Called to serve, invited to sing: The purpose — and power — of the Provo Missionary Training Center choir

No auditions or previous experience necessary for the choir comprised of missionaries training at the MTC for 2 to 6 weeks

PROVO, Utah — Few choirs could enjoy a sense of continuity, sustainability and success if their members — more than half without prior choir experience — never auditioned, simply showed up to sing and switched out every few weeks.

But the Provo Missionary Training Center choir — comprised of full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints training in the Provo, Utah, facility for two to six weeks before leaving to serve in assignments worldwide — has been a staple at the MTC for decades.

And Ryan Eggett — who estimates having led more than 100,000 missionaries in his calling as MTC choir lead director since 2012 — isn’t sold on the “choir” label, preferring instead something like “singing missionaries.”

“I’ll say in rehearsals very frequently, ‘You know, we’re not really a choir. We’re a group of missionaries, so I want you to sing this like a missionary would sing it,’” said Eggett, explaining he asks they “teach” the message rather than merely sing it. “So we focus on it being a missionary experience and not a choir experience, and that’s where the real continuity comes in.”

The MTC choir sings during a devotional with Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

‘Music is such a powerful conduit’

A professional musician once watched the MTC choir rehearse, seeing Eggett spend less time on singing and practicing a hymn and focus instead on its history and meaning as well as the gospel and missionary experiences.

“Why don’t you sing more?” the musician asked. “The music is the power.”

Eggett disagreed. “No, the gospel is the power; the music is the means to access the power,” he said, adding that the individual later heard the choir perform and expressed admiration in its power and spirit.

Provo MTC President Benson L. Porter said the choir, which lately is comprised of 500 to 800 missionaries each week, plays a major role in helping draw the Holy Spirit into weekly MTC devotionals. “When they sing, they give it everything they have, and everyone can feel it in their souls. It simply adds to the overall ‘feel’ found here on the Lord’s campus. It brings unity to all who hear, testifying that we are all a part of this great cause of gathering Israel.”

Added his companion, Sister Kerry Porter: “The Spirit can bear testimony to each missionary that the doctrine they are singing about is true. Music is such a powerful conduit for personal revelation.”

MTC choir director Ryan K Eggett leads the choir at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

The constant of leadership

A key constant is Eggett and Ellen Amatangelo — he as an MTC choir director for more than two decades, and she as the main accompanist for 15 years.

These callings are in addition to their full-time employment. A returned missionary who served in northern Brazil and as an institute instructor for 27 years, Eggett now works for the Church’s Priesthood and Family Department as a product manager of member research and instruction. Amatangelo, who served her mission in Idaho, is the director of scholarly communications at Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library.

In 2000, about the time he was starting a Utah Valley Institute choir in Orem, Utah, he was called to be an assistant director at the MTC on Sunday nights to Douglas Brenchley, the MTC choir’s lead director since the mid-1980s who had recently been called into a stake presidency. In 2012, Brenchley was called as a director of a different sort — at a Church historical site — and Eggett’s call was changed to head director.

A missionary choir sings during a Tuesday evening devotional at the Provo Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo, Utah, March 8, 2011. The director is Douglas Brenchley. | Deseret News archives

Amatangelo was called in 2007 as the accompanist, having worked with Eggett in his ongoing role with the institute choir and with Brenchley on various musical projects.

“I get a boost every week from the excitement and great spirit of the missionaries,” Amatangelo said. “Their desire to bring others to Christ is almost palpable.”

She added that Eggett has a natural talent for getting the best singing out of choir members, with an ability to make connections between the music, the gospel and those singing. “He is an excellent teacher and storyteller and has studied the history of the hymns extensively, so he is able to bring them to life for the missionaries.”

Eggett is equally as complimentary of Amatangelo, calling her “a brilliant sight-reader” who can handle last-minute requests to change planned numbers. She plays the piano, organ, trumpet and French horn, and Eggett likes to recount the time when — with the Utah Valley Institute choir — Amatangelo started by playing the trumpet fanfare on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and then sat down at the piano to continue with the accompaniment.

“I thought that was the craziest thing I had ever seen,” he said, adding she “has very good missionary flair and lots of patience for the missionaries.” 

Ellen Amatangelo plays the organ before a devotional broadcast at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Drawing large numbers 

The MTC choir enjoys other continuities. One is the schedule — the choir rehearses late Sunday afternoons and performs at Tuesday night devotionals. Sometimes a select, smaller choir group has additional practices and additional performances, such as at the annual seminar for new mission leaders or a general conference session every few years.

Another continuity is the large numbers the choir draws. For an early September MTC devotional with Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, nearly 800 of the 1,200 total missionaries training at the MTC that week sang in the choir. In another devotional later this month, the four-part choir featured 341 in the bass section alone — nearly the number of the entire membership of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

Missionaries sing in the choir during a devotional featuring Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

In the past decade, the MTC choir has experienced its extremes in participation numbers — from when the Church in 2012 lowered the minimum age of missionaries and MTC training numbers surged, to when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered normal operations at the Church’s missionary training centers in 2020 and into 2021.

With the age-change surge, weekly training numbers at the Provo MTC more than doubled in 2013 and 2014, resulting in an expansion of residences, operations and meetings to a self-contained “west campus” of two rented apartment complexes. And because combined attendance far exceeded available space at the MTC’s main campus, Tuesday night devotionals were moved to the BYU Marriott Center. 

