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Interview: Vanja Y. Watkins

(This is an excerpt from an interview that was originally published in 2014 on Interview by David Layton. Posted with permission.)

Vanja Yorgason Watkins is a B.A. and M.A. graduate of Brigham Young University. As a music educator she has taught in the Ogden City Schools, the Salt Lake City Schools, and in the BYU School of Music, and has presented music workshops throughout the state of Utah. Now, sort of retired, she teaches private piano. She served on the Primary General Board and on the General Music Committee of the Church and is the composer of two hymns in the current LDS hymnbook as well as many songs in The Children’s Songbook. She was a regular presenter at the BYU Workshop on Church Music, and has conducted four choirs at General Conference. Sister Watkins is a former stake Primary president and stake and ward Relief Society president. She has served in varied musical callings in the Church and is currently ward choir director and Primary activity day leader in the Ensign Peak Ward in Salt Lake City. She is the mother of five children, grandmother of thirteen, and the wife of the late Dr. Jack B. Watkins.


You were an avid singer as a child. Tell us about your childhood and musical upbringing.

Oh yes, I have always loved to sing. My parents told me that as a young child I would sing for a long time as I lay in my bed at night before falling asleep. Although I have just an ordinary voice, I have a good ear. That has been enough to give me some great musical opportunities.

My visionary parents encouraged us to learn and enjoy good music. My dad, Milton Yorgason, was a violinist, and my mother, Norma Johns Yorgason, was a pianist and organist. My most pleasant memories of home are of listening to them rehearse in the late evening hours when they were preparing for a performance. My mother accompanied choirs, soloists, and ensembles for years, and I loved having people come to our home for rehearsals and hearing a wide variety of musical literature.

My four brothers and I have always been involved in singing and playing various instruments. We learned in our early years in family night that we could sing four-part hymns in tune unaccompanied. That delighted us then and still delights us when we gather as siblings.

Our parents felt music was such an important part of our upbringing that they sacrificed to pay for our music lessons. My piano lessons began when I was seven and in the second grade. I practiced pretty well until about the eighth or ninth grade, but then I got so busy accompanying soloists and groups to perform that I didn’t prepare my own pieces for lessons. Sad to say, my teacher dumped me! I was stunned! Fortunately, after a few months without lessons, I was allowed to start again with a different teacher, one who helped me expand my repertoire and prepared me for more opportunities. I loved accompanying choral groups in junior high and high school because it gave me a sense of belonging as it fostered friendships as well as musicianship.

What influenced you to choose music for a career?

My music teachers were the strongest influence on my choice for a career. These good teachers really seemed to enjoy what they taught, and they certainly made me happy. I wanted to pass on my joy to others.

As the first career day in high school approached, I had a strong impression that I should be a music teacher. From then on, I really didn’t waver in that decision. My high school choral teacher, Edward Sandgren, was truly a mentor for me, not only during my high school years but also when I returned to Ogden to do my student teaching with him at Ben Lomond High School. At that time my goal was to be a secondary choral teacher. But as I began working with students, I realized that most of them had not had basic musical experiences. I had the distinct impression that the best place for me to begin teaching was in elementary schools. That had never entered my mind before, but it was a very strong impression and I knew I needed to follow it. My dear professor and music department chairman, Dr. John R. Halliday, who directed the BYU Madrigal Singers in which I sang, influenced me to return to BYU for graduate work. He guided me to Lue Groesbeck, who had recently joined BYU’s music faculty to teach elementary music education. I learned so much from her that I could hardly wait to begin teaching. I knew I had found my niche.

Of all you learned during your B.A. and M.A. at BYU, what were the lessons that most inspired your work in later years as a teacher and composer?

Lue Groesbeck was the perfect teacher and mentor for me. I gained valuable ideas for composing children’s songs as I studied her 1966 master’s degree thesis, Criteria for Selection of Children’s Songs in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her detailed studies and research revealed the characteristics of good lyrics and music. Those guidelines have greatly benefited me, and I have shared them with others as I have taught occasional workshops and classes.

Professor Groesbeck was an inspiration to me. When I was her student, she was serving on the Primary General Board, and she had a great vision of both school music and Church music. But more than that, she loved children and knew how to touch them with the gift of music. Her experience in teaching grade school students enabled her to bring a practical view to her university teaching, and her advanced studies with prominent music educators added richness to the lessons she gave me as a graduate student.

From her I learned how to teach a song by rote, and I have used and taught that foolproof plan over and over ever since. I also learned from her how to analyze a song. Those seem like such simple things, but I could see that these ideas worked for teaching music to both children and adults. What valuable methods they have been for me! Knowing what is in songs written by others has helped me know what to put in the songs I would someday write.

Lue occasionally asked for my opinions about Primary music, and she really seemed to value what I said. I know it was through her that I was called to serve on the Primary General Board about two years later in 1963, although she humbly said that the Lord had called me. While I served on the music committee of the Primary General Board, opportunities for composition opened for me. For example, I helped evaluate songs that came to The Children’s Friendmagazine. I found that some of the songs were good and some weren’t so good. Some just needed little fix-ups, and I offered to make them—grateful for the music theory classes I had taken and for other classes that required some composition. At that time, the Primary Board was responsible for writing class lessons, songs, and programs. When I was asked to set some verses to music that had been written for those purposes, I realized that I could actually do that.


What are the most rewarding aspects about being a music educator?

When I began my first real job—as coordinator of music in the primary grades of the Ogden City Schools—I could hardly believe I was being paid to do something I loved so much. I really enjoy working with music and people, and that joy is my reward. Children delight me, and I feel great satisfaction when I can bring something to their understanding that uplifts and benefits them and even touches their souls. Music can do that, and I love to see it happen. It happens with adults too, and I have found much satisfaction in giving workshops and classes to teachers of children.

How has the gospel influenced your work?

