“Lift Up Your Voice and Sing,” Ensign, Aug. 2001, 43
A ward choir can do a great deal to influence the spirituality of a meeting. When a choir performs appropriate music, the hearts of both the choir and congregation are touched as the Spirit of the Lord is invited into the meeting. But the benefits of a ward choir do not end there. During practices, choir members experience fellowship and unity as they sing together. Little wonder that disciples of Christ have long been encouraged to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” and “come before his presence with singing” (Ps. 100:1, 2).
When I was 12, I joined my parents for weekly choir practices in the Naperville (Illinois) First Ward. Each member of our choir did not have wonderful musical talent, but together our voices blended beautifully, and with the help of the Spirit we touched lives.
For me, the most influential part of singing in the choir was the fellowship I felt. Although I felt awkward at church and school during my early teenage years, I was perfectly comfortable and happy singing with the ward choir. I had friends there: adults who did not look down on me for being young but rather would laugh with me, let me hold their babies, and sometimes even save a seat for me in the front row. My choir director personally invited me every week and helped me feel I was an important part of the alto section.
As I sang songs of rejoicing with the choir, I began to develop a testimony of the gospel, I began to understand that Father in Heaven knows and loves me, and all the truths I learned in Young Women began to be embedded in my heart.
I sang in the choir for six years before I left Naperville for school. I am sure I will be in many more choirs throughout my life, but the lessons of fellowship, service, and spiritual growth I learned by being a part of our Naperville First Ward choir will remain with me forever.—Rebecca R. Sorenson, BYU 198th Ward, BYU 15th Stake
Participating in a successful ward choir has taught us many important lessons:
We have learned to ask the Lord for specific help and then to have faith to receive that help. Before and after performances we pray that our diction will be good, that we will remember the things we have worked so hard on during practice, that those who need to hear our message will be in attendance, and so on.
Once, after a not-so-lustrous practice before a performance, the person offering the prayer asked that the message would be received by the congregation even if it took angels attending us to answer our prayer. During our performance that night, the sound we heard coming from our own voices was like nothing we had ever heard before. We knew our prayer had been answered.
We’ve seen that music can transcend prejudices and break down barriers. Many in our community have viewed the Church as non-Christian, but as some of these people have listened to our music, they have come to realize that members of the Church have strong testimonies of the Savior. Following a recent interfaith choir festival, for example, one pastor’s wife and a church organist both said they were deeply touched by the words of a beautiful piece of music we performed that bore testimony of the Savior.
We have found that the Lord blesses us for the sacrifices of our time, effort, and energy with an outpouring of His Spirit. One of our choir members wanted to invite her friend to church but didn’t want to make him wait an extra hour after meetings while she attended choir practice. Instead of skipping practices to be with him, she invited him to join the choir. He said he recognized the Holy Ghost for the first time in his life when he sang with us. Eventually he was baptized, and today, five years later, he serves as a counselor in the bishopric. In spite of his many responsibilities, he continues to sing in the choir.
Regardless of what my calling is in the Church, I continue my “other” calling: singing in the ward choir.—Lisa Wasiura Harrison, North Muskegon Ward, Grand Rapids Michigan Stake
Music appeals to our spirits and emotions in different ways than talks or lessons do. Ward members who have difficulty following a talk, including children, often find that a choir selection redirects their attention and refreshes them for the rest of the meeting.
It helps if choir practice isn’t all work. Twice a year our choir held what we called a “Bring-Along Sing-Along.” Families brought their favorite treats to share and their hymnbooks or other music. While the young children watched a video, we sang hymns, holiday songs, favorites from past performances, and new music. When we couldn’t sing any longer, we enjoyed the treats together. These casual evenings added a lot to both our fellowship and our repertoire.—Amy B. Johnson, Marston Lake Ward, Columbine Colorado Stake
Several years ago, my husband and I joined a ward choir in Newbury Park, California. Getting ward members to enlist in choir is usually challenging, but our choir director, Susan Davis, was blessed with the right ingredients to successfully recruit our musical army.
Sister Davis’s enthusiasm was the spark that lit the fuel we all brought with us to practices. I could see that she loved the sacred music she was teaching us; and because of her example, choir members also came to revere the majesty of stirring music. In addition, choir members who already loved to sing shared their contagious excitement with more novice singers, encouraging bashful ward members to attend practices. Several teenage boys attended because the Young Men president was an eager participant and they liked hanging around him. That helped solve the seemingly constant challenge of finding enough men to participate.
