Once in a while, we receive the opportunity to experience something remarkable. I recently experienced just such a remarkable opportunity as I participated in a one-on-one interview with the President of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Ron Jarrett.
Kim Farah, Choir publicist in the Church Public Affairs Department, informed me that President Jarrett is the only president who has also been a singing member of the Choir. She knew I would be blessed to receive this rare two-fold perspective and I am indebted to her for arranging our meeting.
As our discussion began, I explained to President Jarrett that in response to a “call for questions” which I had posted on social media in anticipation for our interview, I had received many, many inquiries about “America’s Choir” from people all around the world. I expressed my gratitude, in behalf of all of us, for his time and willingness to answer our questions.
For the next 30 minutes insight was shared. Secrets were revealed. Testimony was felt. The Spirit was present. A new love for the “Lord’s Choir” developed in my heart and I hope, as you read the following transcript, you will experience the same.
Interview with President Jarrett
President of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
April: “I’ve read on the Choir’s official website, that the requirements for becoming a member include being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in good standing, able to qualify for a temple recommend, being between the ages of 22 and 55 years old and currently residing within 100 miles of temple square, as well as other requirements. I could not find, however, whether or not an assignment to the Choir was a calling. Is being a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir a calling? And if so, who extends that call and what is the typical length of service?
President Jarrett: “Yes. It is a calling. It is extended from the Office of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the member is set apart from someone within that office. The member may serve up to 20 years or until the age of 60, whichever comes first. They are, however, able to break that 20 year length of service into chunks if they wish. For instance, someone in their twenties can serve 5 years and then, later in life, come back and fulfill the remaining 15 years. They must audition again, if they were away for more than a year, but that is an option available.”
April: “I also noticed online that auditions are open for a period of time every year. I wonder how many people are needed in the Choir each year? Is there a general window – maybe 2 to 4 members? Because it looks like the length of service is quite extensive.”
President Jarrett: “Because of personal reasons, health issues, work, etc.. some members may need to leave the Choir for a time. Then, there are also the retirement groups who have fulfilled their 20 years or who have reached age 60, who also leave every year. This opens up about 18-30 openings on average. This year we are able to take in 35 members.
New members go through a training period and meet two evenings each week. They train on Tuesday evenings in a chorale where they sing with the group that came in the previous year. They learn a master work which has to be performed as part of their final admittance to the Choir. Then, on Thursday evenings, they have to come to a class, a “Choir school” class,. They are taught by a PhD trained musician that we bring in to teach choral singing, how things are done in the Choir, and how to best prepare themselves for that experience. They go over policies and procedures for the Choir and really tutor them in what it means to be a choral singer for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
April: “Does the Choir have any sort of motto or mission statement that best defines what it means to be a choral member of the Choir?”
President Jarrett: “We have a mission statement that says that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (and the Orchestra at Temple Square and the Bells are included under that umbrella) is to serve as goodwill ambassadors for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So that’s the primary purpose – to be goodwill ambassadors for the Church. We do that through music that prepares the hearts of members and non-members anywhere in the world. We really emphasize that because of the great blessing of having the internet now and YouTube channels that go everywhere, access to our webpage and so forth. So, through music, to prepare the hearts of members and non-members throughout the world to actively follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
April: “What about touring? Do you still tour? If so, how often?”
President Jarrett: “Yes, we do still tour and normally our schedule is every other year. We take a year to prepare for tour and then we go on the tour the following year. We have to begin that early because we’re taking about 600 people when we tour. You have to book early hotels, buses, airlines. You have to look at venues and make sure they’re large enough to handle a choir and orchestra of our size. There are lots of great places to perform, but most of them are not large enough to handle our size.
So we tour every other year. This year we went to Europe for 3 weeks and it piggy-backed on last year’s tour that was to the Atlantic coast. We were working on the European tour as our next tour, but everything felt easier to go in 2016, so we just moved it up a year and went! We went this year, so we will not tour next year. We will start going every other year on the even-numbered years.”
April: “I have some questions about rehearsals. What does a typical rehearsal look like? I know that they last for a couple of hours on Thursday evenings and then at least 3 hours on Sunday mornings. Is that right?”
President Jarrett: “Yes. The Choir comes at 7:00 on Thursday and stays until 9:30. The orchestra comes at 6:30 and they stay until about 8:30.”