The gospel influences everything I do. The doctrines and standards of the Church are always in my mind as I select the music and the words I choose to teach or set to music. I was influenced long ago by a statement made by President Heber J. Grant in Stories of Our Mormon Hymns (1961) by J. Spencer Cornwall: “The more beautiful the music by which false doctrine is sung, the more dangerous it becomes.” In composing, I look for texts that have inherent beauty and that adhere to truth. I was fortunate to be schooled by faithful sisters I served with on the Primary General Board in the early 1960s who willingly followed the guidelines given in what was then the new correlation program of the Church. We were counseled that children have the right to know that everything they learn in lessons and music at church is true. I saw how obedient these sisters were as they followed the counsel to discontinue including Halloween songs and secular Christmas songs in the Primary repertoire. I learned then that there is safety and peace (as the Primary song says) in following the counsel of the prophet.

I remember the powerful influence my past teachers had on me, and I want to be a good example for children. I feel it is important to live the principles of the gospel—not only for myself, but also for those who may look to me for guidance and support. As a composer I want my music to be a framework for truth. I love the thirteenth Article of Faith which states, “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” I hope my contributions are seen in this light.

What was it like working on the Church’s 1985 Hymnbook Executive Committee?

This was a highlight among the spiritual experiences I have had. Each member of the Hymnbook Executive Committee felt as I did that it was a sacred trust given to us. Six of us met regularly in the reviewing, compiling, and editing processes. We also had an additional perspective from two other members who lived outside the local area. Individually we all reviewed the same hymns given to us in batches, and from those reviews the hymns of greatest quality were retained for further review. We gave each of those hymns a fair hearing not only by review but also by performance. Among us we had singers for each part, and each singer was a good reader. We drew close in spirit and friendship as we stood around the piano and sang together. I just loved doing that! There was a unity and a spiritual sense among us that helped us agree on the hymns to be included in the new hymnbook. There is still a unity among us that makes us friends forever, and we continue to meet socially and occasionally for hymn presentations.

Each of us could relate spiritual experiences having to do with our work on the hymnbook. We know that we received divine direction and that we could not have done this work without the help of the Lord. We also had ongoing communication with the Brethren through our chairman, Michael Moody, who worked closely with our Managing Director, Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy. We were enriched and guided by the counsel of the Brethren and were assisted by numerous others who gave service and feedback.

Coming to know the hymns in this hymnbook has been a blessing in my life. Each one has beauty and a purpose for being there. Although some hymns are less known than others, we had hopes for all of them to be loved and sung because of their inherent worth. I still think of this as the “new” hymnbook and am glad it is so kindly accepted and utilized. I love to see these books dotting the chapels of the Church and feel grateful to have been a part of this glorious effort.

What was your inspiration for the hymn “Press Forward, Saints”?

Never have I had an experience in writing music like this. It did indeed come by inspiration, and each time I reflect on this miracle my gratitude increases. Let me tell of this experience as succinctly as I can without omitting important details.

The stirring text for this hymn was accepted by our hymnbook committee fairly early in the selection process. In this process there was no identification on any original texts or music, and only after a hymn’s acceptance did we learn of the origin. We were delighted to discover later that this one was written by one of our own committee members, Marvin K. Gardner, who has an inspirational account of his own about writing the text. We found a musical setting that fit the words perfectly, including the alleluias. It was a borrowed tune, and we immediately requested permission for its use. Rarely was permission refused, so we moved forward assuming it would be granted as we pursued other matters.

Some time later, I was at a dinner with my husband when I heard an insistent melody come into my head along with the words of the first line of this text. Even with the conversation at the table, I kept hearing the melody—and it stayed until I was quite sure I could remember it. Throughout the evening, the second, third, and fourth lines of words came successively, each with a tune that stayed until it was safely stored in my memory. It was like taking dictation in my music theory classes, but I had no manuscript paper with me and had to wait until I reached home to write down what I had heard. I wasn’t sure why this melody was coming to me because we thought we already had a setting for the words. Still, it seemed important to notate it immediately. During the night, the harmonization ran through my mind, and I wrote out the parts during the next few days. Then I put the hymn away in a drawer because I didn’t think we needed it.

Things changed when we received notification that we were not given permission to use the hymn setting we had requested because of a legal agreement between the author and composer that their words and music could not be separated. Suddenly our text had no musical embodiment, and publication time was very near. About that time our chairman, Michael Moody, asked each of us if we had something else that we would like to submit. I was surprised by that request because our committee had been advised that we could submit only one hymn each—and I already had one in the section of children’s songs, “Families Can Be Together Forever.” I immediately thought of the hymn in the drawer and told Michael I did have something else, and he encouraged me to have our secretary slip it into the next batch for review. I had no guarantee it would be accepted, but I felt I must have been given this music for a reason. So I took it to our secretary without my name on it. At our next meeting, we sang the new hymn setting and it was quickly accepted.

I am not sure how to describe this experience. I knew my hand had written the music, but I also knew it had been given to me from a heavenly source. Perhaps the best way to explain this is through the title of another hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” By inspiration, the music for this hymn was ready when we needed it, and I am truly grateful and humbled to have had a part in it.

What was the writing and collaboration process like for “Families Can Be Together Forever”?

Sister Ruth M. Gardner wrote the lyrics for this song while serving on a Primary General Board committee that was preparing the Children’s Sacrament Meeting Presentation for 1980. The presentation was titled “Families Can Be Together Forever.” Being musical herself, she had attempted to write music for the lyrics but was not satisfied with her efforts. She telephoned me, gave me this background, and asked if I would set her lyrics to music. When she brought the lyrics to my home, she expressed her hope that this song would fill a need for songs about families because there weren’t many in the Primary repertoire at that time. That was a daunting request, and I wasn’t sure I could meet her expectations. I wrote and rewrote a number of times as the deadline neared, hoping and praying the right melody would come. The only change I made in the text was to repeat the last line of the refrain, and Ruth approved that. When I thought the song was completed, I sought a feeling of affirmation and peace through prayer, which is how I know I have finished writing. Then I called Ruth and asked her to come and hear the song. I was pleased that she felt good about it. After being approved by the various committees involved, it became the theme song for the Children’s Sacrament Meeting Presentation in 1980.

I loved working with Ruth Gardner. We were not on the Primary General Board at the same time, but she and I taught together for years at BYU workshops on Church music. I am so grateful and happy that this song unites us, and it truly hallows her memory in my mind.

How did you get involved with writing the Articles of Faith songs?

