It Is Well with My Soul
Are you ready for an epic story–my personal struggles, inspirations, and achievements as I composed and had performed this arrangement of “It Is Well with My Soul”? It’s a long story, but I feel it needs to be told. If you don’t have time to read it now, I suggest finding some time over the next week to come back and start reading–it gets really juicy near the middle. I’ve learned a lot through this whole experience, and it’s been one of my biggest testimony builders. If you wish to skip the story and head to the musical performance tips and samples, scroll down to the first big header you see down below.
Believe it or not, I had gone 45 years of my life missing out on this hymn. It’s not in the LDS Hymnbook, and for some reason, it was never sung when I visited my friends’ churches.
The first time I heard about it was when my wife returned from a Marshallese funeral at our church. Yes, we have a large contingent of people from the Marshall Islands right here in Winston Salem, and they have their own music and traditions. My wife reported that they sung “It Is Well with My Soul” in their native language, and even though she couldn’t understand what they were singing, the emotion and Spirit was strong such as she had never heard before.
I got to hear it myself a few months later when the Marshallese hosted their own island-themed event. They taught us how to sing the chorus in their language, and I could hear how much they loved singing it.
A few months later, our Stake Music Chairperson, Wilma, came to me and said that after 50 years of serving in her position, she felt the time had come to do something big. She wanted us to do an arrangement of one of her favorite hymns from her previous Protestant upbringing. And guess what hymn that was! We did some immediate brainstorming. I played it up: “We can do piano and organ together.” Then she added: “And we could add flute, too.”
It was fun dreaming about it, but then she said: “You think about it. I’m not ready to do it, yet, but I’ll let you know when the time is right.” I thought about it, but to tell you the truth, at the time I did nothing more than that.
Keep in mind that Stake Conference, where we’d be performing this piece, is a big meeting that happens about twice a year. It covers several church units, and could easily have 1000 to 2000 participants, including those watching live telecasts from other church buildings. And the choir tends to be large, and we always attack big pieces. In fact back in 2014, Elder Christofferson, a prominent LDS leader visited our Stake Conference and said at the pulpit how our choir was one of the best he had heard, and we could give the Mormon Tabernacle Choir a run for the money.
Then around March or April 2017, Wilma came to me after church and said: “It’s time. The meeting coming up in December is the one.” She handed me a copy from a Methodist hymnbook and I went to work, preparing a big piece for a very capable choir — a very daunting task.
When I first stared at the one-page hymn, I said: “I honestly have no idea how to proceed.” The music itself is pretty simple, and I didn’t see how I could stretch it out four verses and keep it interesting. It was because at the time, I knew nothing about the hymn.
I first looked for examples on Youtube. I saw the BYU Vocal Point version (pretty). I also caught some generic covers. I saw that there existed a few Mormon Tabernacle Choir versions, but I stayed away from them, as I didn’t want to imitate — especially Mack Wilberg’s arrangement. I wanted to make sure that this would be my own creation.
But I still wasn’t getting it. My wife and friends said I needed to research the story. And that’s when it hit. The story of Horatio Spafford (the person who wrote the lyrics) is a heart-wrenching one–how he had everything, but then it was all taken away from him. When he was at his lowest point, he wrote the hymn, saying that even with everything he had lost, it was all still well with his soul.
I recommend checking out his story. Click here for one good summary. For now, I’ll continue on with my own story.
After I had done a month of research, I knew how the first verse would go–something to imitate water between the flute, organ, and piano. I also wrote this awesome alternate 4-part harmony for the singers, and cool, moderately big organ chords.
But something kept bugging me. It was all wrong. For a couple of days I did nothing but play through it, asking, “What’s wrong with it?” Finally came the answer: it was too heavy. All I had to do was lighten up the orchestration–2 voices in the singers instead of 4, and lighter organ chords–staying away from the lower registers. Then the water sounds became more prominent, and the Spirit was more able to flow.
The second verse came quickly, but I struggled with the transition into the third verse. That took a whole week, and again I had to do a couple of different versions. In each of these transitions, I wanted to do modulations that carried the melody higher with each one, but I also wanted to stay away from the “General Conference” modulations, and I wanted them to be interesting.
The third verse took forever. In catching the sensation of “bliss” each note had to be perfect, especially the piano part had to be done and redone several times, often having to find and change the one note that was out of place in each chord. Wilma also said I had to be extra careful about the part about the nailing of our sins to the cross. That was when I realized the voices had to split into 6 parts (as 4 wasn’t cutting it), and a gigantic crescendo into the fourth verse.
