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What an Episcopal priest learned from singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Boston when I stepped into the Citi Performing Arts Center to rehearse with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Because I had expressed interest in writing a piece about the famous choir, I was invited to be a “singing guest,” which meant I participated in a two-hour sound check, or a pre-performance rehearsal, to see how a choir sounds in a new space. I was given a reserved seat in the soprano section. Upon arrival, choir members helped me arrange a black folder brimful with sheet music into the correct order.

My original intention was to describe what it was like to perform with such an elite group. (It was incredible, by the way.) But as I reflected on my experiences, I realized that the real story was the lesson I learned about what it means to be part of God’s creation in our incredibly diverse world.

I grew up singing in a prestigious girls choir at an Episcopal Cathedral on Long Island. One of the first lessons I learned is that being a chorister is an act of dedication to something larger than self. Unlike a soloist, no one ever hears single choir members because they blend with the rest of the group. In fact, it’s bad if one singer can be heard apart from the others. If listeners hear one voice standing out in, say, the tenor section, then that tenor isn’t blending properly. Moreover, the entire section should sound united not only within themselves but also with the other sections. That's how the soprano, alto, tenor and basses become one.

I learned incalculable lessons about music, relationships and faith from my choirmaster. I learned to listen to other singers so I could blend with them. I learned to care less for how I sounded than for the larger whole. I learned not to sing for the thrill of applause because we were in church, and there never was any. I learned that we sing not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify something beyond and to inspire others to do the same.

I learned that, as St. Augustine says, when you sing, you pray twice. And that's why I credit my early choir days with instilling a lifelong love of God that eventually led me to ordination in The Episcopal Church.

As I sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that afternoon, I felt so many of the same values emanating from the group. No one was distracted by the venue's ornateness, two balconies or 3,600 red velvet seats. Every eye was focused on the choir's director, Mack Wilberg, as he conducted classics such as "All Creatures of Our God and King." Later in the rehearsal, associate music director Ryan Murphy brought up his elementary, middle and high school music teachers to the stage before conducting a piece he composed himself. Every member of the choir gave a standing ovation to these teachers.

They're like me, I thought. They too have musical leaders who formed them.

As Murphy led the group, he reminded the tenor section to listen and blend together. I remembered that I would have to do the same. I would have to listen to the sopranos around me so that my vowels blended with theirs. I would have to listen to altos, tenors and basses to make sure that we were one singing unit.

And I could do those things. As a singer, I could make myself sound like a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

But what I couldn’t do was make myself into a Mormon.

Being Mormon is pretty central to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It's not just a group renowned for its unity, technical expertise and heartfelt performances. It’s first and foremost a group of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 360 volunteers don’t sing for prestige or because they’re professional musicians. They do it as an act of faith, because they want to be musical ambassadors for their church.

So as an Episcopalian, it wasn’t lost on me that being a singing guest was a unique privilege — perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience for someone outside the LDS Church. There was no reason for members to welcome me, and yet they did.

And together, we made some beautiful music.

That’s when it occurred to me that choirs are really metaphors for life as a person of faith. We encounter so many people who are different than us, who believe different things. But we are all part of God’s creation, all members of a kind of earthly choir. We can certainly use our voice to point to our differences, and sometimes that’s important. Sometimes we need a great soloist whose voice stands out from the crowd. But sometimes we need to listen to the voices around us to notice how we blend and what we share in common.

Because we do share a lot in common, and sometimes we forget that.

As I reflect back on that day of being one small soprano voice in a sea of talented Mormon singers, what remains with me is the way that 361 different individuals united to make a single splendid sound. For a moment, I got to be part of it. I got to glorify God beside hundreds of others who believe things that are different from what I believe. In that way, the choir was certainly a musical ambassador to me.

But on that afternoon, the focus wasn’t on the details of our traditions. It was on creating a single choir that praised God.

And, because of that, something glorious emerged.

Danielle Tumminio is an Episcopal priest who is also a three-time graduate of Yale University. She holds a doctorate in practical theology from Boston University, has taught at Yale and Tufts and is currently chaplain at the Groton School.