Our choir rehearsals were made as convenient as possible. We practiced at Sister Davis’s house, for not only was it more cozy than our ward building, it was closer to all choir members’ homes and had a playroom where choir members’ young children could be watched by the older children. Sister Davis also valiantly did her best to start and end rehearsals on time, which helped choir members to not begrudge the time spent singing.
I have tried to carry on Sister Davis’s legacy in my current ward, where I serve as Primary music leader. The five-year-olds may not yet understand how learning to sing Primary songs (with good posture and energy!) may strengthen their testimonies and bless their lives for years to come, but I do, for I had a good teacher.—Leslie-Maria Harris Cramer, Helensvale Ward, Gold Coast Australia Stake
Shortly after my wife and I moved into a new ward, I was asked to serve as ward choir director. I soon found that most choir members shared similar opinions about the choir: “We are hurting for some talent,” “Ever since Sister So-and-So moved away, our choir has diminished,” “Our ward just doesn’t have a lot of musically talented members.”
I set out to help change those attitudes. During our first rehearsal, I heard plenty of soprano, a faint alto part, two strong tenors, and one strong bass, all doing their best to search for the notes.
I handed out the first piece of music, which was a simple hymn arrangement that I felt was suitable for the choir’s capabilities. However, after reading through it once, the choir was ready to give up. I encouraged them, working on each part repeatedly line by line. Once the choir felt more secure with the parts they were singing, they felt more comfortable following my directions to open their vowels, sit up tall and sing from their diaphragms, and add appropriate dynamics and phrasing.
As the choir continued to practice music that was challenging but possible for them, and as they were offered consistent, positive reinforcement, their attitudes began to change. Once their outlook was more positive, their improvement was swift, and they set a high standard for the choir that has continued to rise to this day.
I have learned that the greatest favor ward choir directors and members can do for themselves and other ward members is to go into the choir with an optimistic attitude, never doubting that the Lord will work with the talent they have. That is requisite to success and, more important, to inviting the Spirit.—Brett H. Stewart, Huntington Beach Fourth Ward, Huntington Beach California Stake
One Sunday morning after choir practice, while I was still at the ward meetinghouse, I received an urgent telephone call from my wife, Kathy. As she had been getting the family ready for church, she noticed that vandals had spray-painted vile words along the side of our white van. Kathy was upset about the invasion of our property, and she was reluctant to drive it to church in that condition.
I returned home immediately to help. But to my surprise, I noticed that even in the face of this disturbance in our lives, the lovely music from choir practice would not leave my mind.
When I got home, I found the right solvent for the spray enamel, and we proceeded to clean the vehicle. Because some time remained before church, our family continued to work on several other cars in the neighborhood that had been similarly vandalized. Even now, I can distinctly remember feeling happy as we performed this service for our neighbors. The choir song continued to play in my mind, and I never felt distressed or angry during the whole episode. Gradually, my mood influenced my wife’s attitude as well, dissipating her anger as the vandalism was erased. The positive power of this music had lifted us both above the reach of one evil deed.
A couple of years after that incident, a similar experience occurred. Again we were learning a piece of music in ward choir that was particularly moving. Its gentle and beautiful melody carried the Savior’s comforting message “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden” (Matt. 11:28).
It was at this time that I became seriously ill with a perplexing disease which often left me almost paralyzed with pain, unable to move or sleep for long periods of time. Once again, the miracle of music calmed my soul. I can remember clearly now the experience of lying in my bed, hardly able to move, feeling frightened about the future, and then being able to hear this beautiful choir song over and over in my mind. It dispelled my anxiety and misery and lifted me out of the cares of the world into a realm of enveloping peace. It was a quiet experience that was truly unforgettable.—Brent R. Laycock, Heritage Ward, Calgary Alberta (Canada) Stake
One thoughtful ward music chairman in our stake, Judith Spragg, helps the director and singers by making tapes of all the parts for each of us. If someone cannot attend a rehearsal, he or she checks out a tape and doesn’t miss out. One brother with a beautiful voice has difficulty reading music. He takes a tape along with him in the car, practicing his part as he commutes to work. He then comes to choir practice confident and ready to join in.