April: “Do they work together during that time?”
President Jarrett: “Yes. The Orchestra has half an hour to work on their own with the conductors and then the Choir comes. Then they go home and the Choir stays, usually for an extra hour to work with the conductors and the organ. That’s on Thursday. Then on Sunday, the Choir comes first. They come at 7:30 and the Orchestra comes at 8:00. We do the broadcast beginning at 9:30 and that’s a half an hour broadcast so we’re through by 10:00. However, when we get busy or are preparing for major concerts, then Mack (Wilberg) will ask the Choir and Orchestra to remain (usually it’s just the Choir but sometimes it will be the Orchestra) after the 10:00 hour and they’ll stay until 11:30 and they’ll rehearse music until then. So, on Sunday, the Choir could feasibly be here from 7:30 to 11:30.”
April: “During that time, does the Choir typically rehearse as a group? Or in sections for part of the time?”
President Jarrett: “That’s a good question because a lot of choirs do do sectional rehearsals but our Choir does not. It is always everybody together. He will have a section, or all the men or all the women or whatever, sing a passage that might be difficult or that he doesn’t care for the quality of, or there’s a mistake in the number. He’ll have them sing that while everyone’s still sitting there and then we’ll move on. He’ll say, ‘That’s a problem area, we’ll sing it correctly and then you mark it and you take it home, learn it and get it correct.'”
April: “How are the members organized in the Choir? I’m sure they’re organized in parts but then are they also arranged, or seated, according to height? Or are there other things involved?”
President Jarrett: “Yes, you’re correct on both accounts. We have first and second soprano, first and second alto, first and second tenor, first and second bass, and they sit according to their section. The shortest people are in the front and the tallest in the back so the rows look even when you look at them over television. The way we cheat a little bit (This a little inside secret!) is if there is a person that doesn’t quite fit the height of that row, they might be just a little bit too short for the row they’re on, we provide stools for them to stand on. We try to maintain that unified appearance all the way across.
We have 2 people who seat the Choir and they’re very careful in how they arrange the heights and the sections so that it’s just exactly what Mack wants.”
April: “Oh really? I wouldn’t imagine that that would change then very often?”
President Jarrett: “It does. It changes every time we perform. So every Sunday they have a given seat, but then when we have people who are ill or are unable to attend, then they have to fill in those seats. So people sometimes have to move just slightly, one or two seats around, to fill in what has to be filled in.”
April: “I had so many questions on their clothing, President! People are wondering things like – is there a clothing manager? Do the Choir members ever take them home? Are they in charge of anything themselves? Do they have to pay for anything? Launder anything? Is everything provided for them including the shoes? Jewelry? How does the clothing work?”
President Jarrett: “Okay, that’s a very good question as well. The Choir is provided their uniform when they join the Choir. The only thing that the men have to provide would be black shoes and stockings and a white shirt. The women have what they call a performance shoe which is to say that shoe has to be a shoe without a heel. It has to be just a flat shoe. It can have a slight heel to it, but not a stiletto type thing. So it’s a performance shoe and it can’t have any Velcro or buckles on it because they tend to chew up the bottoms of the dresses. Then, of course, they have to wear their own slip and they have to provide anything that they wear if they perspire profusely. They have to have a pad for that for their dress and so forth.
The dresses are made here, in the basement of the Tabernacle by some volunteers who sew. They make the dresses for the sisters and alter them as needed. Everything is sent out from here to be cleaned. No one is to take home a uniform for any purpose, unless they are instructed to carry it for a performance. Otherwise everything stays here.
The men are the same way. We don’t make their clothing. We buy their clothing. If it needs to be tailored, we have it done professionally.
The jewelry for the sisters is purchased. Some of it has been made. They had a number of sisters string necklaces with certain crystals and beads and so forth. But everything is made and maintained right here.
There’s no cost to the Choir for any of that sort of thing. It’s all paid for by the choir fund.”
April: “By the Choir fund…is that provided by tithing?”
President Jarrett: “No. We are self-sustaining and separate from Church funds. It is from the sale of our CDs and DVDs, our books and our products. All the earnings from that go into our Choir fund and that is the fund that we operate with.”
April: “That makes me want to go and buy some CDs today!”
President Jarrett: “Good! Do!”
