Sunday, May 19, 2013

How to Sing a Hymn

Two things happened today. Well, if you're into minutiae then 162 things happened today. But in short, I went to a Mormon church service (seeking curiosities), and I went to the laundromat (seeking clean socks).

Instead of spending my wash cycle time walking out for a sweet tea or gazing numbly at the socks rolling around in the drum, I thought about the musical directions in the Mormon hymn book I sang from this morning. I've seen plain English directions in hymn books before, at my grandma's church.  The book at her church gives directions like "joyfully" or "slowly," sometimes casting commentary on the meaning but not much. In the Mormon book, however, all the musical directions are commentary on the essence of the song, and how the singer should feel about it.

While this may be a good way to indicate what kind of voice we should sing in, and maybe an indicator of how we should interpret the song, it doesn't help us understand what the tempo should be, or how the notes should be read. Isn't the main aim of directions like andante and allegro to give an idea of the tempo and the rhythm of the song?  Okay maybe it's silly to expect everyone to learn Italian words, but even rock sheet music has helpful (rather than emotional and confusing) plain-English directions, like "moderate rock" or "a little faster" or "ballad."

Yet now that I rethink it, ballads and shuffles, and whatever else might be included in the directions in my Jethro Tull songbook, are examples of a vocabulary shared by rock musicians (although the musician who transcribed Anderson's flute solos uses presto and allegro too).  Maybe the vocabulary of hymnals has to match the shared vocabulary of church?  So, there must not be any better way to describe how to sing a hymn, than with words like these:

Actual examples from the Mormon hymn book

With reverence


With conviction




These are so funny, because they attempt to be so specific and end up being so vague.  Prayerfully?  WTF, Mormons? Much can be said about musical directions as a means of shutting down a faithful one's (or a musician's) personal interpretation of a song, but there is just as much to be said about these lamentable word choices.  So then, still at the laundromat, I got to thinking, why don't they just take it all the way, and get all religulous with the hymnal commands?

Possible Mormon (or any evangelical church) Hymn Directions

With the Spurit



With clean thoughts

Zealously ( ♩ = 116 )

As if you are about to explode ( ♩ = 162 )

Like it's your Baptism-day!

Like the devil's got you by the balls


In tongues

And still at the laundromat, I thought, Why not have the alternate atheist/agnostic/apostate version?

Apostate Hymnal Directions

With frustration ( ♩ = 42)

Without grace



With agony

With apathy ( ♩ = whatever )

Out of the side of your mouth

With goat voice 

That should do it. Have you seen any strange, confusing, or plain silly musical directions? Can you add any to my alternate lists?

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