What was the first song that you wrote?
The first thing that I wrote was just for my son Steve to sing in church. He said, “I’ve been asked to sing in sacrament meeting and I don’t like anything.” The only pieces then by Church authors were kind of old-fashioned and he was fifteen.
So one day when Doug and the kids left, I decided to try to write one. I wrote a poem called “I’ll Follow Jesus” and wrote the music before they got home. Steve liked it and sang it in sacrament meeting.
And I thought, Oh, that was fun, I want to keep on. I just started writing. I had my training at BYU earlier, but I had been so heavy into sports my whole life until that point, that if I had any extra time I was pitching softball or playing volleyball or racquetball.
About that time I had an injury that was kind of serious. I was getting older—I was almost forty—and my husband felt like maybe I shouldn’t play ball anymore. He had been very supportive, but my injuries were getting more serious.
While I had my foot in a cast from a broken ankle from playing basketball, the bishop asked me to write our ward roadshow music. It just sounded like a fun challenge. I did it. I knew by then that I wanted to write music and that it was time for a change. So I just looked at that little piece “I Am a Child of God”—how much I loved it, how much it helped my testimony—and I set a goal to add to the simple music of the Church.
I happened to get a lot of assignments right then to write children’s music in my own ward or stake, so I did that. And then the stake Young Women started asking me to write a theme song for them every year, so I did that. And then the women for Relief Society.
Right now I am totally immersed in writing a Book of Mormon musical fireside that choirs can put on. It’s an hour long, and it’s for CES choirs and youth choirs. Sometimes I’ve written musical stage plays—we’ve toured the U.S. for three years. That’s how I got started: just writing that roadshow and writing a song for my own son to sing in sacrament meeting.
How did it morph from that to having songs in the Children’s Songbook?
That’s a good question, because I think a lot of people felt impressed to write children’s music before the new Primary book in the 1980s. We didn’t know it was coming—we just felt that impression to write.
In my case, when I had several songs written, I sent them to the Church and said, “Does the Church have any use for these?” They get so many things, and the Church music chairman wrote back and said, “Just brighten your own little corner of the world. Work with your family, your ward, and your stake.” So that’s exactly what I did. He said, “If they should have value, we’ll hear about them.” And that’s what happened, too. People who I wrote the songs for sent them in to the church and said, “This really worked well for us. All the Primary children should sing this.” That’s how it started.
I think other people were sending them in, and—I don’t know—they started looking at them seriously, and when they had the Children’s Songbook, they used all the ones that I had written. Plus they asked me to write a few more for it, so there are ten in the Primary book. And that was a big part of what I did at first.
Elder Maxwell said not too long before he passed away, “Back in my day, we used to sing ‘Little Purple Pansies,’ but these are the latter days, and now we’re singing ‘I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus.’ We’ve got to get serious.” Without a doubt, six of my Primary songs are what I am best known for.
And then I started writing for Young Women every year and sent some of them in. We did a Young Women’s album. Then Ardeth Kapp asked me to write the theme song for the values. That was really kind of a turning point, where I focused on Young Women for quite a while. I wrote a song for every value after I did “I Walk by Faith.”
Then the Primary, just before our mission, asked me to write two more songs for them: “Holding Hands Around the World” and “I’ll Follow Him in Faith.”
I thought, well, the General Relief Society has never asked me to write a song for them. Then they did—just after I thought it! Sister Parkin asked me to write a new song for women and it was sung on two satellite broadcasts: “When I Feel His Love.” They did it two years in a row for some reason.
When you write for the Church, you have extra help. It just really happens. It’s sweet when you get those assignments, but they are few and far between.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Yes, almost all the time. The lyrics are the hardest part for me. I’ll spend a week or two, sometimes, writing the lyrics, and then two hours writing the music—because when you are writing the words, the music is taking shape in your mind, too.
So that’s usually the way that you do it? You approach the words first?
