The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
“Now before I sit down, I want to pay a moment’s tribute to this great choir to which we’ve listened today. They are magnificent. They are doing a great work. They are better than they’ve ever been, and they must go on improving. Their best today will not be good enough tomorrow. Keep it up, dear friends.” (emphasis added by Stephenson)
In March of 2002, I asked my cousin, a member of the choir, “How did the members of the choir react to what the Prophet said?”
From My Cousin: in answer to your question, President Hinckley has made a similar such statement several times at conference and other venues - including here at BYU at a devotional in November of 98. In that he said, “What a magnificent thing is the Tabernacle Choir. I think it is the finest choir in the world. It is the choir of this Church, and it is a musical body of magnificence, of wondrous excellence. That status has not been achieved without tremendous work extending over a period of a century and a half. But their present quality is not enough. The world is moving forward, and they must go on and improve, and improve, and improve.” (You can find the talk on the BYU web site under devotionals and forums, the 98-99 archives) He has said similar words to the choir personally on countless occasions and every time he does so, there is a collective "D'OH" that comes from the choir. Since around the 98 tour to Europe, the demands on the choir have seemed to escalate exponentially. That's probably a bit of an exaggeration, but it sure seems like it. And with every added thing, you wonder how much more can we do? Regardless, the demands will be there and will probably still increase. As such, it is imperative that the choir not simply maintain its current level of excellent, but do all in its power to broaden and expand itself to excel in every way. Case in point, next summer’s tour to the East Coast will take the Choir to virtually EVERY music festival/environ that area has, including Interlochen, Tanglewood, Wolftrap, and Lincoln Center. President Hinckley’s vision is that the choir has always been the Church’s choir, and president’s have called it “America’s Choir,” now it is time for it to truly be the “World’s Choir” and in every since the Lord’s Choir.
As to your specific instance, I do recall such comments but do not remember the specific date (although my initial memory was the conference in question was still in the Tabernacle, which would place it probably between 95-99). But it was around the time Craig Jessop came on board and since Craig has taken over the directorial reigns, he has taken the charge very seriously (and I emphasize VERY). From his viewpoint, to meet the expectation of Pres. Hinckley the choir could do two things. The obvious one was to call more or have longer rehearsals. Given the volunteer nature of the choir, that was not realistic (although, it has happened anyway, to an extent, out of necessity). The other and more practical solution was to empower choir members with better skills to improve the overall quality of the choir. And this they did in two ways. One was to tighten up audition requirements to the choir. Those coming in now are incredibly talented and the vocal timbre of the ensemble has most definitely improved. The other was to establish the Temple Square Chorale and Choir School. Every individual desiring entrance into the choir must, as their final audition requirement, sing with the Chorale for three months and at the same time go through the Choir School (which is run by former director Jerold Ottley and his wife JoAnne). Also, all existing choir members on a periodic basis are rotated through those organizations as part of an "in-service" like experience. As you might suspect, these efforts have also had a significant impact on the choir.
I had my opportunity to participate in the Chorale and Choir School during the summer of 2001. During that period, I was, for the most part, relieved of my choir responsibilities so I could focus on the Chorale and school – which things occurred during normal choir rehearsal times. As such, I did not participate on Sundays with the choir unless the Chorale was there to sing with the choir. The purpose of the Chorale is to allow the conductor’s, specifically Mack Wilberg who is the music director for the Chorale, evaluate you in a small ensemble setting. During those three months, the Chorale under his direction prepares a major choral work. They have done Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s B Minor Mass, to name just a couple. We did Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Saul.” It was quite the experience, but it was particularly good to work with Mack under such a situation. He is an incredible musician and the church and choir are certainly blessed to have him. The Choir School was an interesting experience. For me, the most beneficial part to come from it was the classes JoAnne taught on the voice. The other times were more focused on music theory related things. At the conclusion of the course, everyone takes a test to see how well you picked on what was taught. So far, no one has been prevented from entering (or reentering) the choir because they “failed” the test. But the experience itself has had an immense impact on the Choir and will continue to do so for years to come.
