Mormons and musicians

July 11, 2011

Mormon Tabernacle Choir and organ pipes
Photo, More Good Foundation

Some of you know that I am a “Mormon“—a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I find that sometimes fellow musicians are curious about my faith and how it connects to my career in music, so I’d like to share a few thoughts.

Music in LDS (Latter-day Saint) theology

Mormons embrace the biblical Old and New Testaments and find in them reason to consider music, both vocal and instrumental, integral to worship:

And David and all the house of Israel played before the Lord on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals. (2nd Samuel 6:5, KJV)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Colossians 3:16, KJV)

Books of scripture unique to the LDS canon also promote music in worship. The Book of Mormon describes gatherings of the faithful in the ancient Americas:

And their meetings were conducted by the church after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or to exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done. (Moroni 6:9, emphasis added)

The Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations from the 19th and 20th centuries, includes divine sanction for music in worship:

And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church.

For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads. (Doctrine and Covenants 25:12)

If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. (Doctrine and Covenants 136:28)

Music in LDS services

Congregational hymn singing is essential to LDS worship services, and usually accompanied by organ or piano. The English-language LDS hymnal contains over 300 hymns, some of which are borrowed or adapted from Protestant hymnody. There is also a children’s songbook, and material from this book is well-loved by congregations and sometimes used in adult meetings.

LDS congregations have no professional music ministry (nor any professional clergy, nor any other paid positions). Music leadership and service positions within congregations are filled by members who accept assignments from local ecclesiastical leaders. This means that the technical quality of the music (though not the spiritual quality, most Mormons would argue) varies, depending on available talent. While musical ability is generally plentiful in large, well-established congregations in the western US, some resources are available for less-musical congregations, including hymnals with simplified keyboard parts, and even pre-recorded accompaniments.

Services may also include music performed by soloists or small groups. These may be vocal or instrumental, though a Church policy manual warns against the use of instruments with a “prominent” sound, and mentions brass and percussion instruments in particular as being potentially inappropriate. Final decisions on these matters are made by local leaders, and I, for example, have used the soprano saxophone on occasion, after assuring congregation leadership that it can indeed be played sensitively and worshipfully. As a musician, I find LDS congregations to be extremely attentive and appreciative audiences, although I do find the end of a performance to be a little awkward, as applause is considered inappropriate.

Choir music is also used occasionally in worship services. The well-known Mormon Tabernacle Choir is an official Church group, which contributes music to Church-wide conferences and other high-profile Church functions, and which also maintains a schedule of touring and recording both sacred and secular choral music. Local LDS choirs tend to be fairly casual compared to those of other churches that may have professional music ministries; rehearsal schedules are usually very light, regular church clothes are usually worn, and the performance may be nothing more than a well-known hymn, sung from the hymnal with little or no adaptation. However, more involved and ambitious choir programs are welcomed if there is talent and interest within the congregation.

Music in everyday LDS life

A Church-published pamphlet for teenagers gives the following guidelines for selecting music for everyday listening:

Choose carefully the music you listen to. Pay attention to how you feel when you are listening. Don’t listen to music that drives away the Spirit, encourages immorality, glorifies violence, uses foul or offensive language, or promotes Satanism or other evil practices. (For the Strength of Youth, p. 20)

As with many aspects of the LDS faith, the burden falls largely on the individual to interpret this. Some Church members go so far as to limit themselves to music with a sacred message, but most would see this as extreme. (Still, widespread interest among Church members in “safe” music has fed a surprisingly large Mormon music industry, despite some criticisms of the music’s artistic merit.) LDS theology lays claim to all “good” things, whether or not they are sacred in nature:

If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things. (Articles of Faith, 13)

So, it’s common for Church members to enjoy a variety of music, though some find it easier to entirely avoid certain genres or artists that more frequently feature sexual, violent, or otherwise offensive content.

