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Talking with the Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Introduction

In 2010, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir celebrated several firsts. It achieved its first century of recording history, and it was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Following those significant milestones, the choir achieved another first: tapping into a long tradition of men’s choral music, the Choir released an album that features just the men of the Choir.

“It’s a really wonderful thing because it’s really different, in many ways, from anything we’ve done before,” says assistant Choir director Ryan Murphy. “I mean, we have one of the largest choirs in the world, which means we also have one of the largest men’s choirs in the world, even when you take away the women’s numbers.”

The traditional Mormon Tabernacle Choir sound is, of course, the sound of the full choir, and Choir director Mack Wilberg says he was a little nervous pitching the idea to the women in the Choir, not wanting them to feel left out. He was pleasantly surprised when the women were “very enthusiastic about the idea.”

Men’s choirs tend to be popular, something Wilberg says has to do with the color of men’s voices when they are combined. “I think there’s something really unique about the timbre of men’s voices ,” says Wilberg. “With men’s voices you get the full gamut of range—you get the very, very high and you get the very, very low. And so, I think the combination of that is very powerful.”

According to Ryan Murphy, it isn’t just the sound of the Choir that is powerful; it’s also the spirits of the choir members themselves.

“People that come here and listen to the Choir feel that and they are touched by it and moved by it—and a lot of times they don’t know what they’re feeling. They realize they’re feeling something that they’ve never felt before—something very special or unique,” says Murphy. “It is the spiritual makeup of each person in that group that comes through when they sing that is unique.”

Who are the “unique spirits” that make up the Choir? We caught up with several of them and found that each does, indeed, bring something unique and important to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Alex Boyé

Age: 40

Occupation: Musician

Family: Wife, 1 child (and 1 on the way)

Part: Baritone

Years with Choir: 4

Hometown: London

“There are no soloists in the choir,” says Alex Boyé. “When we’re completely unified, and we sing like one, the Spirit is present even more so—as we blend our voices.”

Boyé, who converted to the Church as a teenager in London, remembers the first time he heard the Choir after he became a member. His bishop in London purchased a ticket for him to see the Choir when it performed at Royal Albert Hall. At the time, Boyé was struggling in a lot of ways, but after hearing the Choir that day, he went back to his bishop and said, “I want to serve a mission; I have to serve a mission.” He later served a mission in Bristol, England.

After his mission, Boyé joined a boy band but eventually left the band scene to pursue a solo career, which he felt was more conducive to the kind of life he wanted to lead. He got the idea to audition for the Choir after he was invited to sing a duet for the Choir’s Broadway album.

Boyé says singing in the Choir has enriched his music. “Singing in the Choir is a whole different thing—we’re not making a living, we’re serving. We’re helping people to live and find spiritual comfort.  We hear stories all the time. And it continues to amaze me and humble me at the way people’s lives change. Music is one of the biggest healers.”

Memorable experience:  Choir president, Mac Christensen, came to rehearsal one day and said they were going to interrupt the rehearsal for a few minutes. He asked the Choir to grab their hymn books and follow him to the Conference Center. “When we got there, we arrived at this large enclosure, and President Hinckley’s casket was in the middle of the room, and we gathered around the casket and sang ‘We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,’” says Boyé. “I have a very strong testimony that that man we sang to was a Prophet of God. And I’ve never forgotten that experience. I’d always wanted to meet him, and I guess in a way, I had a chance to. We all felt his presence there as we sang to his casket—and we knew he wasn’t there—we knew that he lived.”

Robb Cundick

Age: 59

Occupation: Senior Software Developer, Huntsman Cancer Institute

Family: Wife, 5 children

Hometown: Salt Lake City

Part: Second tenor

Years in Choir: 20

“I noticed right off the bat that singing just lifts me up—I mean, I come home from rehearsals on Thursday nights, and I usually can’t get to sleep because I’m just so full of joy and so happy,” says Robb Cundick.

Cundick’s father, Robert, was an organist for the Mormon Tabernacle choir for 26 years, between 1965 and 1991. When his brother joined the Choir, he decided to give it a try himself, with the idea of singing during the last few years that his father played the organ for the Choir. “I just loved it so much, I stayed all twenty years,” says Cundick, who will be retiring from the Choir in May.

When the Choir went on a tour of Israel, Cundick’s parents were on a service mission at the Jerusalem Center, and he got the opportunity to stay with them there. He was with his parents in their apartment on New Year’s Eve when someone came by and said Elder Faust and Elder Holland were in the chapel. They wanted to know if Cundick’s father would play the organ for them. His father went up and played the organ. Cundick sang a Jewish piece the Choir had learned for that tour. After the music, they had an impromptu testimony meeting where Elder Faust shared his feelings about Christ. “That was wonderful,” says Cundick.

Memorable experience: The Choir was touring Eastern Europe and was singing a concert in Berlin one night when it was announced that Berlin was going to be the capital of Germany again. “The roar that went up from the crowd . . . ” remembers Cundick. “We joined them in applauding and cheering. It was special for me because my mission had been to Germany, and I had been to the border a few times and never dreamed that the country would be reunified. To be there—a part of that historical occasion—was really special.”

Elliott Clark

Age: 58

Occupation: Health IT Program Manager

Family: Wife, 4 children, 6 grandchildren

Years with Choir: 18

Hometown: Murray

Elliott Clark describes himself as a “choir brat” who remembers going to Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsals with his parents, sometimes sitting by his father on the steps next to the choir seats.  He was a charter member of the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus for seven years. His family sang together in a quintet that performed at community and church functions all over the state for a number of years. He particularly remembers caroling to neighbors and at nursing homes—musical service he says is something that left a “deep impression” on him.  “I had a desire from my earliest memory to become a member of the Tabernacle Choir,” says Clark. “I loved hearing the Choir and being a part of that experience.”

