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As a volunteer group, the Choir constantly rotates through members who either retire (reach age 60 or the 20-year service limit) or leave for personal reasons such as changes in family, work, or living situation, so annual tryouts are held to select new members based on needs for each vocal part. They don’t tell you how many of each part they need, but generally speaking, the competition is a little more intense for women than men.
This year, the Choir office posted a call for applications beginning on July 1. But before you even download the necessary forms, you must make sure that you are:
- A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in good standing
- Between 25 and 55 years old by the date your Choir service would begin
- Currently residing within 100 miles of Temple Square
- Able to commit to the required attendance level, and
- In good enough health to permit consistent participation in rehearsals, performances, travel, and recording sessions.
If the first requirement on the list is a problem for you, let me know and I’ll send over a couple of nice missionaries. In the meantime, let’s move on to the first step in what will be a long, anxiety-inducing process.
Phase 1: Written Application, Bishop’s Recommendation, and Recorded Audition
There are three phases to applying, and three parts to the first phase. First, you must complete a …
- Written application. Your application will include a recent headshot, personal and family information, music education and experience, and names of any family members who are in the choir. In my case, no family members are currently in the Choir, but my mother and sister have been in the past. Having family in the Choir can be helpful because it lets them know that you know exactly what you’re committing yourself to. With your written application, you must include a …
- Confidential bishop’s recommendation. Because Choir membership is considered a mission call, your bishop must provide a recommendation verifying (among other things) that you are an active member living in the 100-mile radius. He’ll return this recommendation to you in a sealed envelope for you to include with your application, along with a …
- Recorded vocal audition. You must provide a CD of you singing several specified vocal exercises that demonstrate your range, diction, and tone. It was a little tricky for me to find a way to get my recorded file from my iPhone onto a CD-player-readable disc—I haven’t had a computer with a CD drive for five years or more. But eventually, my husband dug up something that functioned well enough to get the job done. Nothing is impossible for the persistent.
Not too hard, right? Just get the whole package in the mail by August 15 to make sure you are considered among this year’s applicants. You’ll be notified in early September if you have been chosen to move on to …
Phase 2: The Musical Skills Assessment
This year, about 70 of the approximately 200 applicants were invited to take this two-hour assessment. Part of the assessment is a written music theory test covering concepts essential to choral singing, such as key signatures, major and minor scales, intervals, and triads. To help you study, the Choir office will lend you a copy of Basic Materials in Music Theory by Harder and Steinke. To review the whole book in time for the test, I averaged two hours of study a night for two weeks.
The rest of the test is aural. After listening to recorded musical phrases and chords, you provide answers on a bubble sheet demonstrating your skills in areas such as discerning between major and minor modes or indicating where music you hear differs from written music on the page. There is no going back to change your answers—everyone has to move forward along with the recording to the next question and the next and the next, until it’s finally over and you find yourself completely confused about whether you filled the bubbles in the right order or had them accidentally reversed.
Afterward, you may feel a little like Schrödinger’s cat waiting for someone to check in to see if you’re alive or dead, but this state of suspense will last for a couple of weeks. If you pass with at least 80%, you will be invited to …
Phase 3: An In-Person Audition
This final step takes place in mid-October. For this, you must prepare to sing the melody line of any LDS hymn in the key that best suits your range. An accompanist will be provided who, it seems, is able to transpose any hymn on the fly. You’ll also be put through your paces in a variety of sight-reading exercises. So after a brief interview with the Choir president, you’ll be led to a room to audition for director Mack Wilberg and assistant director Ryan Murphy.
I’ve met both of these men previously—I sang under Wilberg’s direction in the BYU Concert Choir about 25 years ago (where I occasionally got called out for chewing gum during practice) and I met Murphy in 2016 when my son won a consultation with him for his entry in a youth composer’s festival. Amazingly, they both remembered me, a feat which goes a long way toward demonstrating just how crucial a good memory is for directing any large performing group. My husband often laments his own inability to hang onto names and faces. These two do not suffer that failing.
What happens next will depend entirely on your own abilities. I can only report how I did—which was pretty awful. In my defense, despite regular choir practices and performances over the years, I haven’t tried out for anything in a couple of decades. And despite everyone’s kindness and professionalism, it is still incredibly intimidating to actually audition for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. So, while I didn’t pass out or sing out of tune, and my sight-reading was … er … workmanlike—my nervousness caused my voice to sound forced at some points and audibly quaver at others. I had no support to cover my break when I moved between higher and lower notes. In short, I was shaking in my boots and everyone could hear it. They assured me that everyone gets nervous and they take that into account, but I was personally disappointed in my performance and wishing just a little bit that they would put me out of my misery and tell me right then and there, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
But if you’ve followed along this far, you probably realize nobody gets off the hook that quickly. Notification of audition results won’t arrive by mail until early November.
In the meantime, you can contemplate what comes next: If you pass the audition, you’ll enter the Temple Square Chorale and Choir School for a 16-week training. This period is essential for getting you up to speed on what you need to know to be a fully functioning Choir member from day one. You must demonstrate that you can meet the attendance requirement of twice-weekly trainings plus several other scheduled dates for performances and rehearsals. Those 16 weeks are going to be very busy, but by the end, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running.
And if you don’t pass the audition? Not to worry. They will let you know what areas you need to work on to improve your chances in the future. If you try out again, you’ll have a chance to provide information in your application about what you did to get better.
“Yes, yes,” you’re thinking. “That’s all very interesting, but it doesn’t answer the final question: What did your letter say? Did you make it in?”
No, I did not. It was disappointing, but (as you may have gathered from above) not entirely unexpected. They did send me a very encouraging letter that read, “We feel that you have strong potential to become a member of the Choir” and then listed areas I need to work on. If I decide to try out again, I will have to go through the entire three-month process from application to test to audition next year.
Will I do it? That’s a good question. I’m a great choir singer and I know I would be an asset to the Choir—but I excel as part of a group, not the center of attention. Unfortunately, there is no route from where I now stand to where I want to go that doesn’t pass through a rigorous gauntlet of tests that draw a heck of a lot of attention right smack onto me.
So I’m mulling it over. I’ve got time to think. My sister is offering to give me voice lessons. My mother is telling me to be brave and not give up. My friends are giving me hugs and sympathy. And I’m starting to think maybe it will be OK to try again. Now that I know how it works, maybe I can do it—after nine months of studying and practicing and performing and thinking and fretting about everything I need to improve and all the time and effort it will take and …
And maybe after I get a prescription for some beta blockers.