I have found that in addition to support from ward members and the ward music chairman, the choir director needs the support of the bishopric. In wards in our stake where bishops select sacrament meeting themes several months in advance, all the music of the meeting generally reflects that theme. And I have noted a boost in morale when choir members see the bishop and his counselors leave their usual seats to sing in the choir!
Ideally the choir director has the help of others who are called to serve in the choir. For example, a choir librarian may number all the music and check it out to members who want to practice at home. A choir president may arrange for prayers and coordinate with those who print the weekly program regarding choir rehearsals.
Choir attendance increases when the participants rehearse with a purpose. On one occasion I substituted for the choir director at the rehearsal after church. As choir members passed through the chapel where we were going to practice, several of them asked me when the music would be performed. When I told them there was no definite date, they didn’t stay for the rehearsal. On the other hand, when choir members know we are singing for a Christmas program, a sacrament meeting the following month, or any other occasion, they are more likely to practice with dedication.—Anne Kirby, Turner Ward, Salem Oregon Stake
In the past few years, newly baptized members, move-ins, and the shy have found new friends in the Pasadena Second Ward choir, while some disaffected members have found a place where they may blend back into activity. One choir member, Mary Ellen Robertson, observes: “It’s easy to slip in and out of meetings unnoticed and to not participate as fully in the life of a ward when you’re a single woman like me. I feel the choir has drawn me into the ward family in a way nothing else did. It’s not that I don’t participate in other Church programs; I do. It’s just that I feel I’m a welcome part of the choir and that my presence and participation are truly valued.”
Choir director Jeff Parkin, together with choir president Jean Wharton and accompanist Jennelle Anderson, has identified three objectives for the choir: that the choir experience be spiritual, that it be enjoyable, and that it be gratifying through a commitment to musical standards.
Every rehearsal opens and concludes with prayer. Brother Parkin and the choir members often discuss how the lyrics and music intertwine to convey gospel principles. The choir members pause to reflect upon the application of those principles in their individual lives. Sister Wharton shares: “I have never before felt that I was telling a story with the music. Before it was just words. Now I feel the Spirit and the message in every piece we do.”—Susan Kamei Leung, Pasadena Second Ward, Pasadena California Stake
We usually make ward choir practice a family activity. Because so many men in our ward travel for their employment during the week, our choir can rehearse only on Sundays. To help families spend time together on this day, our choir director said, “Bring your family with you and have them all sing!” We have four complete families that come—some have younger children who play quietly while we rehearse—and a few other partial families.
We find that it is unifying for us as a family to share ward choir together, and we feel it is an important way to serve the Lord. Together, we enjoy participating in a choir whose music can add so much to the spirit that is felt in sacrament meeting.—Ruth Wilcox, Kentlands Ward, Washington D.C. Stake
All should feel welcome to participate in ward choir, regardless of their ability. Help choir members feel accepted, and don’t embarrass anyone for making mistakes. Positive reinforcement is more effective than criticism.
Use the Latter-day Saint hymnbook as the basic resource for your choir. Ideas to vary hymns for performances can be found on page 382 of Hymns. You might also consider using other Church resources such as The Choirbook (available at distribution centers, item no. 31239, U.S. $1.25). Check with the ward music chairman for all music to be performed.
Choose appropriate music that is within the ability of the choir. If the music is always difficult, some choir members will become discouraged. On the other hand, if your choir sings only the easiest of pieces, they may soon lose interest. Maintain a balance, and choose music with a variety of styles and tempos.
Enlist the help of others in the choir, including a choir president and a librarian.
Rehearse with specific performance dates in mind. Sing in sacrament meeting at least once or twice a month.
Introduce less familiar hymns to the ward by performing them in sacrament meetings.
Spend one or two minutes at the beginning of choir practice explaining simple music theory for the benefit of those who don’t read music. Teach note values, musical terms, and so on.
In scheduling choir practices, make sure they are consistent and that they do not conflict with other meetings. Practices should not be longer than one hour. Start and end practice on time, but avoid making choir members who come late feel guilty.
Enjoy singing together! Remember that the Lord delights in “the song of the heart” and that He will bless you for your efforts (see D&C 25:12).
“Encourage our people to have music that contributes to spirituality and worship. … Music is such an important part of our service.”
President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994), The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (1988), 324.