Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus

Wanted: Talented performers who love the Lord and music

It is the noon hour, and Robert C. Bowden is seated at a grand piano in a practice room on the 20th Floor of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, putting a hopeful young vocalist through the paces.

"So you think you sing bass," says Brother Bowden, veteran director of the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus, as he glances at the young man's application form. "Let's do a little warming up and find out."That doesn't take him long. "I would say you're a baritone," he tells the would-be chorus member. "Your break is on A, so that pretty much confirms it."

The tell-tale "break" is a slight shift in vocal quality as the singer ascends a major scale, although a trained vocalist can hide it. It helps the director place a successful applicant properly in the chorus, vital to achieving a quality sound in a six-part group.

Rigorous tests follow. Brother Bowden plays a series of notes in a pattern foreign to the typical ear. The applicant must sing back the same series of notes in the identical sequence, not an easy task, even for the musically apt.

The singer is then asked to sight-read a part on a sheet of music while the director plays a different part on the piano. In another test, he plays a note way outside the singer's range and the vocalist must sing it within his range.

Throughout the audition, Brother Bowden is very businesslike to mitigate the awkwardness in case a rejection is necessary, which it is in this instance. The young man's vocal quality is good, but his sight reading and note recognition are poor.

"We sing in sextets, and he would be floundering all over, moving to the parts of those who are around him," he confides afterward to a Church News observer. It would be a mistake to accept an applicant who is not ready, he says. "All that does is set up a situation where those who can't handle it become discouraged."

Since the chorus represents the Church, it must come as near as possible to perfection, he points out. With six months' training, he reckons, the young man might be able to try again and be successful.

Another applicant, a young woman, fares better. She is nervous. On the sight-reading test she tends to follow the piano instead of her own part, and that worries Brother Bowden. But she has a beautiful, second-soprano voice and, all in all, does well enough to be among the 50 percent of applicants who pass the audition.

Several nights later, during a joint rehearsal of the symphony and chorus in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, Terry Hill of the Mormon Youth staff leads a high school violinist through an equally stiff audition: scales, sight reading, difficult fingerings. The proficiency is amazing for one so young, and the violinist earns his seat in the symphony.

Rigorous as it is, musicianship is not the only requirement for membership in the Mormon Youth organization.

"This is a missionary calling in the Church, really, and we have to have our bishop's permission to even audition for the group," noted Michael Sandberg, a chorus member and leader of the second-tenor section. The bishop realizes that, like any missionary calling, this requires personal worthiness and activity in the Church."

Rules call for at least a year's commitment to membership in either the symphony or chorus, with 80 percent minimum attendance each quarter. That can be a challenge at a season in life when mobility and change are most common.

Dress standards are essential, as the symphony and chorus are such a prominent symbol of the Church.

Age is another consideration. Through most of the organization's 25 years of existence, the name "youth" in the title has been something of a misnomer. The minimum age for the chorus is 18. The age span has typically ranged to 30; some members are married.

Recently, the span has been adjusted for the chorus; members now must be under age 26 and, at the time they join, unmarried.

Symphony and chorus members accept the requirements some might view as stringent.

Part of the motivation is a chance to contribute to a product of unquestionable musical excellence. At a recent rehearsal, director Bowden leads the symphony through a couple of Hollywood themes, "2001, a Space Odyssey" and "Star Trek." The sound is tight, disciplined, immense. No stereo Surround-Sound theater system ever had this much presence.

But the rewards run deeper than that.

"You know when you look down in the audience and see tears in people's eyes after you've finished a particularly moving piece that the Spirit's there, and you can see how it's affecting others," said second tenor Larry Whipple. "And that's what missionary work is all about. Before anybody can harvest, you've got to plow the field, you've got to get rid of the weeds, you've got to plant the furrows and you've got to put the seed in. I think that Mormon Youth is a great organization to do some of that initial work and prepare people so that when the time comes for them to actually hear the gospel they'll be ready."

Section leader Sandberg agrees.

"Each week in our regular rehearsals," he said, "we perform a mini-concert for the folks who happen to be visiting on Temple Square, who happen to be in the Tabernacle at the time. These are generally people who are not members of the Church. The director asks people to identify where they've come from, and it's interesting to find that they do come from all parts of the world at almost every rehearsal. So in notes and letters I send to my section members, I ask them to remember that we have the opportunity to invite the Spirit to come and make that mini-concert a memorable experience. Maybe the people will be able to sense something here that they hadn't experienced before and might not necessarily recognize as being the Spirit until a later time, something that may cause them to want to find out what it is they sensed while they were here."

The musicians recognize that the music and the Spirit conveyed through it can evoke feelings of love and joy among listeners and break down walls, even if the listeners do not eventually join the Church.

For example, a friend of Larry Whipple's, not active in the Church, persuaded his wife to come to the fall concert of 1991. "She had not wanted him associating with the Church," he said. "But after the concert she softened up considerably and said if he wanted, she wouldn't object to him attending Church services."

One of the most remarkable accounts is that of Barbara Shpack, a flutist in the symphony. Born in Whippany, N.J., she had been forbidden for years by her father to join the Church after the family had been visited by missionaries when she was young.

Eventually her mother and she were baptized, while her father continued to feel antagonistic. But through the kindness of Church members, particularly toward Barbara as she was convalescing from a back operation, his attitude softened. At length he even began to sing with the ward choir.

Eventually, Barbara moved to Utah, where she recently joined the symphony through a referral from a friend. A couple of years ago, when her father was 78, the couple moved to Utah to live near Barbara. Her father, George, surprised his wife while she was on a return trip to ship the couple's household items. In her absence, he received all the missionary discussions and prepared himself for baptism by the time she returned.

He died recently, but before his death he conferred the priesthood upon Barbara's son.

The father's funeral presented a problem. Brother Shpack's family is of the Jewish faith and was unaware of his conversion to Mormonism. Barbara wanted especially to invite her father's brother, Max. Would he be offended at the funeral?

"We gathered together some wonderful people for the funeral service," she recalled. "We had a friend with a Jewish background give a talk about why my dad decided to join the Church. We had clarinetists and pianists do a medley of three Jewish songs that were very familiar to my family. My friend's husband came and sang some songs from Fiddler On the Roof.' My uncle Max just looked at me; we were one. It was a very spiritual meeting. We included some LDS hymns and remarks by the bishop and letters from the grandchildren. Maxie said,This is the most beautiful funeral I've ever been to.' "

Later, although Barbara had misgivings, she invited her uncle Max to attend a Mormon Youth Symphony rehearsal. He readily accepted. That night, Brother Bowden, aware of the visit of Barbara's uncle, included "The Ten Commandments" on the rehearsal schedule. Max met Brother Bowden. Later, the director sent to him through Barbara a videotape of a program the group had done at Christmastime at a Jewish synagogue in Salt Lake City.

"He watched it and thought it was so wonderful that he took it around to all his Jewish neighbors in the condo he lives in in Florida," she said. "Brother Bowden had enough love and respect to play something that night he knew would touch my uncle's heart. And now, my uncle is spreading love and friendship between Judah and Ephraim by way of the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus."

She added: "Brother Bowden's sensitivity to the variety of styles and ethnic forms of music is one important way in which he draws in his audience. He then feeds them the gospel through the masterworks of sacred music."

Such sensitivity and dedication are also required of symphony and chorus members. Paul Larson, a chorus member since the very early days and now assistant director of the chorus, gave this summary: "You've got to be enthusiastic, you've got to love music and you've got to love the Lord. The combination of those three things will serve you well in the organization."

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