Most people do. Unless you have the words, how do you know what kind of music to write?
There are a few people, like my sister, who do the music first. But she doesn’t write her own words—someone else does. Maybe that’s why it works that way.
You and your husband served a Spanish-speaking mission. Was it a music mission?
It was a proselyting mission in Santiago, Chile, and there were three aspects of it. We visited inactives, because Elder Holland was there stressing that at the same time. And my husband was in leadership in the district.
But then we started developing choirs and teaching music classes, keyboard, and conducting, and I’d say for the last nine months of our mission, that was pretty much what it was, just getting all the music into them that we could.
Because they didn’t have keyboards, they’d developed their own way of singing the hymns, which was interesting. When they asked us to form a choir, we could hardly get them singing unison, because they would sing it a cappella in a low key, and they couldn’t go low enough, so they would invent a melody, and they had kind of settled on it.
We got keyboards in all the classes and graduated twenty-four from our conducting course and our keyboard course. By the time we left, all the wards in two stakes there had people who were playing the simplified hymns and conducting. And we had four choirs that we developed—a youth choir, a young adult choir, a district choir, and a missionary choir. It was just our mission from then on.
And then we came back here and we missed it so much that we just begged for a call to a Spanish ward here, so we were there three years and we did the same thing—we taught the conducting course and the piano course, and we developed a nice ward choir, which was really exciting. They love to sing! You tell them there is a choir practice, and you’ve got forty people there without batting an eye. That’s not how it is here.
When we were going to leave that ward, and I knew we were going to be released, I thought “Who is going to play for primary?”, because I had done it. So I chose four really sharp little kids—they were about eight and ten years old—and I told their parents, I will give them free lessons from the Church course if you will make sure that they come every week and that they are prepared. I won’t charge you anything. I will even buy their music.
So I simplified the eight pieces for the Primary program, and at the end of that year, those four students played for the whole sacrament meeting program. They just played very confidently. It was one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done, and I don’t mean monetarily. This is three years later and they are playing right from the hymnbook, and the Primary songbook. Some of them are in English wards now, but they are playing for sacrament meeting and for the Primary program. In fact, they were even featured on the front of the Church News. I just love those four kids so much. They are like my own grandchildren. I’d still like to be on another mission somewhere doing that—teaching music. We’ll see how our health is.
Did your work on your mission and in the Spanish ward have anything to do with your songs being translated into Spanish?
Several years before we left on our mission, we realized that Spanish was the coming language here. And they had none of their own LDS music. We hadn’t thought about our mission being Spanish yet.
So, we just hired a wonderful translator from the Church, Omar Canals, and we had translated and recorded four albums in Spanish before our mission, using all-native singers. There is a wealth of really wonderful singers in Spanish here—we really have good vocalists.
After the mission, we knew we needed to continue, because we knew their need of it there. And so we’ve done four more albums. We market them here somewhat, but we also take them down—we have people in Mexico, Chile, and some other places that market them at a very low price for their people. The albums pay for themselves, and that’s all that we care about. We don’t try to profit from them. We use our same English soundtrack so it’s not as expensive, we just add the singers.
Yes, our hearts are in things Spanish. I go to the Spanish temple session every Saturday, just to keep up, and I read my Spanish Book of Mormon every night. I read the Liahona, all the talks in Spanish, between each conference. Sometimes we give firesides here, too, in Spanish, because Doug is fluent in Spanish. I recorded just one album in English where I did the singing, which was an act of bravery, but later, I did it in Spanish, after our mission, too. We hope to keep getting more things in Spanish.
Are any of your songs more dear to your heart than others?
Oh, I definitely have my favorites. I think the one that means the very most to me is “A Child’s Prayer.” It’s the one I get the most reaction from other people, too. There are days in everyone’s life, when you feel like, “Heavenly Father, are you really there? Do you hear my prayers?” I hope it is answered well in that piece that, yes, when you pray, he is there. When I first wrote that song, I wrote it in first person—the Lord was saying, “Pray, I am here.” Then I thought that it was going to limit who could sing it. The Church wanted me to change it, too—they said to have it be like a parent answering the child: “Pray, he is there.” That was a good suggestion.
