One purpose of music in our general conference meetings is to contribute to an environment in which the Spirit can flourish. —Ray D. Robinson
MURRAY, Utah — “I know what some of you are thinking out there.”
Kelly DeHaan was looking out over more than 300 young men gathered in the Murray Utah Parkway Stake Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on a recent Sunday evening. Part music teacher and part choir conductor, DeHaan wasn’t quite getting what he wanted from the teenagers as he patiently worked to shape them into the choir that will provide the music for the priesthood session of the church’s 183rd Semiannual General Conference on Saturday.
“Some of you are thinking, ‘I’m not a singer, I’m a basketball player,’ ” DeHaan said, his face damp with perspiration born of the warm summer evening as well as the seemingly boundless energy he expended pulling soft, round tones out of strong, angular boys. “But we’re not shooting baskets for God right now. Right now, we’re singing praises to God, and you need to be a singer! Right now you’re not a basketball player — you’re a singer singing praises to God!”
He invited choir members to take off their suit coats — almost all of the young men were dressed in dark suits, some of them borrowed for their participation in the choir. Then he asked them to stand and take one more pass through “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand,” one of the songs they will sing during the priesthood session.
“How many of you see a mission in your future?” DeHaan asked as he prepared to give the downbeat. Immediately, almost every hand shot skyward. “So that’s what we’re going to show the world through this song. We’re going to show the world the future of missionary work!”
As the boys sang, DeHaan moved through the sea of white shirts and conservative ties, beating out a steady rhythm and barking words of instruction (“Don’t get all wimpy on me!”) and encouragement (“That was brilliant! Brilliant!”). Delight was etched on his face as the last “Amen!” of the hymn reverberated around the chapel and into the gym.
The young men stood silently, breathlessly, motionlessly — just as they had been instructed to do. DeHaan smiled broadly.
“I hope they have one of those boom shots that pulls out to show the whole choir on that finish!” he exclaims. “The world needs to see who is testifying to them!”
“Testifying” is exactly what this choir — as well as other choirs that are given the opportunity to participate in general conference sessions, right up to and including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir itself — is all about.
“One purpose of music in our general conference meetings is to contribute to an environment in which the Spirit can flourish,” said Ray D. Robinson, director of music and cultural arts for the LDS Church Priesthood Department. “We want the people who participate in these choirs to have a building spiritual experience, to be sure. And that will happen best through the presentation of music that supports the purpose and spirit of the meeting.”
DeHaan, who teaches choir locally at West Jordan High School, said he couldn’t agree more.
“It is the Spirit that matters most of all,” he said. He pointed that out to choir members during the Sunday night rehearsal, when he observed that “there are men who are going to speak that night who have a message that the world needs to hear.”
“Our job is to bring the Spirit into the room,” he said, “so when those men speak it’s there to testify that what you are singing about, and what those men are saying, is true.”
That job for each conference starts just a few weeks after the previous conference. Musical needs for the next conference are identified, and choir possibilities are assessed. Care is taken to rotate the assignments among stakes and regions within comfortable traveling distance of Salt Lake City to give as many people as possible what may be the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of singing in the Conference Center for general conference.
Once the assignment is made, local church leaders begin the process of putting a choir together. In this case, the Murray Utah Parkway Stake, under the direction of stake President Stephen Hunter, was assigned as the host stake, with six other stakes in the area — Murray Utah, Murray Utah North, Murray Utah South, Murray Utah West, Murray Utah Little Cottonwood and Salt Lake Little Cottonwood — combining to form a choir for the general priesthood meeting consisting entirely of young men ages 12-18. Church officials asked DeHaan to direct the choir, and President Hunter called Kenny Favero to be choir manager, and several months of planning, scheduling and rehearsing were underway.
“It’s been kind of crazy,” Favero acknowledged, calling his work as choir manager “an adventure but very exciting!”
“We were assigned to assemble a choir of 364 young men from the seven stakes participating,” Favero said. “That broke down to 52 young men per stake and about seven or eight young men per ward. It was determined that to have a well-balanced group of voices, a maximum of two deacons would be invited from each ward and the rest should be teachers and priests.”
Bishops were asked to review the young men in their wards and select them based on musical ability and their desire and willingness to participate.
“All of these young men were extended an official call from their bishops to sing in the choir,” Favero said, adding that attendance, dress, grooming (including “fresh missionary haircuts” and being “cleanshaven”) and behavioral standards were clearly identified.
In addition to the young men, about 50 adult leaders and numerous parents have been significantly involved in providing transportation to and from rehearsals and helping with choir logistics. Some have helped with music, while others have helped with tracking attendance and working with the boys on those suits, ties and haircuts. And during the two-hour rehearsals, a number of adult leaders walk among the choir members, tapping them on the shoulder to get their attention when they are not participating as they should.
“Keeping 360 Aaronic Priesthood boys on task has been by far the biggest challenge of this assignment,” DeHaan said, “but I think we are making progress!”
That progress is apparent in the powerful, compelling sounds that come from the choir during the rehearsal — not constantly, at this point, but often enough that DeHaan is satisfied. And the young men seem to genuinely enjoy what they are experiencing — and feeling.
“I’m not really musical,” said Ethan Knapp, a priest in the Murray 25th Ward. “But I’m learning a little more about music, and today I really felt the spirit while we were singing. So it’s good.”
“This has been awesome,” said Cole Fetzer, a priest in the Murray 3rd Ward. “I’ve never really done anything like this before. But there’s a powerful feeling when we’re all singing together, and we’re singing songs that testify of Christ.”
“You can really feel the spirit,” William Lechtenberg, a priest in the Murray Parkview Ward, added. “It’s a powerful feeling.”
“I’m not really a choir guy,” said Daniel Powell, a priest in the Murray 12th Ward. “But I feel like we’re setting a standard to show that kids our age can show up and really do something.”
One of the young men showing up and really doing something is Isaac Kendell, a gifted musician who, at age 16, is the choir’s rehearsal accompanist. Playing the stake center organ with confidence and grace, he negotiates the demanding music with such skill that at one point during the rehearsal, DeHaan turns to him and says, “Isaac, we love you! You rock!”
But Issac’s service in the choir will end the day the choir moves to the Conference Center for its final rehearsal and performance. At that point, Tabernacle Choir organists will take over. Still, he faithfully practices the accompaniment and participates fully in every rehearsal even though he knows he won’t be at the organ when the choir performs during the priesthood session on Oct. 5.
“Yeah, I know,” Isaac said when asked about the inherent limitations of his assignment. “But it’s worth it to me. I still get to learn this music, and I still get to feel the Spirit during rehearsals. And when I hear them sing at priesthood meeting, I’ll know I was part of that.”
Part of the music. Part of the Spirit. And part of general conference.