Sing Choirs of Angels

by | Dec. 14, 2006

LDS Life

In the daily routines of Mormon Tabernacle Choir members and friends who work with the Choir, the missionary spirit is evident, and opportunities to introduce the Church, share the gospel, and lift the lives of those who hear them abound.


Every Sunday morning in a pretty town in northern Utah, Brother Tom and Sister Cindy Guffey wake up long before it’s light. They get ready for the day and by 6:30 a.m. they’re on the road, an hour commute ahead of them. The Guffey’s arrive with several hundred others like them at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, ready to serve as guest service missionaries—ushers and hosts—for guests to the longest running network broadcast in the world, Music and the Spoken Word.   

Their calling requires them to interact with thousands of people every week. “So many people come who are not members of our Church just to hear the Choir,” says Sister Guffey. 

One Sunday morning last spring, Brother Guffey was assigned to work outside, welcoming bus tours to the Conference Center and Music and the Spoken Word. A couple on vacation from North Carolina met Brother Guffey on the sidewalk. They had planned on going to the Choir rehearsal on Thursday night and then on to Oregon, they told Brother Guffey, but Thursday had been so wonderful they changed their plans just to be able to attend the Sunday broadcast. 

“What is that that I feel?” the woman asked Brother Guffey when the performance finished. After a brief explanation of the Spirit they said goodbye, but instead of going on to Oregon, the couple stayed.  

“The next Sunday I was out on the curb and they were back,” says Brother Guffey. “They had changed their whole itinerary because they had to figure out what it was that they were feeling.” Brother Guffey gave them a recording of the Choir and the missionaries’ information for when they got back to North Carolina.  

“And we have those kind of experiences all the time, because of the Choir,” says Brother Guffey. 

From people from all walks of life and all across the world, the Choir is near universally renowned. “Members or nonmembers walk in this building, hear the Choir, and are just overwhelmed,” says Sister Guffey. “They are brought to tears. The Choir just radiates the Spirit and dedication.” 

And that dedication comes from the unity of 360 enthusiastic, devoted members whose love of singing and love for the Lord make all the effort, all the hours, and all the sacrifices melt away into the background. A background that is noteworthy of its own praise. 

Trying Out

The first step in creating the Choir is the audition. “Auditioning was the worst thing I’ve ever been through, but the end was worth it,” one member said.  

The six-month auditioning process has been described as grueling, and rejections as devastating, but the Choir members and directors empathize, and they share a resounding call of encouragement to those who want to try. In making prospective candidates aware of the requirements, their purpose is not to dishearten, but to enthusiastically invite.  

The Initial Application

The audition is a four-part process beginning with an application picked up the first week of July every year. The requirements to audition are membership in the Church, age between twenty-five and fifty-five years old, good health, a body size that can be accommodated by the choir’s wardrobe (exceptionally small or large sizes are limited), and the ability to receive a bishop’s recommendation indicating temple worthiness.  

The application also details the Choir’s time commitment and seeks to determine the applicant’s dedication. The application lists the priorities of a Choir member as: first, his relationship with God; second, his family relationships; third, his occupational pursuits and responsibilities; and fourth, his volunteer membership by calling to the Choir. 

With the application, potential Choir members must turn in a tape recording of them singing either “Abide With Me,” “O My Father,” or “I Need Thee Every Hour.” In the recording they must play and announce the beginning pitch in a comfortable key, sing one verse without accompaniment, and play and announce the ending pitch (the goal is to end in the same key in which they started). Then they sing a few bars of the same hymn with a straight tone, a few measures with a quiet undertone, a few loudly. Finally, they record three vocal exercises to help determine natural voice range. 

Choir director Craig Jessop and associate director Mack Wilberg review the applications and the tapes, listening for intonation, articulation, consistency of tone, breath support, diction, vowel placement, and pitch, to name a few. 

After the directors have eliminated a number of the applicants, a letter is sent with specific instructions about how they could improve. Candidates who do make it through the first cut are notified and invited to the written test. 

The Test

Singing in a choir of this caliber requires much more than a good voice. Given how fast the Choir must learn a large number of musical selections, members must have a working knowledge of musical principles that will allow them to not only learn the notes, but understand their relationship and function in the piece. Applicants’ inherent musical ability and theory skills are tested in a two-hour exam consisting of two parts: the Music Skills Inventory and Music Theory tests. 

Husband and wife team David and Debra Gehris, both section leaders in the Choir, have been administering the tests since 1988. The inventory is given orally on a recording, which means candidates can’t study for it. The test asks the applicant to listen to chords, musical phrases, and melodies and then indicate keys, modes, and tones. The purpose of this portion is to allow the directors to determine how quickly the applicant can analyze musical information.  

