. The result — as anyone who has attended that ward can attest — is awesome. It is also, in my observation, the exception rather than the rule. The “Kaimi or Amy pressed into service” model seems to be predominant.

I have wondered since then about the “lay” approach to church music. It seems that the benefit of the lay approach is that members can expand, develop, and share their talents.

On the other hand, a professional rendering of church hymns can be a truly wonderful experience. The church seems to recognize the tension here. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for example, is not accompanied by a piano player plucked randomly from the local ward.

I can certainly accept the current balance of interests here, with local members given the chance to develop talents, while the more visible Choir is accompanied by professionals. But I sometimes wonder about the potential negative consequences of this approach. I have attended meetings at times where the music was barely functional. In some cases, I felt that it did not add as much to the Spirit as it could have.

What would things be like if every ward was like Manhattan First (where a half dozen members are Julliard students)? What difference would it make if the church had a professional organist in every ward?

19 comments for “Amateur Music in the Church

  1. Kristine
    January 16, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    Well, since I’m the Ward Music Chairman, Choir Director, Sacrament Meeting Chorister, Primary Music Leader, and RS music specialist in our ward, I’m all for paying church musicians! :)

    I don’t think it will ever happen, though, nor do I think the church will ever be willing to pay for decent organs for chapels or design chapels with decent acoustics. A better solution than paying organists would be to just do without the organ altogether and try to develop a vigorous tradition of congregational singing, like the Church of Christ (yeah, our old pals the Campbellites).

    If we did have good organists and good organs for them to play on, we wouldn’t need as many sermons on reverence!

  2. January 16, 2004 at 4:15 pm

    Some chapels have great organs. However when they standardized the chapel building that went away. It used to be that you could “customize” the chapel during construction so long as the congregation paid for it. That migh tbe a better stage, floors, rockwork, or whatever. However that got more centralized more than 15 years ago I believe. I also understand since it meant that wards in richer areas got better chapels which doesn’t quite seem right.

  3. cooper
    January 16, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    I think the tone of this post is what was talking about.

    We are an all volunteer army. We signed up, and willingly said we’d do anything to support the “kingdom”. While I can admit the music in our ward suffered through 5 years with no organist (just piano) it was still church and we still took the sacrament. I remember once complaining about the lack of said organist and the bishop said he’d be glad to let, anyone who wanted to learn, use the church organ for lessons. No one stepped up. So we went without. It would have been silly to pay someone to come play.

    I think about chapels in other parts of the world that there aren’t even pianos. Possibly, a portable keyboard is all that is available.

    I guess we all sometimes think in ideals. My sister is a ward music chairman – she can’t stand it. She is trained in piano so that’s all she’s ever done in church – music. So there are two sides to every coin.

    The same could be said about all the 2nd language trained missionaires the church trains. Many of these poeple have been able to springboard off what they’ve learned and use it in their professional life. Generally missionaries contribute the same amount of funds to go on a mission. Should those who aren’t trained with a 2nd language hold the church responsible for the lack of training thereof?

    We need to quit shooting the church in the foot with all the griping that goes on. It makes the church look bad and us look worse.

  4. January 16, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    Cooper, I can understand your perspective, but I don’t think this thread quite goes to where you think it does.

    As an aside. When I was going to the Los Alamos ward the ward choir director frequently disparaged the lack of professional musicians in the church. It actually did bother me a bit because I felt he was missing the forest for the trees. Church isn’t there to entertain us but to give us a place to serve. I think it all too easy to look at the many failings of our ward and complain about how they aren’t serving us. That gets the purpose of the church completely backwards.

    At the same time, however, there are ways church music can be improved. For instance a few years back they allocated 10 minutes of Sunday School to music teaching. And the fact is that we recognize that good music can affect a meeting.

    But I agree that we can focus a little too much on the trappings. Heavens, most wards have a hard enough time getting the leadership the Stake Presidency would like. Often callings are made up of who’s available in the ward rather than necessarily who would do a good job. But that’s the way the church was designed. Heaven knows I’ve had callings I didn’t feel fit for!

