It is easy, in church, to find myself singing the hymns without really giving them any thought. However, I started a project this past December that is causing me to think about the words to the hymns I sing each week. My husband bought me a keyboard because I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano. I knew I wouldn’t be any good at it for a variety of reasons, but I felt that since it was something I wanted to do, it shouldn’t make any difference whether or not I’d be good at it. I wasn’t looking to be a concert pianist or even a church pianist. I just wanted to play for fun.
For that reason, I decided not to use a teacher, even though my Mormon congregation has two very talented instructors. Mormon is a nickname people sometimes use when they are talking about people who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s fine to use it to describe the people, but Mormons always ask that it not be used in place of the name of the Church.
Using Hymns to Learn Piano
Our church has a keyboarding course that teaches people how to play using Church hymns. You can use it with a teacher or you can teach yourself to play. I ordered it and went to work. As I anticipated, it was a very slow and tedious process and I’m sure all the six-year-olds in church are learning to play much faster than I am. However, I realized that slowness had a unique benefit.
Two days ago I started learning to play with both hands at once. Thanks to some learning disabilities, I expected this to be an impossible task and it certainly seemed like it would be. I had first learned to play each hand separately and was now ready to put them together. The book spends a lot of time on Sacrament songs because they are slower. Sacrament is the Mormon term for Communion. I began with a hymn called, “While of These Emblems We Partake.”
I spent the entire half-hour practice on just those specific words, which are the first words of the song. Since you’re supposed to sing them while you play I spent a lot of time singing those words. After I started getting the hang of it a little, I began to think about what the words mean.
The emblems are the bread and water. Mormons substitute water for wine. Mormons believe they represent the blood and body of Christ, rather than actually being the blood and water, and so they are emblems. As I practiced, I thought about why those symbols matter. Why are we asked to remember the blood and body, and not just the atonement of Jesus Christ?
The next line, which was yesterday’s practice, says, “In Jesus’ name and for his sake.” During yesterday’s practice, which only required ten minutes to get the line right the first time, I began to think about Jesus’ life and what it meant that we take the Sacrament not just in His name, but for His sake. How did my taking of the Sacrament help Him to carry out His mission? How did it honor His powerful sacrifice on my behalf?
As I work on each line, I have time, once the initial struggle is past, to reflect on the meaning of each song. I find myself singing it as I go about my day, giving me more time to reflect. I am thinking about the songs in new ways and when we sing them in church, I find myself reflecting on them as I sing because I now understand their message.
The Holy Spirit Helps Us Learn
I have discovered I can master a song (to my low standards) much faster than the drills. When I taught English as a Second Language in Church, my advanced students told me they learned English by reading the Book of Mormon. They learned faster that way than by reading other books. While the Bible also worked, it was harder to find translations that coordinated the way the Book of Mormon translation does, where there is just one translation for each language. They felt that as they read from the scriptures in English, the Holy Ghost helped them understand and they learned faster.
Later, I encouraged some children I taught to practice reading scriptures of any kind. They were struggling with reading and had asked for advice. I told them that when we are reading God’s words, He helps us understand them and so our reading improves. The Mormons have an adult literacy program that uses scripture study to teach reading for just that reason.
I think this applies to my music as well. Because I am working on spiritual music, the Spirit is able to testify of the truthfulness of the message, but also to help me to play more effectively. I still have to work hard, and my disabilities don’t go away, but I am doing something it was thought I could not learn to do. My fingers, though arthritic, are managing to play most days. My learning disabilities mean I have to spend a half hour on a tiny portion of song, but those half hours add up and I’m learning new songs faster than I learned the first ones.
While I thought of learning to play as simply a fun thing with no special value except pleasure, it has turned into a spiritual experience for me. It has given the hymns new meaning and given me time I probably would not have taken in which to reflect on a specific hymn for weeks at a time.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.