Sister Naomi Shumway was the impetus for this work. As general president of the Primary from 1974 to 1980, she had been invited to observe a Primary for children with learning disabilities. These amazing children had been able to learn every word of the Articles of Faith by singing them to old familiar melodies that they could easily pick up. Sister Shumway felt that if these children could learn the words so effectively by singing them, all children should surely be able to do so as well.

While serving on the General Music Committee, I learned of the desire for new musical settings for the Articles of Faith and submitted a few melodies for consideration. I was encouraged to continue with all thirteen and then to write accompaniments for them. I had loved the Articles of Faith ever since memorizing them as a girl in Primary. And as I became more deeply acquainted with each one, I began to love them even more and to feel that each has a distinct personality.

When I was in college, I had heard that one of the music composition faculty members had indicated an interest in setting the Articles of Faith to music. At the time, I thought that was hilarious because the words don’t even rhyme—and I wondered while he was at it, would he set the phone book to music too? I have since repented, of course. As a music educator, I am well aware of the power that music has in organizing the efforts of the brain, and I have been rewarded many times as I hear stories about children who have mastered the memorization of the Articles of Faith because of the songs. I hope I will get to meet the Prophet Joseph Smith in the eternal world and that he will feel all right about our collaboration.


How did you balance raising your family with your service on the Primary General Board and General Music committee and with your work as a composer?

My husband, the late Dr. Jack B. Watkins, was a generous support and facilitator. We met in 1963 when he was chief of surgery at Primary Children’s Hospital and I was a recent member of the Primary General Board. We married in May 1964 at the end of the school year, and I didn’t go back to teaching until twenty years later, when our children were pretty much grown. We agreed that our family would come first, and that our Church callings came next. He considered my Church assignments to be very important, and he knew I needed time to fulfill them adequately.

When our children were young and I had committee meetings and assignments at home or away, Jack often adjusted his office hours to be at home with our children. As they grew older, Jack continued to assist me with them when he could. As a doctor, he was always the first one to answer the phone in our home. I learned how efficient he was in handling the calls when people who had called for me would occasionally tell me he had told them I was too busy to take on a task they had in mind for me. I have a hard time saying no, and he knew it.

With Jack’s busy schedule, we didn’t do a lot of traveling or socializing except with a few friends and family, so I was able to be at home to work on the projects I had. Of course, life was busy with five children, but somehow I was always blessed to accomplish the work I had to do and still enjoy the family. My children are all musical, and we had them sing together for a variety of events. They also learned to play instruments for their own pleasure. One of our favorite activities was and continues to be a family bottle band, and we still get the giggles when we play. I wouldn’t exactly say I put pressure on my children to sing, but one of my daughters says they refer to themselves as “Vanja’s Trapped Family Singers”!

You’ve commented about inspiration for melodies coming at random times and in random places. What is one memorable experience when this happened to you?

No doubt the most memorable and amazing to me was the melody for “Press Forward, Saints.” And I remember that I was really on the move while composing the music to the Articles of Faith. Some of the songs were written at home, some at the park while I watched my children, and some at the home of my parents as I watered their lawn while they were away. I made sure I had manuscript paper with me wherever I went.

How has your composing evolved over the years?

I try to learn as I go. Since most of my compositions are songs or hymns with lyrics, I carefully study the words. The natural rhythm of the words, word accents, and meanings influence the way I try to create melodies for the lyrics. I agree with a statement made by Monteverdi: “Let the word be the master of the melody, not the slave” (as quoted in Encyclopedia of Quotations about Music, Nat Shapiro, comp., p. 150).

One thing that has affected my compositions for children is coming to know the child’s voice and how it develops. I try to be mindful of the limits of the vocal range and also of the intervals that may be difficult for children to sing. Adults can also have trouble singing some intervals, so I try to make my melodies as singable as I can without being too predictable. I do endeavor to avoid trends and to come up with something fresh in each piece.

What projects are you currently working on in your retirement?

There are so many things going on in my life right now that I laugh at the word retirement. Because of my association with Marvin K. Gardner, I have wonderful texts that can be set to music. Our first collaboration was “Press Forward, Saints,” and Marvin never knew that was going to happen. Since it did work out well for both of us, Marv suggested we collaborate on an annual Christmas song. That began in 1987, and we have written one together nearly every year since. We have also worked on various songs for The Children’s Songbook, Church magazines, contests, and other purposes, and we keep an eye open for opportunities. Marv is a gifted author, and I love every text he sends me.

I also enjoy writing music for productions for school children. My friend, Jo Lloyd, teaches second grade. Each year she creates or adapts a story and writes the script and lyrics, and I write the music and accompany the singing for the program. I guess I have a latent desire to be a Broadway composer because that is somewhat the style of these songs—very much simplified, of course.

As the choir director in my ward, I like to customize some of the hymns to fit our choir by adding intros, interludes, modulations, and free accompaniments. I don’t have plans to publish them; I just keep them in a file.

I guess we could consider my piano students a project too. Each week I spend three days after school teaching some fine young people, and I truly hope they are learning to bring out the music in their pieces and let their artistry and skills bless their lives. I also hope they will be accomplished enough to be of service in musical callings in the Church.

I tell myself that this is the year I will carry out my dream project to learn my music notation program because I still notate everything by hand. I have a great computer program, but I just need to buckle down and work through it.

How has composing strengthened your testimony of the gospel?

I look to our Creator as my source of inspiration. All the good in my life comes from our loving Heavenly Father, and I know that His vision for each of us can be seen in the way He nurtures us individually. I think that the process of creating invites the Spirit and that our Father cares very much about the outcome of our efforts—so much so that He will touch our hearts and minds with ideas that shape our work. I don’t know just how it is done, but I have felt His influence and love wash over me, particularly when I am composing music to accompany words of truth and deep spiritual significance. Such sacred moments testify to me that music matters to Him because it can bring forth feelings that draw His children near to Him and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. I believe strongly in the doctrine that attests to our receiving spiritual gifts, and I am thankful for the gifts that I have received and for the opportunity to use those gifts in various ways. I have been in the right place at the right time for some amazing opportunities, and for that I express my deepest gratitude to the Lord.