    The fact is that in some wards music is more important than other things. Some wards have far more educated people. My Los Alamos ward was like that. Even the ward I grew up in had concert pianists and professional organists in it. But there were lots of more “amateur” folk. But I don’t think we ought to disparage our wards simply because they don’t offer what we want. Heavens, my ward has horrible Sunday School lessons. (Fortunately or unfortuantely I’ve been called to nursery and don’t need to attend)

  5. Kristine
    January 16, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    Was Stan Marsh still the choir director in LA?

  6. January 16, 2004 at 6:07 pm

    Not when I was there. It was Br. Chamberlain. Great guy, by the way. I actually stayed in his house one summer.

  7. Kristine
    January 16, 2004 at 6:13 pm

    The Chamberlains are great. I learned to play the piano on one of their pianos–we lived just up the hill from them, on Alamo Rd.

  8. January 16, 2004 at 6:16 pm

    Really? I was there from around ’90 – ’94. I’m trying to recall if I ought to remember you. (Embarrassment and apologies if I should)

    Where you a young adult then? It was great. We had a dead poet society that my friend Rick Clawson and I set up. That’s where I learned to climb as well. Lots of activities. Great time.

  9. Kristine
    January 16, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    Cooper–while it may be uncomfortable for people who are used to thinking of any criticism as hostile, I think it is also possible for people who are wholeheartedly committed to an endeavor to see and point out problems with the way it is being run. Kaimi, who began the thread, noted that he is contributing his talents to the extent that he can, yet still wishing that there were somebody better. How is that not supporting the kingdom? It would be an entirely different case if he said “I’m not going to church anymore because the music doesn’t do anything for me, ” or “I won’t play the organ because no one appreciates my talents as a pianist or knows the difference between an organist and a pianist.” If you’re giving everything you’ve got, I think it’s not unfair to express frustration, or to speculate on what might make things better.
    (And yes, I say this with an appreciation for the pitfalls of the steadying the ark syndrome)

  10. January 16, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    While I’m fairly certain you purpose was no to belittle anyone’s efforts, I ask you to consider if this principle was applied to other aspects of our meetings.

    It might be more inviting to the Spirit if we had a full time minister who was polished in the public speaking arena. Nonetheless, I feel uplifted and inspired by my peers who speak each week.

    I enjoy the choir at general conference. I have some of their cds. I enjoy the speakers at conference who can so eloquently express themselves due to years of experience. But I am surely grateful for the opportunity every other week of the year for the average joe and jane to teach and service and even sing off key.

  11. January 16, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    PS, Please excuse my typos. Sheesh!

  12. Kaimi
    January 16, 2004 at 6:31 pm


    I appreciate your concern, but I’m certainly not intending to critique current practice. I had hoped the text of the post made that clear.

    “I can certainly accept the current balance of interests here, with local members given the chance to develop talents, while the more visible Choir is accompanied by professionals.”

    As with most choices, certain trade-offs are made. Certain benefits are gained, and certain negative consequences come out as well. As for myself, I’m not certain at all whether the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks. It’s an issue that I’m thinking over in my mind.

    And, after attending M1 ward for a while, and thinking about this issue, I was interested in the input of others. I was wondering whether other members had thought about the possibility of professional organists, and whether they thought that the benefits of professionals would outweigh the detriments.

  13. Jedd
    January 16, 2004 at 6:34 pm

    With respect to the organ, I think it’s safe to say that it’s getting harder and harder to find trained church organists. I spent a few years in Rochester, NY, where our ward consisted of a number of Eastman School of Music students (talk about some amazing music nearly every Sunday). Our organist–an Eastman organ student–felt he was a member of a dying breed, however. But what to do? I don’t think we call many people to spend a few years taking organ lessons so they can assume the role at church. You either have the talent pool or you don’t.

    When you’ve heard a great church organist play, you can get spoiled and wonder why all wards can’t have that. I agree with Kaimi–such an experience can be tremendous and often adds a powerful spirit to a meeting (though you do get the occasional show-off). But I don’t see the church paying for professional organists anytime soon, a reality I understand and accept.

    So what if there’s no one in a given ward who has the ability or courage to serve as organist? There is a solution, though not a very personal one. You connect your organ to a MIDI device and have the computer play it. The technology has been around for years, and it’s not hard to program the hymns. You would have someone sitting at the organ to run the show. They could even control the tempo and set the organ stops (and no wrong notes!)

