This Christmas carol is available in the LDS Czech-language hymnbook. It also used to be in the old English children’s song book Sing With Me under the title “Carol of the Shepherds.” The Japanese, Portuguese, Samoan, and Spanish children’s books have also had translations of this carol.
I undertook an extensive search for choral arrangements of this carol, and there were surprisingly few! I had to resort to Czech arrangements to find a good recording. This carol is definitely under-represented in the Christmas repertoire, and given its history as part of the LDS tradition, I hope this lovely piece makes a comeback. (My favorite English arrangement can be found here.)
Are you interested in writing a children’s song for the Church’s recently announced new songbook for children? In this interview the prolific LDS children’s song writer Vanja Watkins said that a dissertation written by one of her former professors helped her immensely with her song writing process. Criteria for Selection of Children’s Songs in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Lue S. Groesbeck was written in 1966 but is still applicable today.
The following are 19 criteria that a panel of Church leaders, Church musicians, and non-LDS musicians felt were important to consider when writing children’s songs. These were later used to select music for Church publications:
Is the range of the song suitable for children’s voices?
Does the melody begin on a scale degree that will establish tonality and be comfortable to sing?
Does the melody create patterns of tension and release through careful use of the active scale tones and their resolutions?
Are large skips followed be a reversal of direction?
Are skips of augmented or diminished intervals and extensive use of chromatics avoided?
Does the melody fit the expressive meaning of the text?
Are high tones and sustained tones of the melody on extensible vowels of the text?
Does the melody complement the mood of the text?
Does the form of the melody contain a balance of repetition and contrast in its melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic movement?
Are musical phrases clearly defined by an appropriate cadence?
Does the length of the phrases permit children to breath normally?
Does the rhythm of the melody match the rhythm of the text?
Does the tempo of the rhythm change with the general emotional trend of the text?
Are extremes in dynamics avoided?
If dynamics are used, do they follow the emotional curve of the words?
Is the harmonic motion of two-part songs confined to the common practices used in oblique or parallel motion? (examples: descants, rounds, thirds, or sixths)
Does the accompaniment reinforce the expressive qualities of the melody?
Does the accompaniment involve the common usage of the 18th and 19th century voice leading?
Does the song represent a skillful and intelligent use of all poetic and melodic qualities?
These criteria contain a lot of musical jargon. We would love to explain any of them in more depth if you would like more clarification. Please comment below or send us a message through or contact page. We look forward to hearing from you!
(This is an interview that was originally published in 2011 on mormonartist.net. Interview by Myrna Layton. Posted with permission.)
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.
(This is an excerpt from an interview that was originally published in 2014 on mormonartist.net. 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.