So You Want to Join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?

 

By MoTabChoir01 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What a coincidence! Joining the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been a long-time dream of mine, too, but until recently I’ve been too busy with work and family to even think about it. This fall, I finally went through the full application process, and—having kept it a secret from just about everyone but my family in the meantime—I can now act as your guide on the ins and outs of auditioning for what Ronald Reagan dubbed “America’s Choir.”

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 …

  1. 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 …
  2. 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 …
  3. 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

At Temple Square before my 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.

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  1. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    With standards as rigorous as those, it is no wonder the MTC sounds as good as they do.  An inspiring standard in a day when excellent choral singing is falling by the wayside in so many churches.

    And speaking as choral arranger, Mack Wilberg is one of the very best arrangers in the world – particularly when it comes to interpreting old hymns in fresh ways.

    • #1
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Merrijane: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.

    My opera-singing, gun-toting friend swears by practice at the gun range as a way to help conquer the jitters (note that this friend is a different friend from @vicrylcontessa, although Vicryl might recommend the same thing).

    In many more prestigious orchestras, over half the violinists are on beta blockers, or so I have heard.

    • #2
  3. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Merrijane: 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.

    This is the most common problem student musicians face. One time I asked a friend of mine who was a conductor why kids can perform by themselves on a stage with a thousand people in the audience and be as relaxed as can be but fall apart at an audition. He said, “These are two completely different emotional experiences. Auditions are the hardest moments in a musician’s life.”

    We used to run workshops for the kids a week or so before auditions came up just to get them used to the one-on-one or small committee setting of having people judging them critically. Student musicians are harder on themselves than anyone else will ever be. That’s how they reach the heights of performance they reach. They are true perfectionists. They assume those little tiny sounds or beats that are slightly off from what they want to hear the judges are hearing too, and it distracts them.

    The conductor used to counsel our kids that the people on the other side of the table are just like you and have gone through exactly what you are going through. They are sympathetic. They should be thought of as friends.

    Do try again. Just make pretend auditions part of your preparation.

     

    • #3
  4. John Peabody Member
    John Peabody
    @JohnAPeabody

    Fascinating! Like every other church in America, my choir (um…14 people?) pales in comparison to the Utah organization. But I am happy to continue an Episcopalian tradition of four-part singing, albeit on a very small scale.  Best of luck.

    • #4
  5. Richard O'Shea Coolidge
    Richard O'Shea
    @RichardOShea

    Definitely do it again!  Part of the nervousness was not knowing what to expect.

    Meanwhile, I am going to send part of your post on to my choir….

     

     

    • #5
  6. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Merrijane: Afterward you may feel a little like Schrödinger’s cat waiting for someone to check in to see if you’re alive or dead,

    You do make me smile.   A  beautiful poet’s voice and a lovely physical one.  And a sense of humor that helps blend the angst and joyful hope of this experience into a very engaging post here on Ricochet.

    Thank you :)

    PS.   We’d love a Youtube featuring your singing?

     

    • #6
  7. Merrijane Inactive
    Merrijane
    @Merrijane

    Trink (View Comment):
    We’d love a Youtube featuring your singing?

    HAHAHAHA! Oh dear, we’re you serious?

    • #7
  8. thelonious Member
    thelonious
    @thelonious

    Sing your heart out sister!! I might start watching the Sunday morning simulcast if.. excuse me.. When you make it.  Just be confident.  Best of Luck.

    • #8
  9. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    thelonious (View Comment):
    Sing your heart out sister!! I might start watching the Sunday morning simulcast if.. excuse me.. When you make it. Just be confident. Best of Luck.

    Is the simulcast on BYU TV?

    • #9
  10. ltpwfdcm Coolidge
    ltpwfdcm
    @ltpwfdcm

    My big obstacle currently is that I’m 11.28 miles too far according to Google Maps…c’est la vie, perhaps in a few years time… Congrats on making it to an in-person audition though!

    • #10
  11. Merrijane Inactive
    Merrijane
    @Merrijane

    MLH (View Comment):

    thelonious (View Comment):
    Sing your heart out sister!! I might start watching the Sunday morning simulcast if.. excuse me.. When you make it. Just be confident. Best of Luck.

    Is the simulcast on BYU TV?

    Yes it is, though they also live stream it on LDS.org

    • #11
  12. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Merrijane (View Comment):

    Trink (View Comment):
    We’d love a Youtube featuring your singing?

    HAHAHAHA! Oh dear, we’re you serious?

    Yesssss!!!!

    • #12
  13. Merrijane Inactive
    Merrijane
    @Merrijane

    Trink (View Comment):

    Merrijane (View Comment):

    Trink (View Comment):
    We’d love a Youtube featuring your singing?

    HAHAHAHA! Oh dear, we’re you serious?

    Yesssss!!!!

    The last video of me singing is from high school. I apologize for the painfully bad acting. [Sorry for all the editing of this comment. I can’t get tools to work on my phone!]

