Interview: Vanja Y. Watkins

(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.

PHOTO COURTESY VANJA 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.

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PHOTO COURTESY VANJA WATKINS

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.

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FROM LEFT: BONNIE GOODLIFFE, MARVIN GARDNER, VANJA WATKINS, KAREN LYNN DAVIDSON. PHOTO COURTESY VANJA WATKINS

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.

3 thoughts on “Interview: Vanja Y. Watkins

  1. Reply
    Glorianne Muggli - June 24, 2018

    Nice article, Jessi!

    1. Reply
      Jessi Vandagriff - June 24, 2018

      Thank you! I can’t take credit, however. This was originally posted on Ben Crowder’s site http://www.mormonartist.net and was conducted/written by David Layton. They were kind to share. Hope you are well!

  2. Reply

    […] 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 […]

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