Several returned missionaries sing “I Am a Child of God” (Hymns, 1985, no. 301) in their mission languages, reminding the congregation of the worldwide nature of the Church.
The congregation listens to an excerpt from Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s final testimony of Christ (see Ensign, May 1985, p. 11) and then sings “I Believe in Christ” (Hymns, 1985, no. 134) with increased feeling and understanding.
These are only two of the ideas the Ensign received when we asked Sunday School choristers, stake and ward music chairmen, and other music leaders in the United States and Canada for feedback on and suggestions for the Sunday School hymn-singing period.
Begun in October 1988 as part of a ten-minute opening-exercise period in Sunday School, “the hymn-singing period is to teach the gospel through hymns—to help members learn the hymns, ponder their messages, and partake of the spirit they bring.” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 108.) But is it accomplishing those goals?
Advantages of the Hymn-Singing Period
Music leaders report that even though the program is still new, most ward members seem enthusiastic about it. “I have noticed increased participation in congregational singing in sacrament meeting and a renewed interest in the hymns,” says Mary Beth Anderson, Bountiful Forty-third Ward, Bountiful Utah Stake. “Many people have commented on how much they enjoy singing now, when they didn’t use to. They seem to better understand that singing hymns is another way of offering prayer.”
And Nelle B. Zundel, El Paso Eighth Ward, El Paso Texas Stake, says she feels better prepared to learn about the gospel after singing the hymns.
In addition to being spiritually uplifted as they sing, members like having a scheduled time to learn the hymns of Zion. “The hymn-singing time allows us to reach out musically to a generation of youth and converts to the Church who have had little chance to learn many of the great hymns,” says Valerie H. Briggs, Mountain View Ward, Beaverton Oregon Stake.
“People enjoy this singing time,” explains Leslie Francis, Victoria Second Ward, Victoria British Columbia Stake, “because it is not threatening to them; they can make mistakes.”
“I’ve heard people humming the new hymns when they go to class,” says Joyce Robinson, Shelton Second Ward, Elma Washington Stake. “And one member commented, ‘I learned five new things today in practice time.’”
Challenges of the Hymn-Singing Period
In spite of their successes, some music leaders are still trying to work out problems—insufficient time, too few hymnbooks, inadequate seating when wards meet simultaneously, meetings that run late, and tardy ward members.
Some local Church leaders, following a recommendation by the First Presidency (see First Presidency letter, 3 October 1988), have found it best to hold Sunday School opening exercises first and sacrament meeting last. This allows the ward members to meet together at the beginning and end of the meeting block—but some opening exercises are poorly attended because members are late or absent.
Some choristers, whose wards have opening exercises immediately following sacrament meeting, say their hymn-singing periods are successful because the congregation is already seated and ready to begin. But others on this schedule report that members are less attentive because they are tired of sitting.
In response to these problems, Michael F. Moody, chairman of the Church’s General Music Committee, says choristers need to use creativity to make the hymn-singing time interesting so that ward members will want to participate. One way is to involve them as much as possible. The Sunday School chorister and organist can train assistants who participate every month and fill in when needed. And families, youth groups, children, and other individuals can introduce hymns, hold visual aids, do special presentations, or play musical instruments.
To resolve hymnbook shortages, DeAnn Anderson, Woods Cross Third Ward, Woods Cross Utah East Stake, asks people in her ward to carry their own hymnbooks along with their scriptures. Brother Moody suggests that a ward member be in charge of distributing and collecting hymnbooks to ensure that everyone has access to a book.
Often wards and branches have too few people with musical training to fill all of the music positions. One ward in Gallup, New Mexico, relies heavily on the youth to direct hymn-singing time. This fills an important need and also trains young people for future callings. Another ward assigns a different couple each month to teach the hymns. If the couple is not musically inclined, they learn the hymn and find a way to teach it—even if the accompanist plays the melody with one hand and the chorister gives only the downbeat.
Another help for wards with a shortage of musicians is a new set of audiocassette recordings of the hymns, available at Church distribution centers in a words-and-music version (stock number VVOT1758; $15) or a music-only version (stock number VVOT2976; $15). Choristers can use these tapes to supply accompaniment in meetings when a pianist is not available, as well as to learn the hymns before they teach them.
Brother Moody emphasizes that singing hymns is not a matter of performance but of participation. “Some of the most effective music directors are not so much musical as spiritual. They are willing to accept the assignment and allow the Lord to work through them,” he says.
