I have had a few music callings in recent years. I have served as Relief Society pianist in three wards in as many years. I have also been a chorister, choir director, and Primary music leader. Each of these callings presents unique challenges but they also have some common issues.
Music callings are unique. Unlike teaching or serving in a leadership position, you can't fake playing the piano. These callings require unique skills, including a knowledge of reading music and the physical ability to play or sing. Music callings also require preparation and planning.
It saddens me to realize that the number of skilled musicians in the world is declining. Each time I receive a music calling I think "Really? Me? Am I the best you can do?" While I recognize that maybe Heavenly Father is pushing me to improve my own talents, I also realize that, if I decline, the position will not be filled. There are just not that many people who can do it.
This presents some challenges to leaders who want to fill music callings. Most recognize the power of music to invite the Spirit into a meeting. Good music, that is. A pianist who stumbles and struggles can actually detract from the meeting. What can be done?
1. First, and absolutely the most important in my experience and opinion, is to let the pianist choose the hymns. I am frustrated each time a well-meaning leader chooses hymns they consider to be "easy" and insist the pianist play them. They mistake familiarity with simplicity. There are less-familiar hymns that I can play with my eyes closed. Some that seem difficult might actually be easier on a pianist because they can improvise. For example: "Count Your Blessings" (Hymn 241) is easier for me than "Love One Another" (Hymn 308). This may not be true for every pianist.
I am not sure why some leaders are so insistent on choosing the hymns. I know in some cases the ward music leader is the one who does this so maybe it is an effort to fulfill that calling. Regardless, the pianist should have the biggest say in choosing the hymns.
* A suggestion for pianist: take time to try to play every hymn in the hymn book and make a list of which ones you are comfortable with. This might be a little time consuming but providing a list of hymns for your leaders to choose from just might save everyone from tears and frustration!
2. Non-pianists have no idea how challenging it can be to play with a congregation. I can tell you from experience that it varies from one group to another. I played in one Relief Society where the sisters were fairly timid singers. I could barely hear them and sometimes I sang along as I played just to help keep track of which verse I was on.
The next ward was just the opposite. There were many powerful and talented singers. I could hear the sisters singing parts like a choir. It was beautiful! But it was also intimidating. I felt pressured to play every note and not make mistakes that would mess up the beauty of their voices. Of course, I stumbled over the keys and messed it up anyway. It was my own fault for focusing so much on them and not on the piano. In retrospect, it might have been helpful to wear earplugs!
3. People have to practice. I was first called as Relief Society pianist as a newly wed. I had no piano, no keyboard. I tried to practice at the church during mid-week activities but the rooms with pianos were always being used. On top of that, the leaders didn't give me prior notice about which hymns we were singing. Sometimes I had never even heard them! It was truly a lesson in humility!
4. Music callings are callings. It seems that some leaders see leading the music or playing the piano as some kind of service or busy-work. But these callings require prayer, preparation, sacrifice, and inspiration, just as any calling in the church. Those servicing in music positions deserve respect, encouragement, and appreciation.
I hope this is helpful. I have thought about this often in recent years. Music is such an important component in our meetings. Music invites the spirit, bears testimony, and soothes the troubled heart. Creating this kind of meeting is not the responsibilty of just one person, but a team. We should all work together to achieve this goal.
Keep a look out for future posts with more specific tips for pianist and choir directors.