by David Van Alstyne
I must confess that with all the attention, I was feeling just a little bit pompous until with a loud crash I tripped over a hollow wooden step and tumbled virtually head first into the pit. This seemed at the time like a very good example of what Alma meant when he spoke of being "compelled to be humble."(2)
Actually, being beyond embarrassment, I could only take it in good humor. And to my surprise, once the orchestra was able to stop laughing and the audience calmed down, the ballet went beautifully. This strongly impressed upon me that musical performance can be enhanced by a spiritual dimension, such as sympathetic feelings among the players, even if they are rooted in pity for the conductor.
The worldly milieu in which we musicians labor can grind on us with its raw competitiveness, craven politics, intellectual elitism and aesthetic barbarianism. A "normal day at the office," for fine artists, involves laying open their souls and exposing their deepest sensitivities to the world in ways normal human beings would never do except in their worst dreams. We only half-jokingly call it a breeding ground for mental instability. Certainly it fosters paranoia, self-involvement, and all the worst of the "natural man" which is "an enemy to God."(3)
In contrast, making music in church brings soul-expanding joy when the Spirit transports it from our hearts into those of our fellow worshippers and thus, "unnaturally," we become spiritually as one. Worship doesn't get much sweeter than these pinnacle moments of yielding our personal musicianship to the "enticings of the Holy Spirit,"(4) and working together with an eye single to the glory of God.
In the fall of 1967, I was a missionary in London where it was decided that every major ward and branch in our mission would have a Christmas open house. I was called to meet, each weekend in November, with a very talented fellow-missionary, Sister Carma Moore. Our charge was simply, but vaguely, to create an hour-long program which was already being publicized and booked for these open houses. We soon made the very sobering discovery that our concepts of the project were fundamentally divergent. To me, it seemed she wanted to write an entertainment that was cute and amusing, whereas she must have thought that in my self-seriousness I wanted to mount something just a little less gleeful than a medieval passion play, or a requiem mass.
By the first Monday in December, we and six other missionary-performers were called to live in the mission home and work full-time on the show. With our ideas as incompatible as ever, and the imminence of compromise laced for each of us with ideological defeat, Sister Moore and I nevertheless took incentive from the chilling realization that a preview performance of our non-existent program was scheduled for the end of the week. Its veiled purpose was to reassure the mission leadership that they needed not to be sorry they had started all this. The open houses were to begin the following Monday, and as we also needed to learn our parts, the pressure on us was acute.
Monday and Tuesday of "Rehearse the Show Before It Is Even Written Week" were harrowing. By Wednesday morning (more accurately, Wednesday "mourning") the clouds of impending catastrophe started raining panic. But this was actually beneficial, because the combination of surging adrenaline and complete creative paralysis finally compelled us to humble ourselves before each other, and especially, lacking what we had once thought were our own potent powers, to rely on the Lord.
We each retreated for soul-searching and private supplication. Dramatically, by that afternoon the pall had lifted and we felt like eight different, calm, human beings. What a miraculous improvement that was! Finally we were able to truly collaborate, but not just in the spirit of dreaded compromise. This was with love. We found our hearts newly knit together as if we had just been converted to the Gospel, which in a sense we had been. We discovered the exhilaration, the sweet excitement, of creating something under the influence of the Holy Ghost. I even started loving Sister Moore's ideas, and she started loving mine. (Actually, she had sparked most of my best ideas, so I am sure she did love them. She even tried to let me think they were my own.) This was less embarrassing for me than falling headfirst into an orchestra pit, but it worked just as well for compelling humility.
Our show would not have attracted any worldly attention, but it was providentially suited to our various talents and to the needs of the audiences. Hearts were touched, and baptisms resulted. We wisely began with segments of pure entertainment (some of which were even "cute and amusing"). Then we moved to a more thoughtful pondering of Christmas and finally worked up to a climactic presentation of the Savior's birth, enriched with Book of Mormon perspective.
We drove in a van, performing each day for two weeks in a different area of southeast England. Usually arriving back at the mission home in the heart of London very late at night, we would sleep late the next day, then rehearse as needed before setting out once again. Bonded in the love that grew among us, we felt like a microcosm of Zion. This contagious unity was one big factor in the missionary success of the show.
