How I Came to Sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

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This is a story of how the Internet can make what you didn’t realize was—but, in fact, is—your wildest dream come true.

While in the throes of planning our time in Salt Lake City, I was emailing with girl-about-town Heidi, who said if we were around on a Thursday night we should stop by Temple Square and see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearse on stage. (Note: Weekly rehearsals are open to all.) I have always wanted to see the Tabernacle perform in person, so I did as the woman suggested and extended our time there to include a Thursday night. And then she casually mentioned, oh hey, her dad’s actually in the choir and—no promises—but maybe she could get me a backstage tour of the choir.

To which I responded something to the effect of: “AHHHH, THAT WOULD BE JUST AMAZING. YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT A HUGE PART MUSIC PLAYED IN MY CHILDHOOD YEARS, AND I’VE PRETTY MUCH WANTED TO HEAR THE TABERNACLE PERFORM LIVE SINCE I KNEW WHO THEY WERE.”

To which she quickly wrote back: “Good, because I heard back from my dad and my next question from him was: ‘is she musical? Would she maybe want to perform with us?'”

To which, without pause, I reproduced something like this: “$%@!*!(@)&#!)&)!%$^$&#$*!(!)!” because there were no caps or emoticons that could accurately convey how stinkin’ excited I was at the mere thought.

Or maybe I just wrote back: “Um, that would be AMAZING.” Because I seem to be lacking in adjectives these days that aren’t “amazing,” “fantastic,” “lovely” or “stunning.” (Don’t judge: I write for a living. By the time I get around to blogging three times a week, my mind is numb and devoid of a proper dictionary.)

And so Heidi set the wheels in motion.

The whole musical background is completely true, folks. While I don’t talk a lot about my past hobbies much, my childhood was split pretty evenly between year-round sports—basketball, soccer, tennis, softball and track—and musical endeavors, which included (among other things) voice lessons, piano lessons, guitar lessons (briefly), a cappella groups, church choirs, and, the most important of them all: the Aristocats.

The Aristocats, in its glory years, was the uber-competitive, co-ed show choir that hailed from my high school. All potential members were put through a very intensive week-long audition process, which included both sight reading, solo performances and dance and for which people started preparing years in advance (no exaggeration). The end result: 16 guys and 16 gals got to wear spectacularly tacky costumes and do fun things like swing dance and hip hop to ‘NSync numbers and travel to exotic places like Branson, Missouri and Enterprise, Alabama and Disney World in Orlando to perform. We rehearsed an hour and 40 minutes daily during school hours, plus rehearsals on some nights and weekends and frequent out-of-town competitions. Those Glee kids had nothing on the Aristocats (other than Darren Criss and Chris Colfer maybe).

(I’m going to so regret posting these vintage photos from the 90s one day. Oh wait, I already do. How embarrassing.)

Fast forward to the day of my debut. Heidi and I had exchanged logistical emails and she even offered to come along for the evening (and, by default, keep SVV company while, knees shaking, I climbed up into the choir loft). I met up with Heidi and her darling dad at Temple Square a few minutes before call time and got to ping her dad with a few questions on what it entails to be involved in the choir.

For starters, the audition process is 10 months long and involves, among other things, a test and musical theory and individual performances. Once you pass one round, you’re cleared to go onto the next. Once you’re in, there’s a bit of a training period and then you’re formally inducted into the choir. It’s all strictly volunteers, but each member can serve a maximum of 20 years—or until their 60th birthday, whichever comes first—at which point they are retired. Once you’re in, a lot is expected of you: one to two rehearsals a week, a Sunday concert and a summer tour—with 80 percent attendance. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is, in some eyes, the religious icon of the LDS church, and it makes sense that its entities would be held to such high standards.

And it turns out that any choir member can invite a guest along to rehearse with the MoTab, so long as they have a bit of a musical past and also are not a member of the LDS church (for obvious reasons—otherwise, every week the choir would be full to the brim with non-members!). Of course, that also means you have to coincidentally be friends with one of the choir members. I just lucked out in having an awesome blog friend (and her equally awesome father) who was willing to do a kind deed.