I love the Primary songs. “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” means a lot to me.
“The Test” means a lot to me, too. I lost the use of my left hand when I started writing music. My three middle fingers pull under and the wrist pulls down when I try to play, so I went to forty specialists, and no one had an answer for it—they just didn’t know. So I’ve had to play that way for about thirty years.
The last person I went to was a blind doctor and I kept complaining to him. He was an osteopath, trying to figure out some kind of physical therapy. One day I realized the irony of my complaining to a blind man. He said, “Well, I wanted to help your hand, but I guess I can’t. But I can help you learn to accept it more gracefully, and to know that someday there will be a restoration, whether it be in this life or the next.” He helped me so much that I wrote the song for him. “Please tell me, friend, why are you blind? Why doesn’t he who worked miracles send light into your eyes?” And then his reply, “Didn’t he say he sent us to be tested?”
So, personally, that song means a lot to me. I wasn’t even going to put it on a CD, and then someone said, “Oh you should do it—everyone has trials.” I do three verses on different subjects: the first one is about him, the second verse is about me and many others who pray for healing and it doesn’t come, and the third is someone who loses a loved one. There was an LDS station here at that time, and they’d have the LDS hit parade, and it was number one for almost two years. So it really filled a need for somebody. It did me. I wrote it to help me understand.
And then I had a stroke in 2006 which affected my right arm and leg. I still can’t even feel when my foot’s on the pedal for sure, but I do have feeling in my extremities—my arm and leg are numb, but my fingers are fine, and I’ve just developed a way to play. It looks weird—people comment on it, “Is that a new technique?”
What about music for the non-LDS audience?
We did one album of gospel music, where we made sure we didn’t put anything strictly LDS into it, and that was fun too. It was “My God is Love.”
Earlier I did a collaboration with Greg Hansen, in which really I did nothing, but I took all the old gospel songs—somehow I grew up knowing them, many of them from the Baptist hymnbook, and some others—and he orchestrated them and had people sing all those old-time religion pieces. That’s still an album that people enjoy. It’s not for just our Church—we didn’t put anything on it that conflicted with our beliefs, but most things don’t.
The patriotic albums really hold a special place in my heart. I loved writing them. And they’ve probably been sung at bigger places than any others. “Heal Our Land” was sung at George Bush’s second inauguration by a black minister at the National Prayer breakfast. It was even sung on the Oprah show on 9/11. And the Mormon Tabernacle has done it, too, arranged by Mack Wilberg. I love the patriotic songs.
Are you satisfied with what you’ve done with your talent?
Yes, I am, except that I want to keep going.
You know, the music business has really changed. Many composers and people involved in any aspect of the music business have really been affected severely, like everyone else in the economy. With digital downloads and people burning discs for friends, and Deseret Books promoting primarily their own artists, we haven’t even been able to record for a couple of years.
I started applying for grants. I did get one grant that allowed me to record a brand new album at the end of last year. I just really feel good about that. I am working on a grant to cover this project we’re working on, trying to have faith, because we have our things out on digital downloads and that helps a little bit, but it doesn’t provide the income to pay for your next project. It just doesn’t.
So I’m trying to do things now with no thought of making income or profit. But I’m having to find a way to get them financed. And to me, they can just be a gift. We can retire—we are in our seventies, and we’ve been wise in saving our retirement, so we can just quit. But if I can get a grant to continue—and I have gotten one—then I will continue, because what else would I do? It’s what I love. And it’s what my husband loves. This morning he took my scribbled copy of a new arrangement of a Book of Mormon piece for this project down to his office, and he entered it in the computer—they call it engraving—and engraved it beautifully for publication. And this is what we love, so much that we will continue doing it, even if it’s a donation somewhere. That will be fine. We’re trying to do more of just donating whatever we can, for the Church, or to these piano students. Just whatever we can, which is fine, but I won’t quit writing. I hope I have another decade to write.
