Primary Songs: Articles of Faith, Part I

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!

13 comments for “Primary Songs: Articles of Faith, Part I

  1. September 10, 2004 at 5:22 pm

    Funny! My wife and I were just recently discussing the non-musicality of the articles of faith (after teaching them to our children during FHE…)

    Personally, I think it would be very difficult to make them musical, since the text is not very lyrical. Music serving as a mnemonic device seems inherently unmusical, so I am not sure how the problem could be corrected.

    But I’ll grant that it is annoying… :)

  2. September 10, 2004 at 6:48 pm

    Okay, this may be jumping the gun a bit, but the only ones I remember (in musical form) are the second and thirteenth. The second was short, but a bit musically odd for children. The thirteenth is simply wonderful. I can’t even recite the 13th without singing it. The best part is when you sing “honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous.” When I was little, I didn’t know what either chaste or benevolent meant, so I thought it was saying “chase benivilit” (which in my mind was another word for the devil)–yes, images of leaving church and chasing a little red man with pitchforks was the image I had. I was so diappointed when I found out what it really meant. I think I actually craved a little more action and adventure as a child.

  3. John Jensen
    September 11, 2004 at 1:55 am

    Kaimi, what a great topic you’ve picked. I’m not familiar with the Articles of Faith songs, though, so I can’t comment on them. Generally, I agree with your comments, but wonder what you mean by overdoing it with respect to minor keys, unless you’re referring to the commonly known qualities that minor keys give to music and think it simply puts the kids off. Yes, the song will likely need to have a stong melody–if the kids don’t like a song, it will loose much of its usefulness as a teaching device. However, nothing brings out the seriousness of subject like puting it to music in a minor key, so I think primary music written in minor keys keeps the primary song book well rounded.

    Tangentially, does anyone else object to the line “her plea to the Father, quiets all my fears” from the Love is Spoken Here song?

  4. Jack
    September 11, 2004 at 2:28 am

    I once heard a lousy excuse (from one who should know) as to why the articles of faith aren’t as musical as we would like. It’s because the intent of the composer was to “bring out the words”, even at the sacrifice of creating a catchy tune.

    I’m not convinced by that argument. Vanja’s “Press Forward Saints”, no.81 in the hymn book, kicks royal rump. It’s a great tune – one of the best hymns of the knew generation IMO. The fact is, as Kaimi has pointed out, the text is a bear. (though I disagree that they all have essentially the same structure. I think we tend to feel them that way because we lump them together into one treatise)

    Anyway, I believe it’s possble to pull a charming musical setting out of the text with out compromising the latter. I should know, I’ve done it. (as I polish my nails on my sleeve) Uh oh, here come the raspberries!

    This is why I prefer using a pseudonym – I can almost get away with saying such things.

    Oh, and Kaimi, you’re right on about “He Sent His Son” – unbelievably contrived.

  5. D. Fletcher
    September 11, 2004 at 10:50 am

    I haven’t heard these songs before (I graduated from Primary in 1970, so I’m mostly familiar with the green Children’s Sing book). I think it was ambitious to set the Articles to music, although if I had done it, it would have been an art song for an adult singer, which utilized all the Articles in one piece.

    As they are now, I think they are very formulaic and tuneless. If one is going to make tunes out of prose, why set off-accents (like bap-TIS-m) and melismas? These songs betray a general lack of understanding about making songs “sing.” And the harmony is obviously simplistic.

    The best Primary songs are the ones incorporated into the hymnbook, notably, “I Know My Father Lives.”

    About “Press Forward Saints,” this tune was set to words which had already been written for “For All The Saints.”

  6. Ami
    September 11, 2004 at 12:00 pm

    Great observations! While I agree with most of your criteria, it doesn’t seem to explain something I’ve noticed. Once Primary kids learn the more difficult songs, they tend to like them the best. For instance, “The Sacred Grove” (CS 87) was our Primary’s favorite song from the CSMP a couple years ago and chosen each time they had the option. I remember wondering how I would *ever* be able to teach it…it is so “artsy” and inaccessible. We talked about the text painting in the bass, sang it while looking at the painting of the Sacred Grove, sang it with our eyes closed, sang it with our eyes crossed…..I don’t get it!
    I have never been the biggest fan of the A of F songs. It is so difficult to set text that is non-poetic. It reminds me of when we sang Randall Thompson’s “Testament of Freedom” (a setting of Thomas Jefferson’s words) at BYU. It was so difficult to memorize, so very awkward (especially sections like: “We have counted the cost of this contest, and finding nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery.” aaaarrrggghhhh!). We sing the A of F songs as prelude in senior Primary (mouths busy singing are mouths that cannot talk!) and we always seem to stumble in the same places.
    I totally agree with your criticism of the 5th, but I disagree with you about the 6th. I think the dotted-eight/sixteenth rhythm is catchy (although the change to two eighths on “teachers” always trips up the kids) and climbing up the scale by thirds in the first phrase is easy to sing. [Funny…..I like the dotted-eighth/sixteenth motive in the 6th A of F but can’t stand the same rhythm in the 7th]. I don’t think the final two measures of the song (6th) work as well as the first phrase….it would probably work better to descend the entire scale stepwise from the ‘C’ of “evangelists”, slowing the rhythm to quarter notes on ‘E’ and ‘D’ over “so” (does this make me a Monday morning composer?!