There you have it – a brief “Reader’s Digest” version of what you asked. There is so much more that could be added. I would suggest that if you truly are serious about teaching this aspect in your Humanities class, you should contact Craig directly and see if you couldn’t arrange for some time with him to get a first hand perspective from the maestro himself. Also, get a copy of the two new DVD’s of the Choir’s released by Shadow Mountain for Deseret Book – a Christmas one featuring Angela Lansbury (and including a bit with Craig talking about the Choir) and a special Nauvoo Temple video. Both will give you a wonderful perspective to which I have only briefly alluded.
Pointing the Way: What Would It Take to Join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? (Part Two) by Robb Cundick
"Tabernacle Choir is the most marvelous experience I've ever had in my life."
"Every rehearsal, event, and performance is a joy. I feel very blessed to be here."
"This is the greatest blessing in my life after the gospel and my family."
These comments from current members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are among scores I received in a survey I took recently. We members of the choir are very aware of how fortunate we are. Each week's "Music and the Spoken Word" is a spiritual feast, and our concerts and tours leave us feeling like we've visited heaven for a while. How we wish everyone could experience these things! While that is not possible, we are glad to help anyone who expresses interest in joining. The more people who become aware of this incomparable experience and are motivated to do what it takes to join us, the better the Choir will become. And we hope that those who try and are unsuccessful will nevertheless find other ways to experience the joy of singing in church and community choirs. The Latter-day Saints have a great singing tradition that should only continue to grow as the Church expands across the world.
With that in mind, I have long felt the desire to write an article about the audition process. So I decided to follow the latest cycle closely, from applications to in-person auditions. I asked questions of Choir Director Craig Jessop and others involved in conducting the auditions. I attended a testing session and witnessed an evening of in-person auditions. And I conducted the survey mentioned above to find out more about choir members' musical backgrounds and what they thought helped them make it through the process. I will continue to include their comments in bold type throughout this article and discuss the results at the end. I did not require those who responded to include their names and since most didn't, I think it would be better to make all the quotations anonymous.
"Tell them to follow their dream, set their goal and
don't be discouraged! It's well worth the effort."
Perhaps there are those among you who are like I once was: you love to sing, but - while you're a fan of the choir - the idea of trying out for it never occurred to you. Perhaps - like me - all you need is someone to point the way. I suppose the reason I never thought of joining is because it seemed beyond my reach. My youth was occupied with instrumental (violin) studies, so I never sang in school choirs. Though I loved to sing, my experience was limited to ward choirs and congregational singing. If my younger brother Tom had not pointed the way, I might have missed one of my life's greatest joys.
Tom sang in a seminary choir in high school, so joining the Tabernacle Choir wasn't so unthinkable to him. In the late 1980's, our Dad's career as Tabernacle Organist was approaching its end. Tom thought it would be wonderful to witness those last few years sitting nearby in the choir loft. He prepared by first taking vocal lessons. After studying for a year, he auditioned but was unsuccessful. Not to be discouraged, he took to heart the suggestions the rejection letter listed, worked even harder, and was accepted on his second try. I was happy for him! Then one day the thought finally occurred to me: maybe - just maybe - I could do that, too. I signed up for lessons with Tom's teacher and tried out a year later. I was fortunate enough to make it on the first try!
So if you have an interest in trying out someday, or even if you'd just like to know more about what it's like, here's the inside story:
The application materials contain detailed information about the tremendous commitment required to participate in the Choir. Many people become discouraged at this point and don’t apply.
"The initial audition application almost convinced me not to try."
Why would someone feel that way? Let's take a look at the application process and the materials you would be given were you to apply:
Requests for applications are accepted during the first week of January or July. The audition cycle I'm writing about began the first week of January 2002. Auditions hadn't been held for a year because choir membership was "frozen" for the Olympics. [This has been the practice before all major tours and events in order to discourage those who might want to join only for a particular opportunity. It takes a lot of training and practice even after joining the choir to be come really proficient, so it's important for the choir to have long-term commitments]. Between that fact and the unprecedented visibility we have enjoyed lately, interest this time was unusually high: the choir office was overwhelmed by over 800 requests for applications!
How do you whittle down that many applications? As we shall see later in the article, when final selections are made the guidance of the Spirit is first and foremost. But consider these words from the Doctrine and Covenants 11:21:
"Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men."