There have been so many albums made during the last few years that are one-time albums, because they can never recover the costs for them. With ours, we started when almost no one was writing, just Lex de Azevedo and I, essentially, and it was a novelty to have music out by LDS composers. People bought it, and it made it possible for us to do another and another and another. We have almost eighty albums and it was never a problem for us to finance them, because we recovered the money and went on to the next one.
We can never do that now. We’re all having to try to find other things to do. People buy CDs if they see them there in the store—they won’t special order, how will they even know about it if they don’t see it? People need to be able to see that something is available, and then they do impulse buying. We do all the advertising that we can afford to do, and so we recover partial cost on that album. I wish that stores would carry even our top twenty. Before things changed, even our first album was still selling after thirty years, but if the albums aren’t there on display in the LDS bookstores, then … we’re done. People buy what they see. It is really hard.
One thing that helps us to get things out expeditiously is that our son John works for us full-time. He does all the business side of things. I write the music, my husband takes it down and prepares it for publication, and John designs the covers and does all the duplication, the publishing, distribution, taxes—everything that the business entails. We have it all right here, so all we need to do is take our master to have the CDs duplicated. It helps us that we’ve always had our family totally involved in it. We’ve done eleven different albums for our son Steve and two for our daughter Lynne, who is a wonderful writer/composer. So it’s very much a family thing, where everybody has the talents to get a whole project done. We used to have to go to a design artist for the covers, but John now does it all on his computer. It’s really beautiful.
I just have such a feeling about what the music means to people. After literally thousands of letters saying “this song helped me in this situation, this song helped me come back to the Church,” it’s just constant—you get a sense of mission. And that’s the reason I don’t want to stop. There will always be a need for people to have good music that uplifts them. I hope we can find a way to keep going.
When I started out, here is my goal that I wrote down: “I hope someday the Primary children will sing one of my songs.” That was my goal.
A couple of years ago Craig Jessop called from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and said, “Would it be alright if we used your song ‘Love Is Spoken Here’ as the title song for our new album? And we’ll also put ‘I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus’ and ‘A Child’s Prayer’ on it. Would that be alright?” I said, “Craig, I’ve got to share with you my original goal: it was that the Primary children would someday sing one of my songs. I could never have imagined this!” I write for Meridian Magazine, and this year I wrote on setting goals and how it helped me to write down and have that thought in my mind and work toward it. I was just dumbfounded to think I had come that far—to have the title song on a Mormon Tabernacle Choir album!
I love just writing about my experiences in my own life, because when you have experienced something, you can be pretty sure that a whole lot of other people have, too. And when you write about something real in your life, there is a difference from if you sit down and try to write a nice song.
I’ve done five little volumes of hymns in the last while. My husband said one day, “I feel strongly that you should write a hundred hymns.” I was dumbfounded, and I said, “How about one hymn? They’re hard. They’re different. You’ve got to get all the voice leadings and…” and he said, “I’m just telling you. It’s up to you—take it or leave it.” I was singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and a friend, John Pearson, started giving me his poetry, which was really hymn text poetry. He and I wrote eighty hymns together, and sadly, he passed away last September of colon cancer, and so that’s the end of that. I think he was the best hymn text writer in the church. Man, I miss his beautiful writing. But we have these five little hymnbooks, each with thirty-five hymns, so I’ve gone way over the hundred, and we keep the price really low so that choirs can afford them.
I loved writing hymns. I’m kind of through with that phase, and now I’m doing this hour-long Book of Mormon program with a sister from Colorado who is writing the lyrics—very scriptural lyrics—and Merrill Jenson is going to record it. I finished the last arrangement this morning just before you got here.
So, different times I like to go different directions—they’re all good.