  7. D. Fletcher
    September 11, 2004 at 2:19 pm

    I’ve been somewhat inspired to compose my own music to The Articles of Faith, this morning. Although still for children, my version uses a lot of repetition, putting all the articles into one piece. I’ve got the first 3 set, the next 2 partially set, and 6 and 7 are sung in counterpoint to each other. Still, it’s going to be a long haul to get to 13.

  8. Jack
    September 11, 2004 at 2:37 pm

    It took me about a year to set the articles of faith to music. Of course, I was chipping away at it while working on other projects.

    I wonder how many out there have braved their own versions the AFs as a result of being dissatisfied with those in the children’s song book?

  9. September 12, 2004 at 4:46 pm

    The children in our Primary love to sing “He Sent His Son.” Once they learned to wait for the second beat (which only took about 10 minutes of teaching), it has been one of their favorites. I like it too.

  10. Kristine
    September 12, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    I’m with Lisa on He Sent His Son–I like it. The kids really liked how the music rises on the phrase “rise with living breath.” I never taught the kids explicitly to wait for the entrance, just did it over and over and over. I think I said “wait for the piano to land on that bottom note” once. But we have 12 kids in our Primary on a good day–if they kind of get the words and something like a melody I’m not inclined to criticize the finer points.

    (Can “I’m not inclined to criticize” be my out-of-context quote of the day today? :))

  11. Kaimi
    September 13, 2004 at 9:50 am

    I understand that in theory, He Sent His Son could be learned by any particular group of kids, not to mention any particular primary chorister, and/or any particular primary pianist. In practice, my experience has been that it leads to disaster on all three fronts.

    There are parts that I like — in particular, the “walk with man, on Earth, that we may know” line, which has a great rhythm and flow.

    But the forced, unnatural melismas (love and tenderne-ess, what do the scriptures sa-ay), the off-kilter start, and the blah-blah end add up to a problem song, in my opinion.

    By the way, a copy of the song can be found here (navigate to the H’s).

  12. Bryce I
    September 13, 2004 at 10:49 am

    Kaimi, variety is the spice of life. While simple melodies with simple rhythmic patterns and simple chord progressions are effective for children’s songs, there’s only so much you can do with them. It’s hard to make every song memorable when they’re all I-IV-V, 4/4, major key ditties. After while, they start having a sound that makes one song indistinguishable from another. (much like every Aerosmith song written in the post “Permanent Vacation” era).

    As for the AofF tunes:

    #1: it’s fine, but an odd choice of key — I wouldn’t start off with a minor key. The first Article of Faith is simple and direct, and there’s nothing melancholy about it.
    #2: I also like the repetition — kind of a subliminal suggestion. This is where the minor key makes sense — Sin != happy fun times (!= means “not equal to”)
    #3: The first in a major key. It’s fine, except the last two syllables of “obedience” are crammed into an eighth note.
    #4: I really like this one. “principles and ordinances” jumps and bounces, repentance is properly reflective sounding, everything builds to baptism, then a nice resolution.
    #5: I agree with Kaimi. I’m looking at the music trying to hear it in my head, and nothing’s happening — I have to really concentrate to get it, whereas with the others, I can glance at the notes and hear it in my head.
    #6: I like this one. “Organization” is a difficult word handled well. As for the let down at the end, what do you expect when the text is “and so forth?” It doesn’t exactly ask for attention.

    And so I end my comment, having succeeded in incorporating an Aerosmith reference in a Primary music thread.

  13. Theresa
    July 18, 2005 at 12:14 am

    When I was young, my mother found a great cassette tape that had all the articles of faith on it, but not the same versions in the Primary songbook. If you ever come accros it, TAKE IT!!! We have since lost the tape, but I can still sing all of the songs. Some of them were so catchy and rhythmic that we choreographed them in my living room.

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