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a missionary calling, so just as it is necessary to study and obtain knowledge before preaching the Lord's word, so should we prepare ourselves musically for a ministry in song. It is thus according to the Lord's pattern that the audition process first rigorously test and challenge the applicants, bringing to the top those who have both superior skills and a conscientious sense of dedication. That dedication is very important. The application guide that comes with the materials lists the following as the priorities of a Tabernacle Choir member:
1. One's relationship with God.
2. One's family relationships.
3. One's occupational pursuits and responsibilities.
4. One's volunteer membership by calling to the Tabernacle Choir.
The guide also states, "membership in the Tabernacle Choir is an earned privilege, requiring the enthusiasm of a volunteer and the discipline and responsibility of a professional." Such professionalism cannot be accomplished unless the choir is among the most important priorities in life. Take a look at the required time commitment:
Day of the Week
Approximately 20-25 times per year
This translates to being at the Tabernacle (or on tour) some part of 140-150 days in a typical year. We are required to maintain a 75% attendance record, so we can miss on occasion. But even so, choir participation consumes much of our free time. The tours also necessitate the dedication of a goodly portion of our vacation time (major tours come about every 2 years and can take as long as 3 weeks).
This information serves as a reality check, and apparently many people react as did the choir member quoted above, because of the over 800 application packets sent out, only about 350 people applied. But fortunately for those who did decide to proceed, the number of openings for this group was also unusually high. Retirements of choir members who had reached their maximum service were also delayed for the Olympics, so approximately 51 people will have left us by October (when this audition cycle is finally completed and those who are successful will join the choir).
The application itself asks about your church and family background, occupation, educational background, and musical experience. Application requirements are as follows:
1. Membership in the Church.
2. Age between 25 and 55. [Mandatory retirement from the Choir is at age 60 or 20 years of service - whichever comes first. A minimum period of 5 years service is requested].
3. Good health.
4. Body size that can be accommodated by the Choir's wardrobe (exceptionally small or large sizes are limited).
5. Ability to receive a bishop's recommendation indicating temple worthiness (though a temple recommend is not required).
Applicants are asked to prepare an audition tape to be returned with the application. The tape consists of the following:
1. Choose one of three hymns (Abide With Me, O My Father, or I Need Thee Every Hour).
2. Play and announce the beginning pitch in a comfortable key.
3. Sing one verse of the hymn (without accompaniment).
4. Play and announce the ending pitch (which, of course, should be in the same key in which you began!).
5. Sing a few bars of the hymn with a straight tone.
6. Sing a few measures sotto voce (with a quiet undertone quality).
7. Sing a few measures loudly.
8. Perform three short vocal exercises (which are included with the application materials). These will help determine your natural voice range.
The due date for applications and tapes was February 15, giving the applicants several weeks to prepare the tape. Once the tapes reached the choir office, they were carefully reviewed by Craig Jessop and associate director Mack Wilberg.
Writing this article has brought back memories of what the process was like for me. Before I began to study with a teacher, I thought my voice was pretty good. People at church seemed to think so. I had received a number of compliments through the years, and ward choirs were always glad to have a tenor. But once I started lessons, I was due for some surprises. It's really just like learning to play a musical instrument. In fact, the voice is referred to as one's "instrument". There are so many factors involved in producing a beautiful sound; and the better you become, the more you understand how much there is yet to be learned and perfected.
Here are some of the factors Brothers Jessop and Wilberg take into account as they listen to the tapes: intonation, articulation, appropriateness of vibrato, consistency of tone, breath support and flow, flexibility, beauty of tone, diction, proper vowel placement, good consonants, pitch, vocal style, and musicality. If you study singing, all of these elements will become familiar to you; they are worked on constantly in the Tabernacle Choir. There is more involved than just having a great voice. In fact, many talented soloists may not be suitable for the Tabernacle Choir unless they can adapt to sing in a way that will not stick out and disrupt the blend of voices. And with as much singing as we do, singing without proper technique can result in serious vocal strain or even damage to the voice.
As with the initial application information, the taped audition eliminates a number of applicants. Of the 350, 170 were selected to continue. Those who didn't make it were given specific instructions about what they could do to improve and try again.
Just like the college days: Choir hopefuls at work on their tests.
The Music Skills Inventory and Music Theory Test
"Being a music major, everything I ever learned, I needed for the choir auditions (and after!). And I am still learning every day!"