The transition itself between those two verses (only five or six measures) took two weeks. My first attempt was terrible and had to be entirely scrapped. When it was finally working, I forced myself to take a break, because I knew the fourth verse would be difficult, as somehow I had to capture the opening of the heavens, the trump resounding, and praising of God.
This is where I wanted to capture something I experienced in the Columbia South Carolina Temple dedication in the late 90’s. I had been in the Columbia Stake Center watching a live cast. My grandmother played the organ for that session, and my aunt directed the choir. When we sang “The Spirit of God,” the choir sang an anthem and a descant, and we all heard actual angels joining with us, even though it was broadcast through the A/V system. We heard bells ringing even though the organ has no bell stops. The Spirit was strong and it was an experience like none other I had or have experienced since.
And that’s what I wanted to capture. Again, I knew it had to be 6 voices. This was no place for “easy” writing. Even the piano, flute, and organ parts were coming out on the difficult side, but that’s how the Spirit and inspiration was leading me. If I wanted the angels joining, it was what was necessary. There was even one instance where all this praising was going on in the music, and all this sound, but something stopped me, saying: “Something is wrong with this measure.” I asked: “What?” and the answer came to me: “Look at the organ part. Sustain that one note for two beats instead of one, and it’ll be perfect.” And it worked. The added tension helps to capture the right spirit.
This continued on until it was all done. By this time, it was mid-October, and Wilma kept bugging me for the music so we could start rehearsing. I cleaned up the music, did a big midi recording that took 6.5 hours all by itself. As I listened to the music all brought together that Saturday night, I felt the Spirit telling me that God was pleased with the creation. I didn’t need to change any more notes. It was perfect just the way it was.
I was filled with joy as I promptly sent off the recording to Wilma along with finished copies of the music. She was so excited that she immediately sent the music to the accompanists, and she emailed several people to let the choir know we were doing this.
The very next day in church, the Stake Counselor over music approached me and told me the news. The Visiting Authority had rejected our piece. The choir was to sing just one song, and “It Is Well” was not to be that song.
Wilma and I were distraught. My first gut reaction was to tell the Counselor right then and there: “I don’t know if I can attend the Stake Conference. You might have to find another organist.” It didn’t make sense that Wilma and I would be so inspired and so directed to create this piece for this specific conference, only to be rejected by the Lord’s anointed leader.
I found out much later that the Counselor had gone back to the Visiting Authority and reemphasized that a member of the ward had written the arrangement for that specific conference, and how I had felt inspired to do so, but the piece was still rejected.
We never did get an explanation from the General Authority, but the best we could figure was that this was a special conference and he was afraid to mess it up with a poor choice of music. In hindsight, we’re all still scratching our head trying to understand how this arrangement would have been bad or how it could have distracted from the Spirit.
But the rules are the rules, and it was what it was. According to the LDS Handbook, if there is a visiting General Authority, then he is the presiding leader at a Stake Conference, and he has the right to review, change, and/or select musical pieces for use in the meeting. In other words, nothing could be done.
The next few weeks that followed were pure torture. Both Wilma and I were angry. I skipped a couple of church services because I was too angry to be there. Those who knew what was going on tried to talk me down. Wilma, who may have been more angry than I, decided early on that she needed to stick with her calling as Stake Music Chairperson. With the help of our pianist, she decided to replace our piece with a really difficult arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” And she pleaded with me to stick with her and play the organ part. At the time I told her that despite all my anger, I couldn’t leave her alone to deal with this difficult task.
So we stuck in there. I played the organ. We worked up the replacement piece. We braved bad weather to get to poorly attended rehearsals. And when the day finally came, we did our best to do our jobs, though it really was the last place I wanted to be at the time. The visiting General Authority went as far to say our choir was the best Stake choir he had ever heard, but all I could think was, “Then it’s too bad you don’t get to hear us sing that other wonderful piece.”
As we sang the closing hymn, “God Be With You,” I couldn’t help feel heartbroken about the knowledge that this was the exact time we had planned to perform our piece — that God wanted me to write, and even helped me to write a lot of the notes. I knew then and there that the General Authority had made a mistake.
When the meeting came to an end, I played postlude, and then I left as soon as I could, not wanting to go up to the General Authority and shake his hand.
It was all over, with no explanation, no apologies, and lots of confusion. What followed were a several weeks of deep depression. I didn’t want to do anything. I was left wondering why God would do this to me.
There was a small consolation. The Stake Counselor promised that we would perform the piece in the next conference in June 2018.
Time heals all wounds, and I’ve come to realize that God wanted me to experience this pain. I can now say I know what it’s like to go through a testimony-shattering experience–something that causes many people to leave the Church. I am now in a position where I can sincerely help others stay in the Church, and possibly reach out to those who have already left.
