Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Gail's "Standard Lecture on the Care and Calling of Ward Musicians"

[Editorial Note: This post contains some dense LDS terminology. Terms like "sustain" and "set apart" have specific meanings in our unique sociolect. I am not going to define them all, since this post is geared primarily toward people who are already part of the Mormon culture. Hopefully any readers who aren't LDS will still be able to figure out the basic ideas of the stories. --GHB.]

In my opinion, every bishopbric should have at least one member whose wife plays the piano.

I would also accept a bishopbric in which one of the men plays the piano, but those are rare: people who can play the piano are more frequently in music callings, as opposed to counseling the bishop about whom else they can 'rassle into music callings.

Any experience, even vicariously through a spouse, would help ever so much with realistic expectations about staffing issues.


I have served in many music callings. In one five-year-span, I served as a ward choir pianist (twice), ward organist, emergency substitute Primary pianist, and unofficial "go to" pianist for "tricky accompaniments for hard solos," among others.

...and then I turned 18. [Footnote *1]

During college, I reprised several of those roles, plus doing a stint as ward music chair and choir director.

Since then, I've been the primary pianist twice, ward organist again (for a total of four stints, I think...five max), primary chorister (that was awesome!), and served in a variety of other hodgepodge assignments and last-minute substitutions.

I've been doing this for 20+ years, since I was 13, and thus modestly declare myself to be a minor Expert on the topic.


Age 13:
Ward Choir Pianist. Practices normally occurred in the hour before church.

Age 14:
Ward Choir Pianist.
Ward Organist. It was brutal, but it gave me real perspective about the TRUE meaning of "angsty adolescent humiliation." Most teens cringe because their mothers "dress funny." I cringed because I ruined the Sacrament Hymn. Every. Single. Week. In front of three hundred witnesses. Mercifully, half the ward were retirees whose hearing was going.
Informal Substitue Primary Pianist. They used to yank me, very apologetically, out of class when the regular didn't show. They hated to do it, but I didn't mind so much. [Footnote *2]
Much Absued De Facto Baptismal Pianist.

Age 15:
[Note, they split our ward, which was probably an administrative mistake. My older sister left for college, another girl who played the piano moved, the Primary pianist missed church frequently, and the only other keyboardist in our ward was a year younger than me and not actively taking piano lessons. This left one and two-halves pianists, and I was "the one."]
Ward Organist.
Young Women's Pianist.

Informal Substitute Primary Pianist.
De Facto Baptismal Pianist.
De Facto Youth Fireside Pianist.

Age 16:
[Following a move to a different, much more functional, ward]
Ward Choir Pianist (and we did actual arrangements of songs like "Draw Near Unto Me.")
Unofficial "Go To" Accompanist for Difficult Pieces. I have a fond memory of Sister Kirkeiner asking me to learn a piece from the Messiah so she could sing a lovely Sacrament Meeting solo. It was challenging, but worthwhile. After all, I had a lot of academic responsibilities my junior year, but it's not like I had any social life to speak of. [Footnote *3]
Priesthood Pianist. That was glorious! I spent several months in which I would leave Sunday School, scurry down the hall to priesthood, play the opening hymn--there was nothing, but nothing quite like belting soprano while playing "Ye Elders of Israel" in a room full of 100+ male voices. Ah, bliss.... Sometimes I sang the tenor line as a descant. Or alto. Nobody else seemed to be singing alto, although neither could anybody hear my alto from behind the piano...ah well. Then I would scurry back down the hall to YW, where I would, once again, play.
Young Women's Pianist. (See above.)
Seminary Pianist. My junior year, our teacher was a "By the Book" kind of guy. The manual said to have an opening hymn, so he did. It was rather a wasted effort, in my opinion, but I complied. Austin Armstrong and I sang a nice duet, every morning, while everyone else trickled in late, slept through opening exercises, stared blearily into space at 5:45 a.m., or chatted with a neighbor.
Choir Member, Community Messiah Production. This wasn't a calling, but I'm grateful to the Young Women leaders who invited me along and gave me rides. Thanks, Sister Rock, for taking me seriously as a singer.

