With God, Nothing is Impossible…Except Choir

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I am our ward choir director. If you knew me in real life you might find this shocking—I am no great musical talent, I have no formal training, and most importantly, I sport no distinguished-looking facial hair—no mutton chop sideburns or flamboyant goatee—the true mark of a virtuoso conductor.

What I can do is read music and play the piano passably well, and that is about it…which apparently qualifies me as choir director. I am a warm body who can keep a beat and carry a tune. Praise the Lord and pass the earplugs!

I do have good choir director genes—my parents have both been ward choir directors, they like to repair hymnbooks, and my mom has been Janice Kapp Perry’s visiting teaching companion. I assume that my bishop took all that into consideration when he called me as choir director, but I digress.

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Good ward choir performances require something of the miraculous. Now, I believe in miracles, at least some of them. I am not certain what I think about Jesus’ miracles, whether some of them were metaphoric tales of the apostles, but I certainly believe in the miracle of the Spirit working on human hearts. But although Jesus may have turned water into wine and raised Lazarus from the dead, I have my doubts as to whether he could have produced high-quality ward choir performances (and if he had, who would believe it in this skeptical age?). Some tasks are too daunting even for the big guy upstairs.

I’ll tell you what the problem is. The problem is not that wards lack musical talent. The problem is not that we have no great choir directors or accompanists. Nor is the problem that Mormons have no stirring musical heritage to draw upon. The problem is not even that some bishops don’t value choir enough to support it, though that happens often enough. No, the underlying problem is that there simply is not enough time for practice. As Mormons, we are too busy to make beautiful music.

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Now, some may not care. To some, beautiful music is no more than an inconsequential garnish on the main gospel dish of faith, repentance, baptism, and boring meetings, mere parsley on the savory roast beef of salvation. It’s nice, but seriously, no one eats that stuff.

I beg to differ. I would argue that for many of us, perhaps even a majority, sacred music is one of our strongest connections to the divine, one of the most powerful movers in our spiritual lives, a deep source of joy and edification, bonding us to God and to those who join us in song.

But creating a wonderful ward choir is darn near impossible because people don’t have time to come to choir practice. To start off, at a minimum they have a 3-hour meeting block on Sundays. For those who remain undernourished after this ecclesiastical extravaganza, there are ward council meetings, firesides, and home and visiting teaching. Then on Mondays there is home evening, on Wednesdays there is Mutual (the youth program, for boys at least, formerly known as Boy Scouts), on Fridays there is date night (theoretically, anyway), and on Saturdays there is temple work. Any parent who also takes time out for choir practice is going to be ratted out to Child Protective Services, and rightly so!

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I get it. I may stand on my head, beg and plead, and even resort to blackmail, but I understand why people don’t come to choir practice. Sometimes, in my more wicked moments, I have considered offering the choir budget as a lottery prize to some lucky winner who comes to practice. Nevertheless, I recognize that non-attendance is a rational choice even for the many people who love to sing. In our church culture other things are always going to come before music, and there are always other things. If you don’t believe me, when is the last time your bishop told a speaker to read only the first and last page of his or her talk so that the choir could have a few extra minutes to sing? I rest my case.

The solution, which should be obvious to both of you readers who have made it this far, is fewer meetings. Seriously, that’s it. Somehow we’ve developed this idea that more stuff is better, that longer sermons make us more righteous, that more content fills up our spiritual lives and makes them great.

But I don’t buy it. All my spiritual epiphanies have been just that—epiphanies—fast and furious, each a bolt of lightning whose warmth becomes a permanent part of my soul and whose image remains on my spiritual retina, reminding me of the searing event every time I close my eyes. In other words, they don’t take long.

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So that’s what I think we should do—shorten our meetings so that members can participate in ward choirs without having to use Hermione Granger’s time turner. And with our better choir performances, our shorter meetings will have better music, leading to better spiritual experiences. Which is the whole point anyway.

11 thoughts on “With God, Nothing is Impossible…Except Choir

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    Agreed. If we’re sticking with 3 hours perhaps choir could happen during Sunday School, at least in larger wards…

    Back before wards combined, and I was music chair, we had no choir for the reasons you outline. What I did do was get small ensemble groups together, who would be prepared to put together a piece for sacrament meeting. People were willing to commit to a few rehearsals for a single musical item, even though they would never have been able to commit to a permanent choir.

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    I’m sorry to hear you were released from Primary Pianist.

    You’re absolutely correct about the time thing. Our “choir” has resorted to the occasional “impromptu choir” which invites anyone interested in the congregation to come up and sing a hymn straight out of the hymnal. It seems like we’re on a three month rotation of The Holy Ghost, Come Follow Me and As Sisters In Zion. It is better than nothing.

