How Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra members are ‘keeping fit’ during pandemic hiatus

Like countless other viewers, Ruth Crosland enjoys singing along from home with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square during each Sunday’s broadcast of “Music & the Spoken Word.”

But unlike most, Crosland hits all the right notes.

She’s a seasoned choir veteran herself — a second alto who has rehearsed and performed and traveled with the storied group for more than 13 years. But for the past eight months, she and her fellow choir members — along with the Orchestra at Temple Square — have been on an unwelcome hiatus during the pandemic.

And for the second consecutive general conference (Oct. 3-4), Crosland will be watching the biannual event from her living room in Pleasant Grove, Utah, rather than in her customary seat in the Conference Center loft.

But like off-season elite athletes, Crosland and other choir and orchestra members are keeping sharp and fit so when the call comes to resume rehearsing and performing, they will be ready.

“As part of our Sunday morning home worship, my husband, Roger, and I watch ‘Music & the Spoken Word,’” she said. “I like to sing along with the choir. I obviously don’t have my music in front of me, but I do it to remember the ebb and flow of the music and how [choir directors] Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy want something performed.”

Alto Ruth Crosland sings with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square prior to the 2020 pandemic. She is anxious to return to regular performances with the Choir, including general conference.
Alto Ruth Crosland sings with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square prior to the 2020 pandemic. She is anxious to return to regular performances with the Choir, including general conference. Credit: Courtesy of Ruth Crosland

That weekly process, she added, strengthens her “vocal memory” — that conditioned response to do something physical without thought, like a boxer throwing a counterpunch or a baseball player swinging at a fastball.

“When you sing something a lot, the way that you sing that selection gets into your vocal memory — so you sing it the same way every time,” she explained.

Crosland added she utilizes her drive-time in the car to sing and help keep her voice conditioned to one day again harmonize with her choirmates.

Choir and orchestra leaders have also provided Crosland and her fellow musicians with vocal and instrumental exercises to do regularly from home during the pandemic. Choir and orchestra members must perform at high technical levels to capture their trademark sound, so consistent training and practice are essential.

“We’ve been told: ‘Stay in shape —we are coming back,’” said orchestra member Will Francis.

Disrupted rhythms

A French hornist, Francis spends time with his instrument almost every day. The middle school orchestra and band teacher said he’s fortunate to be surrounded by music in the workplace

Will Francis plays the French horn player while rehearsing with the Orchestra at Temple Square prior to the 2020 pandemic.
Will Francis plays the French horn player while rehearsing with the Orchestra at Temple Square prior to the 2020 pandemic. Credit: Photo by Mollie Shutt

“And I practice daily at home. I just keep reminding myself that we will get back together one day.”

Francis has performed with the Orchestra at Temple Square for more than 16 years. Regular “Music & the Spoken Word” viewers have surely heard his distinct brass sound blending with the other instruments and choir voices.

Prior to the pandemic, his weekly rehearsals with the Orchestra at Temple Square in Salt Lake City helped define his life. All that has been disrupted.

“It sometimes feels like being a performer with the Orchestra at Temple Square was in another life,” he told the Church News.

It’s strange and a bit unsettling, he added, not to have a performance to look forward to or a new musical selection to master. “It’s the rhythm that we live by as performers. And that’s gone, at least for now.”

Whenever he can, he tunes into the Sunday broadcast. And even from his home in Logan, Utah, he hears slight technical goofs or imbalances in his playing that he’s determined to improve.

“But it is a blessing when I hear something that we have done and I think, ‘Wow, that was really good. I’m so glad the world gets to hear that.”

Anticipating a joyful return

Despite their “off-season” resourcefulness, Crosland and Francis agree that nothing they do to stay “fit” at home matches the energy found in rehearsing and performing with the choir and orchestra.

“That is something we do miss,” said Crosland. “I can sing everything by myself at home. But when you get everyone together with all those voices, it is electric. You feel it, and you feed off of it.”

Being apart from the orchestra “is a hole in my life,” admitted Francis.

He often reminds himself of the key role the orchestra and choir continue to play in sharing the Lord’s gospel with people of all backgrounds around the world. “And when I get discouraged, I keep telling myself that it will be back.”

Choir and orchestra members glean added strength simply imagining that day when they are again sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and performing their sacred duties as the Church’ global musical ambassadors.

“There will be a lot of tears,” said Crosland. “It will be an amazing day. It will be a spiritual day.”

Sharing those talents again, at some point in the future, for a worldwide general conference at a capacity-filled Conference Center will be an especially historic, emotional moment.

“There are times during general conference when we feel there are literally more voices with us than what you see in the loft,” said Crosland. “These are things that we are missing right now. I can’t even imagine how much stronger that will feel when we return.”