I’ll admit it: I was NERVOUS. I know it’s silly—I was one of 300 voices; it’s not like I got up there and had to sing a solo—but it had been so long that I’ve done any other singing along with Taylor Swift on my car radio that a) I wasn’t sure if I still had perfect pitch and b) I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to read music anymore, especially singing the alto line, which is not the melody. But the main thing I was nervous about was what to wear: Could I wear my hair down? Is that offensive? Mormons, can they show their lower legs? Or is that a sin? I didn’t know. I had only packed two nice outfits for the whole six-week trip: a BCBG wrap dress for my anniversary dinner that was decidedly inappropriate for a religious venue and a navy Banana Republic cardigan and matching skirt that hit just below my knees. It was one of my more conservative ensembles, and I was hoping I wouldn’t be an embarrassment to the choir. (I wound up putting my hair in a bun and wearing Sam Edelman sandals, despite the downpour outside.)

I entered the concert hall, and all the women (most of them with their hair down, I should note) were sporting fuchsia robes and the men in suits. I half-hoped they’d offer me a robe, too, so I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb (even more than I already did). No such luck. As it turns out, I was already destined to be singled out, as the conductor turned to the choir to introduce me and asked me to stand—in front of the whole venue! Which, bear in mind, included the entire choir, the symphony and more than 500 guests in the audience. I hate being asked to stand in front of a crowd: I was embarrassed enough during the 15-minute ceremony at my wedding with just 80 friends and family members looking on!

Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Oh What a Beautiful Morning from Camels & Chocolate on Vimeo.

The next thing I was worried about was not knowing the songs, but here’s where I totally lucked out: The conductor handed out new music for the next concert, the first piece of which was “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” I’ve only known that song since I could walk. I couldn’t believe my luck. The next song was a contemporary religious piece I’d heard in the past, so at least I knew the melody, and the last one was a Charles Strouse ditty (not Annie but equally as beautiful). How much do I love that the MoTab is so hip they perform Broadway tunes (my favorite)? Even more impressive: They generally get a new piece of music, work on it from 10 to 20 minutes at rehearsal, then perform it perfectly Sunday morning at the concert. (That could have to do with the fact that the conductor, Mack, is a bit of a perfectionist, which is made obvious if you sit in on a rehearsal. A brilliant, albeit intimidating, man!)

I was surprised how much reading music is like riding a bike; I had no problems picking out the alto line and singing along. That said, I forgot that aside from reading notes, you also have to read tempo, dynamics like crescendo and mezzo-piano and fortissimo and other musical cues. It’s a lot to remember if you haven’t done such in about a decade. Still, I was getting into it, and it made the longing to sing in a choir resurface in the pit of my stomach. I never realized before how much I truly miss performing—in any capacity.

Debra, who is the events manager and who took all the close-up shots of me, had seated me next to Celia, also an alto, who happened to be a journalist, as well, for the city’s daily paper. She was so welcoming, and—in typical friendly Salt Lake fashion—all the other altos around me turned to greet me with a kind word and a smile when I took my seat. I’ll reiterate: The nicest people in the world live in this town! Celia even turned to me at one point and said I had very nice voice, one that Mack would like. This made me blush for two reasons: As a woman, I’m not good at taking a compliment, and also it meant she could hear my singing loud and clear when I was trying to sing so everyone around me knew I was participating but not loud enough so anyone could pick my voice out individually. Oh well.

While I was in the loft, SVV was in the audience, furiously documenting every moment of the night. One of the kindly ushers approached him and asked if he’d like to go to the balcony and escorted him up that way, as he threw the tripod over his shoulder and dozens of camera-toting tourists glared at him and clearly wondered what granted him special treatment. (Being my husband, that’s what.)

Rehearsal let out early that night, as the choir had performed a mini-concert for a convention earlier in the evening. Heidi’s dad felt bad that I came on an abbreviated night, but I didn’t care: I was beaming the rest of the night and all weekend from my stint in the choir loft! Plus, he gave me three of the MoTab albums—Hollywood and show tunes, America, and religious songs—which SVV and I have been rotating in the trailer CD player ever since.

 

Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Battle Hymn of the Republic from Camels & Chocolate on Vimeo.

A huge thanks to Heidi, Heidi’s dad and, of course, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for welcoming me with open arms. You absolutely made my day, week, month, yea and left me with such a great memory of my time in Utah. And for those of you visiting the Salt Lake City area, you must see them at either their weekly Thursday night rehearsal or their Sunday morning concert. I would make a special trip back to the Utah capital with the sole purpose of hearing the choir belt out an encore of the Grammy Award-winning The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

*****

All choir photos taken by SVV, except for the up-close-and-personal shots, which Debra from the Tabernacle took.

COMMENTS
  • May 29, 2011

    oh my god, that is so freaking cool!! And only another fellow former high school chorus girl would call it cool.

    Ummm… I don’t like to brag about this Kristin, but I was a key member of The Meistersingers; a very small select chorus in my high school. I sang Alto 2..of course.

    Mormon Tabernacle Choir equals everything that this is great and good about American Christmas. So cool you got to hang with them!!

    • May 29, 2011
      Kristin

      I actually started off first soprano, then descended the ranks to second soprano in high school, and now I walk the line between second soprano and first alto. Of course you’d be alto 2…love it, and am jealous. (I can’t hit much below a middle C to save my life.)

      Maybe we can have a very New Directions vs. Vocal Adrenaline-like face-off: Showdown of the Former Show Choir Girls! It’s like Girls Gone Wild, only we’ll compete with our voices and not our bosoms.

      • June 27, 2014
        Tina

        I’m an alto 2 and can sing tenor and falsetto too. I don’t think I’m good enough for motab though, lol. I can sing Jewel and stuff like that and most of the time I’m great with pitch but its weird. I sing better a capella (sorry if that’s spelled wrong) than with music. I don’t know why/ 🙁

  • May 29, 2011

    Wow, so very cool to have a dream like this come true. Me I can’t sing at all. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Tabernacle many years ago.

  • May 29, 2011

    I cannot watch these videos without crying! There is something about large groups of people singing that gets me every time — I’m the same way with orchestras, so when they happen SIMULTANEOUSLY, I’m a mess!

    Great job, though — I say next time you wear your Aristocats outfit.

    • May 29, 2011
      Kristin

      You meet Paula Dean and were an extra in a Hollywood movie; I sang with the MoTab choir. Could our lives BE any more insane?

  • May 29, 2011

    Oh crap, another thing in common? We’ve got to stop meeting like this. 🙂

    I sang in choirs from 3rd grade through high school, and was in a professional choir (i.e., not school or church-related) before moving to Italy. I definitely miss singing – in Italy for some reason modern gospel choirs are very hip – I find them too narrow in scope.

    Gotta love sightseeing music on the spot! I sang alto for the first 15 years or so, mainly because altos are usually the ones that can handle the harmony and many sopranos couldn’t in the lower grades, especially if they’re not great sightreaders, etc. Fast forward to the post-college years when my director said…”Alto? You’re a first soprano!” 🙂

    Fun! Lucky you 🙂

    • May 29, 2011
      Kristin

      You’ll have to join Other Sarah’s and my Duel of the Former Choir Girls! Something tells me you’d win, Miss Professional Singer =)

      • May 30, 2011

        I’m not much of a soloist 🙂 But it does mean I’m one of the best blenders ever….after so many years in choir, I blend in with the best! 🙂

  • May 29, 2011

    What an amazing (yeah, I have no excuse on the adjectives, I’m just not creative) experience! I sang from age 5 through high school in church and school choirs, and I miss it too. I was always so jealous of my cousins who went to a high school where they had show choir – I think that would have been so much fun – and instead had to be content with going on tour with my church choir every summer, which was still pretty cool but didn’t involve as much choreography and fun/tacky dresses.