    Think that wouldn’t ever happen? Go visit the Dallas Temple. When you enter the chapel, you’ll see an organ and hear organ music. You’ll look to see who’s playing, and do a double take–there’s no one sitting at the organ bench! It’s all done by computer.

  14. January 16, 2004 at 7:36 pm

    A related (perhaps) question: why do Latter-day Saints feel like we have to have a chorister in order to sing? Almost anyone can follow a pianist or organist playing the hymn, and in most churches that is what they do. I grew up a Protestant and we never had a chorister, but we nevertheless sang. In fact, I think we usually sang better than the average LDS congregation. Does anyone have any idea what is behind this practice of ours?

  15. January 16, 2004 at 7:40 pm

    Well, as a chorister with real directing training I don’t like the idea of programmed music. It’s probably a whole lot better than no organist whatsoever, but personally, I would prefer a mediocre organist who can follow me to a pre-recorded hymn. I realize that many members of the congregation don’t even acknowledge the chorister’s existence. But I think a good chorister can add a lot to the music. He or she can help the organist and congregation be more together and have a better musical and spiritual experience.

    I guess I have a chip on my shoulder about good choristers being underappreciated. Obviously that’s a best-case scenario, just like a great organist. Without it, you do what you can (even if that means a MIDI keyboard with pre-programmed music).

  16. Kristine
    January 16, 2004 at 10:15 pm

    Logan: It is sad but true that no one pays attention to the chorister–I once fainted, passed out cold, while leading the hymns at stake conference. Everyone kept singing, and only a few of my friends in the congregation were aware that anything had happened. (Somebody who was sitting on the stand got up and finished leading the song while somebody else attended to me)

    Jim: I wonder if we still have choristers because of Sidney Rigdon–the Church of Christ has a song leader because they don’t use instruments and need somebody to give starting pitches. I suspect the chorister may just be a holdover from the days when we didn’t have pianos or organs.

    Kaimi, your question is an old one–there was debate in Nauvoo about using trained musicians (or at least musicians who had practiced) or having only congregational singing–singing “by the spirit” or “by note”, and then more debate in the early days in Utah when people like Evan Stephens started trying to earn their living by teaching music and conducting performing groups. There’s always been an uneasy compromise between the view that musical gifts are gifts of the spirit and the view that we ought to have as much technical excellence as possible. You hear the stories about the humble peasant called to play piano for the Primary even though she had no musical training, etc., but then we have professional soloists to do the music for conference and give Tabernacle recitals, etc. Even at the level of MoTab or the BYU choirs (which are much better than MoTab most of the time) there’s tension around whether to be musically excellent or to just do big schmalzy renditions of the hymns (though the hymn arrangements are vastly better since Mac Wilberg has been composing them!!). I think we don’t really know what we want from music in the church. That’s probably a good thing as the church grows internationally–we’re going to have to be awfully flexible, and that would be harder to do if we had a strong commitment to a certain body of sacred musical literature performed in a certain way (as, say, the Anglican church does).

  17. cooper
    January 17, 2004 at 12:46 am

    Kaimi, I think my point was also misconstrued. The real point I was trying to make was not really about the music programs of the church. It’s the approach taken in the posts. Maybe I’m just a little over sensative because everyone around me (husband, daughter, sister…) are musically talented. While i am one of those unprofessionally trained participants just wishing once I could get up and perform in any kind of musical capacity. I have not been blessed with a talent in music. I just enjoy the songs and the participation. I guess what I noticed more than anything was the continuous pursuit of “a professional”.

    I didn’t mean to offend. I just really wanted to have someone see it from a different view than the one they were standing in.

  18. January 17, 2004 at 11:37 am

    Jim, I grew up Protestant, too, and have noticed the same thing. I think those congregations sing better because they sing more often – and frequently stand for songs. Most of the services I attended growing up had around 5 songs. Also, we had a hymnbook with over 600 songs!

  19. Adam Greenwood
    January 18, 2004 at 8:46 pm

    I’m not sure why we keep choristers, but there may be an international reason.

    In John Groberg’s The Other Side of Heaven, he mentions that the choristers often had more prestige than the branch presidents. If that’s still the case, ending the position of chorister would seem a needless affront.

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