The Girl With Her Fingers In Her Ears

I have a confession: the music in the waiting chapel of the Salt Lake Temple drives me nuts. There I am, sitting reverently in my white dress, waiting for the session to start, and instead of a quiet atmosphere in which to ponder the reasons I came to the temple that day or even say a silent prayer, I am subjected to the kind of piped-in electric organ music that one might expect to hear in a funeral parlor.

As I sit there, trying to meditate but distracted by the wrong notes in the familiar hymns (the music must be played live somewhere by someone, since I hardly think there would be wrong notes in a recording), I figure I have three choices: I could resent that my religious institution forces its musical aesthetic on my personal worship and conclude that since I want to run from the musical choice I should run from the institution; I could ask the temple workers to turn it off and make a stink to the temple presidency; or I could stick my fingers in my ears so I don’t hear the music anymore and continue with my silent meditation.

If I chose to do the first — let my resentment of the imposed musical aesthetic lead to resentment of the institution — there would be no end to that slippery slope. I would start resenting many more of our cultural characteristics, mistakenly equating the questionable quality I perceive in them to questionable quality in our doctrine. From canned ham at Christmas parties to the invariably adorable treats of Young Women’s activities, our culture includes scads of quirky middle-class mid-century Americanisms that sometimes obscure our stated goal of saving souls.

This is a slippery slope that many members succumb to, understandably confusing discomfort with the institutional experience with discomfort with our doctrinal cannon. Although the  earthly experience should as closely as possible mirror the heavenly home our institution seeks to represent, it doesn’t always succeed for reasons of human error, personal taste, imperfect judgement and private corruption. My quibble in the temple is with the execution and presentation of the hymns, not the content of the hymns (to which I am personally devoted). If we can choose to control what we can and let the other stuff go, our experience within our institution will allow us to focus on the Savior, not the Spam.

I had a poignant experience a few years ago that helped fortify my understanding of our culture versus our doctrine and gave me hope that our future generations can successfully make this distinction. As a Juilliard- and Yale-trained musician, I was asked to give a class at a New England stake youth conference on music in the Church. I grew up speaking and playing the piano at firesides where my mother, a professional opera singer, offered her thoughts on the power of music to convey the Spirit. Music is utterly vital to my spiritual life, so talking on this subject comes easily to me. I have dozens of talks I’ve written on the history of the hymns, the power of the hymns, the importance of the classical repertoire in our worship, the triumvirate communion that occurs between an individual and the group and God with congregational hymn singing… I could go on.

However, with this crowd of teenagers, I chose to take a different approach. I selected about 15 musical clips — ranging from Kanye West to Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Little Richard singing spirituals –  and I played each clip for the class. As we listened, I asked the kids to write down silently on a piece of paper whether they thought the music was “Sacred,” “sacred,” “neither,” or “both.” The results were astonishing.

Suffice it to say that very little of the “Sacred” music was also deemed “sacred,” meaning that those musical works that are categorized within the genre of Sacred music in a retail catalogue did not feel holy, or “sacred”, to their unique spiritual personalities. Several youths deemed every classical work played as “contrived” or “inauthentic,” thus driving away them farther away from a sense of the Spirit which they found more readily in music they defined as “real,” “pure,” and “natural.” Kanye West’s song, “Hey Mamma” was rated the most “sacred” song I played because of its sincere lyrics of gratitude for the singer’s mother and its soothing beat.

As our discussion progressed, I learned that these youths find peace and divine communion in very different places than I would expect with my own classical music training. Electronic instrumental music, with its ordered, patterned progressions, seemed especially meditative to my crowd. They dismissed some rock songs for their meaningless lyrics and embraced others for their messages, a surprise to me since I myself rarely pay attention to pop lyrics. But regardless of what I thought about their taste or how much I bemoaned the demise of classical music (subjects of another article!), I couldn’t deny the fact that these kids found the Lord’s presence in these unexpected places. They were hearing beauty, and they were letting it draw them closer to God.

