“Singing Hymns with New Power,” Ensign, July 1977, 32
I awoke early this morning, and my mind was drawn to recount my moving experiences with music these last months. I wept.
My wife awoke, and comforted me. When I could speak I assured her of the extraordinary joy that was in my heart. We talked for a while about the spiritual blessings that had come into our home during these last months. Then the thought came to me, “Today you should write down what you have experienced.”
“But I have a day full of appointments,” I told myself, “The Magic Flute translation deadline, the La Boheme recording, the Music Theater sketches.”
But the impulse would not go away. “Get up now, cancel all but the most important appointments.”
The crucial ideas behind the experiences came from Elder Boyd K. Packer’s fireside address at BYU in February 1976. I am a musician, and a statement Elder Packer quoted struck home: “There are many [LDS artists] who struggle and climb and finally reach the top of the ladder, only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall.” (Ensign, August 1976, p. 61.)
What wall was my little ladder leaning against? When Elder Packer described the wrong ladder, it sounded familiar: Many of our conductors, he said, want “to win the acclaim of the world. [Such do] not play to the Lord, but to other musicians.” (P. 63.)
He also said, “Very frequently … our musicians, particularly the more highly trained among them, … perform in such a way as to call attention to themselves and their ability. They do this rather than give prayerful attention to what will inspire.” (P. 62.)
Was he talking to me? Perhaps. I was sobered. Then came his burning challenge: “The greatest hymns and anthems of the Restoration are yet to be composed. The sublimest renditions of them are yet to be conducted.” (P. 61.)
My first thought was to hasten the writing and performance of exciting new pieces of music—but then I remembered Elder Packer’s stress on Latter-day Saint hymns. Could those be rendered better? Not just technically better, but sublimely? And how?
An earlier insight lifted me to action.
Three years ago I drove opera star Jerome Hines from the Salt Lake airport to BYU, where he was to perform in our production of Boris Godunov. He asked me why I seemed uptight and nervous.
I explained about being new at my job, the challenge of doing Boris Godunov at a university, the Metropolitan Opera star looking in on us, and so on.
“You don’t have much faith, do you?” he said.
Wait a minute, I thought. I’m the Mormon here. I’m supposed to be telling you about faith.
He went on: “If in faith and selflessness you are giving all of your talents to the Lord to use as he wishes, then what he wants to happen will happen. Relax.”
These two insights, one from an apostle of the Lord and one from a musician with great faith, set the stage for the experiences that precipitated my feelings this morning.
I had two new assignments. I had recently been called as a branch president in the Language Training Mission (LTM), associating closely with those teachable, open, dedicated young men and women. I had also just been assigned to conduct the BYU Oratorio Choir for one semester.
The last time I had conducted the Oratorio Choir we had done an experimental visual production of Handel’s Messiah. The students were anxious to see what exciting things would happen this year.
This year, however, the excitement would be quieter and less flashy—but the impression would be much deeper. To use Elder Packer’s analogy, during the semester we finally climbed down that ladder leaning against the wrong wall. With our little paint bucket full of the gifts that God had given us, we walked across the little desert to His wall. We stood at the bottom, but not with paint bucket in the air shouting to the Lord, “Here are all of these colors. May we suggest that you take the magenta first, and then the chartreuse!” Rather, we said quietly, “These colors are now completely at your disposal. Tell us which you want us to use first.”
There was that day in class when we were preparing “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning” to be performed at President Kimball’s BYU Devotional talk. It was that one five-second lifetime in that one rehearsal which confirmed that the Lord wanted us to do what we were doing.
Some insights had come quickly, quietly, sometimes humorously, on how to help each choir member sing beautiful sounds. We had even experienced a few moments when the notes had vaulted out of their original stiff measures into a flexible musical arch.
Then came that simple, profound insight: the words to that great hymn were still coming out at “level one”—one at a time, straight from that little memorized hymnal which was planted inside of us long ago in Junior Sunday School. The music part was beautiful, but we didn’t know what we were saying as we sang.
Just recognizing that fact jumped us to “level two” instantly. Now as we sang, our minds flew in curiosity to discover what had been coming out of our mouths all these many years.
“We’ll sing and we’ll shout with the armies of heaven!” (Oh, that is a nice idea, are we really going to do that?)
But the impression came clearly that we were expected to reach “level three,” which was much harder. “Level three” is an actor’s concept, not a musician’s. To be convincing on stage, every thought you speak must be your own thought, not the playwright’s. It must generate anew each time in your heart and mind, find its automatic subtle reflections in your body and spirit, and then, and only then, begin to come out of your mouth as a collection of words to express what is now your own thought. It’s a pattern: original thought, spiritual response, words; original thought, spiritual response, words; and so on, each unit always overlapping the next, but never out of order. No words come that are not preceded by a thought in the mind and a feeling in the spirit.
