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Newtown native counters ugly reality with Tabernacle Choir beauty

Mormon choir leader finds hope, healing in the beauty of music

Published: Friday, Dec. 21 2012 9:40 p.m. MST

Whenever something really ugly happens in the world, Ryan Murphy feels the best thing he can do is to counteract the ugliness with beauty.

That was never more true than last Friday, when Murphy, associate music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, first learned about the murder of little children at Sandy Hook Elementary School — the very school that he attended from kindergarten to second grade.

"I was sitting in the guest artist luncheon for Tom Brokaw (who performed with the choir during its recent series of Christmas concerts) when I found out," Murphy said from behind his desk in his office in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. "The person sitting next to me had a cellphone that gave him news updates. He told me there was a shooting in an elementary school in Connecticut. I asked him what town it was, not really expecting it to be Sandy Hook."

Murphy's initial reaction was total shock.

"Sandy Hook and the whole Newtown area is just not the kind of place where you would expect something like this to happen," says Murphy, who grew up in a home about a half mile from Sandy Hook Elementary. "It's a sleepy town, quiet and secluded. It's so family-oriented, with all of those typical small town events. I remember marching in the Labor Day parades and going to the pancake breakfasts. It was a great place to grow up."

As news of last Friday's events became grimmer and more heartbreaking, Murphy said he was troubled more profoundly than he would have anticipated.

"It's been a long time since I lived there," he said. "But having gone to that school that I was now seeing in news reports … it really touched me deeply. It really hit home.

"That whole area means a lot to me," he continued. "I have always said that the Newtown community is a lot of who I am, both musically and as a person. But I guess I didn't realize how big of a part of me it is until I saw it on the news. I sang at a wedding reception at that firehouse. I took my kids to play at the school when we were passing through there one time. And now … this ."

As the harsh reality of the tragedy sank in, Murphy said he was overwhelmed by a desire to "be there, to give people hugs." But the choir had a Christmas concert that night, and he was obligated to be there.

"I was very emotional," he said. "I really had to talk myself through it."

His philosophy of fighting ugliness with beauty gave him the strength he needed to focus on the concert and help to make something remarkably beautiful happen in the church's downtown Conference Center that night.

"Music is a way for me to process things that are happening in my life," he said. "It's how I cope."

So does his choir family.

"Of course, everyone was aware of the news, and we were all affected by it," Murphy said. "I really debated whether or not to share my connection to Sandy Hook with the choir. But I was having such a hard time Friday night, I felt a need to share what I was feeling with them. I guess I needed to grieve at that point, and to enlist the support of my friends."

The choir responded with an outpouring of love that amazed him.

"They were great," Murphy said. "I could just feel their energy directed toward me Friday night. They were doing their best to help me, to mourn and to grieve with me."

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