Today we’ll discuss a topic near to my own heart: Primary music. I come to this topic with no particular expertise, other than eight years as a primary and nursery pianist, in four different wards. I do, however, have some strong feelings on the subject. We’ll start with some ground rules. What should a primary song be? How should it sound? Perhaps those with more expertise can correct me (Kris, Jeremy, D.), but I’ve got a few ideas:
First, it must be singable. That means a resonable tessitura, and a minimum of “and the rockets’ red glare” passages. Yes, we know, kids can sing pretty high, but don’t kill the primary chorister.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, it must be teachable. Easily teachable, to a bunch of eight-year-olds and six-year-olds who would rather be poking each other with pencils. There are several factors at play here:
-It should be distinct sounding, and easy to remember. It should be catchy.
-The words and music should go together tightly.
-Very importantly, there should be a minimum (preferably, zero) of crazy syncopation. And by “lack of crazy syncopation,” I mean that songs should be something that an eight-year-old can grasp, pretty quickly, and which will be easily playable by the primary pianist, who (let’s face it) is usually not the ward’s first-string musical talent. That crazy song “He Sent His Son”? We hates it, my precious. Remember that every eighth note that could be a quarter note is something that a chorister is going to have to teach a bunch of antsy six- and eight-year-olds, so please, leave out the dotted thirty-second notes.
-Equally important, the chord progressions and melody should be kept simple. Now is not the time to start playing around with tritones and diminished sevenths, or showing off your ability to write in Mixolydian or Locrian modes. (Unless you’re absolutely sure that you’ve got something easily teachable and singable). Many of the best primary songs are simple I-IV-V or even I-V (The Wise Man and the Foolish Man).
-Minor keys are a mixed blessing. They can result in great, singable and memorable primary songs (see Book of Mormon Stories; Follow the Prophet; Truth from Elijah). But don’t overdo it. And if you’re going to put it into a minor key, make sure you’ve got a good melody. A blah melody in major will sound even more blah in minor.
Having set the ground rules, we’ll move on to a group of primary songs that every primary pianist is painfully familiar with: The Articles of Faith. This post will address the first six of these; a future post will discuss the rest.
Before the discussion, we should note the real problems that a composer has in setting the Articles of Faith to music. They are:
-The text is non-rhyming and not particularly resonant.
-The text cannot be altered.
-They all have essentially the same structure. This makes it much harder to make 13 versions that all sound distinct enough to be memorable, but that aren’t so different and wacky as to be unsingable.
So, I don’t envy the task that Vanja Watkins had, and I don’t mean to sound too critical. But, as a long-time primary pianist, I am also not happy with all of the results. Let’s go through the first six of them:
A of F 1: I like it. This one is very, very good. It is memorable, the music ties in to the text well, and the kids never have a problem with it.
A of F 2: Also very good. Has a bit of a jump to start, but the kids generally handle it well. The melodic hook at the end is very nice, with the repetition of the last line making it sound almost like a round.
A of F 3: Not too bad. Different in tone from the first two. The held out “laws” and subsequent fast-moving melody is a little tricky at the end, but nothing really to complain about, relatively speaking.
A of F 4: A really tricky text, which is handled competently. It’s not the prettiest melody by any means, but it gets the job done.
A of F 5: The first of the “Yuck” ones (a theme to which we will be returning with some frequency). It has some potential, with the “called of God” and the “laying on of hands” parts providing a nice potential hook, with which it then does . . . nothing memorable at all. After “laying on of hands” it starts meandering badly, and by the end, it’s as if the composer were picking notes at random. Does it stick with the kids? Nope.
A of F 6: Another tricky text, not handled particularly well. Parts really sparkle — “existed in the primitive church” has a great, conversational feel too it. But the list is not handled well, and the end turns into a real let down.
Overall impression of A of F’s 1-6: A mixed bag, overall not a bad lot. Some real winners here (like 1 and 2), plus some less inspiring entries. It appears to tail off towards the end, with a steady decline in quality. Will the decline in quality continue as we go on through 7-13? Find out in the next post in this series!