I was visiting in the Westwood 2nd Ward in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, a Mormon village I have been visiting off and on for years whenever I visit my cousins.
In the middle of the meeting, to my surprise, all the women of the ward got up from the benches and walked up into the steep choir loft in this decidedly unusual building.
The congregation of men and children felt a little sparse — but the choir loft was packed.
The choir of women proceeded to sing "As Sisters in Zion," one of the most beautiful hymns in the hymnbook (No. 309) — partly because of the words, which come from a wonderful poem by handcart pioneer Emily H. Woodmansee, and partly because of Janice Kapp Perry's lilting, almost Gaelic melody.
In Karen Lynn Davidson's book "Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages," you can read about this hymn — Woodmansee's life was fascinating indeed. (It is quoted online here.)
The poem was originally much longer — we sing only three of the stanzas in our hymnbook. (There is one of the others that I wish we could add as a fourth verse — but that's the subject of my next column.)
In the Westwood 2nd Ward, the women filled the chapel with song.
Some in the choir were excellent singers, most were average, and some could barely carry a tune, I'm sure, because in every ward the gift of musical talent is unevenly bestowed.
Yet they all opened their mouths and sang, joining their voices with others to make music that not one of them had the power to create on their own.
Only a few weeks before, the choir leader had done the same thing with the men of the ward. She had rehearsed with them several times during a portion of the priesthood-meeting hour, and then they all sang from the choir loft — to mighty effect, I am told.
Last Sunday was stake conference in Greensboro, N.C., and in the weeks leading up to it, young men and young women practiced two numbers to sing as a youth choir. One was from the Primary songbook, Janice Kapp Perry's beautiful duet "Love Is Spoken Here."
The other was, you guessed it, "As Sisters in Zion," joined as a medley with yet another great Janice Kapp Perry song, "We'll Bring the World His Truth" ("The Army of Helaman").
When a handful of our young men and women showed up to practice for this choir at 6:30 on our ward's activity night, for various reasons it happened that I was the only experienced conductor present.
So with no preparation — and sometimes not even enough copies of the music to go around — I worked with these singers for the half hour before Mutual.
These were kids that I already knew and loved — including my own youngest. They took the practice seriously, learned well, and sang with strength and accuracy (pretty much the same attributes required to do well in basketball, I might add).
Then came stake conference. The youth choir was sitting in the first four rows of the chapel. When it was time for them to sing, the conductor set up her music stand two-thirds of the way back in one of the aisles.
One of the young men stood in front of the youth and gave them the signal to rise. Then they turned to face the conductor, and sang.
Good as our small group had been, nothing prepared me for the sheer power of so many singing at once. There was nothing half-hearted in their performance. They were excellent.
That was when I discovered to my chagrin that I had not replenished the packet of tissues in my suit, because I needed them.
There is great power in the sheer act of joining our voices together to sing. Our ward is blessed with a congregation that really sings — our hymns are not half-hearted mumblings; the organist can play at full volume without fear of drowning us out.
Part of the power comes from the music, from feeling our voices produce sound that is magnified many times over by the others singing with us, by the reverberation of the room.
This effect is truly inspirational, and it does not require words. Think of Pachelbel's Canon in D, or Ravel's "Bolero," in which many instrumental voices are added together until we reach a climax of sound.
But what makes our hymns — and those performances — so much more powerful is that they are beyond inspirational; the words make them aspirational as well.
Hymns teach us by putting truthful, noble words in our own mouths. Our youth choir sang words that make us want to be "goodly parents who love the Lord."
It matters that they said, together, "The errand of angels is given to women." It matters that they spoke, as one, of their mothers kneeling: "I hear the words she whispers as she bows her head to pray."
It always matters when we are joined in song with dozens or hundreds of others who share the same aspirations.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I offer an aspirational hymn of my own, "All That the Earth Can Yield," first published in the October 1981 Ensign. The sheet music to three different musical settings can be downloaded (free) at www.nauvoo.com.
Orson Scott Card is a writer of nonfiction and fiction, from LDS works to popular fiction. Leave feedback for Card at www.nauvoo.com/contact_desnews.html.