[photopress:piano_1108.jpg,thumb,pp_style]By Cheryl Stewart Osborn
If asked whom among you were members of the Church prior to 1980 and remember Sunday School in the morning and returning for Sacrament Meeting in the afternoon, likely more of you would not raise your hand than would. That’s because, according to statistics at www.lds.org, there are nine million more members of the Church now than in 1980.
For the benefit of those not raising their hand, prior to 1980 Sunday School included 20 minutes of hymn practice, where faithful church attendees learned how to sing the hymns. For the past 28 years, though, millions of church members have not experienced the benefit of consistent hymn practice.
In 1985 the Church published the new Hymns book with dozens of new songs that many of us had never heard. On occasion, these unfamiliar hymns emerge as the opening or closing hymn. We struggle through them, but rarely learn them.
Considering how many converts don’t know our hymns, and how many of us do not know how to sight read music, it is little wonder why many of us sing hymns so timidly and reluctantly – We simply don’t know the songs!
There’s another obstacle: Who among you bemoan that the music in the church is too slow, lacks energy, or all sounds the same? Likely most of you are now raising your hand.
“I’ve noticed, and many others tell me, our hymns are sung quite slowly or perhaps differently than they remember singing them in their youth,” said Bishop Jeff R. Grondel of the Shadow Canyon Ward, Green Valley Stake. “This is not just in our ward, but also in several wards around the country which I have attended.”
The problem is not with the hymns themselves, but that we aren’t singing them right.
“We’re missing the message of the hymns because we aren’t delivering them correctly,” said Danielle Ellis of the Black Mountain Stake. “When you have a hymn that is supposed to be sung with conviction, but instead just plods along, it’s uncomfortable. The music is supposed to add to the spirit, not detract from it.”
Diane Bastian, staff assistant in the music division of the Church, agrees. “The text of a hymn is very meaningful, but it needs to be sung with vigor.”
So why are we singing our hymns so slowly? Are we under the misconception that this is a Church requirement?
One alert reader who called after reading a previous article about this subject indicated this might be a possibility. She was told by a source she deemed reliable that “when the Church was preparing the new Hymns book for publication, most of the hymns were rewritten with a much slower tempo to create more reverence.”
Was this indeed the intent of the Church?
“That is absolutely not true,” said Bonnie Goodlift, who served on the executive committee that compiled and wrote hymns for the new Hymns book. “There was never a deliberate choice to slow down the hymns. We bumped up the tempo of a lot of them.”
Linda Grondel, who is an accomplished musician in the Green Valley Stake, compared her copy of the old Hymns book to the new looking for the tempo markings. For those of us who aren’t musically inclined, the tempo is the number of beats per minute at which a song should be played.
“The old hymn book gives one exact tempo, but the new book gives a range,” said Linda. “For example, in the old book ‘The Spirit of God’ is given the single tempo of 100, whereas in the new book it is given a range of 96-112.”
Linda compared several more hymns in both books and the result was the same: the exact tempo of the old hymn fell into the lower end of the new tempo range, thus validating Bonnie’s statement.
“The tempo range was given to allow more flexibility for inexperienced accompanists,” said Bonnie. “It also helps older people who might feel more comfortable performing slower.”
On page 379 of Hymns, it reads: “Metronomic markings indicate a tempo range (such as 66-76) and are given as general guidelines: the locale and context in which the hymn is used may suggest greater flexibility.”
Unfortunately, “many people choose to ignore the tempo range,” said Bonnie. “It’s really up to the local bishop or stake president to decide how fast he wants the hymns sung. If he’s supportive, the accompanist may bring a metronome.”
That’s just what accomplished musician Lori Judd of the Green Valley Stake did when Bishop Grondel asked her to play his beloved German hymn “Hark, All Ye Nations” at its intended speed for the opening song at a recent Sacrament Meeting.
Lori was more than enthusiastic to use her metronome, which is a small device that makes repeated clicking sounds at an adjustable pace and is used for marking rhythm. Lori checked the hymn’s tempo marking and found the range guideline to be 92-108. With the bishop’s permission, she set the metronome at 110 and began to play.
The congregation sprung to life! No doubt it took the first verse for us members to catch up, but by the final verse we were singing “Boldly” as the hymn’s mood marking indicates. We were awakened, uplifted by the Spirit, and actively participating in Sacrament meeting.
“This is not a change, but a return to the way the hymns were meant to be sung – as praises to our Father in Heaven,” said Bishop Grondel.
We rely on our chorister and organist to guide us in singing the hymns correctly. Not all are accomplished musicians, but they are striving to do their best in their calling so we must be patient and supportive.
Likewise, we in the congregation should participate in the singing. Whether or not we sing well, let’s “come before His presence in singing, all ye lands, and make a joyful noise unto the Lord!” (Psalms 100)
“When a congregation worships through singing, all present should participate,” said Elder Dallin H.
Oaks during General Conference in 1994. “I believe some of us in North America are getting neglectful in our worship, including the singing of hymns. I have observed that the Saints elsewhere are more diligent in doing this. We in the center stakes of Zion should renew our fervent participation in the singing of our hymns.”
At an informal brainstorming session of church leaders discussing what can be done to improve our hymn singing at the ward level, the following ideas were suggested:
• Institute hymn practice at the conclusion of Sacrament Meeting before dismissing to Sunday School, and use this time to teach how to sing the hymn correctly;
• Sing the same opening hymn in Sacrament meeting each week for a month so it becomes familiar;
• Encourage accompanists to play at the high end of the tempo range and to use a metronome.
• Call an accomplished organist to teach pianists how to play the organ.