the Way: What Would It Take to Join
the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?
"Singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the most marvelous experience I've ever had in my life."
"Every rehearsal, event, and performance is a joy. I feel very blessed to be here."
"This is the greatest blessing in my life after the gospel and my family."
Such comments typify the feelings of members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Each week's performance of Music and the Spoken Word is a spiritual feast. To watch the face of a listener transform—whether in the blossoming of a smile or the brushing of a tear from the eye—is a joyful and moving experience. Would that everyone could have such an opportunity. While that is not possible, it is hoped that this article will help anyone who has a great desire to join the Choir understand what the audition process is like and learn what they can do to improve their chance of success. The quotations that are shared come from current or former members of the Choir.
"The initial audition application almost convinced me not to try."
Why would someone feel that way? Let's take a look at the application process and the materials you would be given were you to apply. The materials are made available here on the Choir's website during the first week of July. There are a great many people interested in joining and so it is always the case that the number of applicants will greatly outnumber the available positions. But don't let that discourage you. There are many factors that go in to determining who will eventually be successful, and when final selections are made, the guidance of the Spirit is first and foremost.
Traits such as dependability and dedication are as important to success in the Choir as musical ability. The application guide that comes with the materials lists the following as the priorities of a Choir member:
The guide also states that "membership in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is an earned privilege, requiring the enthusiasm of a volunteer and the discipline and responsibility of a professional." To maintain such enthusiasm, discipline and responsibility, one does indeed need to be dependable and dedicated. The time requirements for participation, as summarized in the table below, are much greater than for a typical Church calling:
- One's relationship with God.
- One's family relationships.
- One's occupational pursuits and responsibilities.
- One's volunteer membership by calling to the Choir.
of the Week
times per year|
||(2-3 week major tour approximately every two years)|
This translates to being at the Tabernacle (or on tour) some part of 140-150 days in a typical year. An 80% attendance record is required, so one can miss on occasion. But even so, Choir participation consumes much of one's free time. The tours may also take up substantial amounts of one's vacation time. This information is not meant to discourage but must serve as a reality check. Not everyone can devote so much time. The support of family, friends, and even employers will be needed and so it is best to know this up front.
The application itself asks about one's church and family background, occupation,
educational background, and musical experience. Application requirements are as follows:
Applicants are asked to prepare an audition tape or CD to be returned with the application. The recording consists of the following:
- Membership in the Church.
- Age between 25 and 55. [Mandatory retirement from the Choir is at age 60 or 20 years of service - whichever comes first. A minimum period of 5 years service is requested].
- Good health.
- Body size that can be accommodated by the Choir's wardrobe (exceptionally small or large sizes are limited).
- Ability to receive a bishop's recommendation indicating temple worthiness (although a temple recommend is not required).
The due date for applications is typically sometime in August, but check the website for the specific date. Once the recordings reach the Choir office, they are carefully reviewed by the Music Director and Associate Director. Those who are eliminated in this first step of the process are given specific instructions about what they can do to improve and try again.
- Choose one of three hymns (Abide With Me, O My Father, or I Need Thee Every Hour).
- Play and announce the beginning pitch in a comfortable key.
- Sing one verse of the hymn (without accompaniment).
- Play and announce the ending pitch.
- Sing a few bars of the hymn with a straight tone.
- Sing a few measures sotto voce (with a quiet undertone
- Sing a few measures loudly.
- Perform three short vocal exercises (which are included with the application materials). These will help determine your natural voice range.
The Music Skills Inventory and Music Theory Test
The next step is to test one's musical aptitude and knowledge. The tests are administered in the basement of the Tabernacle and take about 2 hours to complete. There are two parts: a music skills inventory, which is designed to assess inherent musical ability, and a test in music theory.
The application materials state that the music skills inventory "is a shock for some, including some with considerable training. On the other hand, many with lesser training, who possess innate abilities, do very well. The total music skills inventory helps us predict your probable success as a member of the Choir."
This test requires intense concentration and good listening skills. The questions are given orally via a recording, so there is no stopping to ask for something to be repeated. One must think quickly and then move to the next task (a foreshadowing of what it will be like to sing in the Choir). The inventory is made up of the following elements:
Skills such as these predict success in the Choir because they indicate how quickly one is able to analyze and assimilate musical information. Musical agility is very important in the Choir because the pace is so fast. Newer members may find it necessary to spend an hour or two on their own each week just to keep up.
- Listen to two chords. Indicate whether they are major or minor mode (e.g. in a major or minor key).
- Listen to a musical phrase. Indicate whether it is major or minor mode, or if it changes modes.
- Listen to four chords in the same key, followed by three notes. Choose which of the three notes is the key tone (e.g. the first note of the scale for that key).
- Listen to a musical phrase followed by three notes. Choose which is the key tone.
- Listen to a four bar musical phrase while looking at a corresponding musical notation. Identify every measure where the pitch that was played is different from the notation.
- Listen to a four bar musical phrase while looking at a corresponding musical notation. Identify every measure where the rhythm that was played is different from the notation.
- Listen to a solid chord followed by a broken chord (e.g. a chord played one note at a time). Decide which note (if any) differs from the chord.
- Listen to a melody played alone, then harmonized. Decide if the melody is in the high, middle, or low part of the harmony.
- Look at a bar with two notes. Listen as the first note is played. Listen to three more notes and decide which one is the second note.
A typical broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word includes five or six pieces of music. They are usually seen for the first time on the Thursday night rehearsal ten days before the broadcast. The harder ones may be reviewed first thing on the following Sunday morning before moving to the current week's broadcast. On the next Thursday (three days before they'll be performed) there is about an hour and a half to refine all the pieces and do a test recording of them. Sunday morning, right before broadcast, there will be about forty-five minutes for final cleanup of rough spots. After a practice run-through of the entire broadcast, it will be time for the final performance. If one divides the total rehearsal time by the number of pieces, there is around half an hour for each one.