    • #13
  14. CRD Member
    CRD
    @CRD

    Please try again! And remind us when you start so that we can cheer you on!

    • #14
  15. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    We’re Catholic and growing up every Sunday we listened to Music and the Spoken Word on WJR in Detroit “In another seven days…from the Crossroads of the West… I’m Spencer Kinard.”

    • #15
  16. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Good for you to go through that gauntket, and come out smiling.

    You should do auditions for that and other things, just to manage the experience and get past the audition emotions.

    And, hey, you can keep singing, even if you aren’t in the MTC.

    • #16
  17. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Merrijane (View Comment):

    Trink (View Comment):

    Merrijane (View Comment):

    Trink (View Comment):
    We’d love a Youtube featuring your singing?

    HAHAHAHA! Oh dear, we’re you serious?

    Yesssss!!!!

    The last video of me singing is from high school. I apologize for the painfully bad acting. [Sorry for all the editing of this comment. I can’t get tools to work on my phone!]

    Honey!   Your’e in!!  Beautiful.  Truly :)  Thank you.

    • #17
  18. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Merrijane (View Comment):

    Trink (View Comment):

    Merrijane (View Comment):

    Trink (View Comment):
    We’d love a Youtube featuring your singing?

    HAHAHAHA! Oh dear, we’re you serious?

    Yesssss!!!!

    The last video of me singing is from high school. I apologize for the painfully bad acting. [Sorry for all the editing of this comment. I can’t get tools to work on my phone!]

    You have a beautiful voice!

    I hope you try out again.

    We’ll all be cheering you on! :)

    • #18
  19. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    First, Merrijane: Thanks for sharing the adventure – my gracious you’re brave! Second, do try again – you’ve come so far…Third, yes to YouTube/GodTube: We’d love to hear you sing! Peace and Blessings!

    • #19
  20. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    You certainly don’t want any advice from me.  My voice is ridiculed by every family member, so much so I try not to sing at Mass any more.  Yes, you should try again and hoping that you make it.  Second time’s the charm.  Best of luck.  I enjoyed reading this.

     

    • #20
  21. Odysseus Inactive
    Odysseus
    @Odysseus

    Please don’t be discouraged — you sound great in that YouTube video, and it’s clear they think you have the potential to succeed. I was never much of a singer myself, but I really enjoyed singing in my prep school choir and I can only imagine what joy it would be to be part of such a pre-eminent choir as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

    Allow me to quote Coolidge:

    Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press On” has solved and will always solve the problems of the human race.

    • #21
  22. Ron Selander Member
    Ron Selander
    @RonSelander

    Next time let us know beforehand; we will pray for you!!

    • #22
  23. Barry Jones Thatcher
    Barry Jones
    @BarryJones

    Just a thought…well done to get that far! I once worked for a guy who ran marathons…and almost always finished last in his age group. Another coworker asked him why he ran if he was going to finish last? He replied “but I always finish WAY ahead of those who never started!”. Try again, all they can say is “no, thank you” which you have already heard, so you will do at least as well as you have already or BETTER! I vote for better.

    • #23
  24. Father B Inactive
    Father B
    @FatherB

    Interesting and unusual post. Thank you.

    • #24
  25. Merrijane Inactive
    Merrijane
    @Merrijane

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):
    We’re Catholic and growing up every Sunday we listened to Music and the Spoken Word on WJR in Detroit “In another seven days…from the Crossroads of the West… I’m Spencer Kinard.”

    My husband recently reminded me that he and his brothers were friends with Spence Kinard’s boys in high school. That was the era my mom was in the Choir.

    • #25
  26. Merrijane Inactive
    Merrijane
    @Merrijane

    @marcin@trink, and all the rest … I think you’ve talked me into it. I’ll give it another go. I’ll have to consider how I report on this for next year. Surely there’s at least one more post in it, no?

    • #26
  27. Nick H Coolidge
    Nick H
    @NickH

    Being nervous at an audition is not always bad (as long as you’re not too nervous to perform). Someone who’s overly confident will be held to a higher standard. Overcoming nervousness and delivering a good performance is much more impressive. I hope that’s the experience you’ll describe in next year’s post about how you’ve made it into the choir.

    • #27
  28. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Merrijane (View Comment):
    Surely there’s at least one more post in it, no?

    Yes!  :)

    • #28
  29. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    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.

    It must be nice to be a member of a faith whose most widely-held stereotype is that its adherents are nice.

    • #29
  30. Kim K. Inactive
    Kim K.
    @KimK

    Thanks for this and, yes, do try again! Back in the day when my parents got their very first stereo one of the first records they purchased was the MTC. (The other was Lawrence Welk, but who cares?) They were staunch Calvinists who held little, if anything, in common with Mormon theology. However, they loved to listen to the choir sing the great hymns of the faith.

    • #30
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