Music as a career

There are some well-known LDS names in the music industry. “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight, for example, is a church member. So are American Idol heartthrob David Archuleta, 1980s pop group The Jets, late punk rocker Arthur “Killer” Kane (who joined the Church after his days with the New York Dolls), and, of course, The Osmonds. My own experience is a bit lower-profile, but I do find that my faith affects aspects of my career.

One significant challenge is Sabbath observance, which in LDS theology includes avoiding working or doing business on Sundays when possible. Some professions require Sunday staffing (for example, there’s a Medevac helicopter pilot in my congregation), and some people may have to accept Sunday work in order to provide for their families. Since I can’t make an honest argument that I’m essential 24/7 personnel, and my Monday-through-Friday university teaching position keeps food on the table, I’ve been turning down Sunday gigs. This has been difficult at times, especially since my location in the Bible Belt means that many of the available gigs are on Sundays at (non-LDS) churches. I also choose to forgo practicing on Sundays, since it’s part of my work.

Alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs, prohibited by the LDS “Word of Wisdom,” are sometimes part of the culture of music-making. Although I have rarely felt serious pressure from fellow musicians to partake, there are some side effects to abstaining. Playing in bars with rock bands in Athens, Georgia during graduate school, payment often came partly in money and partly in free drinks, which of course I turned down, effectively agreeing to less pay than drinking bandmates. I also found that as the evening wore on and the band’s overall blood alcohol rose, the groove often got a little less solid, and the intonation a little less precise. The next day, my bandmates would rave about how great we had sounded, while my 100% sober experience had been a bit different.

Music and my relationship with God

It is my personal belief that I have been divinely blessed with a great love for music, and perhaps even some degree of talent for it. I believe that if I develop what talent I have been given, and use it for the benefit of others, that I will be further blessed and my talent will grow.

I also believe in the message of this passage from the Book of Mormon:

But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul. (2 Nephi 32:9)

Although the “performance” discussed here can refer to any act of faith, the fact that literal, public performance is part of my daily life gives this verse special relevance to me. When I allow my faith to permeate my music-making, it blesses my life and brings me closer to God.

Comments

  1. Brett B.

    This was very enlightening. I have been curious about Mormon approaches to professional musicianship but have never been comfortable asking. Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Hi Brett, I’m glad if this was helpful to you. My experience is that most Mormons don’t mind a bit if people ask honest questions about their faith, so no need to be uncomfortable about asking.

      Reply

  2. Robin Tropper

    I am, myself, a Catholic, but seeing as there is only one God and only one Christ, that really doesn’t matter. For me, the Mormons have been a central part of Christmas since I was a child. Most unfortunately, T.V. has stopped showing short holiday “vignettes” that Mormons used to produce… they were truly inspirational.

    Can you answer this, or can you point to someone who might:
    The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra are probably among the five best in the world. I have been listening to them since my parents bought vinyl records of them in the early 1970’s when they sung with a pipe organ. Although they are absolutely astounding today, they had a certain flair, a different soul back in the simpler days of organ only. I have managed to find one of the Christmas albums (Spirit of Christmas) reissued on CD, but the other one, The Holly and the Ivy, really contained the best tunes, some of which have hardly ever been recorded since.

    Do you know, or can you point the way to anyone who might know, how I can find this album and/or CD reissue and/or MP3 archived files and/or….?

    Thanks and do maintain the musical sobriety!

    Recent blog post: Physical update – exercise: a double-edged dagger (July 6, 2011)

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Hi Robin, thanks for your comment. My quick searches turned up copies on vinyl on both amazon.com and ebay.com. As far as I can see it was never released on CD.

      Reply

  3. John

    Hi there,
    I am one of those guys that some people think have 3 eyes and 2 noses and six wives and are so different to the rest of the population.
    Music is such a part of our life. I did a lot of research and found some notable Mormons in the music field and put together a web site based on that. I must say I was a little surprised at some of my findings. I hope you will have a look at my site. Many people hide their qualities under a rock.
    johnwright@internode.on.net
    John

    Reply

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