Bells at Temple Square conductor LeAnna Willmore to retire

Having served as director since 2011, she will retire after June 14 concert

When LeAnna Willmore, the director of the Bells at Temple Square, stands and raises her baton to lead the music at the group’s concert on Friday, June 14, it will be her last one. She will be retiring after the concert.

“I’m grateful every day for music in my life,” Willmore said in a recent interview for the Church News podcast, noting that she plays the organ at church and teaches piano lessons in addition to her conducting. “It’s just part of my life. It’s a wonderful thing to see people moved through music.”

Willmore has been the director of the handbell group since 2011, and previously she was the associate director since it was founded in 2005. In addition to teaching in several schools along Utah’s Wasatch Front, she’s also served in a variety of leadership roles.

“It’s tones and harmonies and rhythms that come together and speak in a universal language,” Willmore said. She added: “But you can listen to a piece of music that is in another language and you don’t understand the words at all, and you can still be moved by the music. So it is something that speaks to all of us in any language.”

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The Bells at Temple Square

The Bells at Temple Square was formed in 2005 as part of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square organization with 28 charter members. The group currently has 32 ringers, and the number has varied over the years between 30 and 35.

The handbell choir’s performances include two yearly concerts, taking part often in the weekly “Music & the Spoken Word” broadcasts of the Tabernacle Choir and having a major role in the choir’s annual Christmas concerts. The ensemble rehearses weekly. It has also performed in other locations, including at the Handbell Musicians of America national seminar in Irving, Texas, in July 2023.

Bell ringers play on two sets of English handbells and hand chimes — one with seven octaves and one with 6½ octaves.

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Members of the Bells at Temple Square perform during “Bells in Motion” spring concert on Friday, June 9, 2023, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City. | The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

To be part of the Bells at Temple Square, candidates need to have a musical background or previous bell choir experience and either played a percussion instrument or the piano or another instrument where they’ve had to count. They also need to be able to smile while performing, Willmore said.

Those invited to audition come to workshop-style classes on three Saturdays to learn the group’s style for ringing and performing.

There are times, such as on tour, that Tabernacle Choir members will play bells. She’s worked to train them.

“Those few simple things bring out so much joy and light in the concert,” Willmore said.

When the Bells at Temple Square started nearly 20 years ago, it wanted to put out a DVD. But choir officials recommended sharing the music on YouTube.

The first video shared was “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

“And it had millions of views,” she said. As the ensemble added more music, more people heard of the Bells at Temple Square. She added, “Any place, any conference I go to, everybody knows the Bells at Temple Square now.”

For the concert June 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, tickets for in-person attendance have been distributed. It will be livestreamed on the Tabernacle Choir’s YouTube channel and through the Tabernacle Choir’s website at

“Flight of the Bumblebee” is one of the songs on the program.

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About the ‘masterful art’ of bell ringing

Bells range from tiny bells that weigh a few ounces — sometimes bell ringers will hold two in their hands — to ones that weigh 11 or 12 pounds and need two hands to ring, she said. Smaller bells have a higher pitch, and bigger bells have a lower pitch.

The bell ringers’ music covers that of the whole orchestra — a range from the flutes to the tuba, Willmore said.

Members of the Bells at Temple Square perform during “Bells in Motion” spring concert on Friday, June 9, 2023, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City. | The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

“The only thing is we don’t have the different timbres; we don’t have the different sounds,” she said. “Everything we do is on bells and on chimes. Our job is to make that music sound like a beautiful orchestra.”

There’s a variety of techniques to vary the sound, including bumping the bell on the table, plucking the bell or using mallets, she added.

Willmore estimates about 30 bell choirs function in high schools and junior high schools in Utah. Also, there are community bell choirs “that play beautifully.”

“I noticed it in high school with my bell choir there and with the ringers; once you start ringing, it’s like it just grabs you and gets a hold of you,” she said.

Bell ringers have to be “master counters,” Willmore said. They have to be able to “grab” their one-sixteenth note in the right time so there’s no break on either side of it so it sounds like there’s one person playing.

“It’s a masterful art.”

Members of the Bells at Temple Square perform during “Bells in Motion” spring concert on Friday, June 9, 2023, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City. | The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

Falling in love with music

For Willmore, while she enjoys the concerts, her personal highlights have been the rehearsals. “That’s where we learn the music. That’s where we have the fun,” she said. “That’s where we laugh and enjoy each other as we’re learning.”

One of her favorite songs is “Expedition,” which will be performed June 14.

“It’s a wonderfully difficult song that uses all of the techniques,” she said. The song has mixed meters and also uses chimes and bells.

