Cover image via Church Newsroom.
Because of my husband’s recent call to serve in the newly organized presidency of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, I have had the sweet pleasure of spending hours and hours every week in the company of the consecrated members of that blessed organization. I have repeatedly delighted in their music-making and admired their dedicated goodness.
Many know that The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is one of the oldest choirs in the world and has even been called the greatest. Committed to the power and importance of music from the very start, Brigham Young deliberately included musicians among the advance parties of Saints as they moved west. Those early musicians sang for a conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley in August of 1847. The Tabernacle Choir traces its roots to that first pioneer choir.
The Choir has grown from that first band of musicians to include today other ensembles: Orchestra at Temple Square, a distinguished group with over 200 accomplished musicians on its roster, many of whom also have professional musical careers; Chorale at Temple Square, a choir organized in 1999 to serve as a training choir for The Tabernacle Choir; and Bells at Temple Square, a handbell ensemble with 32 members who ring English handbells and chimes and perform at their own concerts as well as with the Choir.
The Choir includes 360 singers, ages 25-60, all of whom currently live within 100 miles of Temple Square. New singers audition in a rigorous four-part process. First, they must submit a recording of a song sung unaccompanied. Next, they must pass a challenging, two and a half hour written and listening exam testing their knowledge of music theory and aptitude. Third, they perform a hymn of their choice, sight-read a piece of music, and test their vocal range during an in-person audition with the Choir’s music directors and have an interview with a member of the Choir presidency. Fourth, after being provisionally accepted into the Choir, they must complete a sixteen-week training course two nights per week with 100% attendance required. Musicians who secure seats with the Orchestra at Temple Square undergo a rigorous in-person audition with Choir music directors and the principal players of the Orchestra. Bells at Temple Square must demonstrate a similar degree of proficiency before that ensemble’s conductors.
Now, the extraordinary punch line: All of those who successfully pass the exacting requirements and agree to the demanding obligations of participation in these distinguished music groups are unpaid volunteers. They meet all the rigorous demands with absolutely no financial compensation. If they qualify to participate in the Choir, Orchestra, or Bells, they accept gratefully the rare opportunity and simply celebrate the privilege of meeting the many subsequent obligations implicit in their accomplishment with humility and gratitude.
Choir and Orchestra members rehearse and perform about five hours per week, unless they are preparing for a special performance. This year, during the month of December, when they were preparing for, then taping, their annual Christmas program, I watched them arrive early and stay late, sometimes five evenings in a single week, 3-4 hours each evening. The Bells worked alongside them most of the time. I was exhausted just watching the devotion and focus of those marvelous musicians! It looked hard.
During most of 2020 and through much of 2021, the Choir and Orchestra were unable to sing or perform together for nineteen months as a result of the COVID virus. I was honored to claim a seat the first evening they were allowed to return to rehearse together after that long hiatus. Their rejoicing over that tender, much-anticipated reunion was unmistakable and profound. Those consecrated disciples had been set apart as missionaries assigned to the Choir or Orchestra when they joined the organization. They clearly felt the fervor and holy commitment to their assigned cause like devoted missionaries do. Their thoughts were thankful thoughts, clearly attuned to the blessing it is to sacrifice and to serve.
Their gratitude for the blessing of returning to their task seemed only heightened after the loss of that pleasure they had missed for those nineteen months. Rather than lament the loss and grieve in any way that compromised the celebration, they conspicuously, enthusiastically rejoiced in the return, and gave generous thanks. Those volunteer musicians didn’t know how long they would be performing together before another shut down would send them home, but they didn’t allow any negative anticipation to compromise the opportunity to simply think thankfully.
Choosing to think thankfully was also a liberating and deliberate mindset of an unforgettable woman I met in Africa. I watched her arrive at a stake center in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was crowded in a rented bus with other sisters from her village. I knew she had traveled for hours to attend the sisters’ meeting. Like the others, she had packed a simple lunch and arranged for friends and family members to attend to her myriad tasks at home in her absence while she spent the unusual day with hundreds of sisters like her at a rare conference with visitors from Salt Lake City held just for the sisters.
That regal woman approached me after the devotional to offer a thought that had been on her mind for a long time. In great earnest, she shared, “Sister, I have heard it said that in your country, you describe a cup as either half full or half empty. You know, in my country, we are simply grateful to have a cup. And we are doubly grateful if that cup has anything at all in it.” That woman embraced the reality of her circumstances with bright optimism and gratitude for the possibilities of it. I suspect that there have been in the past and may be in the future, occasions when her cup has little or nothing in it, but she has cultivated a determination to think thankfully, and to feel and express gratitude always, even on the days when the gratitude is only for the empty cup.
When we have a cup, when our cup has anything at all in it, when we are welcomed back to sing our songs, think thankfully. “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalms 118:24