Gospel is sweet to musician's ear

Drifting on a current of confusion, Mark L. Small found a safe harbor in the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Savior's message is now reflected in his music.

A classical guitarist who edits Berklee Today magazine at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass., Brother Small is first counselor in the bishopric of the Foxboro Ward, Hingham Massachusetts Stake.With duet partner Robert Torres, who is not a member of the Church, Brother Small has arranged and recorded acoustic guitar settings for several selections in the LDS hymnbook. Unique but reverent, the recordings manifest Brother Small's fervent faith and determination, as expressed in one of the hymn titles, "Lord, I Would Follow Thee."

The musician made that commitment on Jan. 29, 1984, when he was baptized.

Born in Boston in 1951, Brother Small was raised in a home with a Christian faith. But by the time he was 18, he developed serious questions for which he was unable to find satisfactory answers in his religion.

"I wasn't asking big questions that are totally unknowable," he said in a recent telephone interview from his office in Boston. "But I wondered, for example, why my church said that babies who die go into limbo instead of going back to God if they're guiltless as infants. I eventually became disaffected and drifted for several years without a church at all."

During this time, he met MaryAnn McDermott while playing on the professional circuit. She was a singer, and a friend from the group with which she was performing introduced her to Mark. Later, while attending a jazz festival, he noticed that she was seated beside him. Within a couple of years, they were married.

By then it was 1980. Mark had obtained a bachelor's degree in classical guitar performance from New England Conservatory. The Smalls moved to California so MaryAnn could enroll in chiropractic school at Whittier.

One day, her class was working with cadavers, Brother Small recounted. "Some of the comments that people made were not very comfortable for a woman. And she noticed that one of the guys in the group spoke up and said, `Hey, we have a lady present; I'm not going to stand for this kind of talk here.' He really took her part, and she was very struck by his strong moral character."

The classmate was Michael Sears, and he and his wife, Adele, became friends with the Smalls, who noticed that their newfound friends were not reticent about discussing their religion, the LDS Church.

"They took us to meetings and then introduced us to the missionaries, and things went pretty well from there," Brother Small said.

Early on, the Sears mentioned the Book of Mormon to the Smalls, who were eager to obtain a copy.

"Michael knew the interest we had. He and MaryAnn were coming into finals after a particularly grueling semester. He said, `When the time is right, I'll give you a copy.' The day of their last final he showed up at our door with the Book of Mormon. And true to his premonition, MaryAnn just sat on the couch and read the whole book. He knew that would happen, and it wouldn't be good during their finals."

Within a month, MaryAnn and Mark both had devoured the book, and they were soon baptized.

With amusement, he recalled that the missionaries were discouraged with him at first because he often would leave gospel discussions to go off to a bar. Then MaryAnn explained to them that he was playing in a band at the bar to pay the household bills, that he really was interested in the gospel.

After his baptism, Brother Small observed that the Church emphasized the importance of education. "I went back to school and received a master's degree in classical guitar. I met new people and started turning to a softer kind of music. After I got the degree, I began teaching in college."

His voracious intellectual appetite included the gospel. With the Sears' assistance, he immediately enrolled in an institute of religion class.

"The teachers were tremendous," he recalled. "They really put their arm around me and helped me to understand things that were completely new. I had never read the Bible. I worked through all the scriptures and gained a really good insight. I must have read 200 books in the institute library."

So ardent was his enthusiasm for the gospel that he admittedly was naive about how others would receive it. "I really thought anybody who heard about the Restoration, that the Savior and Heavenly Father had appeared to man again and the heavens were opened, and revelation was flowing, that there were prophets on the earth would be as happy as I was to hear it. But I was naively surpised at the reception we got from some people, that they just didn't buy it. It was the easiest thing in the world for me to accept it when I heard about it."

Blessings flowed from that acceptance. Two daughters - Meegan, now 7, and MaryBeth, 3, were born to the couple. The couple had been told earlier Sister Small might not be able to give birth due to some previous surgery. But in a priesthood blessing she received and a patriarchal blessing given to Brother Small, they were promised that children would come to their home.

Pursuing a master's degree at California State University, Brother Small was paired by an instructor with Robert Torres. The two became friends, and when the Smalls decided to move back to Boston in 1988, Mark took Robert along on the motor trip to have someone to talk to, MaryAnn having gone on ahead by jet.

He showed Robert many major Church sites en route, including the St. George Temple, BYU, Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Nauvoo, Carthage, the Kirtland Temple and Hill Cumorah.

When Brother Small was offered the job at Berklee College, he recommended his friend Robert to replace him at a part-time teaching job at Dean College, in Franklin, Mass. The two began playing together.

After joining the Church, Brother Small began to compose a different kind of music than he had been used to, hoping to reflect his love for the gospel. It got little interest from LDS-oriented recording labels. Then, he dropped all effort to appeal to popular tastes and began to write and arrange to please himself.

After he began to do that, among his first projects was a setting for "Come, Come, Ye Saints" on acoustic guitar. He used some symbolic techniques, such as a snare-drum sound made by crossing and plucking two of the lower guitar strings, depicting the Saints' forced exodus from Nauvoo. As the piece progresses, it gets alternately agitated and calm, symbolizing the drama of the Pioneers' westward trek.

That first effort led to other arrangements of hymns by both Brother Small and Robert Torres, who by now was acquainted with Church history and doctrine thanks to the tutelage of his partner. They released a compact disc in 1993 on the Church-owned Deseret Book label, featuring 12 hymns, including several less familiar ones such as "If You Could Hie to Kolob" and "Saints, Behold How Great Jehovah."

"Some of the more unusual titles are the ones Robert selected to arrange," Brother Small said. "Not being a member of the Church, he didn't know which of the hymns were the more familiar to Church members, so he just opened the book and selected the ones he liked on purely musical terms."

The guitarists released a second album on the Channel Productions label. Initially not interested in the duo's sacred selections, the producer of that album liked their arrangements of "Abide With Me" and "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" so well that he insisted they be included on the Channel album. Thus it contains a subtle LDS influence, apparent even on some of the secular selections such as Edvard Grieg's "At the Cradle," and jazz composer Pat Matheny's "Letter from Home," which could have meaning to any missionary.

Through music, Brother Small hopes to communicate his experience in the Church. "A convert coming in, finding the truth and being able to embrace it from the start is the summation of my experience," he said.

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