I’ve been considering writing a blog for some time now. I’ve got something to say about music and Mormonism and Mormon music and music in Mormon life and theology. So I’ll start saying it. But first, let me introduce myself. And I promise: after this post I’ll stop talking about me — well, I’ll stop focusing on me, anyway.
My life has been spent in music, especially as a Mormon music maker. I started playing piano at four and almost right away wanted to make up my own music. When I heard an engaging piece I didn’t want to listen to it – I wanted to play it. So I learned to play by ear and probably drove my piano teachers crazy by coming to lessons having fooled around instead of practising my scales and Czerny. Luckily they let me do both: they instinctively knew something about learning as play and what we call “self-directed learning”. It’s how you learn something deeply. I didn’t know it then, but playing by ear and composing are two sides of the same coin.
So by the time I was a teenager I played piano well and I composed. At least I aspired to compose and didn’t mind embarrassing myself in the process – this willingness to ignore public humiliation has stood me in good stead. I was called to play for the Primary and for Sunday School and for Sacrament meeting. Oh the train wrecks they endured! But I improved and the hymns began to fall naturally under my fingers. Something else I didn’t know at the time: the hymn book was giving me a master class in four-part harmony, the indispensable foundation for composition of all styles.
And as a teenager I discovered choirs. Luckily they thought big in my ward back then. We learned Handel and Beethoven and big English anthems. I loved the Handel Hallelujah so much I spent whole afternoons one summer with a score, singing along with every Messiah chorus. That summer I learned to sight sing and I learned to love Handel.
The ward choir is a wonderful resource for young musicians. Not only did I get experience singing and accompanying, I had a large ensemble at my disposal to try big compositions. At 18 I wrote an ambitious Christmas anthem, all original words and music with several contrasting sections and fancy piano part. When I first heard the choir rehearse the opening, which started on one note and expanded to two, three, then four parts, it seemed more magical than I had hoped. I was hooked. All these people dove into making my musical score a living reality and we performed for the ward. Boyden Lee, our Stake President, was visiting the day of the performance and he asked if we would sing it a second time. Then he solemnly told the congregation that he felt to say that Brother Mitchell’s music would one day bless Saints the world over. That left a profound impression upon me.
In the years since then I have received a doctorate in composition, sung in some prestigious choirs, had a TV broadcast of an anthem by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, composed game music (credited on 40 published games so far), classical concertos, a musical, piano solos, orchestral lieder, pop songs and hymns: most notably the collection of 55 of my settings of Orson Scott Card hymns which was published in 2014 and has gone a long way to fulfilling President Lee’s prophecy. I know of choirs in Canada, Australia, England, Europe and of course all over the U.S. who have sung those hymns and other arrangements in church meetings. The internet has changed my life.
The church has also provided me many wonderful opportunities to develop and share my talents. I have learned to conduct – not only choirs, but for the past three years a 30-piece orchestra for an annual Stake Broadway revue evening. I have written musicals and incidental music for plays. I have had the best seats at Stake and Regional Conferences and temple dedications (I sat almost knee to knee with Presidents Monson and Hinckley at the Montreal dedication). I have had memorable public performances and learned to arrange for amateur choirs and instrumental groups. My point is, the church and church music have had a huge role in forming me into the musician I am now at 54, and I am eternally grateful.
So what will appear in this blog? I have ideas for articles on hymns as music, on the history of hymns, on the role of music in worship, on the role of music in our spiritual lives, on the techniques of hymn writing and arranging, reviews of others’ hymns and arrangements, and reviews of music resources of all kinds for the Latter-day Saint musician. Not everyone will agree with what I say, and I’m not an academic expert in history or musicology (although fairly well read), but I finally feel like I have earned the right to speak with some authority, or at least with some practical experience. I hope there will be some dialogue. That would be fun and useful I think. I hope my testimony will shine through behind it all.
Now I have to think of where to begin.