    You guys sound great!

    • May 29, 2011
      Kristin

      I love that so many of my blog friends were also choir girls! We should start an online vocal group (yeah, not sure how’d we do that–Skype rehearsals?–but it’s a funny thought)!

      • June 27, 2014
        Tina

        That would be so much fun and to possibly actually do a Skype concert. It would be unique to say the least!

  • May 29, 2011

    I have absolutely no musical talents (at all!) but after going to high school in Utah, I came to appreciate the Tabernacle choir. Such beautiful voices! Glad you got have such an experience 🙂

    • May 29, 2011
      Kristin

      I didn’t realize you went to high school in Utah! Yeah, I’m not sure how you could be from there (or have lived there at some point) and not love the MoTab. I wish I could see them perform frequently!

  • May 29, 2011

    That is SO RAD.

    Plus! I adore Heidi too, and love that you two got to meet. Now I just need to meet both of you in person. 🙂

    • May 29, 2011
      Kristin

      I second that! Both at once would be doubly cool, too.

  • May 29, 2011

    I am in love with your retro show choir pics…OHMYGOD, those are great! hahaha

    What a great story. Sounds like an amazing experience!

    • May 29, 2011
      Kristin

      Good thing I never plan to be famous; otherwise, they photos could be blackmail gold!

  • May 29, 2011

    What a wonderful experience! I used to love singing in a mass choir; I can only imagine what it must have been like to sing with the Tabernacle choir. So powerful!

  • May 29, 2011

    AAHHHHHH SO RAD!!!!!!!

    • May 29, 2011
      Kristin

      Now, you just need to figure out a way to sneak me in the Grace choir. (KIDDING, KIDDING.)

  • May 29, 2011

    What a great story! I grew up listening to the MoTab. My mom would blast tracks Sunday morning to get us out of bed for church. Also, being a Latter-day Saint, I always look forward to their numbers during General Conference. I may or may not pretend I’m leading the choir myself on occasion. 🙂 Especially during Battle Hymn type numbers.

    Loved reading your experience. I need to take advantage of those Thursday rehearsals sometime! It was heart-warming to see that you had such a fun experience.

    • May 30, 2011
      Kristin

      Ahh I’m jealous you’re close enough to see them regularly! Heidi told me how coveted the tickets are for the Christmas performances each year, and that may need to be the next thing I check off on my bucket list =)

  • May 30, 2011

    OMG, you’re a music nerd too!!! LOVE IT!

    I was never a singer, but I played piano from a young age until I graduated high school and I also played flute in marching band and symphonic band. Ahhh, band camp, those were the days.

    Don’t you love reveling in nerd-dom now that we’re old enough to enjoy it?

    • May 30, 2011
      Kristin

      The funny thing is that I never felt exceptionally nerdy doing the whole show choir thing as a) it was such a big thing at my school and only 32 people out of the 1200 students were allowed in and b) I was the captain of the tennis and soccer teams, which counteracted that =)

      But I am dying to get a piano whenever we move into an actual house and readopt my inner nerd, for sure!

      (P.S. I played flute in band for one brief year in sixth grade. In my middle school, you had to either choose spelling or band–odd, right?–and all the cool kids went with band, ha.)

  • May 30, 2011
    Ris

    Wow this is incredible! Those videos almost brought me to tears! I do miss performing from time to time–I was in show choir in high school and although it was incredibly dork, I secretly totally LOVED it. Also, your outfits were miles better than ours. I’m talking men’s tuxedo pants, cummerbund, bowtie, the works.

  • May 31, 2011

    What a cool experience for you! I didn’t know you were such a musical pro !!! We are karaoking one of these days….