April: “I really wanted to get more at your mission statement, which was that you are ambassadors for the Church and are trying to provide a spiritual experience through song – if I understood that right? (President Jarrett: Yes. That’s basically it.) So, what would you say, being a former member yourself, is the most priceless part of being a Choir member? What do you think everyone would agree on?
President Jarrett: “Well, I think everyone would tell you that their personal preparation musically, helps them to then be able to put all of their heart, their thought, and their emotion into their music. And that’s what I call, sending their message. So, when I ask the Choir to “Please focus and send your message today.” It’s asking them to put everything they have – their emotions, their thoughts, everything – into their preparation and into the delivery of their music. It’s through that sending of the message, that the Choir all feels very united. It’s that moment when they feel it. Everyone feels it. As a former member I can tell you I felt it many, many times – when you just know that that music is reaching someone. It’s making a difference, in some way, for some people.
We aren’t out there to convert the world through our music. We’re not there for that purpose. We are there to touch their hearts and give them an experience with music that will brighten their day, lift their load, calm their anxieties. Whatever they personally need, we feel like the music can do that, and we want to be the vehicle to send that music to them.”
April: “Well, personally, I have experienced that Spirit every day. I’m a seminary teacher and we listen to Mormon Tabernacle Choir music every morning before the class starts to set the tone in our classroom. The students love the Choir! They were so excited that I was going to speak with you today! So you’ve provided a spiritual experience in our little corner of California and we thank you for that.”
President Jarrett: “You’re more than welcome!”
April: “Is there a memorable spiritual experience that the Choir has had that you can share with us? Maybe when you knew angels were with you? Or that you were singing for angels? Or anything you feel might touch a reader of this article?”
Pres. Jarrett: “Yes. Recently Candlelight Media prepared a full-length movie that involved a story of a woman who auditioned for the Choir. It’s called, “Singing With Angels.” They took that title from experiences that the Choir has had, where they have felt the presence of spiritual beings as they have performed or as they have rehearsed. One example of that, I can share with you.
Sometimes the Choir members will send me their thoughts or their feelings or their experiences. Or people from the outside do that as well. But, in this particular case we were recording a new CD. It turned out to be entitled, “Homeward Bound”. It featured the talented Bryn Terfel as a soloist on it. It hearkened back to the time when the Choir was first organized by early Welsh singers, back in the 1850s. It was during those rehearsals that (Bryn himself is Welsh) we were singing some of the music in the Welsh language. It all brought back memories for the listeners of coming to Zion…of coming home. That’s where the title comes from, “Homeward Bound”. Some of the members were kind enough to share their experiences with that, when they felt…(an emotional pause)…when they felt as they sang, the spirit of departed members of the choir…who really lifted them. It is not easy singing in Welsh. It’s a very difficult language. And of course the music, when you record, is very demanding. But they just felt like they were lifted, and helped. They had the presence of angels with them, making it possible for them to produce that particular album.
That’s just one experience of many, many experiences that the Choir has had that are indeed manifestations of great things.
April: “I have that CD. I’m going to listen to it with new ears now. And you said it wasn’t just angels that were with them, but actual departed members of the choir?”
President Jarrett: “That’s what they felt. Yes. That’s what they shared.”
April: “That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. That’s what I was hoping for because we knew, as I was speaking with people who had questions for you, we knew that being not only “America’s Choir”, but in our opinion “The Lord’s Choir”, that there must be many spiritual experiences. We wished we could get a glimpse of just one. So thank you so much for sharing that.”
President Jarrett: “I am very happy to share those with you.”
April: “Is there anything, last of all, that you would like us to know, that I haven’t asked, that you feel would be nice for the world to know about The Mormon Tabernacle Choir?”
President Jarrett: “You know there are so many wonderful things that I could say about what we’d like to do and what we’d like to see people enjoy and have. But basically the Choir is there to lift the lives of people. To make a difference for them. And we hope that no matter what their denomination, their circumstances, their positions, any place in the world – if they have a chance to hear the music, that it will lift their life and makes their lives better. That’s what we’re here for.
This inside glimpse into the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has truly touched my life, as has their music. Through this experience and the new insight I discovered, they have become more than “America’s Choir” or “The Lord’s Choir”, though those things they certainly are! But now, to me, they are….”My Choir.”
From now on, every time I listen to them, I will do so with different ears.
I know they will be sending their message,
…and I will be listening.
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