We concluded our discussion by talking about why the Church has settled upon a certain musical aesthetic to represent “sacredness”. After all, many other denominations attract patrons with varied worship styles. (I know of one evangelical congregation that gives its members three different musical choices for Sunday worship: a room with a choir, a room with a jazz band and a room with a rock band.) I was encouraged by the practicality of their answers: We are a worldwide church that can come together over consistent applications of the hymns. The hymns are a tribute to our 19th century pioneer heritage. Chaos would ensue if we tried to appeal to 13 million people’s varying aesthetic tastes. We can ponder the lyrics of our songs, all of which have uplifting messages even if the style of the music doesn’t resonate. And most encouraging: We can recognize that we are responsible for our own communion with the Spirit and we are not spiritual outcasts if the certain chosen aesthetic doesn’t speak to us.

I know in reality the line will blur for some of these kids between their personal relationship with God and their cultural experience in the Church and that they will eventually forfeit one because of the other. But I like to think most of our rising generation will understand that our cultural quirks are themselves not absolute truths and that to equate the two would be to miss the mark.

So going back to my fidgety discomfort with the piped-in organ music, what about the second option? you ask. Why didn’t I ask the temple workers to turn it off so I and the other patrons could just enjoy the silence? The answer is I’m simply not that much of an activist. I prefer to work within the system, performing and supporting quality music (and silence where appropriate!) within the Church where I can and hoping that standard will permeate others’ experiences over time. Perhaps some day I’ll get up the nerve so say something to a temple worker — although I fear tearing some octogenarian temple patron away from meditating on those soothing sounds that remind him of singing hymns at his mother’s knee — but I may just leave that up to those kids in my New England class. Maybe when they’re in charge we’ll all be listening to Kanye West.

Meanwhile, I’ll be the girl with her fingers in her ears.

  • Emily

    How about bringing your iPod with you?

    Seriously, I take the same path as you. My husband is a professional organist, and virtually every sacrament meeting is an exercise in tolerance for me, singing to slow, badly played hymns. There are no easy answers to the mediocrity, but certainly we could be doing better. And I hope the answer is not Kanye West. If the church put the same effort into training its musicians as it does training its seminary teachers and priesthood leaders, we’d be off to a decent start.

  • jendoop

    Thanks for this, I appreciate your thoughts.

    Thinking about what parts of the church are cultural and what are “gospel” is a difficult task. (Nylons anyone?) So like you I put my proverbial fingers in my ears so I can partake of the sacred mixed in with the culture. Grateful that in one of the most sacred places, my home, I have the agency to choose what is sacred.

  • kevinr

    Doctrinal “cannon” in the Mormon church has, on a few previous occasions, truly been like a cannon, exploding here and there and not always on target. Like you suggest, though, we all need to forgive those wrong notes, and wrong words, realizing we’re all human.

    As an organist in my own ward, and very amateur at best, I admit, I try very hard to practice ahead of time, read up on organ registrations and other practical advice, and most of all try and try again. I love music, too, and would immediately cede my organ position to someone more qualified should they move into the ward. I would also hope no one thinks my mediocrity is self-imposed. I really do try hard to be more than mediocre.

    Meanwhile, though, please forgive my musical canon, with its bombing notes now and then. I do appreciate your helping spread the ideas to avoid making Mormon culture into Mormon doctrine, as the next generation will certainly need to distinguish between the two. Growing up in Utah as I did, I have had a difficult time separating the two.

  • Jeni

    Wow! I stumbled onto this post and can’t believe the arrogancy of the writer. It’s a crying shame that all the organists in the church can’t be Yale and Juilliard-trained musicians like her! It’s such a shame that she has to stick her fingers in her ears as a volunteer plays the organ in the temple to the best of her/his ability and in some small way wants to contribute to serving the Lord.

    I think Ms. McBaine needs to remind herself daily that this is a church of volunteers – we can’t all be suave, sophisticated East Coast Mormons with an opera singer for a mother!

    I appreciate the point of her article, but her arrogant attitude is really condescending.

  • Andrew

    I agree Jeni. My response is found