Now that the choir knows you have a promising voice, the next step is to test your musical knowledge. The tests are administered at the church office building and take about 2 hours to complete. There are two parts: a "Music Skills Inventory," which is designed to assess inherent musical ability, and a test in Music Theory. The theory test was not included when I joined the choir but was added with the introduction of the Temple Square Chorale and training program (which I will cover later). With so many candidates, this time it was necessary to hold testing sessions on four different nights. I witnessed one of them.
The scene reminded me of final exams in college: a roomful of nervous candidates fiddling with their pencils and hoping for the best as they waited for the tests to be handed out. Among the group that night I saw some familiar faces: three former members of the choir. Yes, if you leave for more than 3 months you're required to complete at least part of the audition process again before rejoining. As I continue to describe all the steps, you'll see why that's a big incentive for not leaving once you join!
David and Debra Gehris, section leaders in the choir, administered the tests. They have been doing so for a long time; in fact, they were the ones who gave it to me 12 years ago. Debra told the group that many of them would leave that night feeling badly about how they'd done; yet they may find themselves pleasantly surprised once the results came back. On the other hand, some who felt they had done well might be surprised, too.
The skills inventory was first. The application materials state, "The [inventory] is a shock for some, including some with considerable training. On the other hand, many with lesser training, who possess innate abilities, do very well. The total music skills inventory helps us predict your probable success as a member of the Tabernacle Choir."
This test requires intense concentration and good listening skills. The questions are given orally via a recording, so there is no stopping to ask for something to be repeated. You must think quickly and then move to the next task (a foreshadowing of what it will be like to sing in the choir). The inventory is made up of the following elements:
· Listen to two chords. Indicate whether they are major or minor mode.
· Listen to a musical phrase. Indicate whether it is major or minor mode, or if it changes modes.
· Listen to 4 chords in the same key, followed by 3 notes. Choose which of the 3 notes is the key tone (i.e. the first note of the scale for that key).
· Listen to a musical phrase followed by 3 notes. Choose which is the key tone.
· Listen to a 4 bar musical phrase while looking at a corresponding musical notation. Identify every measure where the pitch that was played is different from the notation.
· Listen to a 4 bar musical phrase while looking at a corresponding musical notation. Identify every measure where the rhythm that was played is different from the notation.
· Listen to a solid chord followed by a broken (arpeggiated) chord. Decide which note (if any) differs from the chord.
· Listen to a melody played alone, then harmonized. Decide if the melody is in the high, middle, or low part of the harmony.
· Look at a bar with two notes. Listen as the first note is played. Listen to 3 more notes and decide which is the second note.
Why would skills such as these predict success in the choir? Because they indicate how quickly you are able to analyze and assimilate musical information. Musical agility is very important in the choir because the pace is …well …I don't think it's an exaggeration to call it murderous! When I first joined, I found it necessary to spend an hour or two on my own each week just to keep up. Take a look at how we prepare for a typical broadcast:
The broadcast averages around 6 pieces of music. We see them for the first time when we do a quick reading on the Thursday night rehearsal ten days before the broadcast. We'll take another quick look at the harder pieces early Sunday morning before moving to the current week's broadcast. On the next Thursday (three days before they'll be performed) we have about an hour to refine all six pieces and do a test recording of them. Sunday morning, right before broadcast, there will be a half hour for final cleanup of rough spots. We'll do a practice run-through of the entire broadcast and then it's time to perform. If you divide the total rehearsal time by the number of pieces, that gives us less than half an hour for each one - less than half an hour from seeing the piece for the first time to performing it!
Thankfully, after a couple of years you start to see some pieces coming around a second time, and with five years under your belt, you're familiar with most of the repertoire. But it's always a fast moving train. So you can see why the kind of innate musical ability revealed by the skills inventory is important. While you can practice these skills, they do seem to come more as a result of musical experience and natural ability.
The music theory test, on the other hand, is something one can and should study for. Theory will be covered in the choir school if you make it through the auditions, but you'll do better to have the concepts down to improve your score in this initial test. It consists of 6 pages of multiple-choice questions covering concepts such as key signatures, how many steps between given notes, which notes are enharmonic (e.g. the same note: B flat and A sharp, for example), note values (e.g. how many half notes in a whole note?), intervals, tetrachords and triads. The choir school uses the text, "Basic Materials in Music Theory: A Programmed Course" by Paul O. Harder and Greg A Steinke (8th edition. Publisher: Allyn and Bacon). Loaner copies of this text are available from the choir office for study prior to the test along with a study guide on which chapters are most important.
