“‘I Have Learned to Sing’: President Heber J. Grant’s Struggle to Sing the Hymns of Zion,” Ensign, Sept. 1984, 40
“Believing there are quite a number who have never sung, who perhaps would be benefited by reading an account of my efforts, and who might be encouraged thereby in learning to sing, I have decided to give my experience.” So wrote Heber J. Grant in the Improvement Era in 1900.1 Throughout his service as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve for thirty-six years and as President of the Church for more than twenty-six years, President Grant was an example of perseverance and a constant source of encouragement to the Saints to sing.
He often quoted one of his favorite scriptures, Doctrine and Covenants 25:12 [D&C 25:12]: “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.” Yet, delivering the “song of his heart” was a struggle and a challenge for him.
Telling his own story, President Grant said, “I have, all the days of my life, enjoyed singing very much. When I was a little boy ten years of age I joined a singing class, and the professor told me that I could never learn to sing.” From then until he was a man a little over thirty years of age, President Grant tried time and time again on his own to carry a tune and was unable to do so. “I had my character read by a phrenologist,” he said, facetiously, “and he told me that I could sing, but he said he would like to be forty miles away while I was doing it. I was practicing singing … in the Templeton building, and the room where I was doing so was next to that of a dentist. The people in the hall decided that some one was having his teeth extracted.”2
Speaking in general conference about the popularity of his voice, Elder Grant said, “I have had a great many of my friends come to me and beg me not to sing. … One of my fellow Apostles said to me, ‘Come in, Heber, but don’t sing.’ … In our meetings in the Temple the brethren would say ‘That is as impossible as it is for Brother Grant to carry a tune,’ and that settled it; everybody acknowledged that was one of the impossibilities.”3
Instead of giving up, Elder Grant persisted. He described his deep yearning for the ‘divine gift’:
“All the days of my life I have tried to sing ‘O My Father,’ written by Sister Eliza R. Snow. When I was a child, next to my own mother, no woman that ever lived took as much interest in me, gave me as much motherly advice or seemed to love me more than did Sister Snow. I loved her with all my heart, and loved her hymn, ‘O My Father.’ I remarked … to Brother Horace S. Ensign that I would be willing to spend four or five months of my spare time if I could only learn to sing that one hymn. He told me that any one could learn to sing that had perseverance. I said to him if there was anything that I had it was perseverance. So I suggested that we sit down and I would take my first lesson of two hours on that song. I have been continuing the lessons on it ever since. I have sung it as high as 115 times in one day.”4
He said, “One of the leading Church officials, upon hearing me sing, when I first started to practice, remarked that my singing reminded him very much of the late Apostle Orson Pratt’s poetry. He said Brother Pratt wrote only one piece of poetry, and this looked like it had been sawed out of boards, and sawed off straight.”5 Other times Elder Grant was teased as having “a voice like a picket fence.”
On a trip to Arizona, Elder Grant asked his traveling companions, Elders Rudger Clawson and J. Golden Kimball, if they had any objections to him singing one hundred hymns that day. “They took it as a joke,” he said, “and assured me that they would be delighted. We were on the way from Holbrook to St. Johns, a distance of about sixty miles. After I had sung about forty times, they assured me that if I sang the remaining sixty they would be sure to have nervous prostration.” Elder Grant paid no attention to their appeal, but “held them to their bargain and sang the full one hundred.”6 At the conferences they visited, Elder Grant attempted to sing. “I tried to sing ‘O My Father’ at Snowflake, Arizona,” he said. “I only got as far as the ‘O,’ and I did not get that right.”7
After his failure in Arizona, Elder Grant was even more determined. On many occasions he would sing a hymn one hundred times a day. “And after two or three months … I felt so confident that I could sing the two hymns: ‘O My Father,’ and ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way,’ and so did Mr. Ensign, that I volunteered to sing, ‘O My Father’ at a Sunday school conference held in our big Tabernacle … with fully 10,000 people in attendance. The house was crowded and some people standing.”8