If you had one overarching goal for your composing career, what would that be?

The first real song I ever wrote was just to meet the requirements at the end of my second-year theory class. I thought the song was okay, and it met the requirements. But it suddenly looked better when a friend asked if she could sing it in her spring recital. Really? I thought. Someone wants to sing something I wrote? Listening to her sing that song filled me with great delight and some confidence. How satisfying it felt to have someone perform something I had created. I can trace my urge to compose to the feeling I had and still have when others want to perform music I have written. I have a sincere desire to share the music that is inside me. I sincerely want my music to be of service to others, and I hope it reflects my love for the Lord.

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7 Ways to Save Money on Sheet Music

Looking for ways to stretch your ward music budget? Did you just think, “What ward music budget?” You don’t have to resort to free arrangements every time (although we have recommendations for those, too). I discovered the following money-saving tactics while running my private music studio. They will also work for saving your ward money on choir music. I use these methods and can vouch for them. It’s definitely worth the few minutes it takes to sign up for accounts!

1. Sheet Music Plus Easy Rebates Program (for Choir Directors and Music Teachers)

Music teachers, choir directors and college music students may join Sheet Music Plus’s free Easy Rebates program. As a member, you will earn 8% cash back on your sheet music purchases, as well as those of anyone who uses your link. The guidelines for who qualifies are quite relaxed and can be read here. Payments are sent via PayPal when you’ve accrued $20 or a check at $50. Other teachers/directors who sign up using you link earn you $5. (Please sign up using Mormon Musician’s link. This will allow us to buy more music to review!) Once you sign up you will be given a referral ID. I always add this to the comments section of my orders to make sure it is credited to me.

2. Sheet Music Plus 2+ Pricing

Any time you order 2 or more copies of an item at Sheet Music Plus, you automatically get a 5% discount. Add that to the 8% rebate you get as an Easy Rebates member, and we’re starting to make some headway!

3. Ebates

While it may look gimmicky at first glance, Ebates is a great way to save money at stores across the web. It partners with stores which pay an affiliate commission to Ebates any time you click through Ebates to get to the retailer’s site. Ebates then splits that affiliate commission with you. Sheet Music Plus is one of these retailers and rebates between 4-15%, depending on the current promotion. Also, any time some signs up and makes one purchase with Mormon Musician’s link, we get a $25 referral bonus. That can buy a lot of music (or pay for domain renewals)! Often, the person signing up also will get a bonus $10 just for singing up and placing their first order (again, this depends on the current promotion—see site for details). Extensions are also available for your web browser to help you remember to go through Ebates when making any online purchase. Add this to the savings listed above and your ward choir just may be able to get a new piece for Christmas. This can be combined with your Sheet Music Plus Easy Rebate!

4. Jackman BOGO Sale

Jackman Music Corporation publishes the vast majority of LDS sheet music. They have been offering a one day, buy one get one free sale every December for over 25 years.* The free item has to be the exact same title. Their site says, “To get the second copy free, you must order at least two copies. Remember that in order to follow copyright law, vocal solos require two pieces of music anyway—one for the pianist and one for the vocalist—so this is a perfect day to stock up.” This is a great way to get choir music. Also, if you are enterprising, you may be able to get some unused end-of-the-year ward funds to use at this sale. It’s a great deal and your choir is a great cause. *Note: Jackman Music is currently in the process of being sold and this BOGO sale may not continue under the new ownership.

5. Donations

If your bishop agrees, ward members can specify “ward music fund” on their donation slips. This is a great way for members of the ward to contribute to building the ward’s music library. Again, if the bishop agrees, this could be announced during meetings. Those who donate would help build a legacy of music in your geographic area. It would also allow those who may not feel confident enough to join the choir to contribute to the ward’s musical efforts in a meaningful way.

6. Coupons, Free Shipping, Etc.

Many sheet music retailers offer rotating sales, coupons, and free shipping offers. Sign up for their email lists to be notified of their current promotions. Sheet Music Plus offers sales on choral music (usually 20% off) at various times throughout the year (usually July and part of August). Also note that the Jackman Music catalog (meaning their publications) are available at Sheet Music Plus and you can use all of the money-saving tactics described above for your favorite LDS choral pieces. Other good sheet music sites:

7. Your Local Music Store

And last but not least, don’t forget your local music store. They often have discounts for music teachers and choir directors. Don’t forget to ask what programs and specials they run. I know they appreciate your business, and you may be surprised to find that they can offer you more than just discounts on music.

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Interview: Crawford Gates

(This interview was originally published in 2010 on Interview by Annie Mangelson. Posted with permission.)
Composer and conductor Crawford Gates wrote nearly 900 titles. His prolific musical career was rewarding in many aspects, but he most valued the opportunity to touch lives through art, love, and the Spirit. He passed away June 8, 2018, at the age of 96.

What is an important element of teaching or learning music?

I started to write when I was eight. I had a year of piano music study with a wonderful teacher who was sixty-five years old, and she loved me. When I was nine, I took violin in Palo Alto where I grew up, next door to Stanford. Many of the teachers there were brilliant. My fifty-five-year-old violin teacher was part of the school system there, and I loved her. She liked my talent the same as my piano teacher.

So I had these two women, one who was sixty-five and one who was fifty-five, who influenced my musical life. They did more than just teach me how to play the piano. They taught me chords and music theory and key signatures and inversions and just all kinds of things, before I was nine years old. The violin teacher changed me to the viola at age ten because I had a longer arm than the other students, and as a violist I started playing in a string quartet. I would meet at my teacher’s home on Saturday afternoons for about an hour or hour and a half, for an extra lesson. I only lived two blocks from her and I thought that it was wonderful that she would do that for me. I could hardly wait to get home to practice the new techniques that she had given me. My expertise went up very quickly.

She and her husband were seriously injured in an automobile accident and they died about eight months after the accident. The death of this wonderful, brilliant teacher who loved her students was a great loss to the Palo Alto school system. I spoke to the Music Educators of Utah last summer at their annual conference, and I told these stories to them, saying we don’t ever hear about love in our schools or classes or lectures, but in my experience it was one of the most fundamental things that I had at ages eight, nine, and ten. I had fabulous teachers who loved me, and they showed me by the way they taught me.

