Behind the scenes with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Published: Monday, Nov. 1 2010 6:00 a.m. MDT

Administrative manager Barry Anderson looks at orchestral needs and finds out who will be available, and if additional instruments, such as a contrabassoon, are required. Music librarians begin compiling sets of music for rehearsals. The choir members will see the music two weeks ahead; the orchestra will see it for the first time at the Thursday night rehearsal before the Sunday broadcast.

Putting together a program is not just a matter of picking out pieces that will fit together timewise, although that is a consideration. Each program must come in at 27 minutes, 56 seconds.

\"They have to be pieces that the timing works on, and that the choir will be well-prepared to sing,\" Wilberg says. But there is more to it than that. There's an art to programming that many say Wilberg has honed to perfection.

He looks for texture. He looks for key relationships. He tries to balance different interests. \"We always try to do something for everyone. Some want only hymns; some want music of the masters; some like popular favorites.\"

He also knows that for many people, \"this is their church, this may be the only time they have to be inspired, to be lifted up. We want them to go away with a renewed sense of hope, at least for this moment of their day, of their week. This program is given to the world, goes out to the world.\"

Programs generally feature five to six pieces. Computer programs keep track of everything that has been done for the past 30-40 years, Anderson says. \"Mack can find out when a piece was last performed, how often it has been performed.\" Any given program may feature songs that have been performed or recorded, but there are also always new ones. \"Achieved Is the Glorious Work\" from Haydn's \"Creation,\" for example, was performed for the first time two weeks ago.

Their overall goal is very simple, Choir President Mac Christensen says. \"We just want each broadcast to be a little better than the last one.\"

* * *

Choir members begin arriving at 6:30 on Sunday morning. \"For me that is sleeping in,\" choir member Alma Farnsworth jokes. \"I usually have to be at work at 5 (a.m.).\" But, he adds, the time doesn't really matter. \"We know we will come and have a great time. We all love what we are doing.\"

The first stop is the dressing rooms, where all choir members will change into the outfit of the day.

For the women, that means one of about eight different dresses. Each singer is assigned a number, by section. That's the number used for their closet, for their dresses. \"Here, they lose their name and get a number,\" jokes Peggy Becker, a master seamstresses.

All the dresses are made in-house, with a new one added for tours every other year. Fabric is usually ordered from China in 2,000-yard increments. \"We have 200 ladies, so we have 200 shapes to fit. And over the years, some of those shapes change, so we are constantly taking in or letting out. We also keep an inventory of extra dresses on hand,\" she says.

After dresses have been worn a few times, they go out to the dry cleaners, in 50-dress lots.

Each dress also has a necklace or ornamentation that is held on by magnets sewn into the dress. Decorations are all hung on a tree near the door for the women to slip on as they go up to rehearsal.

The men, too, have a changing room. \"With the men, we put out a model, so they know exactly what they are supposed to look like,\" Anderson says. \"And all the ties have names: red 'Kevlar' tie, amoeba tie, red snow tie, hypno tie, gray snow tie. It helps them keep track of which is which.\"

For the orchestra, standard dress is \"concert black. Some dress and come, some come and dress,\" Anderson says.

For choir members, the next stop is the music library, where they pick up and turn in music in a locker that also has their number on it. There are 16 different sections: first soprano, second alto, and so forth. \"So, every Sunday, we are dealing with about 2,000 pieces of music,\" says Debbie Martin, a former choir member who now serves as a librarian. \"But each section has a volunteer to help collate the music.\"

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