Blessed by the Hymns

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“Blessed by the Hymns,” Ensign, Aug. 1995, 54

Blessed by the Hymns

Fighting against my fears, I accepted the call as ward organist. I had no idea the Spirit was preparing to touch at least two lives through the hymns.

I was feeling somewhat melancholy that Sunday, with my husband away fulfilling a Church calling elsewhere and my children all grown. Bishop Adams greeted me and asked how my family was doing, then said, “Sister Harder, would you think about becoming the ward organist?”

I was dumbfounded as the bishop continued, “You see, our present organist is moving to another area, and all of us in the bishopric feel you are the right person for the calling. If you will accept, Angie, I will give you six months to prepare. Think it over and let me know.”

Afterward I was filled with a sudden urge to laugh. Bishop, as much as I love you, you’ve got to be a little overworked, I thought. I’d had five years of piano lessons many years ago when I was a young girl. But I’d never touched an organ in my life.

Unexpectedly, however, a warm, burning feeling began to spread through me, and tears came to my eyes. My experience in the Church had taught me about this feeling; the Holy Ghost bore witness that I needed to learn to play the organ.

After the meetings were over, I went home and asked Heavenly Father to settle my still-doubting heart. As I prayed, a warm peace filled my soul. Next Sunday, spiritually resolved but still quite dumbfounded, I told Bishop Adams that I would learn to play the organ. The bishop happily gave me the keys to the church and the organ, and my new journey had begun. The following day I began to search for an organ teacher. Little did I know what I had gotten myself into!

After an exhaustive search, I found a teacher, and I began a daily routine of organ practice from 7:00 A.M. to 8:45 A.M. before work began. This practice took commitment and discipline that I knew I badly lacked. As I struggled, fears began to creep into my heart, and I began to doubt my calling. Even my husband’s positive and supportive help was useless. My fears drowned out his kind encouragement.

After two months of lessons and hours of despair, I told myself that I couldn’t possibly do this. I was only fooling myself. I knew there was no way I was going to play the organ in four more months, and the thought of getting up before a congregation scared me to death. There’s so much to learn, I kept thinking.

I shared my feelings with a group of friends, telling them that I was nervous and frightened. I felt guilty for not practicing the organ twenty-four hours a day and feared I would never remember what I had learned from the day before. I was even having problems sleeping, I said. My friends assured me that I needed to try to remain calm, and they reminded me that if I had enough faith to trust the Lord, he would work the problem out with me.

After considerable thought, I knew I had to go back to the Lord for help.

“I know I’ve been called to this hard task, Heavenly Father,” I prayed a few days later. “Help me. Please send someone to help me. I’m so frightened.”

The next morning as I began my daily practice, I decided to visualize an angel sitting on the beams above the organ. I visualized the angel helping me to play. Just imagining that I wasn’t alone anymore in this endeavor made me feel better.

As Christmas approached, I was attending a community group meeting when Anne Sheedy Yeston approached me. She’d heard of my challenge and offered to help. Anne told me she played the flute, and that she would be happy to help me overcome the problems I was having with rhythm.

“We can play duets together,” she said, volunteering to supplement the instruction I was still receiving from my organ teacher. “Don’t worry about how well you play. I would just like to help you get started with your hymns.”

Anne, who was Jewish, lived only a few blocks from the stake meetinghouse. “Now let’s look at these hymns of yours,” she said on our first day of practice. “Where would you like to begin?”

I opened my hymnbook and randomly chose “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” (Hymns, 1985, no. 141).

Anne carefully opened her flute case, lifted out her flute, placed the instrument gently to her lips, and began to play. I listened with awe.

Surely the Lord really has sent me an angel, I thought. The golden sound was exquisite. I felt such overwhelming sweetness and love from her music that the hymn came alive for me. I wept.

Anne was surprised and confused by my reaction. “Where did you study?” I asked through tears. She told me she’d studied as a teenager at St. Cecilia’s Conservatory in Rome, Italy. She had also taken private lessons and was the recipient of many awards. I was numb with shock; there was no way I could play for her after her magnificent solo.

