Retiring from the Tabernacle Choir

Your family and some of your closest friends have gathered. Some have brought flowers in your honor. The person officiating at the ceremony says nice things about you. As the choir sings "God Be With You Till We Meet Again," a song some recognize as a farewell dirge, tears begin to flow.

Contrary to the setting and mood, it's not your funeral. But if you've been a member of the Tabernacle Choir and it's now time for you to leave after having served 20 years or reached the mandatory retirement age of 60, you might think it is.A recent choir retiree, said, "It feels like a funeral, but at least after a funeral, you hope you're going on to something as exciting."

Retiring from the choir is one of the most difficult experiences many of the singers encounter, according to Tabernacle Choir Pres. Wendell M. Smoot. Some retirees provided this composite description: As you go to the choir loft in the Tabernacle for the final time, you feel the lump in your throat growing bigger, and tears dim your vision. For the past 20 years, you have spent nearly every Sunday morning at the choir broadcast, and have met every Thursday and many Tuesday evenings for rehearsals with some of the finest people anywhere. You have traveled to many parts of the world. As a singing missionary, you have helped soften hearts of people and open doors of nations. Fellow members of the Tabernacle Choir have been there for some of the most spiritual moments of your life. Then, all too soon, it's time to say goodbye. You are invited to leave."

Pres. Smoot said: "Because the members spend so much time in choir-related activities, the choir becomes almost like a family. It's hard, very hard, to say goodbye."

Twice each year, choir officers and members hold a retirement ceremony. The ceremony is held immediately after a Sunday morning broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word." Family and friends of the singers who are retiring are invited to a stage in the Tabernacle just in front of the choir loft. Pres. Smoot delivers a message, in which he expresses thanks for the retiring singers' many years of service in the choir, and choir director Jerold Ottley tells something about each one. Each retiring singer is presented a plaque on which is engraved his or her name and the number of years of service. The ceremony is riddled with laughter and tears as stories of some of the singers' more humorous experiences are related and as the departing musicians sing one final hymn with their choir: "God Be With You Till We Meet Again."

While most make the transition from the choir with ease, some go through difficult periods of adjustment. Pres. Smoot told of one singer who tried to get his time in the choir extended, but finally accepted retirement. A year later, the man told Pres. Smoot: "When you retired me, I thought it was the end of the world. But then I found out there is, indeed, life after the choir. I'm now engaged in things that I didn't have time to do before because the choir demanded so much of my time."

Pres. Smoot said: "The choir does demand a lot of time. Last year, the choir met 151 times. That's like getting together every 21/3 days throughout the year. The consistency of their work is so important. They're required to be there at least 80 percent of the time. They don't have too much time to do other things if they're devoted to the choir. The choir is their primary calling in the Church. They're called and set apart as singing missionaries. As with every other calling in the Church, there is also a release."

Marianne Fisher served in the choir for 17 years before she reached mandatory retirement age and was released in May 1993. "I loved the choir before I got in, while I was in, and now that I'm out," she said. "It's traumatic and sad to have to leave, but I also rejoice. I will be forever grateful for 17 wonderful years with the choir. In the choir, there is a feeling of spirituality, cohesiveness, and a sense of caring. It was a wonderful experience."

Britt-Marie Barnes, who also retired in May 1993, said: "It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. When it was time for me to retire, Pres. Smoot called me in for an interview and asked, What is the choicest thing you've done with the choir?' I said,Everything!' I couldn't think of just one thing."

Joe Graves retired from the choir in 1991. "I joined the choir in 1984," he said. "I was choral music director for a high school in Ogden (Utah) for 34 years. I put off auditioning for the choir because of the fear that I wouldn't get in. That would have been embarrassing from a professional point of view. I was thrilled, just elated, when I did get in.

"I had many great experiences as a member of the choir. I did not look forward to leaving. But I discovered retiring was OK, except when I heard the choir sing music I had memorized. It was tough to not be singing with the choir, especially at the first general conference after I retired."

Leaving the choir is difficult particularly for those who have spouses or other family members who are still in the choir. Myra Ripplinger, who retired from the choir in February 1993, has five members of her family still in the choir: her husband, Donald Ripplinger, is associate choir director. Two sons, Cary and Hilton Ripplinger, and two daughters, Jane R. Fjeldsted and Shannon R. Shepherd, are also in the choir.

"I think it's been harder on Don for me to be retired," Sister Ripplinger said. "It's hard for him to go to choir by himself, but it's also hard on me to stay behind. We've been married for 43 years. I had never been to Church alone until I retired from the choir. Our ward met at a time Don couldn't go to Church with me because he was at the choir broadcast. Now our ward is on a different schedule and we can go to Church together.

"It was hard to leave the choir, but I've kind of booked myself up with other things to do."

Burton and Joyce Winters, husband and wife, joined the choir together nine years ago. He retired last October after reaching age 60; she can serve a few more years. "I always said I would quit when he retired," Sister Winters said. "Now that it has come to that, I have felt strongly that my release is not here yet, and I have felt peaceful about staying in the choir, although there are emotional moments when I miss sharing that experience with him."

Brother Winters said: "Joyce and I had waited until our children were older, when the timing was right, to join the choir. It has been incredible. With every call there is an impending release. It is honorable to be called. It is also honorable to be released after having tried to serve well."

Brother Winters was invited to be spokesman for the group who retired with him last October. At that ceremony, he said:

"Being in the choir has been more than a musical experience. We have seen the peoples of the earth and learned from them. We have praised God musically each week in rehearsal and broadcast. We have sung about our responsibilities as saints of God. We have traveled the length and breadth of this land. Most of all, we have sung of Christ, whose Church we represent."

Expressing love to choir officers, staff and members, he concluded, "We thank you for this experience. Our lives will never be the same."

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