Age 17:
Ward Choir Pianist.
Unofficial Substitute Young Women's Pianist.
During my senior year of high school, I was also Laurel Class President. I made an effort to assign the opening hymn around and give other girls a chance to develop their talents. Sometimes that didn't work out, though, and I was comfortable subbing last-minute, which meant that I occasionally ran the entire opening exercise procedure single-handedly. Stand up, pick on someone for the opening prayer, play the opening song, sing loudly and conduct from the piano if the chorister was missing, lead the YW theme in ASL if the regular interpreter was running late, and go over announcements with a slight dramatic flair and occasional sarcastic comment...

As you can see, I had an easy year, musically speaking. Singing. Whatever.


My recollection is hazy on the  details, but I think the essentials of these stories are correct.

One Fast Sunday, when I was 14, I showed up for church, played for choir practice, played the organ for Sacrament Meeting, accompanied a choir performance, either played for or conducted the "practice hymn" for Sunday School [Footnote *4], played for Primary, and then, four hours later, started to head home with my family. The missionaries pounced me and begged me to rescue them: there was a baptism in 20

My mother, who was trying to herd all her other children to the van, looked disapprovingly at the missionaries and then told me I didn't need to stay. My father was doing a four-hour weekly commute to Jacksonville that year, and he left Sunday afternoons. We were on an afternoon schedule, and he might even have left before priesthood meeting; I don't recall. At any rate, my mother had either just become or was about to become a single parent for another week, with all its attendant driving and scheduling issues. (Four children in three different schools.) My mother was also the only adult in the ward who seemed to track issues like "Has Gail had a break or eaten anything all day?"

I felt sorry for the investigator, though, and agreed. This meant my mom would need to drive my siblings home, feed them, and then turn around to come get me. It was a ten minute drive each way; not too terrible, but not highly convenient, either.

I hadn't eaten since dinner the night before (remember, it was a Fast Sunday), and I almost fainted at the piano.

After that, I began to notice a few things:

First, the Elders generally managed to plan other details beforehand. The ward mission leader and a representative of the bishopbric always seemed to know the schedule. The investigators normally got hooked up with clean, dry, white baptismal clothes in the correct size in advance. (Not always, though.) The baptism had been announced hours earlier in Sacrament Meeting. Why, then, oh why, did they not bother to contact a pianist? There were only 3.5 pianists in the ward, and three of them were young women. Two of them were in my family. [Footnote 5]  One might think that with their extremely limited options, the missionaries would be able to narrow their focus and make 4 phone calls. One might also think that, given the extremely limited options, the elders might be motivated to secure a scarce resource more proactively...

Second, most of these recent converts didn't last more than a few months. Some of them "fell on rich soil" and stayed and thrived. Many though, most even, disappeared again. I decided that the statistical chances were high that whoever I ended up playing for wouldn't be around 6 months later, whether I provided pretty music or not--so if I went on strike and the new convert ended up estranged from our flock, it would probably not be my fault.

After I almost fainted at the piano, I gathered up my nerve and warned the elders that they needed to give me more warning or else I might go on strike. I was much more of a "people pleaser" in my youth, unaccustomed to telling people "no!" or arguing with Authority.

I realized, though, that I was going to need to get over that, and set to it.

Around that time, the Stake President showed up for Ward Conference. I was still spankin' new on the organ. I could barely play the hymns on the piano, though I was improving rapidly, but the organ was a mystery. I had a repertoire of perhaps 15 hymns, and they got recycled frequently. My goal was to learn 1 or 2 new hymns per week, and I was making reasonable progress...

The Stake President gave the concluding talk and then announced--without consultation or warning--that he was changing the closing hymn to #220, "Lord, I would Follow Thee." Not only had I never played the hymn before, I had never even heard it.

It was a disaster. I stumbled through it, humiliated. My hot tears of frustration didn't help the situation, and knowing that everyone in the congregation could see me crying only made things worse. "If I had decided not to practice," I thought, "It would be my own fault. But to change it without any warning! How can he think that everyone staggering horribly through an unfamiliar hymn will somehow improve the spirit of the meeting?" The first verse I missed notes because they were unfamiliar. By the third verse, I had improved a fair amount, but I missed lots of notes because I couldn't see through my tears. By the fourth verse, I was furious.

"I am tired," I decided, "Of people treating me like a machine. I am not even an adult!" I had just barely turned 14.

Afterward, my father encouraged me to go talk to the stake president. (Dad is known for being very assertive, and encouraging others to be the same.) Most adolescent girls lack confidence, and I was no exception, but my righteous indignation had not yet died down, and I rose to the occasion.