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    We have a ward choir. Okay, not a choir: more sort of a group of people some of whom get together directly after third hour every now and then and try to sing something nice. Except for every 2nd and 4th Sunday when ward council is on, when we get together for 10 minutes and bash out a rousing “Come Come Ye Saints” (our party piece) before half of us shuffle off to yet another meeting feeling both uplifted and slightly depressed about the idea of spending an hour planning sacrament meetings and return to church paths for less active members or having a fight, sorry discussion, about when the next ward activity should happen.
    But I digress. We have a ward choir and we are pretty good (the stake president says so all the time). Because we are the only ward with a “choir” we get to sing at stake conference and other events all the time. The key to our success, however, is that (and don’t tell the stake president this) we aren’t really a choir. There is no standing commitment, no obligation to come, just an open chapel door and a few people who find singing an uplifting affair and are grateful you came and joined us. Sometimes half the ward are there, sometimes just one family. Half the time we don’t even have a piano. But we suffice with just our voices and a desire to worship.
    The key is to develop a culture of singing, where choir is not about the performance, but rather the fun and spirituality that comes from just singing.

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    As a fellow (very much an amateur) ward choir director, this struck home.

    However, I don’t know if giving members another 30-60 minutes each Sunday is going to increase choir attendance. As you note, somewhere in our (collective) list of priorities, other things are going to take precedence over choir.

    I have liked the idea of making choir another SS class, as suggested by Hedgehog. People are already at church and childcare is taken care of by the nursery. Of course, those in other teaching callings would be precluded.

    Perhaps, as we do with FHE, if the Bishop declared “the 4-5 hour is reserved for choir practice, no other meetings may be scheduled during that time”, then those in other meetings who want to come could come, but it seems more likely that they would get an early start on dinner (or find something else to do).

    I haven’t found any real solutions. As ward choir directors, we really are at the mercy of the dedication and commitment level of our fellow volunteers. As long as our potential ward choir members always put other things before participation in the choir, we are going to struggle to recruit members to participate. How do we really motivate church members and leadership to make choir more of a priority?

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    Hedgehog, I like the idea of having choir during Sunday school. I think it would be really great and we’d get a great turn out. I would settle for even letting us doing it every other week or even once a month. It would help a lot.

    I also agree that having people participate for particular performances is an easier sell. For us this worked well for the Christmas program and some other numbers we’ve done. Our choir has done amazingly well, imho, given the practice time we have, but I wish choir weren’t competing with so many other things.

    Moss, it was a bit traumatic being released from primary pianist. I really enjoyed it and had figured out some strategies to work around the social isolation of being in Primary. We have also done an “instant choir” like you describe, and I think that is better than nothing. It also clues me in to whom I might try to recruit for the regular choir. 🙂

    Dr. Laura: Loved the parody!

    Daniel, I feel your pain. I also like your idea about simply creating a culture of singing. I started a “Guys Singing Group” that is totally unofficial, just some of us getting together every couple of weeks to sing. In May we went to a couple of nursing homes to perform and had a wonderful experience–residents were joining in on both the sacred music and the pop classics we did. I’d like to create that vibe for our ward choir. I am trying some choir potlucks with practice after the food, and I’m also planning to take the entire choir to a nursing home a few times this fall. We’ll see how it goes.

    DMV, I totally agree with you. However, I think many choir members prioritize appropriately–they just have too much to do and probably shouldn’t be going to choir practice. That’s why I think a structural change is more likely to allow ward choirs to blossom, for example, letting the choir practice during Sunday school like you and Hedgehog suggested, or having choir as a calling for some members (instead of, not in addition to, other callings), or ideally, fewer other meetings (a guy can dream).

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    We don’t even HAVE a ward choir.

    We have someone called and set apart as chorister, but we haven’t actually had a choir in two or three years. And it KILLS me. Singing in the choir is one of the few things we get to do in the Church just for the sheer joy of it. (It’s also one of the very, very few things where participation is truly voluntary.) But it’s been dropped, I can only assume, in favor of all of the other things that we HAVE to do, even if those things feel like soul-sucking drudgery. With choir, there’s no moral at the end of the story, no pill hidden in the spoonful of jam. We sing to glorify God and to bring joy to others. And my ward has made it clear that not only is that not a priority, it’s apparently a waste of time.

    I’m very frustrated because God gave me the gift of singing (I’m not great but I can carry a tune), and now He is telling me He doesn’t even want me to use it. Hide that candle under a bushel basket, girl!

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    (Also, ward choir director is one of the few callings that can be filled by a man OR a woman. Those are few and far between, especially since they axed the activities committee.)

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    Joni, loved your comment but that really sucks! I never really thought about it, but choir is one of the few voluntary activities that we do in church. (Of course everything is “voluntary”, but the expectation of choir truly is voluntary.)

    Perhaps that is why it doesn’t seem soul sucking to me, because it is not a duty. That is why I started the informal guys singing group independent of the choir because I wanted to do something just because we loved to do it. In the end, performing at a couple of nursing homes was the cherry on top, because just having fun was the raison d’etre.

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    A ward is only as true as its choir.

    But seriously, having been the choir director the last few years, the only things I know that work are consistency and snacks.

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