Let's review for a moment: we started with about 800 requests for applications. 350 returned the applications, and 170 made it through the taped audition to the skills inventory and theory test. An average score of 80% is required to continue to the final step: an in-person audition before director Craig Jessop and associate director Mack Wilberg. [Brother Jessop did tell me, however, that a voice that was extraordinary on the taped audition might buy a little leeway with the test scores.] I was surprised to find that the majority of those who took the tests were able to proceed: 130 were invited for an in-person audition.
I discussed the application process, the taped audition, and the tests of musical knowledge and ability that take place before a person can qualify for a formal in-person audition with the directors of the Tabernacle Choir. For the audition cycle I'm following there were over 800 requests for applications. Three hundred and fifty people decided to proceed and send in their applications and tapes; 170 of those were given the opportunity to take the written tests, and 130 were invited for an in-person audition.
Front to back: Choir Director Craig Jessop, Associate Director Mack Wilberg, Associate Tabernacle Organist Linda Margetts. Ready for your audition? Here's the sight that strikes fear into many a heart. But they look so friendly!
The In-person Audition
"Auditioning was the worst thing I've ever been through, but the end was worth it."
"The audition was more intense than any other I've done, including Utah Opera."
From these quotes you can see how intimidating an in-person audition can be. I've joked that most people would probably rather slam their finger in a car door than face such a prospect. Yet in many ways this last step is the easiest. Craig Jessop was kind enough to let me sit in on a series of auditions one evening (like the testing, they were held at the Church Office Building). The first thing you will notice should you audition is how friendly everyone is. Jim and Ann Turner were there to greet the candidates, answer questions and usher them into the audition room. Ann is the choir's executive secretary and her husband, Jim, is the stage manager. They both sang in the choir until completing their allotted service. They are delightful people with a great sense of humor and genuine interested in seeing everyone succeed. Before the audition there was one last reality check: requirements (time and otherwise) for choir participation were reviewed and the candidates asked to sign a document confirming their commitment to abide by them. Then it was time to face the music!
"It was a humbling process. I never felt I needed humility, but I obtained some in the process. By the time I entered the choir I knew I'd had divine intervention."
I felt empathy for each brother or sister who entered the audition room. They had been through so much just to get here; and now they stood to sing - all alone - before some of the most accomplished and distinguished musicians in the Church. Besides Brothers Jessop and Wilberg, Linda Margetts, an associate Tabernacle organist, was there to act as accompanist. But don't forget that the Lord, too, is involved in this process - no one who auditions need feel alone.
It is hard for me - after having performed under Craig and Mack for years - to imagine that anyone would find them intimidating. They are as friendly and down-to-earth as anyone you'll meet. But when you don't know them, you can only think of what they represent, and then it is inevitable that your knees feel weak and your throat terribly dry. But Brother Jessop made a concerted effort to put each nervous candidate at ease: greeting each with a big smile, a warm handshake and the assurance that they were among friends who had prayed for their success.
"You have to be brave enough to put it all on the line and try your hardest."
The only advance instructions had been to prepare the hymn of their choice and a segment from a challenging choral piece they'd been sent. Each was first asked to sing the hymn. Next came the choral piece with the piano filling in on the other parts. Then they were asked to do some sight-reading: an unfamiliar hymn followed by some musical phrases that contained unusual intervals.
The sight-reading was definitely the hardest part. Some people got lost right away as they tried to find their part in the hymn. If so, Brother Wilberg helped by singing along for a few bars so they could get their bearings. Some of the intervals in the musical phrases seemed to trip up just about everybody, and it seemed to me that they all left wishing they had done better. Jim and Ann later said that a number of them expressed their disappointment. They tried to comfort them by pointing out how well they had done just to get this far.
Before leaving, each was told they could expect to hear from the choir in early June. Craig and Mack gave no hints about how they felt about the performances either before or after the candidates left the room. Each one, successful or not, was going to have that agonizing wait for a letter in the mail.
