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Music in the gospel

Once a year, hundreds of visitors pack into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ chapels scattered throughout the United States. The event is not general conference; it is the children’s Primary singing program.

Grandparents gather together and sigh in contentment as little children crowd each other on the church stand. Four-year-olds elbow each other to the front, proudly smiling as music begins to play.

Children’s voices fill the chapel. Oh, how sweet and loud, as young children have not learned that shouting in joy is not the same as singing.

An outsider may wonder why music is taught during childhood in the gospel.

Music speaks to our deepest spirit, making it an integral part of religious worship and community since before recorded history. In fact, the music of the gospel has had a complex influence on the development of three educators at BYU-Idaho: a baby who mimicked a conductor, a young lady who learned to make a piano speak and a young man who initially rebelled against music.

Wilford W. Andersen, emeritus General Authority Seventy, explained faith in terms of both dancing and music, describing the tragedy of people who attempt to dance without hearing the gospel music.

“The dance steps of the gospel are the things we do; the music of the gospel is the joyful spiritual feeling that comes from the Holy Ghost,” Andersen said.

Danny Ricks, a professor in the religion department at BYU-I, did not immediately bond with either music or the gospel. When he was a child, Ricks was an ill-natured young man who refused to sing any song in Primary except for “Give Said the Little Stream,” and although his family attended church faithfully, Ricks was not drawn to either the scriptures or the music.

Conversely, his mother loved to play the hymns on the piano at home and led the congregation in singing at church.

One Sunday, his mother cut off the congregation in the middle of a hymn and announced, “My son Danny isn’t singing, so we have to start over again.”

Because of the emphasis his mother placed on music, Ricks eventually found his way into both a love of music and the gospel. In his career, he has sought to pair gospel learning with music in the religion courses he teaches at BYU-I.

Unlike Ricks, Eda Ashby, a choral and voice instructor at BYU-I, sought music from a young age. Ashby began piano lessons before she could read, playing piano and violin from elementary school to college.

Her ward was small, and she was called upon to play piano in Primary when she was still a member of the Primary herself.

While growing up, Ashby played in Primary, Sunday School, sacrament meetings and even in stake conference. When preparing for stake conference, she would play through the whole hymnbook, and she practiced playing in a way that emphasized the most meaningful words in each hymn.

Ashby’s music conversion was different than Rick’s. She gradually discovered the Lord speaking to her through singing. She believes that her journey of faith happened as Heavenly Father used vocal instruction to teach her new gospel principles.

In the September 2013 edition of the New Era, Rosemary M. Wixom, former general president of the Primary, spoke about how the most prominent memory of primary instruction is the primary songs. She theorized that the reason behind the remembrance is that music enhances the senses and creates memories.

Ashby described herself as a perfectionist, being too scared to do anything wrong in her music. As a result, she was an uptight singer, unable to sing without being critical of herself. It was only as she learned to be confident in who she was as a singer that her natural talent was able to completely flourish.

The young lady who had excelled on the piano as a child became an accomplished vocalist. She completed a Ph.D. in choral music from the University of Southern California and has taught at BYU-I for more than 20 years.

Eliza R. Snow Building
Eliza R. Snow Building Photo credit: Tatum Troescher

Kevin Brower, dean of interdisciplinary studies, said he would mimic the conductors on the stand during church as a baby.

As Brower expanded his learning of music and the gospel, he began to discover harmony. Perfect harmony occurs when the notes are in tune with each other, and the ear cannot hear discord.

Brower equated the idea of being of one purpose mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 45 to being in harmony with members of the Church, including those in wards and stakes.

“It is by divine design that not all the voices in God’s choir are the same. It takes variety — sopranos and altos, baritones and basses — to make rich music,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Brower said being in harmony with each other and the will of God is necessary to help bring about Zion. He believes music allows us to perform with greater authenticity than written and spoken language.

The impact of music has changed the lives of countless members of the Church and having access to it from a young age made all the difference to Ricks, Ashby and Brower.

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