Listen louder than you sing: inside the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square

May 7, 2019, 9:07 AM | Updated: 9:09 am
Tabernacle Choir...
Debbie Matheson rehearses with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 12, 2019. She was one of four people selected through social media to sing with the choir. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — They’ve sung at World’s Fairs, in 28 countries and in front of  10 presidents. Now the director and associate director of America’s Choir are talking to Inside Sources host Boyd Matheson about the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square and what makes them sound so good.

Tabernacle Choir

Tabernacle Choir members, left to right, Martha Young, Dennis Dixon, Catharine Grant, Louise Clarke and Richard Robison note the billboard in front of Baltimore’s Lyric Theatre before a concert on Oct. 28, 1958. Photo: Deseret News Archives

The choir was formed soon after Latter-day Saint pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley — in fact, just one month after the first wagons arrived. Since 1929, the choir has been holding a weekly radio broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word on KSL, making it the longest-running national radio program in the country.

“We stand on the shoulders of many giants,” Director Mack Wilberg said when asked about that historical background.

Wilberg has been with the choir for the last for 20 years and has arranged much of the music that the choir and orchestra are known for.

“It’s about the music.”

With an organization as old as the choir, the words innovation and change aren’t normally the first words you would expect to be used to describe them, but those are two of the words Mack Wilburg stressed.

“First and foremost, it’s about the music,” Willberg said. “It drives everything that we do, from the weekly broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word to the important role the Choir plays twice a year at General Conference.

“We strive to be as perfect as we can.”

Willberg says perfection is something that is important when there are microphones recording the majority of what they do.

“I like to remind the choir that 95% of what we do has a microphone involved and that makes a huge difference in the way that we need to approach things. If our singers aren’t thinking in terms of being a part of the entire ensemble, then we end up with that 360 soloists, and that just doesn’t sound very good,” he said.

Turning soloists into a choir is a challenge in and of itself, he said, especially when the choir’s rehearsals for 300 to 400 yearly pieces only last about two and a half hours every week.

“It’s always a challenge, but it brings a lot of joy,” Wilberg said.

Tabernacle Choir auditions

Associate Director Ryan Murphy said that a lot of the reason that they can do what they do is the fact that the choir is pretty picky about who gets to fill those 360 choral seats.

Choir leaders hold three-part auditions every year, beginning from early July to mid-August, and lasting for six months. Prospective singers have to be active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, be recommended by their local ecclesiastical leader and live within 100 miles of Salt Lake City. Each applicant must also be between 25 and 55 and can serve for 20 years or until they are 60, whichever comes first.

“A lot of people think that the only requirement is a beautiful voice,” Willberg said. “While that is really important, more important is that those who are members of the choir need to have a particular skill set in order to really survive in the choir because we move at such an intense and fast pace.”

Many choir members are accomplished singers, with experience in college or high school or even solo careers of their own, but singing with the choir is a whole different experience, Associate Director Ryan Murphy said.

From many, one voice

“We aren’t looking for a choir of 360 soloists. There’s a four-month choir school that’s all about voice work to turn those individual voices into a choir.”

That choir school consists of Tuesday night practices in the Temple Square Chorale, which is the final piece of the tryouts for the choir, in addition to a Thursday night class where Wilberg says all of those solo voices learn to sing as one.

When they get that right, he says it leaves people with a special feeling, which is something that takes a lot of doing, and it all starts with getting things right technically.

“Great choirs sing in tune. There isn’t a very fine line, you’re either in tune or you aren’t,” Wilberg said. “Everything has to be in place technically, we spend a lot of time talking about pitch and tonality.”

Listen louder than you sing

The physical space in which the choir sings can make getting those technical things just right difficult because acoustically, it can be difficult for the choir to hear themselves and each other, which Wilberg says is critical.

“If you can do everything you can possibly do to get it right technically,” Willburg said, “then you can take it to the next level. Then the spirit can kick in and do the rest.”

“We don’t have time to waste,” Murphy added. “Everything [we do] is mapped. People feel like we’re using their time to its best advantage when they come, which is important in an all-volunteer organization.”

Willberg continued that sentiment, saying how much of a blessing it is to work with those volunteers that fill the choir seats and the orchestra pit.

“There’s more to it than sitting there and singing or playing an instrument,” he said. “It’s more involved and it’s a blessing and a privilege to work in an organization where all of those musicians are volunteers.”

Both men say their goal is to be able to teach the members of the Tabernacle Choir in a way that focuses on the principle of listening louder than they sing so that when problems arise, they have an adequately supplied toolbox to deal with those issues.

To hear more about how Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy arrange pieces and breathe new life into old hymns, as well as deal with writer’s block, listen to the Inside Sources podcast below.

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Listen louder than you sing: inside the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square