Separate Sunday rehearsals were held at the MTC and in a west-campus meetinghouse, with the MTC choir coming together Tuesday nights for a brief, all-together rehearsal prior to devotional performances. “We filled the whole bleacher section there more than once and then put a couple hundred more behind me on the floor,” recalled Eggett, with choir numbers sometimes surpassing 1,500. “That was quite the experience.”

Missionaries walk to a devotional on Tuesday, June 11, 2013, as the anticipated 2013 “summer surge” settles over the Church’s two MTC campuses in Provo, Utah. Officials are finding creative ways to accommodate more than 4,000 missionaries at a time — including walking them all to BYU’s Marriott Center for MTC-wide devotionals. | Deseret News archives

During the pandemic closures, the MTC choir ceased, with prerecorded performances used as music numbers for virtual devotionals and meetings for missionaries doing online training. When the Provo MTC reopened for regular operations in June 2021, the choir soon resumed — but in small numbers, reflective of adjustment of fewer missionaries training on-site.

Still, after pandemic-related closures choir-participation averages were as much as 75 percent of all those at the MTC.

“It gave them a time to unite,” Eggett said, remembering that even after most MTC face mask mandates were relaxed, the choir was still asked to sing in masks for a while longer, because singing was considered a superspreader of germs.

Choir members sing ahead of Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson, speaking at the Thanksgiving Day devotional at the Provo Missionary Training Center on Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021, in Provo, Utah. | Deseret News archives

‘Chosen to sing’

One of Eggett’s most memorable MTC choir experiences came in 2013 — a special Churchwide leadership broadcast called “The Work of Salvation,” with the entire Quorum of the Twelve Apostles attending the broadcast from the Marriott Center. A special choir featuring 1,000 MTC missionaries and 1,000 local members from ward councils would symbolize the power of members and missionaries working together in the gathering of Israel.

The invitation to participate went out — and 2,000 missionaries responded. Informing Marriott Center personnel he had double the planned number, Eggett was told arena lighting limited the choir to 1,000 missionaries and 1,000 members.

He detailed the dilemma to MTC leaders, who said that at a special MTC-wide sacrament meeting on the day of the Sunday evening devotional, he would have to explain to the missionaries some way of selecting the 1,000 participants.

“I gave a talk called ‘Sometimes You Are Chosen Not To Be Chosen” — about how the Lord sometimes calls you not to go,” he recalled. Despite all 2,000 having memorized the songs, he outlined a system of tenure at the MTC to help determine participating groups.

After the meeting, Eggett anticipated pushback from missionaries who had prepared and had parents and family members planning to attend the devotional, some coming from long distances. What he witnessed instead were groups of missionaries huddling together, self-selecting among themselves who would participate and who would step back.

A choir of full-time missionaries and other Latter-day Saints provide music for “The Work of Salvation Worldwide Leadership Broadcast” in the Marriott Center on the campus of Brigham Young University on Sunday, June 23, 2013. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

As small groups of selected missionaries stepped off to walk from the MTC to the Marriott Center to perform, those remaining encouraged them in a show of support. “They cheered them on as they walked down. It was so amazing — they had had a chance to be on TV, to sing for the Apostles,” said Eggett, worried so many were withdrawing that he might not end up with the 1,000 needed.

At the Marriott Center with the self-selected 1,000, Eggett told the event director he had another 1,000 standing outside who had memorized the music and expected to perform but wouldn’t because lighting arrangements restricted the number of missionaries.

“I don’t care if they’re singing in the dark” said the event director, mandating staff to accommodate by expanding the seating and lighting as possible, before turning to Eggett. “You tell the other 1,000 missionaries to get in here — they’ve been chosen to sing.”

Ward and stake council members, their spouses, missionaries and other Church members attended a special session of the 2013 Seminar for New Mission Presidents, “The Work of Salvation.” The session originated in BYU’s Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on June 23, and was carried throughout the Church and was rebroadcast. | Deseret News archives

What choir members are saying

  • “I think music has a special way of bringing in the Spirit. It can connect to everyone universally, regardless of language.” — Sister Rebecca Haines, Sterling Heights, Michigan, assigned to the Korea Seoul South Mission
  • “I feel that as we’re singing, we’re proclaiming our love for Him and our love for the gospel. And I like learning all the doctrine and the lessons about faith that are in these songs.” — Elder Jalen Manivanh, Porterville, California, assigned to the Minnesota Minneapolis Mission (Hmong-speaking)
A missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds sheet music as he sings a hymn during Relief Society General President Camille Johnson’s address at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022 | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News
  • “I love that Brother Eggett links [rehearsal messages about the music, gospel and life experiences] with our trials as well as our trials in the mission, and I love how he’s very uplifting about it. It’s very relatable to me and other missionaries.” — Sister Turrie Vaine, Melbourne, Australia, assigned to the Philippines Bacolod Mission (Hiligaynon-speaking)
  • “Singing in the choir truly helps you be able to realize how you feel about the Spirit and the gospel, and it’s a great way to express your love for God.” — Elder Scott Jezik, Waunakee, Wisconsin, assigned to the California Fresno Mission (Hmong-speaking)
  • “I heard about the choir [just days before arriving] from a couple of friends, including one who’s currently in the MTC, and he said he loves it. And I love choir, so there’s a special place in my heart for singing.” — Sister Misty Spencer, Holbrook, Arizona, assigned to the Idaho Idaho Falls Mission
MTC choir director Ryan K Eggett leads the choir at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News
Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed