Have you ever been in the middle of watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during general conference or a weekly broadcast and wondered what the colored dots on the organists’ sheet music were? You’re not alone. It turns out, this is a question that organists are asked after general conference or other Choir broadcasts, and the answer may not be as mysterious as you would think.
According to Tabernacle organist Andrew Unsworth, “The circles are stickers that we use to help us remember to take a particular action during a performance. Most of the time, the stickers are there to remind us to press one of the circular buttons underneath the keyboards with a finger or one of the toe studs just above the pedalboard with our feet. We generally refer to these buttons and toe studs as pistons. When we are preparing to perform at an event, we set up and save the combinations of sounds, or stops, required for each piece in the organ’s memory. Each piston represents a different location in that memory, and each is numbered for ease of reference. As we save the stop combinations on the pistons, we place a sticker at the location in the music where that piston will need to be pressed and write the piston number on the sticker.”
The sticker dots are used by all of the Temple Square organists but are not universally used by organists. In case you are wondering, the stickers aren’t color coded in any particular way—quite simply, the color depends on what the Choir’s office manager has purchased that year. “You can sometimes tell the vintage of a piece of music by looking to see what color of dots are on the score,” added Unsworth.
If you’re still unsure as to why these stickers are so important to the performance, consider what would happen if the wrong button was pushed at the wrong time. Since the sound can change quite dramatically with each piston change, it’s very important to have the timing right. “If you’re playing a soft song and accidentally press a piston with a loud stop combination, the organ would change from a sweet accompaniment to a deafening roar,” explained Unsworth.
As you can see, the dots are a critical precaution in making sure the best possible performance is given. But every the now and again, even the colorful stickers aren’t completely infallible in preventing a piston error. Unsworth pointed out, “We practice and pray to minimize the chance of making errors like this, and then we hope for the best. But we’re human—we’ve all made that mistake at least once.”
Watch the Tabernacle organists perform organ solos using colored stickers on their sheet music:
Andrew Unsworth performs his own arrangement of Richard Rodgers’s “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music.
Linda Margetts performs the Spanish melody “Come, Ye Children of the Lord,” arranged by James C. Kasen.
Clay Christiansen performs his “Toccata on ‘He Is Risen!’”
Bonnie Goodliffe performs “How Wondrous and Great,” a composition attributed to Johann Michael Haydn, arranged by James C. Kasen.
Richard Elliott plays his own arrangement of the traditional American song “Shall We Gather at the River.”