Tuesday, February 22, 2005

#150 - America's Choir? Sure, But...

Kris Wright over at By Common Consent wonders about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and its somewhat recent cognomen of "America's Choir." The question is essentially asked (as I interpret it, anyway), "Why would a choir that represents a religion that was for years oppressed by its own country suddenly become a masthead for that very country?"

Based on some highly cynical comments that followed the post, it might appear that some members of the church somehow feel that the choir is not only representative of some high-level church-wide hypocrisy, but incompetent as a choir to boot. I'd like to address myself to the cynics.

Goodness. Where to start?

One cannot discuss the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints without discussing its musical heritage. From the very first revelation directing Emma Smith to compile our first hymn book, the Lord has made it crystal clear that music is an integral part of the gospel. Music - by which I mean uplifting and edifying music - is said by the Lord himself to be equivalent to prayer. Prayer, as understood by Latter-day Saints, is the highest form of communication of which man is capable. Would that not by extension place music at the same level?

I have been a Church "musician" since my youth. I have both sung in and directed choirs at ward and stake levels since I was seventeen. I have served as chorister in Sunday School (pre-bloc, of course!), Sacrament, and Priesthood. I have served as a music chairman in wards and stakes throughout my adult life. I have learned through long experience that worship without music is dry. Worship with music that doesn't quite fit the Lord's pattern is actually worse. I've learned that there's a reason why we need revelation in the Church, and the music we sing or listen to in our services and conferences is a prime example.

Whatever appellation it may acquire or assume over time, the Tabernacle Choir serves a few primary purposes: Along with providing the music for the general meetings of the Church, it also serves as an example to choirs throughout the Church as to the music that ought to be performed. (Yes, I know. How many wards have their own orchestra? On the other hand, how many sacrament meetings have you attended where a couple of violins accompanied the choir?) The other primary purpose of the choir, of course, is missionary work. The choir is one of the most effective missionary tools the Church has at its disposal, and members of the choir are, in effect, serving as missionaries. Only those who are spiritually defiant will fail to be moved when listening to the choir, especially in person. They teach by the Spirit.

As for its technical prowess, the choir has improved dramatically through the successive efforts of its conductors. I've been following the choir since the days of Condie. The improvement in the choir was remarkable under Ottley's leadership, and it has become even more technically proficient under Jessop's baton. So the occasional word may be mumbled. Try getting 12 voices to sing a true pianissimo and you'll appreciate just how well the Tab Choir does with 360 in a hall that seats 21,000.

Several years ago, Mom and I had an opportunity to sing with the Tab Choir as part of a guest choir for Music and the Spoken Word. What a neat experience that was! Most gratifying was having a chance to visit with Choir members and realize that they are, first and foremost, humble members of a worldwide Church. They have testimonies of the gospel and a desire to share a talent with which they've been blessed with the rest of the world. Bro. Ottley still had the baton, and he, too, was very gracious in conversation.

In the end, the name "America's Choir" is really just marketing. An affectionate nickname that shows how highly regarded the choir is in its native country. A reminder that even though they represent the Lord's restored Church, they are also American citizens and proud to be so. On the other hand, its recent worldwide tours should also amply demonstrate the love people feel for this group wherever it may be heard. As an American I may feel justifiably proud of this Choir and its music. As a Latter-day Saint, I appreciate this Choir for bringing me closer to God.

Here's an idea: Show your ward choir that you appreciate them, too. After all, they serve the same purposes for you that the Tab Choir serves for the entire Church. They may or may not be the best musicians the Church has to offer. They may not even have a bucket with a handle big enough to carry the tunes. But they love the gospel enough to offer those prayers on your behalf. Thank them for that the next time they sing. You'll make their day.

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