Hijacking the hymns


You’re not likely to wander into a Mormon meeting and find the choir worked up like this. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

As a rule, Mormon church meetings are on the more formal end of the spectrum. We’re not so high church that there are processions and fancy vestments, but we’re not so relaxed that we sway when we sing, and nobody shouts out “amen.” Having no paid minister means that different members take turns speaking during the Sunday service, but even so, most of the time you have a pretty good idea of what to expect.* Last week, though, I saw something I had never seen before. I witnessed a musical highjacking.

A little background before I tell you how it all went down: our ward in Valencia is filled with people of various talents, but pianists are few and far between. There are a couple of young teenagers showing some promise, quite willing to race through some prelude music, but when it’s time to sing one of the three or four hymns during the meeting, we’re on our own.

We've got one of these--we're just short of people able to tickle the ivories.

We’ve got ivories–we’re just short of people able to tickle them tunefully.

The few times I’ve been tasked with leading the singing in a meeting here, I have sung my chosen starting note ahead of time, to help people get in the swing with me.

That approach appears to be the exception rather than the rule. The woman who leads the music in sacrament meeting stands up, raises her arm, and we all start to sing. Within a few notes, we sort of gravitate toward a reasonable note in the melody line, and stagger on from there.

Last week she began a hymn low–really low, maybe four notes below where it was written. That’s going to be a problem if you’re singing in parts–the altos and basses are going to be in the sub-basement. Almost no one in the congregation sings a part other than the melody, but that far down there can be trouble even for folks following the melody.

If this had been in a movie, the point where we got to the end of the first verse and took a breath to begin the second would have been the place to cue the tense music. Of course, that didn’t happen. Not having music was how we got here in the first place.

El Guapo was seated at the front as he was helping with the sacrament. He told me later that what happened next seemed to come out of nowhere, but in fact I knew exactly where it came from: the two women sitting right in front of me, the wife and the daughter of the bishop.

Maybe there was whispered consultation–I didn’t hear that part. In any event, they went rogue: they began singing the second verse about a third higher than the rest of us, and they were determined to take us all with them. There were a few notes of uncertainty, and then we all just modulated up, and kept on going. It was the sort of experience that makes your eyes widen: things just got weird!



Only one other time have I witnessed something similar, and it was also in the Valencia 3rd Ward. Last year in another piano-free meeting, we were laboring along at a song–my memory of it is a little fuzzy, but I think the usual coalescing around a single melody hadn’t happened–we were singing in two different keys, and neither group had managed to win over the other (Yikes!).

The woman sitting next to me was visiting from Austria. She mimed to the leaders up front that she could play the piano. It took them a bit to realize what she was offering, but then they nodded vigorously. She got up during the verse (I hesitate to label it music), made her way to the piano, and began to play. At that point we had a three-way mash-up: the hymn as it was supposed to sound and the two groups as it definitely wasn’t supposed to sound. The agonizing thing was that the singers couldn’t seem to get there from where we were, so we just floundered along to the end of the verse.


You can bet the Mormon Tabernacle Choir never has these kinds of crises.

The impromptu pianist crashed down on the opening chord to the next verse, and the nightmare spell was broken–we could hear where we were supposed to be, and we finally got there, all together, raising our voices in relief as much as anything.

What’s the weirdest church music thing you’ve ever been a part of? Have you ever done Battle-of-the-Bands like we sometimes do here?


*There’s always the one sacrament meeting each fall when the congregation’s children provide the entire program, but in fact we usually know what to expect that day, too–it’s just a lot funnier, what with all the loose-cannon things that kids ages 3 to 11 can get up to when they’re very far from their parents’ reach, and they vastly outnumber the adults who are nominally in charge. Those meetings are always a treat.

[Images: thejoycollaborative.com, publicdomainarchive.com, medicaldaily.com, lds.net, vectorstock.com]

2 thoughts on “Hijacking the hymns

    • I’m glad to share the laugh with you. It turns out that the organ at church has some preprogrammed hymns, so the plan was that we were going to be accompanied officially today. What could go wrong? Well, there are a few hymns that use the same text but have two different musical settings. One of those settings is in the Spanish hymn book, and the other of those settings is the one the organ played for the sacrament hymn. Ay! Who knew there were so many ways to have musical disasters in a church meeting? We should make ourselves up a little card, and tick them off as we do them. 🙂

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