Unlike the inventory, applicants can actually study for the theory test. It is made up of multiple-choice questions testing knowledge of key signatures, intervals, tetrachords, triads, note values, and other concepts. 

Applicants who score eighty percent or better are invited to audition in person for Brothers Jessop and Wilberg.  

The Audition

“The audition was more intense than any other I’ve done, including Utah Opera,” one member said. Before singing, the directors review the time commitment and requirements for membership in the Choir and the candidate is asked to sign a statement of commitment.  

The scene is daunting: The candidates stand alone before Brothers Jessop and Wilberg and wait for two of the most talented musicians in the Church to pass judgment on their voice. But, they remind applicants, the entire audition process is carried out with the Spirit, so they do not need to feel fearful.  

Candidates come ready to sing a hymn and a section of a choral piece, and then are asked to sight read. After that, the audition is over and each candidate waits for a letter in the mail. 

One Last Step

Once the new Choir members are selected, the Temple Square Chorale is formed with the new members and some current Choir members. The Chorale is a training group with weekly rehearsals as well as theory and technique classes for three months, after which the new members are officially welcomed as members of the Choir. 

Rehearsals

Now here’s the reason for the Choir being number four on a member’s priority list. The Choir rehearses every Thursday for two hours, nearly every other Tuesday for two hours, every Sunday morning for two hours, plus the hour-long Music and the Spoken Word broadcast.  

Membership in the Choir is a calling, and most of the members have regular day jobs on top of their service. Especially when the member needs to commute, like the Gehrises do from Orem, Utah, forty minutes away, the time commitment can be a little overwhelming.

“Many nights when I come home from work I’m tired and really don’t want to go to Choir—it’s a long drive from Orem to Salt Lake,” says Sister Gehris. “But when I get there, I feel much better. I feel happy to be there, happy to be able to sing with so many friends.  It is hard work, it can be tiring, but I always leave feeling refreshed and so good!” 

And the rehearsals aren’t a cake walk, either. “The rehearsals are busy!” says Sister Gehris. “When I first get there, I get my music all in order, visit with friends (briefly) and then get into the loft so I’m all ready by the warm-up at 7:25. From there on out it’s just constant rehearsal. We’ll go through the music for the next broadcast until about 9:00, then run through music for the following week, so the two hours goes by very quickly.”


After that there are still difficult sections that Choir members take home to practice during the week. Then when a tour is coming up or something like the Christmas concert, members get a rehearsal CD for practicing at home. “I pop it in the CD player in my car and sing along as I’m driving,” says Sister Gehris.   


In addition to all of the practice time, the Choir takes a major two- to three-week tour about every two years, which usually draws from their vacation time at work. And then the recording sessions: twice a year, five days in a row, for three to four hours each day. 

Laying Down Tracks

So for each CD, how do you fit nearly five hundred choir and orchestra members into a recording studio? You don’t. You turn the Conference Center into the recording studio. 

Normally, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square lay down tracks in the Tabernacle, but for the May 2006 recording session the Tabernacle was under renovations, so the Choir had to temporarily relocate to the Conference Center across the street.  

But unlike rehearsals and performances, where the Choir sits uniformly in their comfortable chairs at the foot of the organ pipes, recording in the Conference Center is an entirely different animal. 

First, a platform and risers are pulled into the center of the front portion of the hall, where the Church leaders sit during General Conference. Next, chairs are placed on the risers for the Choir and on the platform for the orchestra. Sound boards are set up around the back and sides of the risers and on a frame that drops from the ceiling, hanging some thirty feet above the highest riser. These sound boards are acoustical blankets, helping bring the sound of the orchestra and choir together, and keeping it from getting lost in the massive hall. 

It takes around thirty engineers a little over two days to set this up. After the risers, chairs, and sound boards are in place, they go to work on the microphones and wiring for the sound equipment.   

Recording a CD of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is tricky to say the least. The sheer size of the group and the set up makes for unique challenges. Microphone positioning must be exact; any one out of place and the engineers or Brother Wilberg would be able to hear the alteration. For the listeners, that means a voice or instrument might stand out where it shouldn’t.   

To make sure everything is perfect, only the best sound engineers in the business will do. Straight from Los Angeles, the Choir flies in Fred Vogler, the sound engineer for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Hollywood Bowl, and Bruce Leek, an indispensable veteran of the recording business having worked with top name talent all over the world for over thirty years. Brother Jessop was conducting this recording session which means Brother Wilberg was back in the sound booth with Vogler, Leek, and others. On songs that Brother Wilberg conducts, Brother Jessop is listening in the back.  

They begin Tuesday night at 7:00 sharp with “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan. Brother Jessop directs the orchestra and choir through the song one time, then the engineers roll the tape and begin the first take.  