I’ve seen it many years as a professional music educator—one of the most important things in music education is love. That became part of my philosophy of teaching.

When I first got the job as an orchestra conductor for Wisconsin’s Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra, I decided that I would make the orchestra a loving family. I knew that orchestras frequently had cliques in them and that there was often animosity against the conductor. Therefore, my attitude was never autocratic. I was with that orchestra all thirty-four of my years back there, so I went through two generations of players. We were a loving family.

Before I left, I had in my last few years one of the most brilliant violinists in the whole of Southern Wisconsin, Norman Paulu, as my concertmaster. Everyone loved him. He was so brilliant and yet so sweet a man. My string section just came together under him! He would make periodic comments and demonstrations to the whole string section about a passage, and they would follow it. He gave a speech once and said, “I’m going to retire next month. I’ve played in a lot of groups and in a lot of places. I’ve been your concertmaster for three years, and I’ve played with other orchestras over the years that were really more technically expert than this orchestra, but none of them have had the spirit of this orchestra.”

And I thought, that’s the triumph of my objective of the last thirty-four years: that he said this orchestra had the greatest spirit. We loved each other, and I thought, “That’s the most important of any human experience.”


What was the importance of your mission, with regards to your musical career?

Several things about this part of my life were important: it was my mission, and I had a musical service to perform. In addition, at age nineteen I became an established arranger for choral music and a conductor on the radio. During this time we were able to perform a wonderful missionary service via broadcasting.

My mission was in the eastern states: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. While I was on my mission, the missionaries would all meet at the Hill Cumorah for two weeks while we produced the pageant as cast and crew. That’s when the auditions took place that made my chorus possible. The mission president permitted all the missionaries, male and female, to be auditioned vocally and he created two choruses in the mission field—both made up of good singers.

I was the conductor of an eight-voice male chorus—the “Mormon Male Chorus of Philadelphia.” Roy Darley, who was later the tabernacle organist, was both my accompanist and my companion. My baritone was the district president and he functioned as the priesthood authority; I was the musical authority. I had two tenors that could sing a high C and I had two basses that could get to low C. I did forty-three arrangements for that choir, for broadcast.

Being in a chorus wasn’t considered the “real essence” of missionary work, but it turned out to be so, because of the number of little radio stations that were then all over that area of the United States. Each village had a radio station that would broadcast to about 5,000 in their area. The district presidents would book us two to three weeks ahead, and we would go to perform for these radio stations on Fridays and Saturdays.

Over a period of about ten months we covered one hundred radio broadcasts within about 150 to 200 miles around Philadelphia, into New Jersey and Delaware. We would go out Friday at noon, having tracted our heads off the first four-and-a-half days in the week—enough to equal all the other missionaries in the mission field so we wouldn’t be looked upon as “gold bricks.” On Friday we would do about three broadcasts in the afternoon and one in the evening, and then between four and six on Saturday. In total, we would have about eight broadcasts: fifteen minutes each, with twelve minutes of music and a three-minute gospel message written by Marsden Durham. Our messages were very direct and addressed the apostasy, the restoration and the Book of Mormon. These messages were the real point, not the singing; the singing got us accepted.

The broadcasts were very successful. We became known throughout that area. Eventually the word got up to the big station. The biggest station in Philadelphia had an audience of five million as opposed to five thousand. They heard about this small, crackerjack Mormon chorus that was wonderfully blended, wonderfully produced, and that memorized everything. They asked us to come up to their station, and they liked us so much that they put us on prime time for four months—the last four months of my mission. We had sixteen broadcasts in four months on this big station with its huge audience.


Tell us about Promised Valley, the Hill Cumorah Pageant, and Joseph! Joseph!

They were wonderful. You’ve hit on the top three of my career. I have a total of 874 works, and I keep track of them. My wife calls me an arithmomaniac; I give numbers to each of them. I’m working on #875 right now. But of the three you mentioned, Promised Valley was my first big monolith. The Hill Cumorah Pageant has been going for seventy-two years now, and not many pieces get played every year, particularly in the Church. But the newest one is Joseph! Joseph!

All 874 of my pieces have been successes in the sense that they got published, recorded or performed—those are the things that can happen to pieces. And those three have had tremendous performance records. That’s what makes them important. The one that sits on a shelf at BYU, that gets premiered and then not looked at for months, isn’t, because it hasn’t affected anybody; or at least not many. These three are my most valuable works because they have value to someone else and they are valued by the Church.

Why do you think music is a valuable way to tell Church history?

Because it’s so popular to the people. It’s a vehicle.

Opera was invented by two or three men in Italy around 1600, and it immediately caught on. It’s still very popular today. Musical plays are like operas, but with dialogue. The American musical play is one of the most valuable contributions to music history that’s ever existed.

Promised Valley was patterned after the style of Oklahoma!, an American musical play. The Hill Cumorah Pageant was a pageant, which is a different kind of vehicle. A pageant is a drama with vocal text that is sung, and with an orchestral underpinning like a movie.


What was it like composing Promised Valley?

Promised Valley had immediate importance because it was the vehicle to celebrate the centennial of the state of Utah. Oklahoma! came out in 1943, so in 1946 the state of Utah was planning for 1947, and they said, “We want something for Utah that would do the same for Utah as Oklahoma! did for Oklahoma.” And that was their image: a Broadway kind of show.

We had interesting experiences happen in the middle of that creative period. I got the contract for it in January of ’47, and the contract called for it to be completed by opening night, the 22nd of July. (July 24th was the third performance.) Promised Valley was produced in the University of Utah stadium, which at the time had two sides to it, but no north bowl. The Promised Valley money put a cement bowl on the north side of the stadium. You can imagine what that would cost. That bowl held 12,500 every night.

Well, in the contract, the question came up, “What about the orchestration of this?” Broadway theater pits couldn’t hold more than a twenty-four piece orchestra, and they didn’t think that a twenty-four piece orchestra in the stadium would sound like anything—not outdoors and in a stadium. So, they wanted to hire the Utah Symphony for six weeks: three weeks of rehearsals and three weeks of performances. The Symphony was about sixty-five pieces at the time; a big orchestra.

