Making Music in Zion
by David Van Alstyne
Written, by personal invitation,
to be part of a book on music in the church.
The book was never published.

Taking a deep breath, I entered the dark auditorium(1) to conduct members of the Utah Symphony in a Ballet West performance of The Nutcracker. So far, my entire conducting career had consisted of only two Nutcrackers the previous year in a different theater, so while dancers and musicians had dubious hopes for our success, this was still a trial by fire for me. As polite applause erupted from 2,000 people and all eyes followed, I strutted under the spotlight to the front where I was supposed to gracefully climb over the railing and into the elevated orchestra pit, take my bow, lower the pit, and begin the ballet.

I must confess that with all that attention, I was feeling just a little bit pompous until with a loud crash I tripped over a hollow wooden step at the railing, about which I had been warned, and tumbled mostly head first into the pit where I should have been standing. This seemed at the time like a good example of what Alma meant when he spoke of being "compelled to be humble."

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 barbarism. 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 for the building of Zion brings soul-expanding joy as the Spirit transports our offerings into the hearts 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.

Christmastide Travelers

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, who has remained a dear life-long friend. 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 personal 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 irreconcilably incompatible, 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. The veiled purpose of that was to reassure the mission leadership that they need not be sorry they had plunged us all into this. The open houses would 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 Has Even Been 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.

Singing Mothers

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. Those must be vastly more in number than all the known musicians who have ever lived on the earth. And it might even be possible that we who consider ourselves to be among the most highly trained musicians in this life might not find ourselves among the most treasured instruments of praise in the eyes of Him who truly knows His children?

In seeking to build the kingdom of God with music, our glorious Tabernacle Choir and their fellow world-class musicians aside, it doesn't matter that we are not all great performers. Talent, training, and technique certainly have their place, but they do not of themselves qualify a musician to glorify God any more than intellectual prowess qualifies a professional scholar 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 our temples, 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 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)

Rapture and the Language of Eternity

When I was 15, in 1962, I was taken with my family to Europe, where my father was going to teach American law. We crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice by boat, one of them an old former German hospital ship from World War II. 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 us, with nothing holding us up but water. It felt like we were suspended in the midst of eternity.

All this metaphysical grossness is indeed enveloped within a far surpassing reality of infinite life and creation beyond the veil. Being utterly incomprehensible to this world, the most sacred levels of gospel understanding are not susceptible to verbal expression. But music, as an essential element of our being, has a way of eliciting, and thus communicating, supernal intimations and exquisite tastes of our relationship to the divine. It can lift us out of ourselves, revealing through our uniquely personal responses, hidden truths and treasures which can only be felt, not spoken.

What is "a fullness of joy," or "the pure love of Christ?" The most exalted words, unless quickened by the Holy Ghost, can only express fuzzy approximations of heavenly things. As we see "through a glass darkly,"(10) we certainly do not want to misperceive the gospel by mistaking familiar platitudes for expressions of exactitude.

But when the Spirit uses the wondrous medium of music to lift us into revelatory raptures, we might truly feel we are bing swept away in the language of eternity. Considering how much we have forgotten about our own identities since living here on earth, these exalted moments can be the stirrings of long-lost memories, the fleeting restoration of ineffable but very real things we left behind when we came here.

Thus, we must never dismiss our musical ecstasies as ephemeral flights into emotional hallucination. These flashes of spiritual lightning are, in fact, glimmers of substantial realities which will never pass away. The musical high winds in which we soar are transports of endless glories to come, and 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)

We Are Instruments of Music

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 literal offspring of God, we ourselves are natural instruments of music, as are canaries and meadowlarks beautiful instruments of song. But mercifully, our being instruments of music has broad meaning that includes vicarious participation. It fully counts when we respond as if we were making the music ourselves. The music that matters, that which comes from 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 Rings with Music

Music and singing are often used in the scriptures to describe celestial realms and angelic activity. The angels most likely have great facility with words, and do many different things, but they are characterized to us, as a whole, 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 lot to sing about. But how about us down here? Is our music making a mere decoration, a diversionary refreshment in the "more serious work" of building the Kingdom? Have we ever thought we might actually 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?

"My Soul Delighteth in the Song of the Heart"

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 a song of the heart be a prayer that reaches heaven? In prayer we often feel stirrings that we cannot quite organize 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, as they are of the worshipful songs of our hearts.

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 emotional tensions. These musical elements naturally move our souls to vibrate with them in physical sympathy as if we were spiritual wind chimes. These musical breezes can make us ring like bells, melting our hearts to be enlarged or drawn out in prayers powerful enough to reach heaven.

And as our prayers are most naturally born in the depths of gratitude, 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 prayers of love and eternal gratitude. Could not our highest efforts, including our vicarious enjoyments of the efforts of those around us, emulate the angels as our own music rises within us to materialize in similar exalted expressions?

Let us spend time to actively listen, and release ourselves to freely meditate, bathing in worthy music. Let us luxuriate in foretastes of heavenly joy as we ride our moments of rapture into spontaneous prayers of praise, born of endless love and thankfulness. 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 good music in the car, or even singing in the shower.

1. Browning Fine Arts Center, Weber State College, Ogden Utah, December 11, 1984 [back]
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 Music and Writing