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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Matthew Toone, top right, and other members of the Tabernacle Choir rehearse for a concert.

When considering the makeup of the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, most picture middle-age to older men and women, dressed in their respective matching outfits, creating beautiful music with their mature voices of gold.

But would you be interested to know that more and more singers in their mid- to upper 20s are applying and earning their seats among the choir?

One is a single, 27-year-old high school music teacher with a demanding schedule.

Another, 30, is a financial planner with a flexible schedule who enjoys skiing and a healthy social life.

A third is a 28-year-old tax accountant, married with one child. Spare time is precious.

So when do these young and talented vocalists find time to rehearse, travel and sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?

All 360 choir members must maintain 80 percent attendance at all rehearsals, performances and broadcasts. Considering additional travel time (all members live

within 100 miles of Temple Square), participating with the highly regarded choir requires upward of 15 to 20 hours a week.

While it's a challenging schedule, these youthful members of the choir consider the opportunity an honor.

"It's been difficult, but it's a real privilege. Being in the choir has blessed my life," said John Nebeker, who sings second bass. "I look forward to continuing."

The commitment

Choir president Mac Christensen said the average age of a choir member is 49, but in recent years the choir has seen an increased number of younger applicants. Christensen said these young people are very talented, but scheduling conflicts arise as many are still completing their education, ambitiously attacking busy careers and raising young families.

"It comes down to what is more important, the family or the choir? That's easy, it's the family," Christensen said. "It's a major commitment to be in the choir. Family has to be No. 1, job is No. 2. A husband must provide for the family. If young members of the choir can come in and stay, fantastic."

Last year, more than 300 applications were submitted — one of the biggest years ever — and 75 to 80 were accepted, Christensen said, although the numbers vary from year to year based on the choir's needs.

Applicants are between 25 and 55 years of age. Tenure in the choir is 20 years or until age 60.

Each applicant — a member in good standing with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — must undergo a rigorous, three-phase audition process that spans six months. First, the applicant sends in an unaccompanied recording of a song. The second step is passing a musical skills test. Those who receive qualifying scores are then invited to audition before music director Mack Wilberg and associate music director Ryan Murphy where vocal range is tested and the applicant is asked to sight-read a piece of music.

Tricia Butterfield, who made the choir two years ago, described the application process as nerve-racking and stressful. Nebeker said he was intimidated and was convinced he'd blown the audition.

"How to put it into words?" Butterfield said.

Like a professional sports draft, the most gifted are picked first, Christensen said.

"You might need tenors or sopranos, but if you get a good voice, you take them," Christensen said. "Then we say this is what it takes, can you make a long-term commitment?"

Once selected, new singers aren't quite finished. They spend three months in the Temple Square Chorale and attend musical training classes. When training is complete, they are official members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

In addition to tours and recording sessions, the choir's weekly schedule includes Thursday night rehearsals and Sunday morning's broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word."

Finding balance

By day, Butterfield is a music teacher at Riverton High School. By night, she sings first soprano in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Trying out for the choir was something Butterfield had planned to do at some point, but an opportunity came sooner than expected. Since getting in, her life has felt like a juggling act.

"There is always something going on or that has to be done. The trick is balancing it all," said Butterfield, whose choir experiences have helped her as a teacher. "At times I have to miss school for the choir, and vice versa. But I have been able to manage it all because I made the choir a priority. I feel I am blessed for that."

Nebeker, a bachelor who works in financial planning, has his own scheduling conflicts, but he has found a social life within the choir. He said dating among singles in the choir is encouraged.

"I would love to meet someone who is musical, in the choir or who could join the choir," said Nebeker, a member since 2007.

While some in the choir are looking around, several others are married with children. One member and his wife are the parents of 10 kids. "His wife has probably gained her spot in the celestial kingdom," baritone Matthew Toone said.

Toone said married choir members' spouses are affectionately referred to as "choir widows."

"There are some pretty lonely stretches," said Claire Toone, Matthew's wife. "But this was his dream."

When accepted, choir members commit to a minimum of five years. It is not uncommon for young members to leave after five years, raise a family and apply for readmission a few decades later. Toone and his wife plan to evaluate things at the five-year mark (2013) and make a decision. He is considering leaving and returning later.

"Younger choir members often find that as their families and home responsibilities grow, serving in the choir may be more difficult than before. The time demands are significant," said Scott Barrick, choir general manager.

The perks

It's true that members get to tour around the globe, they get extra tickets to general conference and occasionally the camera stops on them for a few seconds. But the biggest benefits are spiritual in nature.

When accepted into the choir, each member is set apart as a music missionary. They spread the gospel through music.

One of Butterfield's favorite aspects of singing in the choir is how the audience responds during a performance.

"It's so fun to see their reaction to the music and the spirit it brings," she said. "I love hearing stories of how the choir has helped changed lives."

Nebeker said there is something unique about the choir.

"From the first note there is something special, a feeling in the room. You are bearing testimony through music. It's a very spiritual experience," he said.

Toone also enjoys the opportunity to mingle with other choir members, many of whom are quite accomplished in their careers.

"I am on a first-name basis with doctors, attorneys and other successful people. I wouldn't have that opportunity had I not done this," he said.

For 6-foot-4 Nebeker, the only downside is sitting in "Outer Darkness," the common term for the back row in the men's section.

"It's called 'Outer Darkness' because the camera never goes there," he said with a laugh.

Young and old

Older choir members are impressed with the talent level of the younger members, Toone said.

"They say, 'We sure are happy to have you young folks in here. You add to the sound,'" Toone said.

Nebeker believes the younger vocalists bring new energy and versatility. He encourages more young people to audition.

"The choir would benefit from more young voices," he said. "We want to dispel any ideas that the choir is made up of older, stuffy voices and wide vibrato."

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