Another high point of my mission had come earlier, in the spring of 1967 in Northern Ireland, when I was called to accompany, on the piano, the Belfast Singing Mothers. They were a small group, none of whom could read music. But these "non-musicians" worked hard to learn their parts, and sang with a fervor that invoked heavenly assistance, which transmuted their technical galumphings into poignant peals of worship. To me, that was unearthly joy.
The Belfast Singing Mothers, as with many ward choirs, had no rational hope of singing well by the world's standards. Yet their work was not to sing, per se. It was to call down the Spirit of the Lord by their efforts to sing, and in this, by the power of their humility, they were transformed into a choir of angels.
Reflecting on this, I have often thought of their angelic counterparts who sing celestial praises among the hosts of heaven. These must be vastly more in number than all the known musicians who have ever lived on earth. And would it not follow that we who consider ourselves musicians in this life are not the only real musicians in the eyes of Him who truly knows His children?
As a professional musician, I feel a humbling connection with anyone who loves music. People often say, almost apologetically, "I have no talent for music, but it deeply moves me." To me, these, like those dear, musically illiterate Singing Mothers, have as much right to be called musicians as we who make a living at it. In the deepest sense, being a genuine musician has nothing to do with acquired technique or skill. To the extent that our spirits respond to music, we are musicians.
In seeking to build the kingdom of God with music, we don't have to be great performers. Talent, training, and technique are the cold currency of this world, and while they may be of great value, they do not of themselves especially qualify us to be "the Lord's musicians" any more than intellectual prowess qualifies us to preach the Gospel. It is axiomatic that in all areas of church service, none of our efforts can, in themselves, fulfill their purpose without being imbued with the Spirit. "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it."(5)
While excellence is important, as are quality and aesthetic beauty in the temples we build, yet in the consecration of our talents, it can only be secondary to our loving one another and keeping our eye single to the glory of God. As with any of our collective labors in the gospel, to make the music of Zion, we ought to be as Zion, having our "hearts knit together in unity and love,"(6) "being stripped of pride" and envy,(7) certainly never mocking the efforts of others or worrying about who has more talent or who ought to be in charge of things. Not seeking to excell,(8) but being as one in Christ is the best measure of our power to truly serve him. The Lord tells us, "I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one, ye are not mine."(9)
When I was 15, I went with my family to Europe. We crossed the Atlantic twice by boat. I'll never forget going out on the deck, in the dark of a moonless night, to meditate. Stunned and overwhelmed by the luminosity of an infinity of stars, I felt an unearthly presence in the breathtaking sense of "worlds without end" shimmering from horizon to horizon. At the same time, I was very soberly concerned about the ocean bed six miles below, with nothing holding us up but water. That just didn't seem very substantial. It felt like being suspended in the midst of eternity. Which, in fact, we all are.
Surrounding and suffusing the metaphysical grossness of mortality is a far surpassing eternal reality, a white heat of personal love from our Father in Heaven. For the most part, we only perceive this conceptually and by faith, and of course, it is wholly incomprehensible to the world. In this fallen, spiritually hostile environment, the most sacred levels of gospel truth are profoundly foreign and are not really susceptible to verbal expression. But efficacious music is a divine language with infinite potential to elicit its own supernal meanings. It's heavenly waftures can lift us out of ourselves, revealing to us, through our highly personal responses, things about ourselves, hidden spiritual treasures, which can only be felt, not spoken.
On the other hand, while the words of scripture also have a divine power, beyond themselves, to tune us to personal revelation, no mortal language has its own power, or could be expected to give us the means, to speak very accurately of heavenly things. For example, how could anyone ever hope to adequately describe a "fullness of joy," or the "pure love of Christ?" We need to appreciate this so that, seeing as "through a glass darkly,"(10) we don't misperceive the gospel by mistaking familiar platitudes for points of exactitude. That is why we must teach and listen by the Spirit, because only that divine facilitator can focus the fuzzier meanings of our inadequate words.
When at times the Spirit makes higher realities more apparent, we tend to react with revelatory rapture. But what is that? Considering how much we have forgotten about ourselves since living here on earth, could not these exalted moments be the stirrings of long-lost memories, the fleeting restoration of ineffable but very real things we have left behind?
