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The 'elbow knock' and other surprising things the Mormon Tabernacle Choir does on tour

So how do performers in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir protect their singing voices during a long tour?

Can they choose where they stand at concerts?

And how do they always “get the memo” and arrive on stage wearing the same gown or tie?

Here are answers to a few common questions about the iconic choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square:

Obviously choir members sit with their sections (soprano, alto, tenor or bass) during concert performances. But otherwise, can they sit where they want?

Nope, each member is assigned a specific spot — and don’t get too attached to a particular seat or row because you’ll likely be someplace else at the next performance.

“Seating is determined by each venue,” said David Gehris, a former choir member who serves as the choir’s seating manager with his wife, Debra. And since all seven venues on this (ongoing 2018) tour are different, individual choir members will typically not be in the same spot twice.

Members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square line up for buses to take them to dinner after soundcheck at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, Calif., on Wednesday, June 27, 2018.
Members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square line up for buses to take them to dinner after soundcheck at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, Calif., on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Crafting a seating chart is both science and art. The Gehris’s determine which voice arrangements will produce the optimal sound at each unique concert venue.

And don’t forget aesthetics. Appearances matter. “It’s been said ‘If people at our concerts like what they see, they will love what they hear,' ” said Gehris.

Besides voice characteristics, the seating managers also consider choir members’ physiques and where soloists or bell ringers need to be standing.

Seating arrangements for general conference and the weekly “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts are generally more consistent because venues remain the same.

So how do choir members memorize all the music and lyrics performed at concerts and Sunday broadcasts?

No two choir members are the same, so there are likely many individual memorization techniques and strategies. But several are quick to credit divine assistance.

“Being able to memorize everything we sing is a blessing — a ‘gift of tongues’,” said choir member Boyd Fisher, who estimates he’s memorized scores of selections during his eight years in the choir.

Concentrating on the gospel doctrine embedded in much of the choir selections allow the music to become more than words to be merely remembered, Fisher added.

How do choir members care for their voices — particularly during long tours?

Dr. David Palmer, a physician and a former choir member, prescribes heaping doses of common sense during the tour.

Take care of the body — and the voice is generally happy.

“Ideally, singers should eat three or four hours before they sleep to avoid heartburn and acid reflux, which can cause hoarseness.”

And fight the urge to “over sing,” he added.

“That’s a common rookie mistake — someone thinks they need to sing louder than they should.”

Dr. Palmer is part of a medical team charged with keeping choir and orchestra members healthy during the ongoing 2018 Classic Coast Tour. The team includes dentists and mental health specialists.

An unavoidable reality of touring is long hours spent in confined spaces during bus travel and in waiting in crowded airport terminals. Immune systems can be compromised.

Dr. Palmer advises performers to make sleep a priority and not overextend themselves during tour recovery days. And, yes, be judicious with handshaking.

“That’s the easiest way to spread cold viruses and flu bugs,” he said.

It’s not uncommon to see ailing choir and orchestra members on tour opting for “elbow knocks” instead of handshakes.

How do choir members stay connected with their home wards when weekly Sunday broadcasts conflict with ward meeting schedules?

It’s not easy — and it’s a common sacrifice for those serving in the choir or orchestra.

Choir member Tim Hawker was the bishop of his ward before joining the choir. Since then, his church attendance in his home ward is often spotty because his ward meets at the same time as the “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast that begins, locally, at 9:30 a.m.

Members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rest before performing in Weill Hall at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, Cali., on Wednesday, June 27, 2018.
Members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rest before performing in Weill Hall at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, Cali., on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

People who moved into the ward after he was released as bishop often assume he’s not active, said his wife, Suzanne Hawker, a violinist in the orchestra.

“Or they wonder if I’m a single sister.”

So what does choir music director Mack Wilberg listen to when he’s, say, cutting the grass?

Nothing.

“I don’t listen to anything,” he said, smiling. The acclaimed conductor and music arranger doesn’t even own earbuds.

“I have music swirling through my mind all the time, but I don’t listen to [recorded music].”

What’s it like to perform with the choir or orchestra for the first time?

Again, each choir or orchestra member has a personal, individual experience.

But many are similar.

Suzanne Hawker put off auditioning for the orchestra for several years while raising her family. The time needed to feel right.

“Then at my very first performance with the orchestra we performed my favorite song — ‘Consider the Lilies,’” she said. “I knew at that moment that this was where I was supposed to be.”

During her first ever performance, choir member Carol Salmon’s thoughts turned to her friends and family watching from her native Canada. She knew she was performing missionary work even as she was singing.

“I needed to do my very best because, for so many people in Canada, the choir is their connection to the Church.”

Do choir members burst into spontaneous song when they are together?

Generally, no — but it happens.

There’s a popular YouTube video of former choir member Alex Boye commandeering the flight attendant intercom and singing with choir members traveling on his tour-bound flight.

And on a long bus ride during the ongoing 2018 tour, a woman asked her fellow travelers to sing “Happy Birthday” to someone named Ray, who was listening on the phone.

The choir (and orchestra) members on the bus were game — and somewhere Ray enjoyed a birthday song he will never forget.

What does the Orchestra at Temple Square’s concertmaster do?

Meredith Campbell, concert master, practices backstage before the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, June 25, 2018.
Meredith Campbell, concert master, practices backstage before the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

If you’ve been to an orchestra performance, you’ve surely seen Meredith Campbell, the concertmaster who takes a prominent place on stage moments before the director’s arrival.

It’s her job to make sure the orchestra’s unified sound is spot on.

“My duties include making sure all the [string instrument] ‘bowings’ are correct and together,” said Campbell, an accomplished professional violinist.

The concertmaster is also the “voice” of the orchestra and ensures “we are always doing our best work.”

What about wardrobe choices?

Much like concert seating assignments, nothing about the choir’s wardrobe is left to chance.

Volunteer wardrobe specialists such as Vance Everett regularly meet with choir leadership to determine the best sartorial choices for each performance. Selecting the appropriate dress for the female performers typically takes first priority. The men’s wardrobe generally complements what the women are wearing.

“For example, we have a turquoise men’s tie that works with the women’s turquoise dress,” said Everett.

Expect bright colors for dresses in the spring and summer and more subtle shades in the autumn and winter.

And no, choir members don’t get dressed in their concert garb at home or in their hotel rooms. They arrive in street clothes and change at the Conference Center or at makeshift dressing rooms while on tour.

Cydnie Dial puts on makeup before performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Weill Hall at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, Calif., on Wednesday, June 27, 2018.
Cydnie Dial puts on makeup before performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Weill Hall at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, Calif., on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In-house seamstresses design all the women’s dresses.

I’d like to perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Orchestra at Temple Square. How do I audition?

Becoming a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir isn’t easy — but people do it every year. Applications for 2018 auditions are now available at https://www.mormontabernaclechoir.org/about/choir/auditions.html

Interested in joining the orchestra? Visit https://www.mormontabernaclechoir.org/about/orchestra/auditions.html for audition information.