For the last four or five years I have sung with a community choir called the Sterling Singers. It is a non-audition choir, which means that anyone with experience can participate—including me. I’m quite musical, but I would say my singing voice is merely adequate. What I lack in talent, I try to make up by practicing. Recently, the Sterling Singers was one of three choirs invited to sing at the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. For this concert, we were given cd’s with our individual parts emphasized over the accompaniment. I spent quite a bit of time singing to my computer screen as I listened to the cd. I’ll never be a soloist, but I’m pretty good at being a member of the choir.
The Tabernacle is widely known for its great acoustics. The building is designed so that all the sound funnels towards the audience. You can literally stand at the back of the hall and hear a pin drop from the stand; I know because I’ve heard it. While the acoustics are great for the audience, it’s a different story for the choir. Because all of the sound is going forward, the singers can’t really hear each other very well. About the only people you can hear while you are singing are those standing on either side of you and perhaps the person behind you. It almost makes you feel like you’re singing a solo, an alto solo in my case—mostly harmony, little melody. I once saw a skit on the Carol Burnett Show where Carol was supposed to be singing a duet. The soprano didn’t show up, so she sang just her alto part—lots of “oo’s,” “ah’s,” and “doo-doo-doo’s.” It was pretty funny as a comedic presentation, but feeling like you are singing an alto solo for an audience who has come to hear a full-voiced choir is rather disconcerting. Besides, I’m used to hearing all of the parts of the choir. We practice on Sunday evenings at a local chapel, choir members sitting in the pews and the director leading from the stand. For our Christmas concerts we usually have about 350 members, but for this most recent concert our numbers were down to somewhere between 200 and 250—still a pretty good-sized group. Because we have so many members and we practice in a fairly enclosed space, I’m used to being part of a big sound instead of feeling like I’m almost all by myself.
Another challenge associated with singing in the Tabernacle is the fact that, like the voices, the music from the organ is funneled toward the audience. As singers, we don’t hear the organ until the sound has bounced off the back of the hall and echoed back to us. Thus, if we are trying to follow the organ, we are behind the beat, not by much, but definitely behind.
Fortunately, our director used to belong to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and was well aware of both these acoustical phenomena. Consequently, he warned us numerous times that it would be absolutely imperative that we watch him closely. He was in front of both the choir and organ and could clearly hear the singing and the accompaniment. In order for the audience to experience the full impact of the music, we had to follow him and only him, not our neighbor, not the organ. As you might imagine, it was no small feat for a group that size to stay focused for the entire hour-long concert, but I think we did pretty good.
During our dress rehearsal earlier in the week, our director told us that he wished each of us could be in his position and hear what he was hearing because it was so wonderful. One of the things he, our associate director, and the organist had been worried about was whether or not the choir could match the output of the organ. The Tabernacle organ is magnificent, and at full volume shakes the building like a small earthquake. Of course, the organist could have played softer, but that would have limited the effect of the musical piece as a whole. Our director and associate director took turns during the rehearsal to sit in the back of the hall to check on the balance between the choir and the organ. Happily, we received a thumbs up from both of them.
The night of the concert we were all there—the ladies in matching black velvet tops and jewelry, the men in black suits with white shirts and a black bow tie. Concert goers filled all of the center section on the floor of the Tabernacle with others scattered along the side sections and in the balcony. I’m guessing we had about 1000 attendees, maybe more. All of the music we sang was religious in nature; however, it ranged in style from “Zadok the Priest” by Handel to a gospel spiritual, from the traditional “Consider the Lilies” to an American folk song. We sang in three different languages: English (of course), Latin, and German. The audience was appreciative and responsive with their applause, but I knew we were succeeding when I saw both our director and our associate director with tears in their eyes as they led us.
Singing in the Tabernacle has made me think about my own part in the grand choir of humanity. I must confess that I often feel like the wallflower I was at the junior high dances—on the outside looking in, desperately wanting to participate in the enjoyment. I’m sure that perception is rooted in depression, but knowing that still doesn’t make me feel less alone. However, my Tabernacle experience gives me hope that, although I feel like I’m singing solo, in reality I am part of a grand whole with the common goal of doing good in the world. The director leading this group is, of course, God. He hears both the instruments and the singers and knows how to blend all things together to make majestic heavenly music. My responsibility is to follow him, and him only, instead of listening to someone else or doing my own thing altogether. When I think of life this way, I feel like I am a contributing member of the human race. I might not hear all the voices, but I know that I have a part to sing. And as long as I practice, follow the Director, and do my best, I belong.