In the world's wisdom they may be just ephemeral flights of emotional intensity, no more real than the thrill of being caught up in a good movie. But the gospel teaches that these uplifting flashes of spiritual lightning are, in fact, a more substantive reality, the glimmer of something that will never pass away, whereas things of this world surely will. Not to be discounted, they are transports from an endless glory of such inexhaustible love and joy that the angels can't refrain from singing praises to God. They point us toward the meaning of the words, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things that God hath prepared for them that love Him."(11)
Although it is often relegated to the status of diversion, entertainment or intellectual exercise, music is essential to our divine nature. By definition of being the offspring of Deity, we ourselves are natural instruments of music, as are canaries and meadowlarks beautiful instruments of song, as are, as well, other happy creations of our great Artist-God. But mercifully, our being created to sing and to make music does not require our being able to do it beautifully. The music that matters, that which comes out of our hearts, is not limited to audible notes. Its fundament is the exertion of spiritual energy, as is that of prayer. We can sing in silence. Singing, indeed any manner of transporting ourselves in music, is as much an attitude as it is an act.
"If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?"(12)
Heaven surely rings with music! Music and singing are often used in the scriptures to depict celestial realms and angelic activity. The angels most likely have great facility with words, but they are characterized for us by their singing.
Lehi "thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God."(13)
Even King Benjamin, of all people, looked forward to joining "the choirs above in singing the praises of a just God."(14) Just imagine! Such a man, this great prophet-king, was looking forward to joining the heavenly choirs.
Mormon says, "He that is found guiltless…at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above…in a state of happiness which hath no end."(15)
In Mosiah, we read about ourselves: "Thy watchmen in Israel shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing; for they shall see eye to eye when the Lord shall bring again Zion."(16) There seems to be a clarion message that those who dwell in the presence of God have a great deal to sing about. But how is it with us? Is singing a mere decoration, a diversionary refreshment, in the "more serious work" of living the gospel? How many of us mortals have taken sacrificial leave from our pre-mortal musical activities in order to come here?
"Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom"(17) I believe that as Zion increases "in beauty and in holiness," and arises to "put on her beautiful garments"(18) and the church thus approaches its destiny of perfection - the heavenly model of which is permeated with musical worship and celebration - her musicians will be ever more engaged. And in that sense, won't we all be musicians?
The Lord said: "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."(19)
How can the song of the heart be a prayer that reaches heaven? In prayer we often feel stirrings that are difficult to put into words. Indeed, as Paul said in Romans, the Spirit helps us by interceding for us with "groanings which cannot be uttered."(20) These swellings of the soul are the real essence of our prayers. While our words may be worthy attempts to give them form and focus, yet according to Paul they still need intercessory help.
The living dynamics of music, from volume, pitch and timbre to rhythmic motion and harmonic tension, are symbiotically connected to the dynamics of our own varying emotional tensions. They naturally incite our souls to vibrate sympathetically as if we were spiritual wind chimes. Thus if we are so inclined, carefully chosen musical breezes can move through us and induce our hearts to be drawn out in prayer as the organization of beautiful sound lends more form and coherence to our otherwise amorphous spiritual energies.
And what blessings will be answered upon the heads of those who thus "sing?" Or "ring?" The Lord says, "He who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more."(21)
Those "numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God"(22) are surely offering sublime prayers born of love and thankfulness. Could not our highest efforts emulate theirs as our own music rises within us to materialize similar exalted expressions?
Let us spend time actively listening, and releasing ourselves in meditation, to worthy music. Let us luxuriate in foretastes of heavenly life as we ride our moments of rapture into spontaneous prayers of praise, born of endless love and thankfulness. Even as we share those intimate, elevated swellings with our Father in Heaven, we are singing the efficacious "song of the heart," whether we happen to be singing hymns in church, listening to a good CD in the car, or even singing in the shower.
2. Alma 32:16 [back]
3. Mosiah 3:19 [back]
4. ibid [back]
5. Psalms 127:1 [back]
6. Mosiah 18:21 [back]
7. see Alma 5:28-29 [back]
8. D&C 58:41 [back]
9. D&C 38:27 [back]
10. 1 Corinthians 13:12 [back]
11. 1 Corinthians 2:9 [back]
12. Alma 5:26 [back]
13. 1 Nephi 1:8 [back]
14. Mosiah 2:28 [back]
15. Mormon 7:7 [back]
16. Mosiah 12:22 [back]
17. D&C 105:5 [back]
18. D&C 82:14 [back]
19. D&C 25:12 [back]
20. Romans 8:26 [back]
21. D&C 78:19 [back]
22. 1 Nephi 1:8 [back]
Home / For Latter-day Saints / My Own Compositions