For a few brief seconds 180 of us sang that inspired hymn at “level three” and the Spirit burned its message into our hearts at “level four.” “We’ll call in our solemn assemblies in spirit, to spread forth the kingdom of heaven abroad, that we through our faith may begin to inherit the visions and blessings and glories of God.” Many of us were in tears. We knew that for that brief moment we had, in faith, called in a solemn assembly in spirit and had therein begun to inherit the promised blessings.
One girl came to me at the end of the rehearsal, not holding back the tears, saying, “Brother Robison, you will never know the sacrifices my family and I have made for me to be here at BYU, but if nothing else happens to me while I am here than that brief moment, it would have been worth every sacrifice.”
Then came another challenge. The new Language Training Mission was to be dedicated. The Church Missionary Committee had specified what was to be sung: “It May Not Be on the Mountain Height” as the opening, and “I Need Thee Every Hour” as the closing hymn. A missionary chorus of all 1,400 missionaries, half of whom had never sung in an organized choir in their lives, were to sing a special musical number: “Ye Elders of Israel.”
I, as a musician, had looked down my nose for years every time that tune was sung. The words were fine, but to repeat that short, catchy melody three times in a row on each verse without alteration made it without question the most unmusical piece in the hymnbook.
My faith wavering, I checked with LTM President Max Pinegar. Yes, the Missionary Committee wanted all of the missionaries to sing “Ye Elders of Israel” as a chorus—from the hymnbook.
I put my faith back together. If that was what they wanted, that was what I wanted.
A slight melodic alteration in the chorus satisfied the need for a musical arch without drawing attention to itself and therefore away from the spirit of the hymn.
We had one hour for rehearsal. Ward choir directors will appreciate my concern. I looked to the Spirit for guidance; but, surprisingly, as the rehearsal unfolded it seemed that the Spirit was quite unconcerned about the performance itself, which was to take place the next morning. It apparently was more important for the elders to understand correct principles first; everything else would follow.
It took twenty minutes for them to understand the principles of making beautiful sounds. Posture, diaphragmatic control, breathing, free resonance, and relaxed vowels came out humorously as metaphors: “sky hooks, bop-bop balls, vacuum cleaners, knights’ visors, and north-south, as opposed to east-west vowels.”
As we worked it became apparent that learning this new language of singing was much like learning Spanish or Japanese; we could learn it quickly and completely only with the Spirit’s help. And in my own mind Church music jumped from its accustomed place as a filler between the announcements and the opening prayer: music could teach—not just lyrics, but the music itself could teach by analogy some of the more subtle, feeling-level principles of the gospel.
The next twenty minutes we connected those stirring sounds together into flexible phrases—still no words, no meanings, no tunes.
Then we finally approached the hymns we were to sing. It took only five minutes to explain and begin to reach moments of “level three” meaning. We had sung phrases like, “No tender voice like thine can peace afford” at “level one”—the rote level—for so many years that it was a chore to even get to “level two,” understanding what the phrase meant.
Then came fifteen glorious, insightful minutes as 1,400 of the Lord’s missionaries sang at least some of the time at “level three,” meaning with their whole hearts the words they sang: “I’ll say what you want me to say”; “We’ll … visit the weary, the hungry, and cold; … and bring them to Zion”; “Stay thou nearby; temptations lose their power when thou art nigh. … O I need Thee; every hour I need thee!”
We performed those hymns at “level three,” and the Lord confirmed them at “level four.” The powerful message of that experience for those missionaries was clear. What they had just felt in song they would be reliving daily for the next two years: repeating memorized words, not at the rote level, but at “level three,” meaning every word. Then the Lord would confirm with his Spirit the words they said, just as he had confirmed those hymns.
For the next eight weeks, as long as some of those elders were still at the LTM, occasionally one would recognize me and call out in passing, “I got to ‘level three.’” Indeed. And brought me with him.
Was it just the novelty of trying something new with the Oratorio Choir? Was it just the special spiritual occasion of the dedication of the Language Training Mission?
Yes, it was those things, but not just those things. It happened again and again. It happened for a pensive moment in darkness during the Thanksgiving assembly as the choir hummed the music to the words, “Though deepening trials throng your way, press on, press on, ye Saints of God,” and then sang quietly, “He chastens and hastens his will to make known … sing praises to his name, he forgets not his own.”
It happened in a regular devotional assembly. We approached “level three” as we sang, “Prayer is the simplest form of speech that infant lips can try … the motion of a hidden fire that trembles in the breast.”
It happened again at the Christmas program where we sang—straight from the hymn book “How silently, the wondrous gift is given! … No ear may hear his coming; But … where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
I have come to see that where meek souls will receive him—where artists will bend to his will and go where he leads—that is where the Christ does enter in. As Nephi said, I must allow myself to be “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.” (1 Ne. 4:6.)
Once I was willing to climb down from my ladder and lean it against the right wall, the Lord was willing to let me know how I should begin to climb and paint. The first step was slow. But what great joy came as we undertook to use his colors and to paint his picture.