    • June 2, 2011
      Kristin

      Dude, I know! Though you’d probably blow me out of the water. Something tells me you have one sexy growl! My voice is better suited for groups (I prefer alto so I can sing the harmony) and country singing than pop, etc.!

  • May 31, 2011

    The Aristocats pictures = priceless!

  • May 31, 2011

    What an awesome adventure! I only WISH I could sing and have a chance to sing with such an esteemed group!

  • May 31, 2011

    I am so glad you loved it!! And I’m so very VERY glad you got to hear Battle Hymn of the Republic, I think I’ve only heard it two or three times live and it is one of my all-time favorites. 🙂

    xox

    • June 2, 2011
      Kristin

      I owe you a huge, huge thanks! And er a permanent place on my couch if you’re ever passing through my city again =)

  • May 31, 2011

    HOW. NEAT. I can think of no other word to describe it, it just sounds like such a neat experience! (Again, jealous!)

  • May 31, 2011
    Sarah

    such a cool story! safe travels, etc.

    xo

  • May 31, 2011

    I am heidikins twin sister and I LOVE that you got to sing with the choir! I didn’t even know that was a possibility, being LDS and related to a guy in the choir it will never never happen for me 🙁 But I loved hearing her tell me all about this experience from her point of view and was thrilled to read your take on it as well. And listening to the choir each week is among my alltime favorite things to do. Yay for MoTab!

    • May 31, 2011
      Kristin

      Hi, Heidi’s Twin Sister! It’s funny how neither of you knew choir members could bring guests–Lurch has been holding out on you all these years =)

      Thanks for stopping by, heading over to check out your blog now.

      (P.S. Your family rocks!)

  • June 1, 2011

    Uhm, LOVE the 90s pics of your show choir days! And I can’t believe you performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – when we were in SLC we missed their practice performance but just a few hours. Drat!

    • June 2, 2011
      Kristin

      You know what that means: mini-road trip! (Though why do I think the words “road trip” to you guys might seem less than exhilarating at this point, ha?!)

  • June 2, 2011

    While I know this may seem impossible but my family is LDS and I grew up on vinyls of the Tabernacle Choir blaring in my house. How amazing – they are phenomenal!

    • June 2, 2011
      Kristin

      You are right: I would have never guessed you came from the LDS church! That must mean your family is some of the nicest people ever (given that I’ve yet to meet a mean-spirited Mormon!).

  • June 3, 2011

    That such a cool story. I’m happy that you had this possibility.

  • June 5, 2011

    Oh the things I learn about you week after week 🙂
    Extremely “cool – amazing – fantastic – great – loving – exciting”. Yes, all those adjectives work in this case.

  • June 5, 2011
    Mister Sister

    My sister is such a BADA$$!!!

  • June 10, 2011

    What a truly UNIQUE adventure! I would have been a little freaked out to actually sing with them, but you are fearless!

  • July 12, 2014

    Music therapy. Piano lessons may be one of those things that could regenerate your emotion back on tracks.

    • August 5, 2014

      Young piano students will get used to the notion that little steps today actually prepare them for the future. The perception that not everything in life is instantaneous will be embedded in their minds.

  • October 2, 2016
    George Dillabough

    I love to sing the hymns of the church, and my Tenor/Baritone range is appreciated whenever I open my mouth. I don’t read music but can pick up a part very quickly. I would love to sing with America’s Choir. I’d even be satisfied to sing at a practice just to say that I’d done it! I sing at least as well as David Archuleta, though my voice is probably lower and smooth. I like to compare my voice with Jim Reeves or Randy Travis.

  • May 30, 2017
    Saul Momanyi

    Hi? I’m 29 and love music. I’m from Nairobi, Kenya in Africa. I have loved the MoTab choir since 2nd year in university in 2008. I wish to see the BIG CHOIR if not live, even in their rehearsals. Mack is my role model. I wish I could even see his face, greet him and it will all satisfy me. Thanks to you, you already have an experience with them…

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