What on earth will she think about our church when she hears an organist like me? I was frozen by my fear and self-doubt, unable to even lift my hands to the keyboard. Anne recognized my fear and gave me her reassuring smile once again. “Angie, I’m here to help you, remember?” Her kindness soothed me. I took a deep breath and began to make a fool of myself.

Slowly but surely our lessons developed and progressed. We worked on two or more hymns a week, and I found that the sound of the flute was tremendously helpful as I learned rhythm. Because of Anne’s reassuring teaching, I felt I just might have some talent. She explained that technical problems needed to be worked out before I could actually get down to the music. She also told me not to be afraid to make mistakes, that eventually I would learn from them. Her gentle way of teaching and her belief in my talent were just what I needed. She was a constant support and helped me to get through those difficult days. Our lessons were a labor of love, and a great bond was established between us. Further, I could feel my love for music grow and swell within me.

Then—too quickly, it seemed—came the day that I began to serve as ward organist. That Sunday morning I was so frightened that I shook all over. I made so many mistakes that it was a true disaster. The congregation gallantly ignored my errors and kept right on singing. Somehow I found the courage to continue on.

Every Sunday after church, Anne would phone me. “How did you do?” she’d ask. Sometimes I was elated. Other times I was in tears. Anne would reassure me. On one Sunday, I was feeling particularly discouraged. Anne told me about the summer when she was playing for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in an outdoor amphitheater. During one performance, a fly landed on her nose, certain disaster for a flautist. She wiggled her nose enough to cause the insect to fly away, and she managed to continue on with the piece. The thought of this scene made me laugh and helped me forget my own traumas at the organ.

Although my playing improved, I still wasn’t feeling confident. I decided to find another teacher, a professional organ teacher, to supplement Anne’s continued tutoring. This change brought renewed fear and struggles as I began to play a pipe organ. Stephen, my new teacher, was a perfectionist in many ways, and I found myself having to learn many new things. Each lesson left me dissolved in tears.

Anne continued to meet with me at the meetinghouse on a weekly basis, encouraging me and nurturing my growing love for music and my ability to express myself through this new medium. “This place is so peaceful,” she would often tell me. “I love coming here.”

Two and a half years passed. There was enormous improvement in my playing. Selecting the right organ stops was coming easier, pedals were beginning to coordinate with the hands, and I was playing hymns without shaking. I could actually hear all four voices in my playing and could feel myself beginning to relax enough to enjoy what I was doing. As I played the hymns, old wounds healed and my testimony grew. I was developing a love for the organ, and I knew deep in my heart that Heavenly Father had given me this gift.

One day Anne asked what some of the lyrics of the hymns meant. I was happy to explain the meaning of the hymns, but I didn’t realize that I might be teaching her the gospel through music. Because I was so involved in my own musical problem, I neglected the Spirit’s prompting to help Anne find what she was looking for. Finally, the realization of what was happening sent me to my knees. I found the courage to bear my testimony to my friend. I also gave her a Book of Mormon and wrote my testimony inside.

Faithfully she began reading the scriptures; she even posted verses where she could see them and memorize them on a daily basis. She read other Church literature and watched some Church videotapes. She also performed a musical number at our ward conference.

My private hopes of Anne’s joining the Church vanished, however, when after some time she chose to distance herself from me and made the choice not to see the missionaries. Disturbed by her decision, I went to see our bishop. He told me to continue to be her friend and not to push her. I followed his good counsel.

Six months later, my husband and I felt inspired to send the missionaries to her home. “Come in! I’ve been waiting for you,” she told them when they knocked on her door.

Anne joined the Church in July 1991. What a joyous day! My heart sang and my tears flowed. We celebrated our friendship and her baptism by playing two duets at the baptismal program. Anne’s first calling in the ward was that of chorister.

Anne and I have both grown and learned much over the past few years. If I don’t start my days with organ practice now, I feel something wonderful is missing in my life. Moments spent alone with the organ, making music, have become one of my life’s greatest treasures. Music has become a very positive force for me as I have learned to communicate my testimony and love to others.

Illustrated by Wilson J. Ong