When Willmore was 7 years old, her parents bought a piano. “I still remember them bringing it into the house. I fell in love with that piano.”

She took piano lessons and quickly mastered the songs.

Conductor LeAnna Willmore leads the Bells at Temple Square during the “Bells in Motion” spring concert on Friday, June 9, 2023, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City. | The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

“As soon as my mother realized that I was not practicing because I could already play the pieces I was given, she would just keep changing teachers,” she said. When she was 12, she had a teacher who gave her music that challenged her.

Willmore accompanied choirs and various groups, would fill in occasionally for choir teachers and learned she liked directing choirs.

She went to Weber State University and majored in music education with a piano emphasis. She started teaching piano in Weber County, Utah, and then moved to the Jordan School District in Salt Lake County and was there for 20 years. She has helped start bells groups at Bingham, Riverton and Herriman high schools.

She also has a master’s degree in music from the University of Utah. Currently, Willmore also works with student teachers at Brigham Young University.

When she married her husband, Ken Willmore, he figured they would spend time singing together around the piano as a family, LeAnna Willmore said. Other than at Christmas, they haven’t had much time to do that.

Now, with her retirement, maybe they will, Willmore said with a laugh.

Members of the Bells at Temple Square perform during “Bells in Motion” spring concert on Friday, June 9, 2023, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City. | The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

More changes in the Tabernacle Choir

Willmore’s retirement is one of several changes in the Tabernacle Choir organization.

‘Music & the Spoken Word’ host

Lloyd Newell, who has been the host of “Music & the Spoken Word” for nearly 35 years, and his wife, Karmel Newell, will be serving as mission leaders for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints starting July 1.

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Bells and choir members

In April, 36 choir and bells members were released as new choir members transition from the Chorale at Temple Square to the choir.

Organ technician

Robert Poll was the organ technician for the organs on Temple Square for nearly 41 years when he retired after the October 2023 general conference.

He started in November 1982 after he and his brother had installed a pipe organ in the basement of the Assembly Hall earlier that year. Poll’s brother was approached by one of the organists at the time — Robert “Bob” Cundick — to make sure his business would be OK if Robert Poll were offered the position.

Since then, Robert Poll has been the assistant technician and, as personnel change, became the organ technician. Lamont Anderson was the assistant organ technician for 34½ years when Anderson retired in 2020.

He and the assistant technicians have helped keep the eight organs and 70-plus pianos in Church headquarters tuned and ready for events.

For years, one of the organ technicians would need to be in the Tabernacle early on Sundays, around 5:30 a.m., to tune the organ for about an hour in advance of the morning rehearsals and “Music & the Spoken Word” broadcast. Then they would alternate who would go home for their own Church meetings. When the Salt Lake Tabernacle was renovated in 2006-2007, an HVAC system was added, helping to regulate the temperature in the building, meaning technicians didn’t need to be there so early.

They would be on standby during musical events, too.

In the past 40 years, Poll has helped install the Assembly Hall organ and seen new practice organs added. Poll also helped in the selection process of the organ builders for the Conference Center and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. He also helped with acquiring a smaller, portable organ that’s used at various events.

The Tabernacle organ console was upgraded with new components, including a new control system in 2020, which took longer than expected, he said.

Robert Poll, organ technician for The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square organization, reacts during a choir rehearsal announcing his retirement on Sept. 28, 2023. He retired in October 2023 after nearly 41 years on the job. | Ronell S Crapo

As Poll shares his experiences, his technical knowledge of the organs is apparent especially as he shares about times he’s worked to help solve issues that have come up, from whistling pipes during a concert to the time the organ console in the Conference Center stopped working when three organists were playing it.

He’s also worked to keep records on each organ and knows details about each one.

“I feel extremely grateful. I feel like I never deserved the job,” said Poll, who has a background in choral music, adding: “I also felt like the Lord wanted me there. I tried to do the things that were right for the Church and for furthering the work of the Church through music.”

He downplays the praise organist Richard Elliott and choir director Mack Wilberg shared with the choir during rehearsal when his retirement was announced. Elliott said that many times Poll stepped in to help last minute to solve issues with an instrument just before a performance, helping the show to go on.

“I’ve gone through these different phases. I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Poll said of the management, facilities and venues, and the instruments. “I feel extremely comfortable with where they are now, and I’m elated with the way it’s turned out.”

The new technician is Joseph Nielsen, who has an organ performance and construction background, who will continue to work with Paul Gates, the piano technician. Poll worked with Nielsen for several months during the transition.

Poll added: “I feel extremely grateful and very happy that I was able to be a part of it.”

And the pipe organ he helped install before he first started? When Poll retired, he said it was still working.

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