In the middle of the second take a cell phone rings. Brother Jessop politely stops and like a patient father says, “Can everyone double check and turn off cell phones, pagers. . . pacemakers?” to which the Choir and orchestra members all chuckle. 

After ten bars of the fourth take Brother Wilberg’s voice comes over the loud speaker. “Thank you,” he says, and the Choir ends abruptly. “Just a few things. There is a big crescendo in bar fifty-six. In sixty-one release on the end of four exactly as written. Sixty-five breathe on the end of three as written. And there’s an alto on the first row who is flat.” 

The Choir begins again, and Brother Wilberg stops them to fix a few other things. “There’s a lot of noise at the end of thirty-four; I don’t know where it’s coming from,” he says. Even though he’s making correction after correction, the mood is easy and light-hearted, and an alto quips to Brother Jessop, “We can hear you breathe.” The choir and orchestra members erupt into laughter with Brother Wilberg saying, “That’s not what it is.”   

“The problem with recording with this many people is room noise,” Brother Jessop tells the Choir after the snickers have died down. With 360 folding chairs on top of bleacher-style risers, it’s a wonder they can record at all; any movement carries to one of the forty mikes surrounding the group. And so every fifth take or so, Brother Jessop or Wilberg remind everyone to be perfectly still. “Be as quiet as you can,” Brother Jessop says with a smile. “Don’t even breathe unless you have to.”  

Ten more takes come and go with more tweaking and corrections all aimed at producing enough takes so that during editing sessions in Vogler’s studio in Los Angeles, the engineers can pull together that one perfect song. 

On take fifteen, Brother Wilberg has another correction: “We’re picking up individual vibratos, especially in the women,” he says. Finally, after the eighteenth take and the closing snare drum solo burned soundly in everyone’s memory, the ensemble is finished recording “Hymn to the Fallen.” “Thank you,” Brother Wilberg says. “That was very good. Let’s take fifteen minutes and begin ‘In Dreams’ at 8:30.” 

At the end of the week the engineers fly back to L.A., and in March of 2007, everyone will be able to enjoy the new CD. 

Show Time

Like the couple from North Carolina, people from all over the world come to listen to the Choir. Every Sunday morning you’ll find them broadcasting Music and the Spoken Word from the Conference Center. Each broadcast includes around half a dozen songs and a short devotional address from Lloyd Newell. Until renovations are completed on the Salt Lake Tabernacle, the program will continue in the Conference Center, after which the Choir will likely move back to their namesake.


In addition to the program and special broadcasts like the First Presidency Christmas Devotional, the Pioneer Day Commemoration Concert, and others, every second or third year the Choir ventures outside the Salt Lake Valley to bring their music to the masses. So far they have performed in thirty-eight states and 112 cities across the U.S., and twenty-eight countries and seventy-one cities all over the world.  Several buses and a few semis escort the Choir around the country. The schedule is busy, packing as much into the few weeks as possible. On any given tour day Choir members get up, eat breakfast, get on the bus, have a sack lunch on the bus, arrive in the performance city, rehearse, eat dinner and change, give the concert, get back to the hotel, go to bed, get up, and do it all over again in a new city.  

“When there’s time, we get to do some sight-seeing,” says Sister Gehris. “In New York City four years ago, some Choir members went to Ground Zero; in Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell. In Orlando we even had a chance to spend a few hours in Disney World.  When we’re out we wear our Choir nametags. People see them and come up to us and ask about the Choir, which leads to talking about the Church. We’ll often give them a CD of the Choir and invite them to the concert.”

Sister Gehris says that wherever the Choir sings, the audiences are receptive. “No matter if it’s Ephraim, Utah, or Jerusalem, Israel, I love to watch the audiences for their reactions, and when possible visit with the audience members after the concert.” 

Special songs touch the hearts of so many listeners, with poignant events standing out in the Choir members’ memories. “The audiences in Moscow and Leningrad [now St. Petersburg] were so responsive!” says Sister Gehris. “We were there in 1991 before the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union. The people seemed to want what the Choir had to give. They wanted to touch us, to learn more about us. We sang ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ in the Soviet Union and the people sang ‘Glory, Glory Halleluiah!’ along with the Choir—tears streaming down their faces.” 


The tears and accolades from those whose lives are moved by the spirit of the Choir are too touching to go unnoticed. And they continue to come, while the Choir carries on with their trademark devotion to music and service.


For information on Music and the Spoken Word airings in your area, call 1-800-247-6655 or visit musicandthespokenword.com or byutv.com. In Utah, you can hear Music and the Spoken Word live each Sunday on KSL TV5, KSL AM 1160, or KSL FM 102.7.  

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com