Several years ago, Clark’s sister, who was serving in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, invited Clark and his wife to a solemn assembly session in the Salt Lake Temple, as part of the Choir’s preparation for their European tour. “In that solemn assembly, of course I had been thinking about becoming a member of the Choir for a lot of years, and wondering when the time would be, because I certainly didn’t want to leave my wife with the younger children, so I waited until the right time.” He says that the solemn assembly, where President Hinckley and Elder Nelson were present, had a sacred feeling.  Then, when the Choir stood to sing their second anthem, Clark says, “I had an unmistakable feeling that the veil had parted, and I could feel that the spirits were coming into the room to participate. . . . I came away with the understanding that it was time to participate—to share this experience and start sharing my talents.”

Memorable experience: Elliott Clark served his mission in Illinois, and he visited Nauvoo during that time. He was able to return with the Choir to Nauvoo later to participate in the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple. Recollects Clark, “I was there [serving a mission] in the seventies when Nauvoo was very much like how the Saints had left it. . . .There was an empty lot and a depression where the temple had been and not much of the old city as you moved from the temple down towards the Mississippi River. It was still just a few trees and some fences and not much else. How gratifying it was to return with the Choir, as we did thirty-plus years later, to see the temple standing there, rebuilt, and most of the community—the old community—having been restored. It was really once again Nauvoo the City Beautiful. It’s just so marvelous to see that. As we rounded the corner the first time—just to see the city, and the temple up on the hill—I was just weeping. “

Jerry Okabe

Occupation: Publishing

Family: Wife, 3 children

Part: Bass

Years with Choir: 1

Hometown: Salt Lake City

When Jerry Okabe went to the gym  the week after singing in General Conference for the first time, a man he’d seen there several times before came up to him and said , “Are you in the Choir? I thought it was you, but I’ve never seen you in a suit.” Jerry Okabe says his family jokes that finding him while he sings with the Choir is like playing a Where’s Waldo game. He says, however, that it’s a bit easier for his family, since he is one of two Choir members who are of Asian descent. Okabe’s Japanese parents both grew up in Hawaii and converted to the Church as teenagers.

One of his inspirations for joining the Choir was when some colleagues visited him from back East. They spent a weekend doing typical Utah Valley tourist things—visiting This Is The Place Monument and the Church Family History Library. His friends found some of their ancestors in the family history files and were pretty excited about that. But when they went to Music and the Spoken Word Sunday morning, it was an entirely different experience. “They had tears in their eyes and said it was just so beautiful and inspirational,” says Okabe.

That experience made him think a lot more seriously about auditioning to join the Choir. He was a little intimidated because so many members of the Choir have years of formal musical training, whereas he had had only had about a year of violin and voice lessons. Okabe decided to give it a go anyway, and to his surprise, he made it through all three rounds of the grueling auditions. “I tend to think that there are not a lot of coincidences in life, and sometimes we get prepared for things that we don’t realize we’re being prepared for.”

Memorable experience: The Choir’s weekly broadcast can sometimes seem routine. But Okabe says he likes what Ryan Murphy told them recently at the end of a practice for the broadcast. “He said, ‘You know, you do this week after week, but every week you need to feel that you are worshipping and that you love what you do—which I know that you do—and that you feel the spirit of what you’re singing and the words you’re saying.’” Says Okabe, “There are weeks that you feel it more than others; but even though it happens every week, it’s amazing how much you can feel a difference because of the different songs you are singing, and I think in part because there is a different audience there.”

Scott Miller

Age: 53

Occupation: Banker

Family: Wife, 4 children

Years with Choir: 8

Hometown: Salt Lake City

Scott Miller grew up in a musical family. His great-grandmother frequently sang as a soloist for the Choir in the early 1900s, and both of his parents were members of the Choir. “My mother was a soprano soloist with the choir,” says Miller, “and I remember at a young age, every time she had a solo, I would sit in front of the TV and feel all the anxiety for her, and nervousness, and she always pulled through—always was a real professional.” He started singing in high school and eventually received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah in vocal performance, where he was in choirs and took private voice lessons. His wife also sang in choirs while they were going to school together, and it was a dream of theirs to sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir together.

In 2002, Miller and his wife felt that he should audition. He got in, and several years later, his wife followed him. She’s been in the choir for a little over two years. They’ve been able to go on tour together and sing at concerts and Church events. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to experience the spirit of the music and the spirit of the Choir together,” says Miller. Beginning a couple years ago, Miller’s mother and his aunt served as music missionaries in the Czech Republic. Scott and his wife were able to travel to the Czech Republic last year to pick up his mother from her mission. While there, the couple gave musical firesides with his mother and spoke about their experiences as choir members.

Memorable experience: When the Choir was touring the Midwest in the United States, they stopped to sing a concert in Memphis. While there, they heard about a 10-year-old girl named Chase who had just had brain surgery. Someone had suggested that a few members of the Choir sing to Chase at their hotel, but the entire Choir showed up in the lobby at the designated time. “They wheeled her in her wheelchair [into the lobby] and put her in one of the hotel’s cushioned seats, and the Choir just spontaneously started singing a few songs,” remembers Miller. “One of the songs we sang was ‘A Child’s Prayer,’ which, when we started singing that—the Spirit was overwhelming. We all witnessed . . . as this girl reached under her bandages, which were over her eyes and around her head, wipe tears from her eyes. It was just a very, very moving moment. . . . Her father wrote us a letter later. He  said, ‘You must have been inspired to sing "A Child’s Prayer," because that was the song I sang to her as she was going under anesthesia for her surgery, and as she woke up out of  her surgery, she was singing that song to herself. She said it just shows that Father in Heaven really does love and look after his children.'"

Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is now available at Deseret Book.

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