On an interesting note, three people that participated in this round of auditions found me and corresponded - either as a result of my articles in Meridian or my personal website. All three (two sisters and a brother) made it as far as the in-person audition but were unsuccessful at that point. They were given advice on what they could do to improve and were told that they must wait at least a year before trying again. From talking with them and from my own observation of the auditions, my best advice on how to pass them is to become an expert sight-reader. Get a book of unfamiliar vocal exercises. Give an exercise a try, then go to a piano and see how you did. Try working them out in your head without even singing while you're taking a walk or riding in a car. Search the web for ideas (I tried "sight-reading tips" on a Google search and got several hits). Find a method that works best for you and practice, practice, practice! Being a good sight-reader is crucial to doing well in the choir and will greatly improve your chances in the in-person audition.
The Temple Square Chorale and Training School
When I joined the Tabernacle Choir the in-person audition was the last step. But in the summer of 1999 the Temple Square Chorale was established as a training organization for prospective and current members of the choir. This change has made great strides in improving our professionalism. Associate Tabernacle Choir Conductor Mack Wilberg (well known for taking the powerful BYU Men's Chorus to new heights) conducts the chorale. Mack is a master at drawing the most from singers, and the smaller numbers of the chorale allow him to give more individualized attention. There is also a training school where classroom instruction in music theory and vocal technique is given by such eminent musicians as former Tabernacle Choir Director Jerold Ottley and his wife, Soprano JoAnne Ottley.
The chorale does not have a permanent membership. It is formed every six months from a mix of prospective and current Tabernacle Choir members. Each session lasts for three months at which time a formal concert is given. The chorale also participates in at least one choir broadcast. Rehearsals are held every Tuesday night in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. Classroom instruction is held across the street in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building on Thursdays.
The chorale provides a kind of probationary period for the new singers - giving them a chance to build up to the hectic Tabernacle Choir schedule while choir leaders have the opportunity to observe them under rehearsal and performance conditions. At the conclusion, Brother Jessop will listen to each of them sing one more time and a final decision will be made as to whether they are ready to join the Tabernacle Choir. While most will do so, it is possible that some may be asked to complete an additional term in the chorale or given other counsel appropriate to their situation.
So… we started in January and it is now June; yet those who have made it this far still have three months to go before they can actually join the Tabernacle Choir. How did the 130 who were invited for an in-person audition fare? 63 singers successfully passed the auditions and have been invited to join the Temple Square Chorale. They will begin their service in July. The chorale will be preparing the Bach Mass in B Minor for performance in October. I plan to sing with them and will continue to follow their progress. I will probably have something more to say when those who have successfully completed this long, arduous process finally join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in October.
This is by far the largest number of new singers the chorale has ever accommodated and, at least in recent decades, is probably the largest group to join the Tabernacle Choir at one time. I asked Brother Jessop if the unprecedented number of applicants made for a more talented "final cut." He said that it did: this group is of excellent caliber; it is one of the most special groups we've ever had. They will provide a big boost when they join us in October!
Results of the Survey
Now you have a good idea what it takes to join the Tabernacle Choir. I hope this information has not discouraged those who might want to try and join, for my purpose is not to dishearten you but to say, "We'd love to have you join us! Here's what it takes..." At the beginning I mentioned that I had surveyed the choir to get a better idea of their backgrounds and what they felt helped them be successful. Let's take a look at the results:
Two-hundred and twenty-four people completed the survey. That's about two thirds of the current choir membership. Of those I found that 77% had received individual voice training before they auditioned (though some said it was many years before); 92% play one or more musical instruments, with piano by far the most common (78% of the respondents play the piano, though some said not very well. It's good to see those childhood piano lessons can pay off in unexpected ways!).
"The first two 'no thanks' messages were devastating, but persistence pays off."
25% auditioned more than once before making it. 6% auditioned more than twice (the highest number being 5). On their unsuccessful tries, 38% got only as far as the taped audition, 26% were held up at the Skills Inventory/Theory tests, and 36% made it as far as the in-person audition before being told they would need to try again.
61% had participated in a choir at a university. I found only a handful that - like me - were limited in vocal experience to ward and stake choirs (but that didn't stop me, so don't let it stop you!). BYU choirs were most frequently mentioned (but that was only 14%) followed by Mormon Youth Chorus and Utah Symphony Chorus (both at 5%) and University of Utah and Weber State University choirs (both at about 4%). I was surprised at the range of vocal groups in which they had participated - I counted 95 university, community or even professional choirs. How's this for diversity? From the Billings Montana Symphony Chorus to the Robert Shaw Festival Choir; from the Heber Utah Women's Chorus to the Danish Music Academy. From California's Monterey Peninsula College Community Choir to the Southeastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus; from the Naval Aviators Choir to the Icelandic National Chorus. It just goes to show that no matter where you live there are wonderful opportunities to sing!