Elder Grant had been troubled that evening with stage flight and was very nervous. He said he hoped “to give an object lesson to the young people, and to encourage them to learn to sing. I made a failure, getting off the key in nearly every verse, and instead of my effort encouraging the young people, I fear that it tended to discourage them.”9 Before the meeting he had sung the song through many times without error. The multitude overwhelmed him and his voice faltered. He could not sing with the accompaniment. Elder Grant paused in the middle of the song and humorously admitted that he knew he was not in pitch. There was much suppressed hilarity in the congregation at this understatement. Elder Grant asked if it could be played in another key and persisted until he had finished all four verses of the hymn. “I then announced that I knew that I had not sung this hymn properly—the audience was laughing nearly all the time I was singing—but that I would sing it again and continue to sing it at future conferences until I could do so without making a mistake.”10
Despite his good intent and his attempt to handle the awkward situation lightly, he was saddened and endured painful reactions. “When I got home from my first attempt to sing in the Tabernacle, my daughter Lucy … said to me: ‘Papa, I had to laugh during your singing to keep from crying—I was so ashamed of you.’”11
He also received a letter from his “nearest and dearest friend,” Brigadier General Richard W. Young. “I admit that your point is a good one, i.e., if you can learn to sing, nothing need discourage anybody,” said Young, “but the fact that success ultimately must be reached by traveling along the border-land of ridicule, makes the task a difficult and delicate one, particularly for an apostle, who, unlike the ordinary musical crank, cannot afford to cultivate his thorax at the expense of his reputation as a man of judgment.”12
Yet, in spite of his monumental failure, and in spite of the criticism of family and friends, Elder Grant would not be discouraged. “It only increases my determination to learn to sing,” he said.13
Shortly afterward, he was attending a dinner party. “One of the people present requested me to sing ‘O, My Father,’” he said, “and simultaneously another one of the company asked me to sing, ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way.’ I asked Sister Snow if she would kindly play. … She had heard one of the parties ask me to sing one piece and I had heard the other ask me for the other one, and she played ‘O, My Father,’ and I sang ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way.’ As good fortune would have it, the first three notes of these songs are identically the same, and Sister Snow discovered what I was trying to do, and therefore played, ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way,’ and we got through all right.”14
He still hadn’t gotten over his nervousness when standing before the assembled people to sing; yet, he knew he was improving, getting closer to his goal. “When I first began to learn to sing … I would get off on nearly every line, and did not know it,” he said. “I have learned to know when I am off.”15 He practiced constantly, learning the different notes on the piano as an aid. “When I first started to do this,” he wrote, “quite frequently, I would sing one note and strike another, and did not know the difference. Today my ear detects a mistake of this kind, showing very plainly that my ‘musical deafness’ is gradually disappearing.”16 “I can learn a song in less than one-tenth the time required when I first commenced to practice,” he was pleased to report.17
When he was forty-three years of age, Elder Grant happened to be in a ward meetinghouse when he saw Professor Charles J. Thomas, the very music teacher who had told Elder Grant when he was a child that he would never learn to sing. Elder Grant approached him and told him that at last he had indeed learned to sing. “I know I can not run the scale: do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do—because I tried it this identical morning for nearly an hour with my wife, and failed,” said Elder Grant, “but I can sing two songs.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” was the reply.
So Elder Grant set out to prove it: “We walked over into one of the corners in the meeting house, and in a low voice I sang for him all six verses of ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way His Wonders to Perform.’ When I got through he remarked that he could not comprehend it, that I had not made a mistake of a single note. I assured him that I understood it and that I believed I had practised the song not less than five thousand times before I learned it. He immediately requested me to join the Temple Choir, which he was leading at the time, and this I did and sang in his choir for a number of years.”18
Concerning his years of effort, President Grant said, “I have, upon more than one occasion … , verified the truthfulness of the quotation, ‘that which we persist in doing becomes easy to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased,’ by practising a song two hours and then singing it in public without a mistake. I can now sing something over two hundred songs. … I consider it one of the greatest accomplishments of my life that I have learned to sing.”19 “Nobody knows the joy I have taken in standing up in the Tabernacle and other places and joining in the singing, because it used to be a perfect annoyance to me to try and to fail; because I loved the words of the songs of Zion.”20