Blessings of the Basic Music Course

By Rebecca M. Taylor

Assistant Editor

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By following this unique Church program, members throughout the world are learning to play hymns and teach their newfound skills to others.

Dorothy Reynders used to feel confident she could fulfill any Church calling she was given—except conducting or playing the hymns. That was until she learned of the Church’s Basic Music Course, a program designed to teach these skills to members. Approximately six months after beginning the keyboard portion of the course, she was able to play simplified arrangements of the hymns. She has since successfully served several times as Primary music leader in the Sierra Ward, Lancaster California Stake, and she taught the course to several members while serving a full-time mission in Illinois.

Stories like Sister Reynders’s are being echoed throughout the Church as members in places such as the Philippines, Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Tahiti, and many Latin American countries discover the Basic Music Course. The course—which may be learned individually or in classes taught by full-time missionaries, music leaders, or family members—is available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Tahitian, and Italian; other translations are being developed.

Teaching the Course to Others

The course was created to fill the need for musicians in many Church units, as well as to unify musical expression in the Church. “The purpose of the course is not only to teach members to conduct and play the hymns but to teach them to become teachers,” says Michael Moody, former chairman of the Church’s General Music Committee. This is in accordance with 2 Timothy 2:2, wherein the Apostle Paul instructs Timothy, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.”

Sister Patricia Toone, a senior missionary who served in Africa’s Ivory Coast Abidjan Mission, taught the Basic Music Course to members of the Abidjan Ivory Coast Stake for eight months. “I would teach all my students as if they were teaching another student,” Sister Toone says. “I would say, ‘Now, when you teach your students, on this page this is what you’ll tell them.’ They have to learn quickly.” Many of Sister Toone’s former students are now teaching others, and every ward in the stake now has at least two members who are able to play or conduct the music.

Unifying Musical Expression

In areas where no trained musicians are available, the same hymn can sound vastly different in melody line, rhythm, or harmony depending upon the congregation singing it. The Basic Music Course helps remedy this by taking the guesswork out of hymn singing. In addition, choirs and congregations no longer have to sing unaccompanied, preludes and postludes are helping set the tone for meetings, more special musical selections are being performed, and more members are given the opportunity to be music leaders in their units.

Denzle and Patricia Williams, a missionary couple who were called to open the music program in El Salvador, say that although a strong musical tradition exists in that country, few people know how to read music. “They may have sung hymns like ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints’ but they’ve never gotten it quite right,” says Sister Williams. “And then they go through the course and their ears fine-tune to the difference.”

Elder Williams says that for a time in the San Salvador El Salvador La Libertad Stake, no one knew how to play the piano. As he and his wife began teaching the Basic Music Course to stake members, they noticed that one boy, 14-year-old Fidel Andreas Alvarado Bonilla, was particularly attentive. “He took to the piano like a duck to water,” Elder Williams says. “It just seemed like he could never get enough. He would stay after class and just practice and practice till we had to pack up and leave. In four months he was playing hymns out of the Church hymnbook.”

Not long afterward, Elder and Sister Williams attended sacrament meeting in Fidel’s ward. To their surprise, Fidel accompanied all of the hymns and even the special musical selection—his first time accompanying in sacrament meeting. “The young people in the audience just could not believe it was Fidel,” says Elder Williams. “It was announced that we would be teaching piano every Saturday to anyone who wanted to learn. The next Saturday we were swamped with students.”

Fidel now plays regularly at ward and stake meetings, and other members in the area are also rapidly learning how to play and conduct. “The Lord is truly smiling on these people, and they are bringing to the meetings the beautiful sound of the Church hymns,” says Elder Williams.

“They Come to Us”

Interest in the course is high in many areas—so high, in fact, that some Church distribution centers have at times run out of course books. “We don’t have to go hunting for people to play; they come to us,” says Elder Hal Sharp, who helps coordinate the music program in Central America with his wife, Elaine.

Sister Toone, in Ivory Coast, had the same experience as she taught the course. Only three students came to her first class, she says, but the following week, 38 people showed up—despite the effort required to travel to the mission home, where the classes were held. “It would take some of them an hour and a half to get here, making all the transfers on the buses and the taxis,” she said. “But they are so eager.”

In June of last year, after teaching her final lesson, Sister Toone held a piano recital, and 48 members played hymns before an audience of more than 200. “As soon as the program was over, everybody came rushing up to talk about it and say, ‘Oh, we want to learn to do that.’ Now they want to have a program every year.”