In analyzing the comments about what helped most in their efforts to join the choir I did my best to group the results into categories so I could rank them. Here are the results:
23% Spiritual preparation (faith, prayer, fasting).
20% The Lord's help or help from the Spirit.
20% Experience singing in other groups.
18% Voice teacher or vocal coach.
17% Musical training and education.
15% Hard work, study, personal preparation
11% Natural talent (ear, "genes")
8% Guidance from others (conductors, teachers, friends).
8% Persistence, desire, determination
6% Love of music, singing.
6% Sight reading ability
6% Instrumental background
5% Musical foundation in the family
4% Sight reading practice
3% Humility, a willing attitude
3% Music lessons growing up
3% Family support
Other items mentioned were testimony, cultivating a voice that blends well, ear training, good sense of pitch, practicing the skills inventory elements, having a positive attitude, learning relaxation techniques for the audition, luck, and bravery.
It is not surprising to me that the top two items were spiritual preparation and help from the Lord. Consider these comments:
"My personal audition was so bad. I'm sure that an angel must have come down and told the committee to let me in the choir!"
"When I compare myself to some of the wonderful musicians in the choir I wonder how I made it! It was only because the Lord wanted me here."
"I had a prompting to try and where I lacked, He carried me through."
"You can be the most talented musician - but not make choir. Ultimately, it is God who calls you to the work, and blesses you to succeed beyond your own expectations"
Such comments made me wonder about the perspective of those who do the selecting, so I posed this question to Brother Jessop: "As you listen to those who audition, do you sometimes feel the Spirit saying, 'This person belongs in the choir,' even when the quality of their audition leaves something to be desired?" Here is his reply:
"Without question the Spirit is the first, last, and constant guide in the audition process. This last round of auditions has been no exception. It comes in quiet, unexpected and sometimes persistent ways. I have a firm testimony that all of our singers are here by divine call. There are times when the Spirit confirms over the perceived talent - generally they come hand in hand. There always seems to be one or two singers in each round of auditions that will sit in a 'maybe' pile and simply will not leave my mind. Such has been the case many times - I've never second-guessed or regretted listening to the promptings of the Spirit to admit some singers. We try to listen with our spiritual ears and hearts first."
That being the case, I would only add that I'm sure the same has been true in the selection of our conductors, organists, staff, and the members of the Orchestra at Temple Square. Can there be any question that the Lord leads and guides the Mormon Tabernacle Choir - that He is the one responsible for what people feel when they listen to us? There is certainly no question in my mind.
More from the Choir
Finally, here are more comments from the choir. There were so many I cannot include them all, but these will give you additional insight about how choir members feel and what you can do prepare yourself should you want to join:
"Every ounce of training and experience - every musical ensemble, every solo, every lesson, every theory and ear training class, every diction class, every voice lesson. I needed it all. Perhaps the most important, though, is willingness to serve (musically or otherwise)."
"I feel the Lord prepared me to sing in the choir by (1) sending me to a family where music was important, (2) giving me a talent, (3) giving me singing opportunities which taught me, and (4) guiding me to a vocal coach who knew what I needed help with. Therefore, I feel a great responsibility to sing to the Lord with greatest love, honor and thanksgiving."
"Although the new audition process is very challenging, it makes you reach for a higher level of performance, and helps improve the choir."
"Study any suggested material, attend the temple and your meetings. Study the scriptures and pray."
"Keep trying. Don't give up. Improve your musical skills in any way you can."
"Do your best but be humble and determined. If you don't make it the first time, try again."
"I knew that after all was said (or sung) and done, the ultimate decision would be up to my Heavenly Father. So I asked what He would have me do - then did it - one step at a time."
"Study theory and PRAY - your spirit is as much a contribution as your voice - also keep trying, it is worth it!"
[This person talked about the anguish of her first rejection. She could hardly listen to the choir during the intervening months. The second time she did something different. The afternoon of her in-person audition she went to the temple:] "It was an unusual day because when I got to the Celestial Room I was completely alone for the longest time …as I sat alone praying for help that night to come I surrendered my will to my Heavenly Father and when I said, 'Thy will be done - I offer Thee my service. If you want me, I'm yours.' He said, 'Yes, I do.' I learned that this is His choir and His decision who belongs here. I am so grateful to be chosen."