Variety in Hymn-Singing Time
Despite logistical problems with the hymn-singing period in their wards and stakes, music leaders are optimistic. “With a variety of presentations, the congregation’s interest will increase,” says Beth W. Ballantyne, Arlington First Ward, Riverside California West Stake.
The November 1988 Ensign lists guidelines and suggestions for Sunday School opening exercises and the hymn-singing period. Now that music leaders have had time to experiment, they have suggestions of their own to add.
“The practice period is so short that there is little time for lengthy explanations,” says Barbara N. Richards, Long Beach Seventeenth Ward, Long Beach California Stake. “The only way for a congregation to learn the hymns is to sing, sing, sing.”
Having eye contact with ward members is also important, so Sunday School choristers need to have the hymns memorized. “When I know I’m going to be teaching a new hymn,” says Sister Susan Unger, York Second Ward, York Pennsylvania Stake, “I make a copy of it and tape it beside the mirror in the bathroom so I can memorize a verse each day. This keeps the hymn in my mind and allows me to receive whatever inspiration Heavenly Father wants to send.” Another sister takes a copy of a hymn with her on her morning walk.
“The success of the hymn-singing time often is determined by the support of ward leaders. When the bishopric has a testimony of this program, the congregation will respond favorably,” says Cheryl Hirsche, Glenmore Ward, Calgary Alberta Stake.
Maria T. Moody, Woods Cross Third Ward, Woods Cross Utah East Stake, says it is important to acknowledge the children in the congregation. If choristers will direct presentations toward the children, they will have the adults’ attention as well.
Music personnel need to schedule the hymns well in advance to give themselves time to practice. Advanced planning lets music leaders choose a particular theme for a month and select hymns to fit it, or to assign and schedule special numbers. It also gives them time to streamline presentations to fit the short time allotted for practicing hymns.
Many music leaders have tried special presentations to make the hymn-singing time more meaningful and spiritual. Carolyn H. Klopfer, Eighteenth North Ward, Salt Lake Eagle Gate Stake, asked ward members to write down how their lives have been touched by a hymn; she uses these short stories—like the following one by Natalie Tanner—to introduce specific hymns.
“When my mother died, I felt very lost and alone. I felt as though no one could ever understand the depth of my pain and suffering. Then, one Sunday after her death, I came to church and heard ‘I Stand All Amazed.’ (Hymns, 1985, no. 193.) It was as if Christ himself had reached out to me. I thought of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt. Such mercy, such love, and devotion I could never forget. I thought of my Heavenly Father and how he must have hurt while he watched his Son suffer and die as I had watched my mother die. As a result, I grew strong in the knowledge of the Atonement and Christ’s great love for me.”
Music leaders in the Mountain View Ward, Beaverton Oregon Stake, have taught general singing skills in some of their hymn-singing periods. During the “Watching Your Director” presentation, the Sunday School chorister held up different signs, such as “all hum,” “all unison,” “all youth sing,” and “men on melody.” Other skills she has taught are holding a hymnal properly, memorizing a hymn quickly, and using the Church music indexes.
Visual aids add variety to the hymn-singing time. On several Sundays preceding general conference, Sister Moody posted large pictures of the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve around the chapel and taught hymns about prophets.
Above all, music leaders emphasize the importance of having a testimony of the hymns and a desire to share them with the congregation. “I was reared in a church that discouraged congregational hymn-singing,” says Sister Unger. “I love our hymns, and I know what a strength and power they can be in our lives.”
“When we truly understand the meaning of the text, the message—combined with the lovely music—touches our hearts, and our testimonies grow,” explains Marilyn Sharp, Ensign Peak Ward, Salt Lake Stake. “I never refer to this singing time as practicing the hymns; I say it is a time to learn to love them.”
More Suggestions for the Hymn-Singing Period
List in the ward bulletin the hymns scheduled for the month; encourage families to use them in family home evening.
Schedule hymns to commemorate special anniversaries or events in Church history.
With your organist’s approval, have ward members raise their hands and request a hymn; sing at least one verse of each.
Assign a family to sing a favorite hymn for the congregation.
Read selections from the First Presidency’s preface to the hymnbook.
Sing a medley of hymns on one theme, such as Christmas.
Show pictures of pioneers and sing “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” (Hymns, 1985, no. 30.)