Choir President Jarrett Answers Bloggers’ Questions
Editor’s Note: April McMurtrey, author of a blog called “Something to Shout About!”interviewed Choir President Ron Jarrett with questions sent in by her readers. Here are some excerpts from April’s blog, used with her permission.
April: Being a former member yourself, what would you say is the most important part of being a Choir member?
President Jarrett: I think every Choir member would tell you that their personal musical and spiritual preparation is the most important part of being in the Choir. That preparation helps them to put all of their heart, their thoughts, and their emotions into the music they sing. And that’s what I call “sending the message.” When I ask the Choir to “Please focus and send your message today,” I’m asking them to put everything they have – their emotions, their thoughts, everything – 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 the music is reaching someone.
April: During rehearsals, does the Choir typically rehearse as a group or in sections?
President Jarrett: Many choirs do have sectional rehearsals but our Choir does not. It is always all musical parts together. The music director Mack Wilberg or associate music director Ryan Murphy, will ask a section, or all the men, or all the women sing a passage that might be difficult or needs more work while everyone is there. The director will tell them: “That’s a problem area. We’ll sing it correctly and then you mark it, take it home, learn it and get it correct.” Then we move on.
April: What is a typical rehearsal schedule for the Choir?
President Jarrett: On Thursday evenings, the Orchestra at Temple Square comes at 6:30 p.m. and works on their own with the conductors until the Choir members arrive at 7:00 p.m. After the Orchestra leaves at 8:30, the Choir stays—usually for an extra hour to work with the conductors and the organ until 9:30.
On Sunday mornings, the Choir arrives first at 7:30 a.m. and the Orchestra comes at 8:00 a.m. We do the Music and the Spoken Word half-hour broadcast beginning at 9:30 a.m. so we are through by 10:00 a.m.. When we are preparing for concerts or recordings, we ask the Choir and Orchestra to remain (usually it’s just the Choir, but sometimes it will be the Orchestra) until 11:30 a.m. to rehearse.
April: How do you organize the members within the Choir for seating—by part and/or height?
President Jarrett: 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. We try to maintain a unified appearance all the way across. We have two people who are assigned to seat the Choir at each performance and they’re very careful in how they arrange the heights and the sections.
April: What would you would like the world to know about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?”
President Jarrett: There are so many wonderful things that I could say about the Choir. The Choir is here to make a difference for them. 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.
President Jarrett: The requirements for becoming a member of the Choir include being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in good standing, being between the ages of 25 and 55 years and currently residing within 100 miles of Temple Square.
Choir members 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. Because of personal reasons, health issues, work, etc., some members may need to leave the Choir for a time. For instance, someone in their twenties can serve 5 years and then, later in life, come back and fulfill the remaining 15 years. If they were away for more than a year, they must audition again, but that is an option available. We also have openings each year for new members because members who have fulfilled their 20 years or who have reached age 60 leave the choir. For these many reasons, applications for auditions are available once each year—usually starting on July 1.
New members go through a training period and meet two evenings each week. They train on Tuesday evenings in the Temple Square Chorale where they sing with the members that joined the Choir the previous year. They learn a choral master work which is performed as part of their final admittance to the Choir. On Thursday evenings, they come to a class, a “Choir school” class. They are taught by PhD trained musicians 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.”
President Jarrett: We do still tour and normally our schedule is every other year. We must begin early—a year in advance—to book hotels, buses, and airlines because we take members and support staff when we tour. We must look at venues and make sure they are big enough to handle a large choir and orchestra of our size.
In 2016 we went to Europe for 3 weeks. We will not tour in 2017, but plan to tour every other year on the even-numbered years beginning in 2018.
President Jarrett: The Choir is provided their uniforms when they join the Choir. The only thing that the men must provide are black shoes, stockings, and a white shirt. The women must provide what we call a “performance shoe” which should be either flat or with a slight heel—but not a stiletto heel. Because they wear long choral dresses, the shoes can’t have a Velcro or buckles on them because they catch on the bottom of the dresses.
The men’s suits are purchased. If it needs to be tailored, we have it done professionally. The dresses are made in the basement of the Tabernacle by volunteers who sew and alter them as needed.
Everything is sent out from the Tabernacle to be laundered or 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 jewelry for the sisters is purchased. Some of it has been made. Occasionally, they have had some women members help string necklaces with certain crystals and beads and so forth—but everything is made and maintained by the Choir in their wardrobe areas.
There’s no cost to the Choir for any of the clothing or accessories that are provided. It’s all paid for by the choir fund which comes from the sale of our products (CDs, DVDs, and books) plus other earnings. The Choir fund is self-sustaining and separate from Church funds.
President Jarrett: In one particular instance, we were recording a new CD. It turned out to be entitled, “Homeward Bound”. It featured the talented Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as a soloist on it. It hearkened back to the time when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was first organized by early Welsh singers who came to the Salt Lake valley in the 1850s to live.
It was during those recording rehearsals that we were singing some of the music in the Welsh language. As we sang, it brought thoughts for all of us of those immigrants coming to Utah…of coming to their new homes. That’s where the title comes from, “Homeward Bound”. Some of the Choir members were kind enough to share their experiences with that recording, when they felt such a connection with those early members of the choir…who really lifted them. It is not easy singing in the Welsh language—it’s a very difficult language. But the Choir members felt like they were lifted—and helped. They felt the presence of those early singers with them, making it possible for them to produce this particular album.