"I believe Heavenly Father magnified me when it was needed. I was never going to risk failure but He asked and I answered. He placed me in situations to sing before others (I don't solo) and I was scared to death. Burying a son at age 23 was easier than the 3-year process. It humbled me and I will always realize how blessed I am."
"I have been singing since childhood and never missed an opportunity to sing (to learn and share my talent). I felt if I willingly shared what the Lord had given me whenever asked, He would bless me when I needed His help. I am in the choir because He made it so."
"Family support is essential to my ability to participate."
"It has to be your time. Too many get in the choir but don't last long because they weren't ready for the commitment."
"I was caring for my mother-in-law who is very frail and has severe dementia. She couldn't be left alone, so while I waited an hour each mealtime for her to eat, I could study the theory book. Thank you, Grandma!"
"I put my trust in the Lord. I knew that if this was something the Lord wanted me to do I would make it."
"I believe that singing in the choir is an opportunity that comes to each individual for many reasons. I have very little (formal) music training, but I asked the Lord if I could do this and He said yes! What a great blessing."
"Spiritual preparation is important - to know you are doing what the Lord wants you to do. There is a big time commitment, so family needs to be involved in the final decision as well. It is a wonderful experience, also in knowing you are doing the right thing for the right reason, with the support of the Lord and your family. I prepared myself musically all my life, but the joy from doing musical missionary work far exceeds anything imaginable."
"The opportunity to participate with the choir has been a spiritual high point in my life. I believe that my experience has also been a vicarious experience for my now-deceased father who loved to sing, but who did not have the opportunity of choir membership."
"I sing best when I am in tune with the Spirit."
"I keep learning more and more about music."
"I will never lose interest [in the choir]. [I] hope that by the time my 20 years is up the allotted time limit will be extended! I absolutely LOVE to sing!!"
"If you work very hard and it is the Lord's will that you be part of the choir, you will be." [This person has been in the choir twice and each time had to audition 3 times (total of 6)].
[This person talked about being in the choir many years ago when she didn't have to audition but was simply invited to join. Things have changed!] "The second time was DIFFERENT!! Talk about STRESS!! I had been out of the choir for 18 years and mourned its loss while I raised my 8 children. My voice had gone to pot, but there was still something inside that told me I was to be in the choir. I started practicing and praying - and I KNEW that if I made it, it would be a true gift from Father, for my voice had a long way to go. The day I got my acceptance letter I just sobbed. I could NEVER take this gift for granted. To come to choir is a heavenly blessing."
"I 'live' for choir!"
Singers in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
This last comment, in one form or another, was voiced over and over. We absolutely love this calling - this gift from heaven. But in conclusion I would like to say a word to the thousands who have hoped for this opportunity and - for whatever reason - have not been able find themselves among us. Perhaps you have tried but didn't make it through this difficult process; perhaps you have been called to do other things and simply don't have the time. You may have physical limitations that make it impossible or perhaps you live elsewhere and can't move to Utah.
To you I would only say what President Hinckley has exclaimed to us on more than one occasion: "Sing, sing, sing!" Surely the very best choral music is that which is directed towards our Father in Heaven in praise or in prayer. Find ways to do that! As one of the choir members said, "Music heals!" Lift and inspire those around you! Sing enthusiastically in sacrament meeting! Your ward choir needs you! Your stake and regional choirs need you! Community choirs need you! I did an Internet search for the words "Mormon Choir" and came up with the following:
The Mormon Choir of Washington, DC
The Mormon Choir of Southern California
The Tongan Mormon Choir of O'ahu
The Arizona Mormon Choir
The Nashville Mormon Choir
The "Heart of America" Mormon Choir
The Valparaiso Mormon Choir
The Hacienda Heights Mormon Choir
The Rochester Regional Mormon Choir
The Perth Mormon Choir
The Maracaibo Mormon Choir
Undoubtedly some of these choirs were formed temporarily for special occasions, but how wonderful that Latter-day Saint choral singing is being carried forth in places all over the world! Take advantage of every opportunity to sing; and if you cannot join us in this life, it is my hope that we will sing together in the heavenly choirs above!