Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Ward Music Guild 2: Congregational Singing

The Ward Music Guild 2: Congregational Singing

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 23, 2014

Second Guild Meeting: November 1943

By J. Spencer Cornwall
Director, Tabernacle Choir, and
Member, Church Music Committee


The Lord himself acclaimed the power of music when, in July, 1830, only three months after the church was organized, he gave a revelation through the Prophet Joseph Smith, directed to Emma Smith, the Prophet’s wife, part of which reads as follows:

“And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church. for my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads …” (D. & C. 25:12-13.)

This commandment and promise, together with the definite admonition of the Lord that the Saints were to sing in their church services, gives music an essential place in the worship of the Latter-day Saints. all those who have charge of music work in the church should regard this revelation as a treasured source of encouragement. Musical expression as a part of our church services is commanded by divine revelation.

Value of Congregational Singing

It seems quite evident that the most important phase of the music of the Church service is congregational singing. The Lord did not intend that the singing should be done by proxy, although there are some people who feel that they cannot sing and therefore do not take part. Upon asking one of these non-singers for his opinion on congregational singing, he said, “I cannot sing, unfortunately, but my heart and mind move in perfect sympathy as the others sing. I feel that we would sustain a large loss if congregational songs were eliminated from our church worship.” It appears from this and other similar observations that congregational singing deserves our best efforts toward its enhancement.

President Heber J. Grant has always been a powerful advocate of singing by the congregation. He has said:

“The singing of our sacred hymns, written by the servants of god, has a powerful effect in converting people to the principles of the gospel an din promoting peace and spiritual growth. Let us not forget our hymns when we go to the house of worship. Let the congregation sing; and by all means let the choir members become familiar with the beautiful sentiments that are contained in our hymns. And so shall our Father in heaven delight in the songs of our hearts, which shall become prayers unto him, and which he will graciously answer with blessings upon our heads. I am confident that the hymns of Zion, when sung with the proper spirit, bring a peaceful and heavenly influence into our homes, and also aid in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. I say God bless our individual singers and the members of our musical organizations.”

Henry Ward Beecher has said:

“The highest music for religious purposes is not vocal and instrumental music pure and simple, but the music of hymns sung by the congregation. When religion is made attractive by singing, when it makes the sanctuary a place where men are so happy that they would rather part with their daily bread than the bread of the Lord which they obtain there, then there will be no difficulty in getting men to observe the Sabbath day.”

Direction of Congregational Singing

The director, or chorister, as we commonly call him, who leads the congregation in song, is an innovation which is peculiar almost to our church alone. There is a stabilizing factor in the chorister-led congregational singing, especially so where the chorister is efficient. The Church Chorister’s Manual, which has been used as a text for our choristers’ classes throughout the church, has in it this helpful paragraph:

“Since congregations are rarely rehearsed it is evident that a conductor must be satisfied with the way in which he can induce the members to sing by sheer magnetism and carefully timed beats, and should school himself to be insensitive to everything else which he sees to be faulty. No procedures on the part of the conductor, such as abruptly stopping the congregation for explanations or reprimands, stamping the feet, pounding the stand, can be justified in congregational singing. The general spirit of worship should never be disrupted during the progress of a service. Congregational singing should preserve and enhance this spirit.

Suggestions for Choristers:

1. Direct, if possible, without a book in your hand.

2. Let your movements be in harmony with the spirit and mood of the hymn. Do not distract the attention of the congregation from the hymn and center it on yourself. The hymn should be the center of attention.

3. The proper timing of your preliminary beat is all-important if you would have singers begin well. Make all beats anticipate what follows. It is not so much a matter of beating time for a congregation as it is a matter of timing your beats to keep the congregation well together.

4. Be at the chapel sufficiently early to allow time for all preparations.

5. Your main task is to instil the love of hymn-singing in the members of the church.

The Hymn-singing Project

For a period of about two years, the church music committee has been conducting a hymn-singing project in which all the organizations within the church are encouraged to participate. It is felt highly desirable that the members of the church have a common hymn repertoire, especially of such hymns as are of best quality. to this end all organizations are asked to rehearse or use a selected hymn each month.

The ideal place and time for the practicing of congregational singing is in the Sunday School, for this is the teaching organization of the church. Practice time is here allotted, and our most beautiful and faith-promoting hymns should here be learned. Such a rehearsal should be different from a choir or chorus rehearsal. The conductor should not indulge in technicalities. Everything he says should be of the good-natured variety, and all explanations should be made in common understandable language. The actual teaching of the music should be largely by rote. Emphasis should be placed mainly on the learning of the melody. The message of the words should be given sympathetic attention, so that the members of the congregation may appreciate the spiritual message of the words to which the tune, after all, is merel an enhancement.

Questions for Consideration:

1. Does a good director act as a dictator, or does he guide by gentle persuasion?

2. How may choristers and organists best cooperate before the congregation?

3. What should be the leader’s chief contribution to congregational singing? What may be some disadvantages of having a leader?

4. What are the responsibilities of the organist in congregational singing?

5. What do we strive for in congregational singing?

6. Announcement: The subject for consideration at the third meeting will be “Functions of the Organist.” Give some thought to this subject.



