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Tips on correctly leading the music on Sundays
By Orson Scott Card January 14, 2010

Because of a snowstorm, we had our Christmas program the Sunday after Christmas this year. Our regular conductor of the congregational hymns had already made provision for a substitute, but because we were doing "Christmas Sunday" instead of "the Sunday after Christmas," she simply forgot that she was supposed to do it. Her turn was next week.

So the organist began to play the intro to the opening hymn, and there was nobody standing there. And it also happened that nobody noticed.

We were all busy getting out our hymnbooks, looking up the page, and getting set to start. We in the choir launched into the hymn when the music rolled around. Only after a few moments did it occur to us that there was nobody leading us.

And we were doing fine. As every conductor knows, the congregation follows the organ or piano anyway -- if the conductor wants to speed up the tempo, for instance, and the organist doesn't follow, it ain't gonna happen.

Still, the absence of the arm-waving person at the front of the chapel was beginning to cause some consternation in the congregation, so one of our sopranos walked to the right spot and began to conduct. (Only then did the alto who was supposed to do it realize that this was her week after all. And by then the job was being done quite well. There was no need to change.)

What did this mean? That the conductor is there only by custom, and not because of need?

Not at all. This particular Sunday the choir was there in their seats, giving a strong vocal lead to the congregation. On an ordinary Sunday, a missing conductor would have made far more of a difference.

And there are other circumstances where you can't have a hymn without a leader. Take, for instance, our priesthood opening exercises in the cultural hall.

No one ever said, "Brother Card, we'd like to call you and set you apart as priesthood meeting music leader." But three or four years ago -- maybe longer -- a member of the bishopric handed me a hymnbook open to a particular page and said, "Can you lead that?"

Well, yes, I could. Even though we had no piano, I knew the melody. So I dodged into the Young Women's room (aka "the multi-purpose room") and found the starting note on the piano.

Then I dropped it one full step, to accommodate men's voices more easily, and held it in my aging mind long enough to return to the meeting and start the opening hymn on a singable note.

The next week, they asked me to pick the hymn. I've been doing it ever since. I think they think it's one of my callings, but it isn't. I just have the loudest singing voice.

In my nearly six decades as a fair-to-middling musician in the Church, I think I've seen every kind of music conducting there is.

I've seen the good-hearted young men -- and their fathers -- whose idea of conducting music in priesthood meeting was to stand there waving their arms at random. I had to hold the book up high in front of my face so I couldn't see them -- it was making me mildly insane to see beats coming any which place in the measure.

I've led music where there were no hymnbooks -- sometimes I would read each line out before we sang it. Cumbersome, but traditional, and it works well enough.

A lot of people think that conducting is about keeping time -- and that is certainly the bare minimum. Those figures drawn in the hymnbook are a decent way to start learning to conduct -- the way learning the letters is a good start to learning to read.

But leading is really much more than that. The real essential is that the conductor have a strong, loud voice, know the melody, and stay true to the pitch. If you don't move your arm at all, and if you have no accompanist, if you simply do that, you will be leading the singing more surely than if you keep perfect time with your arm but nobody can hear a note you sing.

If you're leading a choir, once again it helps if your arm moves in time with every beat -- but what your job really is is to bring in each part or the whole group on every entrance, and cut them off together when a held note needs to end.

You make sure your hands are up high at such times, so all can see you, and you make a clear and obvious movement that can be seen in the peripheral vision of singers who are frantically looking back and forth between the written notes and the words of the song.

The congregation can use help like that, too -- especially on hymns with fermatas (held notes) or caesuras (pauses).

The rest is attitude: You show vigor with your face and body, and the singers will respond with more vigorous singing; you shrink your movements and hold your arms closer to your body, and they will sing more softly.

It's the principle every Primary song leader knows: You aren't conducting the song. You're conducting the singers. Your job is to communicate all they need to know to make the song work.

As a friend said after we went to the temple together last week: The closest we come, in regular church meetings, to the way we pray together in the temple is when we sing the hymns together: all the voices in unison, offering a prayer to the Lord.

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

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