Fortunately, after a couple of years one starts to see some pieces come around a second time, and after five years one is familiar with most of the repertoire. But it's always a fast moving train, and thus the importance of the kind of innate musical ability revealed by the skills inventory. While one can practice these skills, they do seem to come more as the result of musical experience and natural ability.
The music theory test, on the other hand, is something for which one can and should study. Theory will be covered in the choir school if one makes it through the auditions, but it is better to have the concepts down to improve one's score on this initial test.
The test consists of six pages of multiple-choice questions covering concepts such as key signatures, how many steps between given notes, which notes are enharmonic (e.g. the same note: B flat and A sharp, for example), note values (e.g. how many half notes in a whole note?), intervals, tetrachords (a series of four tones filling in the interval of a perfect fourth) and triads (a three-note chord consisting of a "root" note together with the third and fifth above it). Don't be intimidated by thes terms; you can study and become familiar with their meaning. The choir school uses the text, "Basic Materials in Music Theory: A Programmed Course" by Paul O. Harder and Greg A Steinke (8th edition. Publisher: Allyn and Bacon). For those who advance to the second phase to take the test, loaner copies
of this text are available from the office for study prior to the test along with a study guide on which chapters are most important.
An average score of 80% is usually required to continue on to the final step: an in-person audition before the Choir's Music Director and Associate Director.
"You have to be brave enough to put it all on the line and
try your hardest."
The in-person audition before the Choir's Music Director and Associate Director is undoubtedly the most intimidating step of the audition process. Most choral singers don't sing many solos let alone in front of such a distinguished audience, and so feelings of trepidation and awkwardness are to be expected. But the directors make every effort to greet each candidate with a smile, a warm handshake and the assurance that they are among friends who have prayed for their success.
The only advance
instructions are to prepare a hymn of one's choice and a segment from a challenging choral piece that will have been provided.
To begin, the candidate is asked to sing the hymn. Next comes the choral piece, with a piano filling in for the other voice parts (an accompanist is provided). Finally, one is asked to do some sight-reading—an unfamiliar hymn followed by some musical phrases that contain unusual intervals.
Before leaving, the candidate will be told when they can expect to hear back about how they did. Do not expect any feedback on the day of the audition itself. The results will be mailed after all candidates have been evaluated and final decisions made. Those who are unsuccessful will be given advice on what they need to work on if they would like to try again at some time in the future.
For most, sight-reading is the most difficult part of the audition. While some may be naturally better at it than others, this skill is honed through practice. Here are some ideas on how to improve:
Being a good sight-reader is crucial to doing well in the Choir and will greatly improve your chances in the in-person audition.
- Get a book of unfamiliar vocal exercises. Give an exercise a try, then go to a piano and see how you did.
- Try working them out in your head without even singing while you're taking a walk or riding in a car.
- Search the web for ideas. Find a method that works best for you and practice, practice, practice!
Square Chorale and Choir Training School
Success in the in-person audition still does not guarantee one a position in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In the summer of 1999, the Temple Square Chorale was established as a training organization for prospective and current members of the Choir. This change has significantly improved the
professionalism of the Choir. The Associate Music Director conducts the Chorale. Its smaller numbers allow for more individualized attention. There is also a training school which provides instruction in music theory and vocal technique.
The Chorale does not have a permanent membership. It is formed after every audition cycle from a mix of prospective and current Mormon Tabernacle Choir members. Each session lasts approximately three months at which time a formal concert is given. The Chorale also participates in at least one broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word.
provides a kind of probationary period for the new singers—giving
them a chance to build up to the hectic Mormon Tabernacle Choir schedule while Choir leaders have the opportunity to observe them under
rehearsal and performance conditions. At the conclusion, the new singers will again be evaulated individually and a final decision made as to whether they are ready to join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. While most will be ready to advance, it is possible that some may be asked to complete an additional term in the Chorale or given other counsel appropriate to their situation.
What Has Helped Others
Several years ago a survey was taken in which members of the Choir were asked what things had helped them the most in becoming a member. Their responses were grouped into categories so that they could be ranked. The results were as follows:
23% Spiritual preparation (faith, prayer, fasting).
20% The Lord's help or help from the Spirit.
20% Experience singing in other groups.
18% Voice teacher or vocal coach.
17% Musical training and education.
15% Hard work, study, personal preparation.
11% Natural talent (ear, "genes").
8% Guidance from others (conductors,
8% Persistence, desire,
6% Love of music, singing.
6% Sight reading ability.
6% Instrumental background.
5% Musical foundation in the
4% Sight reading practice.
3% Humility, a willing attitude.
3% Music lessons growing up.
3% Family support.
mentioned were testimony, cultivating a voice that blends well, ear
training, good sense of pitch, practicing the skills inventory
elements, having a positive attitude, learning relaxation techniques
for the audition, luck, and bravery. It is interesting to note that—while obviously-beneficial activities such as voice lessons, musical education, and experience singing in groups were ranked near the top—the most frequent answer was spiritual preparation.
In Doctrine and Covenants 11:21 we read: "Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men."
Membership in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a missionary calling. Just as it is important to study and obtain knowledge before preaching the Lord's word, so should prospective members of the Choir prepare themselves musically, and especially, spiritually for a ministry in song. Do everything you can to get ready and then don't be afraid to "take the plunge." We wish the Lord's blessings upon you and the best of luck in your efforts!
And, finally, for those who do try and are unsuccessful, it is hoped that they will nevertheless find other ways to experience the joy of singing in church and community choirs. Take advantage of every opportunity to sing, and if you cannot join us in this life, may we one day all sing together in the heavenly choirs above!