I still believe the General Authority made a mistake, but I’m okay with it now. Can you name even one perfect person from the scriptures other than Jesus? I am able to say now that it is all well with my soul.
The icing on the cake came from a talk I heard given by one of the LDS Seventy, Claudio D. Zivic, in April 2018. He was talking about how people fall away from the Church for whatever several different reasons. For example, imagine Sister Johnson leaving because Brother Hathaway said something really mean to her. Zivic reminded the listener that they should return to Church, as “no one will be able to make excuses before our Lord, Jesus Christ.” He goes on to further say that Jesus knows how to help us, inspire us, and strengthen us, and urges us not to give up.
Sure, even if the visiting General Authority had messed up, I couldn’t let that be an excuse to throw away my salvation. I needed to get over it and move on, and then help others to do the same. Help them all to realize that they, too, can have everything well with their souls. Everything can work out in the end.
I could end the story here, but it’s not yet over. As soon as Wilma and I heard that another visiting General Authority was coming in June, all the pain and dread came back. We each went to the former Stake Counselor (now President), and he seemed to avoid us for a couple of weeks. But then he decided to take me out to lunch, and we had a good long talk about what had happened in December. As soon as he could see I was mostly in a good place, he told me the news.
He had already preemptively approached the new visiting Authority and said: “This is how it’s going to be. This congregant wrote this amazing arrangement. It’s a favorite Southern hymn: It Is Well with My Soul. It’s not in the hymn book, but here are the lyrics, and as you can see, they are in harmony with our doctrine. Also, here in section <blah> of chapter <blah> in the Handbook, it says we can do hymns from outside of our church under these circumstances.” … and so on.
The Authority answered, “It sounds like a great idea. Let’s do it.” He even let us sing two songs.
Then came all the practices and pulling it all together. We saved “It Is Well” to be the very last piece, and it went much better than we had expected. It was as if it all came together at the very end, and several in the audience said that they could hear angels singing along with us. It turns out that two of those angels were the Stake President and the visiting Authority, who evidently already knew the words and decided they wanted to join in.
Now having being well received, our next step is to reach out to several Protestant churches in our area and get them to sing it, too, for some good ecumenical fun.
In all, it was patience I needed all along. In hindsight, despite all the anger, depression, and spiritual turmoil, I ultimately ended up doing all the right things when it mattered, and it all worked out in the end.
Performance Tips and Samples
Now that the story has finally come to an end, here are some sound samples. The first is a midi-rendering, …
… and the second is from one of our rehearsals, which was about 70% of what actually happened at the real performance.
Here’s what the first half-page of the full score looks like:
And a quick excerpt from near the end of the choral score:
Verse 1: This needs to be light and like water.
Verse 2: A little stronger than the first verse. Really build into the key change at measure 36. At the end of the transition, really pull back to get ready for the blissful third verse.
About men and women splitting into 3 parts: you should have one third of the basses and one third of the tenors sing the middle note (so as to have equal parts between the three), and the same with altos and sopranos.
Verse 3: The first half is soft and blissful. It’s important not to go too fast here. The piano chords should sound almost like harps playing in heaven — rolling the chords is appropriate on the big stretching chords. When the organ and flute come in, they should be as soft as possible, but then everyone should quickly crescendo as the lyrics turn to praising. The instruments should continue the crescendo when the singers cut out.
Verse 4: At the end of the transition in measure 57, you can cut off and have complete silence for as long as you’d like. The longer, the better. And then the choir will enter alone on the unison/octave D’s. At this point, the choir should sing at the loudest range of their voices without sounding ugly or shouting, and they should stagger breathing all the way through measure 73. The flute should play as loud as possible, and should have no problem being heard in its highest registers. The organ should play tutti, or at least with a few reeds, but at the same time should be careful not to overpower the choir. If done correctly, it will be as if angels are singing along.
One bonus musical tidbit: the organ part features an always-increasing line of quarter notes, and sometimes eighth notes through measure 71. This emulates looking up into heaven.
At measure 74, the whole ensemble returns to the original light and soft watery motif, reminding everyone that through all the turmoil and praising, it is all well with our souls–in all its simplicity. If you do this right, and keep it on the slow side, there’s not going to be any dry eyes in the congregation.
How to Purchase
This is the first product to have two separate packages to deal with.
The first package is the standard choral/piano score. Having this separated from the full score helps to keep overall costs down. You should buy enough of these copies to cover the piano and the whole choir. Buy here.
The second package is the optional organ and flute parts. It also contains the full score. If you choose to add these instruments, you only need to order one of these packages. Buy here.