I cornered the stake president. I was shaking in fear. I was about to confront a real Authority Figure! On the other hand, I was also shaking in rage, and that spurred me onward.

"President," I said, "You can't do that to me."

"Oh, Sister Homer," he answered, genially, "We know you're so talented, you can do anything..."

"No, I can't," I answered. "I can barely play the organ. If you ever change the hymn on me like that again, I will refuse to play it."

He blew me off gently. It was almost like he patted me on the head, handed me a cookie, and told me to go play. That made me even more furious. ("I am also tired," I thought, "Of people expecting me to behave like an adult, but then treating me like a child.") What he didn't realize, though, was that while he might not take me seriously, I was absolutely serious. If he had tried it again, I would have gone on strike. Now, probably I would not have walked off the stand. Probably I would have gotten the attention of the nearest priesthood authority, looked bewildered, and said, "Sorry, I can't play that!" with wide eyes and a helpless shrug.

I never got a chance to test that intention. Almost I regret it, almost...

A month or two later, again on a Fast Sunday, the missionaries pounced me on my way out of church. At least one of the elders had been there for the previous iteration and so should have known better.

"Sister Homer," they begged, "We have a baptism in 30 minutes...would you mind...?"
"No," I answered. "I need to go home now, eat dinner, and then be back at the church for a youth fireside at 7 p.m. [Footnote *6] If I miss my ride now, I will end up going more than 27 hours without food. Next time, ask me a week in advance."

They panicked. Panicked. Begged. Pleaded. Practically fell to their knees in apostate grovelling.

And I, even I, suddenly enjoyed that rush of endorphins that comes from feeling empowered. Let's hear it for girls learning to be more assertive!

I still walked out on them. I don't know what happened; probably they sang a capella. I told myself that, seeing as how Relief Society and Priesthood frequently didn't have a pianist, an unaccompanied baptism would be a good introduction to normal worship in that ward. I did worry about it, but I also felt that I had been reasonable.

A month or so after that, on a day that was pointedly not a Fast Sunday, a set of missionaries approached me during church. "Sister Homer," they said, "We had somebody lined up to play for a baptism. We scheduled it a week in advance. She's not here today. We think she's sick. Please, please, PLEASE won't you rescue us...we've made a reasonable effort...we're sorry to ask this of you..." They begged beautifully. Obviously I had made an impression.

"Oh," I answered cheerfully, "Okay, then."

Ah, yes, we had restored balance to the force...


A little less than a year later, right after I turned 15, the ward was split. Now the only "organist" and almost the only keyboardist in our tiny new "ward," it was obvious that I would continue covering Sacrament Meeting.

Two weeks after the split, the new bishop stood up and started going through his list of callings. "Would the following individuals please stand...Gail Homer--" I was sitting on the organ bench and was very surprised, but swung off and stood up. "--has been called as the Ward Organist. All those who can sustain Sister Homer--"

"Bishop!" I whispered.

"--in this calling, please indicate by--"

"Pssst! Bishop!" I hissed, more loudly this time.

A startled Bishop paused and turned around to look at me.

"I haven't been called," I pointed out. "You never interviewed me."

He waved that aside as a mere technicality. Making a covert "suppressing" hand motion, he resumed. "--please indicate by a show of hands..."

Everyone raised their hands--except for me. I declined to sustain myself under those conditions. I was determined that these things must be done Properly. Yes, I come from a family of rules lawyers, and yes, I had an unusually firm grasp of church procedure for a girl my age, but I wasn't just being a stickler to be obnoxious. I had reasons.

First, I wanted to help the new bishop learn his calling better. I've always been a compulsive pedagogue. Second, I wanted the new bishop to value me, and my mother had been pounding a certain principle into my head: you appreciate what you work for. If I made the new bishop's life a teensy bit more difficult, he would remember and respect me more. Third, making things properly official ought to provide more protection for me. It's harder to take advantage of a person with a "contract." That was the problem I'd faced with the missionaries, who had viewed me as an "unofficial but always available" minion.

I did meet with the new bishop later. He wanted to set me apart. I made him formally extend the calling first, which he did.

"What would happen," I asked impishly, "If I said 'no'?"

He gaped at me, and I took pity on him. After I had formally accepted the calling, I asked, eyes again a-twinkle, if he was going to re-announce it in Sacrament Meeting.

"No," he answered, with unusual firmness. Ah well.

After that negotiation, I raised my hand to the square and sustained myself. And then I let him set me apart. ;)


The downside to being a musician is that if there are two "unemployed" ward members, one of whom can teach, and the other of whom can both teach and play the piano, the first usually gets a teaching calling and the second usually gets shoved behind a piano.

One of the few, one of the very few, compensations for this sad "typecasting" is that the pianist is so rare, so valuable, that she can get away with taking some slight liberties. Talk about empowerment: in the last several music callings I've held, I've shrugged and thought, "What's the worst they can do? Fire me? I could live with that, but it's not likely to happen..." and then attacked my new responsibility with my own

[Note: I'm not whining. For one thing, I swore that off months ago. For another, I'm currently the ward librarian.] :)

Part of successful negotiation is recognizing and using the strength of one's position. [Footnote *7] Since college, I have made it my policy to make an "arresting officer"--ahem, I mean, a member of the bishopbric who is trying to extend a musical calling--listen to my Standard Lecture about how to treat ward musicians.

This is an example of empowerment: they're desperate enough to sit through it. (A more charitable interpretation is that they are also polite gentlemen. I'm willing to assume both conditions pertain.) I consider my spiel to be an important part of their leadership training; I might be helping, after all, to prepare the next Stake President. If my two minute lecture saves another angsty adolescent organist from public shame, then I will have done some good in the world. If my lecture helps to train another priesthood leader in realistic expectations about musicians, I will have done a great deal of good.


1) Musicians are people, not machines.
2) You cannot turn them on and off at will.
3) They get tired, hungry, and cranky, and cannot perform non-stop.
4) Some keyboardists are better and more confident than others.
5) Some keyboardists are more sensitive to public embarrassment than others.
6) Know your people and respect their limitations.
7) Prayer is wonderful and can enhance, but not replace, practice.
8) Keyboardists generally come in the following loose categories:
8a) Those who need a month of practice, and even then are very tentative, even using simplified arrangements.
8b) Those who need two weeks of practice, and even then still make mistakes.
8c) Those who need at least three days warning, and even then may need to veto the occasional song. 8d) Those who can play almost any standard hymn or selection from the children's songbook, on demand. They are very useful, but don't take unfair advantage. Use them sparingly as emergency substitutes. They should also not be handed surprises like special arrangements or unfamiliar songs.
8e) Those who can sight-read anything. They are rare; never assume your standard pianist is one of them. If you find one, treat her like gold. Also remember that she gets easily bored and give her other assignments when you can.
9) You can determine which type of keyboardist someone is primarily by asking directly and listening politely. Not by making assumptions or heeding rumors.
10) In that vein, NEVER change a Sacrament Meeting hymn without first consulting the organist--privately.
11) When considering splitting a unit, you must look beyond the number and distribution of Melchezidek Priesthood holders. You should also look at the number, competence, and distribution of musicians. Trust me.
12) At the most basic level, the theoretical minimum for a ward is two musicians: A keyboardist for Sacrament Meeting and Primary, and a chorister for the same. If you don't have even one person who can play hymns and primary songs, you don't have a ward; you have a branch, or possibly just a twig.
13) While a keyboardist can cover Sacrament Meeting and then Primary consecutively, no single person can cover Primary, Young Women, Relief Society, and Priesthood concurrently. Miracles happen in our church, but I have never seen time travel or teleportation among them.
14) Musicians are the bread and butter of the ward, but, like bread, go stale. Rotate them occasionally.

This is a list-in-progress. Recently I've added some new items:

15) Some new pianos, frequently in the Relief Society room, have "button pushing" options so that the instrument digitally plays itself. This is also true for the newer organs. This is wonderful! -- But don't let it confuse you. Some pianos may be robots, but no pianist ever is.
16) Don't rely on the "player pianos" too much. It won't solve all your musical staffing problems.
17) You will always have musical staffing problems. A low level of anxiety about this is appropriate. You should only get really concerned if music callings are becoming more difficult to fill than teacher vacancies in Primary. In a normal ward, nothing is harder to staff than Primary.


Well, friends, now you understand why I sometimes whine about music callings. As a youth, I felt very typecast and occasionally even exploited. My 5 straight hours of service (occasionally 6-8 in aggregate) can't compete with what a bishop normally puts in, but it was still a lot for a growing teen.

The good news is that I grew and developed. I got more confident at playing the music, and I got more comfortable at setting reasonable boundaries. (Now I have a different problem; I've been playing the same hymns for so long, I get booooored. If a Stake President pulled a similar trick again, I might refuse to play the switched hymn on principle, but probably not out of panic.)