Blessings and Challenges

In many cases, students of the Basic Music Course report being able to play simplified arrangements of the hymns in a matter of months. Dan Carter, a composer and member of the General Music Committee, tells of an experience teaching a workshop on the course in California’s Bay Area. “As we began the class, I gave an overview of the entire Basic Music Course,” he says. “I asked for a volunteer who had no piano experience who was willing to come and learn to play a hymn in five minutes. One sister’s hand shot in the air as she said, ‘I’ve always wanted to play the hymns and play the piano, but I could never afford lessons.’ I invited her to take a seat at the piano, and we went through the basics of the Keyboard Course manual. Literally in five minutes she was playing ‘There Is a Green Hill Far Away.’ After she played it, she openly wept with joy and gratitude.”

For others, learning this brand-new set of skills does not come as easily. Eleanor Taylor, who served with her husband, Noel, in the New York New York North Mission, taught the program for six months. She speaks enthusiastically about it but acknowledges that for many it was a challenge. “I felt it was a wonderful thing for them to have, and it was so easy for them to understand,” she says. “The first few lessons they really ate up, and they made tremendous progress and just learned a great deal of basic music. They caught on to conducting really well.” However, motivating her students to practice daily was sometimes difficult. Most members in the area live in crowded, noisy apartment buildings without easy access to pianos and where stress is high. “It’s a tough way to live,” Sister Taylor explains. Even when daily practice fell by the wayside, she said she “just tried to be patient and encouraging and accept whatever they could give me. So even if they could do just 5 or 10 minutes a day, even if they could learn one line in the book, I would just praise them and praise them for any accomplishment, because I truly believed that any accomplishment was really heroic considering the conditions they were given.” Her students took particularly well to conducting, and many wards previously without conductors now have them.

Personal Worship and Self-Worth

While numerous congregations are discovering the benefits of having trained musicians in their midst, members who participate in the course also reap blessings on a more personal level. Their individual worship is being enriched as they are better able to offer praises to the Lord through sacred song. In addition, their feelings of self-worth are enhanced as they discover new talents and skills that may have seemed unattainable in the past.

Javier Ramos, president of the Westchester Third Branch, Westchester New York Stake, had long wanted to learn how to conduct and play the hymns. The course enabled him to conduct hymns at a special meeting held in the assembly hall at the Washington D.C. Temple, and now he is able to play several hymns from the regular hymnbook. The course, he says, “gave me a wonderful new world. It is like I was blind and now I can see.”

Dina Melissa Xocop Sotz, a member of the Comalapa Ward, Chimaltenango Guatemala Stake, feels that her relationship with Heavenly Father has been strengthened through her ability to play sacred music. “Taking music lessons has given me the opportunity to feel the Spirit closer, knowing that our Heavenly Father loves us and has given us the capability to learn the things that we thought were difficult,” she says. “The music is a wonderful way to communicate with God and express gratitude to Him.”

Cookie Ragone, a member of the Yonkers Second Branch, Westchester New York Stake, says that her newfound ability to play the hymns has positively affected the atmosphere in her home. Additionally, she says, the course “was a blessing because I came to believe that if I could do this, I could do anything.”

From California to New York, from Guatemala to Ivory Coast, members who have yearned to conduct and play the hymns are finding that with concentrated effort and the help of the Basic Music Course, they can realize this dream. They are therefore better able to apply the counsel given by the First Presidency in the preface of the 1985 hymnbook: “Let us use the hymns to invite the Spirit of the Lord into our congregations, our homes, and our personal lives. Let us memorize and ponder them, recite and sing them, and partake of their spiritual nourishment.” As members do so, their hearts are touched by the influence that only sacred hymns can bring.

Elements of the Basic Music Course

There are two main parts to the Basic Music Course: the Conducting Course (item no. 33619, U.S. $4.15), which consists of a manual and audiocassette, and the Keyboard Course (33620, $10.00), which consists of a manual, audiocassette, cardboard keyboard, music note cards, and a book of simplified hymn arrangements titled Hymns Made Easy. Hymns Made Easy may also be purchased separately (31249, $2.00). Distribution centers also carry keyboards for use with the Basic Music Course (80509, $85.00).

Right: Alex Rivera, a member of the Westchester New York Stake, enjoys participating in the keyboard program. (Photo by Mary Lou Romney.) Below: Members learn basic conducting skills in a class in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Hal and Elaine Sharp.)

Above: Students attend a keyboard class in El Salvador. (Photo courtesy of Denzle and Patricia Williams.) Above right: Regina Lawson of the Abidjan Ivory Coast Stake. (Photo by Patricia Toone.) Right: Daniela Bolaños of the Alajuela Costa Rica Stake plays a hymn while Cesar Marín of the San José Costa Rica LaPaz Stake conducts during a recital. (Photo courtesy of Clarence J. and Rosalie Frost.) Below: Elder Hal Sharp, left, with Carlos Osorio Aguilar, a keyboard instructor and member of the Villa Nueva Guatemala Stake. (Photo by Elaine Sharp.)