Now on Broadway, almost no composer would ever orchestrate his own score; the producers would bring in four or five top Broadway orchestrators. And that was only for a twenty-four piece orchestra. This issue came up early on as we discussed the contract. “We want the Utah Symphony and you’ll become the conductor of the Utah Symphony for this event.”

That was the issue: this score would have to be for a symphony. “We want a Broadway-style presentation like Oklahoma!, but we want it to be arranged for a symphony. And you are going to conduct it.” That was to be in my contract.

What I didn’t know was that it would become a two-hour show, and that I would be writing a two-hour score, so certainly pretty big. I was only twenty-four when I signed the contract, twenty-five when I wrote the score, and I thought, “Well, I’m a big boy; I can write the full orchestration myself.”

I started to work on the fifth of January and they wanted it by the twenty-second of July. I begged their permission to go home to California to spend Christmas with my family, and have two wisdom teeth taken out. When I got back, they had an office for me, right across from the Salt Lake Temple, on the third floor of what was an old high school building. I had a classroom, I had a piano that they tuned up for me, I had a desk and a pencil sharpener, and I had 1,000 pages of score of my own design to do the shorthand orchestration with colored pencils.

The first act of the script for Promised Valley was there, although it didn’t have a name at that point. They also had the contract for me to sign, and the first third of the payment. That was an important day. I had a contract! And a check for a third of it! This was the first real full-time job I had as a composer; a composer of something important to the state of Utah, and to the Church, and to me. There aren’t very many American composers who get full-time composing jobs for important things.

So I started working daily, getting down there about eight o’clock. I’d work until noon, have lunch, get back to work about a quarter to one, and work until about six. Then I would take off about forty-five minutes for dinner, and work again until about 10:30, six days a week. I was doing the orchestration work of five on Broadway.

As time progressed, it became apparent that I couldn’t be the music director, because I wasn’t finished with the score. Because I was composing, I had no chance to go to the rehearsals for the choreography, the choral work, or the soloists, and the music director has to do that. No one blamed me; they knew I was working like mad. I got through the score two days before Promised Valleyopened.

The last bit was the overture, a six-minute piece, which I composed in about eighteen hours. I don’t know how long it took me to orchestrate it, but the Lord blessed me with a beautiful overture. It took me maybe three or four days. The tunes were already there, but it was traumatic. And of course it had to be copied for the orchestra. They got every high school music director in the Salt Lake Valley to each take a fraction of the piece and to do their parts. Unfortunately, because of that, the overture was full of errors. Then the orchestra rehearsed it the night before, and of course half the rehearsal was spent correcting the errors. The second time the orchestra read it was opening night.

How did you become involved with the Hill Cumorah Pageant again, after your mission?

I was there as a missionary in 1941, and the pageant was in its fifth year. In the beginning, they had been using classical recordings for the music. The selections were all appropriate, but they came from different contexts; they fit emotionally but not historically.

Now, Dr. Harold Hansen, who was the director and a dear friend of mine, knew that, and so he told many people, “Well, some day I’ve got to get my own score to this production.”

In the summer of 1953, we were back finishing up the classwork for my doctorate degree at the Eastman School of the University of Rochester, twenty miles away from Palmyra. While we were there, Harold Hansen brought over his assistant directors, about four of them, to see the opera in Rochester on a summer night. Well, it rained out that night, so there was no opera. Harold Hansen knew where we lived, so he brought his four guys over to my home when this rain was going on, and fortunately we had some apple pie and ice cream, so we fed them dessert, and he opened up on the fact that he was disturbed that seventeen years had gone by and he didn’t have his own score. And he said, “I think that you’re the composer to write this score.”

So Harold Hansen asked me to become a composer for his score for the Hill Cumorah Pageant in the summer of ’53, and I got a letter from the First Presidency shortly after that confirming the appointment. He told me it was going to happen; he said, “I’m asking you informally now, but the real invitation will come.” He didn’t say a contract. And it wasn’t a contract. I got no money from the writing of that. It was a church assignment.

That score lasted thirty-one years. It was heralded immediately as being a wonderful thing—from the critical reviews of Rochester to the cast’s and crew’s and Church’s response to it—and that blessed my life. It is a very satisfying thing for a composer to have a project last thirty-one years, particularly a Church-related project. I would get letters every year from someone in the cast: “Heard the score; it’s wonderful.” You can’t beat that kind of experience.

I used to wonder, “Does that make it important to me?” Of course it does. It was important to me that the Saints themselves felt it was beautiful and wonderful and supportive to the purposes of the pageant; and the Church felt the same way.

The Hill Cumorah Pageant was evaluated by the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency about every three years. In 1986, Elder Oaks made it a point to go to the pageant. He was there for several nights. He went about an hour early, because the audience started to accumulate an hour early. He especially wanted to talk with the non-member audience. In fact, he would really prefer to talk to people who have seen it before, because they would then have an opinion about what it contained.

His later report to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve was, “Everyone loves the spectacle. It is a gorgeous thing to look at. Not only when Christ comes out of the sky, but many of the scenes are very dramatically and beautifully portrayed and thrilling to the non-member. They are thrilled by it; they want to keep coming back. But ultimately,” he said, “the fact that the Hill Cumorah Pageant is about the Book of Mormon as a testament of Jesus Christ is something that almost none of the non-members could articulate the way a Latter-day Saint would.”

So he suggested that the wonderful original script be rewritten for the non-member. They hired Orson Scott Card, and he rewrote it with basically the same story, but he did it with that objective.

They asked me to come back to Palmyra in 1987 so I could see the last production of the old version and then talk the next day about the new one. After the last performance (I was there for the last two performances), we all shed tears, as it was fifty years that it had been going. The next day we met all day and talked about the time schedule. Basically, I had to write a new score, even if I used the same themes. I could maybe borrow some of it, but it had to be tapered to the time dimensions of the new script. The Church representatives told me the brethren wanted it the next year. You don’t argue with a general authority, so I said, “Okay, the Lord will have to bless me.”