Some people might consider my attitude to be lacking. "Whining, complaining, criticizing priesthood leaders, or arrogantly trying to teach a counselor his job--why, that's steadying the ark!"

Hm...yes, if done badly. But bishops and counselors are people, too. We're all human and fallible. I think it is reasonable to say, politely and honestly, "Okay, fine, I'll serve as a pianist, and I'll try not to whine about it. I'll even try to *sigh* magnify my calling. Just please remember how I feel about it--I'm willing to do my bit and take my turn--I've been in music callings for the last four years, though, and would really appreciate a break soon."

The leaders won't know how you feel unless you communicate. They also won't know how to treat musicians unless we teach them. That's why I think somebody in the bishopbric should have a wife who plays the piano. And that's also why I'm making this effort to train them.

My mother, who deserves sainthood for the years she spent supervising my piano practices, used to say "The Lord will always need pianists in His church." That's very true. I believe He also needs people who understand pianists and treat them appropriately. I further believe that "God helps those who help themselves." We musicians can teach people how to treat us. We can set reasonable boundaries in a calm, polite, Christlike way.

Hopefully this Lecture can help. Feel free to share it with others as you feel appropriate.


*1. I had an epiphany recently. Maybe one of the reasons I have never felt inferior to boys is because I felt just as important to Sacrament Meeting as they were. If they showed up late with the bread, the bishop delayed passing the Sacrament. If I showed up late to the organ, the bishop delayed the entire meeting. My service was much more obvious, and I couldn't spread the blame around. ("I thought it was someone else's turn...") I got to sit up on the stand the entire time, not just at the Sacrament Table for ten minutes. If I'd wanted to, I could have made a point of spying on who did and did not take the Sacrament. (I didn't do it; I'm glad I was mature enough to realize that the Sacrament should be about me focusing on my own spiritual journey and was NOT an opportunity for low-minded speculation about others'.)

There's a message here. People want to be helpful. They want to feel Heroic. I love how the Leander ward has a tradition of asking young women to conduct the music in Sacrament Meeting. This is a fantastic idea. Let's not just assign girls "busy work," let's actually put them to work. Nothing builds confidence like rising to real responsibility.

*2 The alternative was Yet Another Lecture about how all nice girls should take honors (but not AP!!!) classes, maintain a B+ average, but get 100% attendance in Seminary, which would then leverage into acceptance to BYU, where she should then drop out her freshman year--sophomore at the latest!--to marry an RM. She should then earn her Pht ("Put hubby through") degree, have 4 children, and simper. And then become a Young Women's leader, so as to pass this vital plan onto the next generation by telling stories about how "When I was sixteen, I was really popular and went on lots of dates but I never let a boy kiss me...!"

Okay, so that was a digression. The point is that playing for primary was usually an improvement over YW back then. At least in Primary, the content of the lessons varied.

I should also add that not all my YW years were like that. When I was 12-14, it was pretty bad. When I was 15, we got a new adult leader who was a smart, unmarried, recent college graduate. She brought actual substance to the lessons and I liked her enormously. When I was 16 and 17, we had moved to a different ward with a much larger pool of talented, educated, confident women, after which things improved even more for me.

*3 No doubt it would have appalled my former YW teachers that I was developing actual talents as opposed to more worthwhile pursuits like dating. (To be honest, I would also have preferred a little more social life, but boys weren't asking me out, and I figured I should fill my time with something productive, rather than just pining away pathetically.)

*4 This was back during a brief period when we were supposed to do "Practice Hymns" at the beginning of Sunday School. It was one of those ideas that looked good on paper, but never worked in practice. (Or, wait--does that sound like I'm steadying the ark again?)

*5 My older sister, Cheryl, would have been 17 and a senior in high school that year. She and I did rather a lot of piano duty; we became adept at covering for each other, juggling whose turn it was to play and conduct. On a few memorable occasions, we even "handed off" prelude duty, seamlessly, in the middle of a song.

*6 I had been asked to play the piano for it. Naturally.

*7 Musicians of the ward, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains... ;)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Your post brought back so many memories. Thank you for writing such a valuable piece of our family history from a teenager's point of view.

A very talented teenager, I might add, who learned early to both serve the Lord and set the necessary boundaries.

I'm proud of you.