The idea, I suppose, was to help all of us missionaries prepare for that inevitable day when we would be called upon to direct the music for a meeting. So all of us in what was then called the Language Training Mission had to take a turn at conducting the hymn for our morning devotional.
That meant standing before a hundred missionaries, with all two hundred eyes on you.
Sing? Sure, I loved singing the hymns. Direct the music? I’d have promised to tract out Honduras by myself to get out of it. The news that we might have to baptize people in crocodile-infested rivers would have been less unsettling. Why didn’t they ask Elder Wilson? He actually knew music.
I asked one of the members of my district who had been an outstanding, dauntless fullback on his high school football team if he would substitute for me. He blanched. I implored Elder Wilson. He laughed. He had already taken his turn.
Fortunately, the elder who had been selected to play the piano that day was an old hand at this. “Listen,” he advised, “this is an easy hymn. And you know how to beat this pattern. But if you get lost, just beat a series of points on a straight line until you can catch the rhythm again.”
Sure enough, I got lost. But I did as he said, and we finished together. Elder Wilson cornered me after the meeting. “I want to know what this means,” he demanded, and he beat a series of points on a horizontal line.
Of course, the day did come when there were just two of us missionaries and one piano in a tiny branch whose meeting place was right next to some railroad tracks. My companion, who served as branch president, was skilled at the keyboard. That made him the branch pianist. Unaccountably, I had more music training than anyone else in the branch. That made me music director.
Now, I can direct music—when no one is watching. I have directed the Boston Pops, the Beach Boys, the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Not long ago, I was directing the Tabernacle Choir one day in my living room when my teenage daughter walked in and caught me. The choir had to go on without me, but fortunately they were up to it.
That, however, was mere embarrassment; that was spilling your chili dog in your lap at the wrestling match. Standing before a congregation of twelve with a hymnbook in one hand and the other hand poised for the downbeat was being in the ring with the Masked Mauler—right after he learned he was due for a tax audit.
Luckily, the placement of furniture in the room forced my companion to sit at the piano with his back to me. He wouldn’t be able to detect any false movement—horizontal or otherwise. Even more luckily, most of the congregation were new in the Church and had to look down at the hymnal to follow the words.
I began beating when my companion started playing, and by the end of the first verse, I was only half a beat behind. No one noticed. But while I was congratulating myself for avoiding the points-on-a-line technique again, my companion sneaked several notes of the second verse past me. I tried to catch up. By the time the third verse began, I felt that sweat must be pooling around my feet.
Was that the beating of my heart I heard? Or … no! It was a train! My companion, who had polished his piano technique on rock ‘n’ roll in pre-mission days, played the hymn louder. But we were no match for the locomotive. A fourth verse was going to be impossible. The congregation probably thought my wan smile meant disappointment. Actually, I was remembering that there would always be next Sunday.
Unbelievably, my transfer came before the next Sunday did. I was made a senior companion and sent to another tiny branch in another isolated town. It seemed obvious immediately that the duties of branch president would make it impossible for me to give proper attention to directing the music. That left only one other candidate for the job—my companion.
Why not? After all, he had been prepared at the Language Training Mission, hadn’t he?