And so, for nine months I booked out what my schedule would be every day. I had so many hours for each scene. I would plan so much time to conceive the scene musically and get it written concretely to the textual demands of the time of the scene. Then I would orchestrate the scene immediately, during the next twenty hours of my time that were set apart to this project (four hours here, three hours there, and so forth).

I did all that planning of my time, and then I had to religiously live up to it. If I got behind, then I had to somehow shave the period for the next scene down so I could make it up. That was constantly my problem. Some of them I did quite quickly, and other scenes took longer. You just can’t determine that. So I never could live 100% to my time schedule, but it was a help to have it, to know that I was ahead or behind.

And of course I was on my knees before every one of those periods. All my life I have done that.

I finished it nine days early, not two days. Nine days seems like a glorious amount.


You often talk about your experience with the Cumorah Christ theme. Could you share that with us?

Oh, yes, the problem of the Christ theme. I got the invitation to write the first score in 1953, and I didn’t finish—it wasn’t complete—until 1957. The reason for the delay was that I couldn’t write a good Christ theme.

I wrote seventeen poor Christ themes. I have never written seventeen thematic problems. The Christ theme, I wrote seventeen of them. In my own judgment, none of them were right. The seventeenth was almost right. I thought, “Ah, this is close,” and I orchestrated it for full symphony orchestra and choir. I got the BYU symphony and choirs to read it, perfect it, and then record it. We had the Smith auditorium, completely vacant except for Harold Hansen and my wife in the audience, way at the back of the hall. I could tell in the first ten seconds that number seventeen was not good enough, but I went through the motions of perfecting it so that we got a near-perfect recording of it in an hour’s time. The choir was wonderful, and the orchestra was very cooperative, so I had no complaints against anybody except myself; but I knew this wasn’t going to do it.

When we got through, I thanked the orchestra, thanked the choir, and later thanked the directors that made it possible. Then I went back to see Harold Hansen and my wife. As Harold began to come to me, I went back there and said, “Harold, you don’t have to say anything. I know already this is not good enough.”

He said, “Brother, I’m glad you said that,” or something like that. He didn’t think it was good enough either. So, I said, “You wanted this score the next summer. Three years later, no good—seventeen failures. I think I need a blessing from one of the General Authorities.”

He said, “You know, I’m having some problems with my part of the Cumorah pageant, being the director and the artistic head of it. Let’s go up together and both of us get blessings.” So he phoned Elder George Q. Morris, and we drove up to meet him, to explain to him what our problems were, and that we were in need of a blessing. When we got up there, Elder Morris had been called within the last half-hour to an emergency death of one of his own family members. He didn’t even have time to phone us; we had already left when this happened. But he asked Elder Harold B. Lee to take his place. He was a pretty good substitute.

The Quorum of the Twelve is a busy group, but he met with us as though he had nothing else to do. He said, “Brethren, tell me what your needs are.” We explained our situation to him. It took about forty-five minutes to find out about the pageant, because he knew very little about it. But he knew about Christ, and he knew about problems of portraying Christ. He didn’t know what a composer does with that, but he knew that it was an important function.

Before he gave the blessings, he said, “I will not record these blessings. I usually do, but I don’t think I need to in this case. When you go back to Provo, you brethren are welcome to put into writing what you can remember of these blessings, and let that be your guide. Your memories will be enhanced, and I don’t need to record it.” So we accepted that. He then gave a beautiful blessing addressing Hansen’s problems, then he came to me.

When I got to Provo, I could remember ten things that he had said, and I wrote them all down; I’ve always kept them close. One statement I will never forget: “You will hear the music in the night.”

I didn’t know how to interpret that at the time. I knew it was pretty remarkable because it was so unusual. I never hear music in the night. This time I was going to hear it in the night. The music presumably would be the Christ theme. I was moved by that statement. It was concrete—pretty specific yet ambiguous.

About two weeks later, I thought of a wonderful theme—not in the night—and I wrote it down in five minutes. It was very brief, nothing long, maybe thirty seconds at the top. Nice and tight, and very beautiful.

I thought, “This is worth orchestrating like I did the seventeenth one.” I took the time to write down the orchestration for the full symphony orchestra and for the choir. I did it very fast.

About two nights later, around five o’clock in the morning, I was quite asleep, and I had a dream, and the dream was that I was in the tabernacle and I was conducting the Utah Symphony and BYU choirs in this eighteenth version. Now, I don’t dream very much. I’m not a dreamer. But this was very clear. I could see the engineers in the control room. I knew what their first names were. I saw the concertmaster, Harold Wolf, a dear friend of mine, down to my left, playing his heart out. I saw Joanne Ottley, nineteen-year-old soprano, and her husband in the choir. I could see their faces very vividly. This was no fuzzy dream.

And I remember raising my baton, starting that off, and I heard that music in the night that President Lee told me I would hear. I heard it very clearly, and it was gorgeous. The dream lasted for maybe a minute—maybe less than a minute. And the Christ theme was there three times. And I knew that it was the right one; that dream confirmed it.

When I woke up, I knelt in prayer and said, “Thank you, thank you.” It was one of the great spiritual experiences of my life to have the prophet of the Lord give me a blessing, and that blessing came literally true and confirmed to me that I had the right theme. That’s why the Hill Cumorah Pageant is very important to me: The Lord gave me two incredible blessings. He gave me the music and then he gave me a great spiritual experience of having the reality of a prophetic statement from a prophet of the Lord on my behalf and on behalf of the pageant come true in my sleep.


What inspired you to write Joseph! Joseph!?

My sister-in-law, Claudia Bushman, has a habit of making agendas for the whole family. And we all love her for that. We don’t take offense to that at all; she is such a beloved person. But Claudia was the initiator of this. She writes family letters.

In one of her letters in the early nineties, on my copy of the letter, she said in the postscript, “Oh, by the way, Crawford, you’ve done the Book of Mormon music with the Hill Cumorah, and you’ve done the trek with Promised Valley. Now you ought to write an opera on Joseph Smith.”

So I’d have a musical play, a pageant, and an opera; three different kinds of musical theater, with three different subjects, all involving the gospel. She wrote two or three sentences, that’s all it was.

I wrote back and said, “Claudia, writing an opera would take two or three years. I don’t have two or three years. Besides, the real question is, who is going to produce it?”