  1. I am loving this little series. I so wish we had something like this today. I feel music is neglected for the most part. Our ward does not even have a ward music chair person and hasn’t for the 10 years we’ve lived here. Our bishopric feels it isn’t needed, but that might explain why we never have any musical numbers. Most people who serve in music callings in the wards I’ve lived in do not take any sort of philosophical or educational approach to what they do, they just thumb through the hymnal whether it’s selecting hymns for congregational singing or playing the prelude in sacrament meeting. We do have a wonderful chorister right now who prays mightily over her selection of hymns, and I can tell the difference because of how I’m touched by many of the hymns she chooses, which is rare for me. I am interested to read the next installment about Functions of the Organist, as I am one. Having played in other churches, I honestly think that with a good organist, there is no need for a chorister and don’t actually think its a “stabilizing factor” as this piece suggested.

    Comment by Lisa — January 23, 2014 @ 8:40 am

  2. Lisa, I hadn’t intended to let so much time go by between installments — I’ll post the others at one or two week intervals, so you can anticipate them coming soon.

    Teachers, or those who value good teaching, have mourned lackadaisical preparation, and inadequate training, and the failure to pass on the tradition of teacher training, and the negative effect that has on gospel knowledge and people’s engagement with our limited community time on Sunday. I think I hadn’t realized until reading your comment that these same points apply to the musical culture of a ward and the whole Church and any member’s engagement in communal worship — I’ve just felt restless and often dissatisfied without analyzing why. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 23, 2014 @ 8:53 am

  3. I really like the repeated emphasis on the musicians working to make the congregation *love* hymn singing (versus doing it out of religious duty). Way to go, Brother Cornwall!

    Comment by David Y. — January 23, 2014 @ 10:53 am

  4. My husband, who has been a ward organist many times, relies very much on the music leader. He feels that he can be aware of what he is playing and one other person, but he can’t be aware of the whole congregation. So he is relying on the music leader to be aware of anything else going on in the chapel. He also is very insistent of arriving early to rehearse with the music leader. This doesn’t eliminate all embarrassing moments, but it reduces them!

    Comment by LauraN — January 23, 2014 @ 11:18 am

  5. Here are some attempts at answers:

    1. Why bother asking the question when the answer’s obvious? A dictator, of course.

    2. They shouldn’t. Life’s so much more interesting when the organist and director have an ongoing public feud.

    3. Waving an arm randomly and artistically? Showing up late and freaking out the organist? Spending a very long minute turning the hymnal to the right page? Demanding to choose the music without consultation with the organist?

    4. To put everyone to sleep?

    5. The lowest common denominator?

    6. Okay. Just thought it through.

    Seriously, though, I have a copy of a little book called something like The Music Leader. I got it years ago and kept it in case I’m ever called to lead the music.

    Just went and fetched it. How to Lead Informal Singing (Hoffelt, 1961). It has everything that any ward music director needs to know, and is much clearer than Brother Cornwall’s suggestions. The book is fairly short, but many music directors I’ve worked in my callings as a pianist and organist don’t know a fraction of it, and what makes it even more difficult is that they have no idea that they don’t know any of it. Kind of complicates life.

    Comment by Amy T — January 23, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

  6. I have played in many churches without a director or chorister and never noticed anything lacking.

    I have also played in many wards with hundreds of directors and choristers. Maybe 10% were a “stabilizing factor”, of whom maybe 1 or 2 were actually improving things. 70% were totally irrelevant and 20% were a distraction or worse.

    Comment by Bill — January 23, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

  7. The 20% are up there flailing around without any idea of what they are doing. The 70% have a little bit of an idea what they are doing, but lack confidence and so have not much more of a reason to be up there. The 10% know exactly what they are doing and have confidence, so they have at least the possibility of inspiring others. The 1 or 2 have charisma.

    Comment by Bill — January 23, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

  8. Chorister? A member of the choir? I know, I know, its semantics…but the Music Director is the calling’s title for decades it seems.

    Comment by richard — January 23, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

  9. The director, or chorister, as we commonly call him, who leads the congregation in song, is an innovation which is peculiar almost to our church alone.

    It seems that Cornwall, at least, already in 1943, realized that the usage was idiosyncratic, but it has persisted quite healthily into recent decades despite its ambiguity and marginal status as the second dictionary definition.

    Comment by Bill — January 24, 2014 @ 12:23 am

  10. I’m glad I found your website. I’m a new music chairperson… Just in a few months. The past few weeks, music I have chosen for opening hymns (bright and joyful) have been too slow. I noticed, but hadn’t told the music director or the organist. Bishop asked me today to start “teaching” music every Sacrament meeting, after the closing prayer… To give primary time to setup, and to get our ward interested in music. The organist told me later that it is hard for her to play some of the songs fast on the organ.. So I think that might be the reason songs were too slow, not the speed the director was leading. I hope to learn from your site. Oh, and I’m looking to teach them the songs seldom sang…. Who wrote them, etc.

    Comment by Melissa — March 9, 2014 @ 5:25 pm