I thanked her for the compliment, of course, but I said, “This is not possible.” That didn’t stop her at all. Over the next year, maybe every third letter, she’d say, “By the way, Crawford, I’m not giving up on that suggestion. I think it’s a great idea. Your refusal is baloney,” or something like that.

That went on for quite a while, and sometime, I don’t know the exact sequence or the time, I finally gave in.

Since it was written, Joseph! Joseph! has had two wonderful pairs of performances: the first pair at the Assembly Hall in April of 2004, and the second pair in Los Angeles in November of 2005. All of these performances had wonderfully favorable responses by four full-house LDS audiences. Joseph! Joseph! has had some blocks, but I fully expect it will eventually be produced in many places again to favorable and enthusiastic responses. It ultimately will be one of my most important works.

How does the gospel affect you as an artist?

As a composer, with all eight hundred and seventy-four pieces, I had two prayers. I have an “empty-page prayer.” I look at the page, and I’ve got to fill it with beautiful music. Where is that going to come from? I don’t have beautiful music within me. It’s got to come from the Lord, but he is going to give it to me. So the empty-page prayer is a prayer of supplication: “Help me do something beautiful for this need.” And that was certainly true with Promised Valley, that was certainly true with the Hill Cumorah Pageant, and that was certainly true with Joseph! Joseph!.

Then there’s the second prayer: I got a page. The Lord has given it to me. I get on my knees next to my piano or next to my desk. “Thank you for this beautiful music. Thank you, Heavenly Father.”

Two prayers: “empty page,” “full page.” It’s been that way all my life. And it may not be just one prayer, or two prayers; it’s a week of prayers, or a month of prayers.

And so as a Latter-day Saint composer, the most important ingredient is my relationship with my Heavenly Father to write beautiful things for His children, for the kingdom, and the Lord has blessed me so abundantly with that. ❧

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A Word on Chromaticism

(This post is an excerpt from a this choral music review.)

The presence of accidentals does not make a passage is chromatic. Chromatic passages occur specifically when you change the accidental of the same pitch. So for instance, in the key of C:

  • E-F#-G#-A is a diatonic line, even though it has accidentals, because the accidentals still create a segment of a diatonic scale. You never hear, say, F and F# in juxtaposition.
  • E-F#-G and E-F-G are a diatonic lines for the same reasons.
  • E-F-F#-G is a chromatic line, because the accidental alters the previous pitch and because diatonic scales never feature consecutive half steps. The half steps in diatonic scales always follow and proceed whole steps.

Thus in the key of E-flat, the line C-A-Ab (mm. 76-77 in the tenors) is chromatic.

It should also go without saying that chromaticism is also not necessarily harder, stranger, or wrong. It’s simply a different relationship between pitches than a diatonic one.

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Part Writing

Scholar David Huron explains that part writing (also called “voice leading”) “has been variously defined, but one simple definition is that it is the art of combining concurrent musical lines or melodies.” He continues, “The practice became codified into a set of recommendations (do’s and don’ts)” around the 1500s. These recommendations have evolved over the years along with changes in style, taste, and insight.

Fully trained musicians recognize that mastering part writing requires more than simple adherence to these rules. As a simplification of musical practice, the rules cannot cover every scenario. In certain situations, the rules may contradict each other. At other times, the goal underlying a particular rule may not align with the composer’s musical goal. Thus, though students of part writing begin by learning some basic rules, they best master the art is by studying masterworks.

Without “dumping the whole load of hay,” as Elder Maxwell once put it, here are two brief examples to consider:

Most amateur musicians recognize Bach as one of these master composers, but a composer they may not know is Palestrina. Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” is breathtaking not only for the beauty of its sound but for the grace of its voice leading. Each of its five parts are graceful to sing and seem to fit effortlessly with the other voices:

Good part-writing is not only the provenance of master composers. Professional choral composers also distinguish themselves by their voice leading. Part of the reason Eric Whitacre is famous for his cluster sound is not only because it’s breathtaking but also because he wrote the parts in such a way that this effect is as easy as possible to achieve:

Closer to home, listen to Ronald Staheli’s version of “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” (You can find the music on It is another excellent example of professional-level voice leading, but in a familiar, LDS context:

Learning to identify good part writing can especially be a challenge for amateur musicians who lack the time and resources to devote to its study. That’s part of the reason I’m writing these posts—to help you discern quality craft beyond mere surface beauty and, in turn, to help you see how an understanding of craft enables you to see beauty and feel the Spirit in ways that require sensitivity to these details.

(This post was an excerpt from a longer post available here.)
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Naming Pitches

Often when we talk about pitches, we make reference to where it falls in the singer’s voice (e.g., a soprano’s high E versus her low E) or in relation to the piano’s middle C.

This system mostly works, but it can sometimes lead to some confusion. For instance, many sopranos can sing three Cs: the one below the staff, the one in the staff, and the one above the staff. If we called the one above the staff her “high C” and the one below the staff her “low C,” would that make the one in the staff her “middle C”? That’d be really confusing, because the piano’s middle C would be the soprano’s low C.

To solve this confusion, there are three main systems for naming pitches in America: scientific pitch notation, Helmholtz pitch notation, and MIDI note numbers. Of these, the last is useless for choirs and the second can be somewhat confusing.

The most straightforward and practical for you and your choir to learn is scientific pitch notation. This is the system we use on Mormon Musician.

In this system, octaves span from C to B, and each octave has a specific number. In scientific pitch notation, the piano’s middle C is C4. The rest of the notes in a chromatic scale following that pitch would all be in octave 4 — C#4, D4, Eb4, etc. — until you reach the next C, the mid-staff C. Scientific pitch notation calls this note C5. In turn, the soprano’s high C is C6.

The same principle extends down into the men’s ranges, too. A tenor singing the piano’s middle C also sings C4, just like the soprano singing her lowest C. Although C4 falls in a different place in the ranges of a soprano or a tenor, scientific pitch notation calls this pitch the same name because it has the same frequency.

The website Theoretically Correct has a nice chart that explains these pitch-naming conventions a little further.

(This post was an excerpt from a longer post available here.)

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