SALT LAKE CITY — When Brian Mathias was a teenager, early Sunday mornings meant two things: delivering newspapers and listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Beginning around 5 a.m., as he delivered newspapers along his family’s paper route in Minneapolis, Mathias enjoyed listening to the melodies from “Music and the Spoken Word” emanate from a local radio station.
This Sunday routine instilled in Mathias a deep love for the choir, leading him to become the family’s likely culprit whenever a new choir CD went missing around the house. But opportunities to hear the choir were so rare in Minneapolis that it wasn’t until attending Brigham Young University Mathias learned “Music and the Spoken Word” could also be seen on TV.
Mathias has learned even more about “Music and the Spoken Word” in recent weeks, as the program on Sunday, March 11, marked his debut as the newest full-time Tabernacle organist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“It was an amazing feeling. When you’re sitting at the organ in the Tabernacle, you’re sitting right in the middle of the sound,” Mathias said of his first performance. “You’ve got the choir to your left and the orchestra to your right. It’s a pretty thrilling place to be.”
To prepare for his debut, Mathias went from watching “Music and the Spoken Word” to going behind the scenes and observing rehearsals to ensure there wouldn’t be any surprises on his big day.
“By the time I got my turn on the bench, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect,” he said. "With the live broadcast, it has to be absolutely precise. …Occasionally (we) have to provide interludes of a certain length or the signoff, 'As the Dew From Heaven Distilling,' needs to be played at a very precise time, and so learning to be flexible and improvise to fit the time requirement is kind of the big challenge with this.”
In addition to performing for “Music and the Spoken Word,” Mathias also performs weekly recitals in the Tabernacle and will take part in the choir’s “Messiah” performance this weekend and in upcoming sessions of General Conference.
With so much to prepare for, Mathias said the biggest part of his job as a Tabernacle organist so far is practicing — something he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to considering an organ occupies about half of his office at BYU.
Mathias, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in organ performance from BYU, joined the school’s music faculty in 2014 and currently teaches organ literature, beginning organ and private lessons.
“I’m busy right now,” he said with a laugh. “I was able to consolidate my teaching schedule down to Monday and Wednesday, and once we get to the end of the school year, I’ll be done at BYU and be up here full-time. I’ll be glad to get down to one job in May.”
This May will also mark one year since Mathias first responded to a posting for an open Tabernacle organist position. It had been 10 years since the Tabernacle last held auditions for a new organist, and Mathias was one of four finalists chosen to audition on Temple Square — a feat he learned of when a notification popped up on his phone during a BYU faculty meeting.
“I could see just enough (on my phone) to see that it was from the choir president, President (Ron) Jarrett,” he recalled. “The first line of the email said, ‘We’re pleased to inform you …’ so I was able to take a bit of a breath and then wait until the end of the meeting to read the rest. It was hard, but I stuck it out.”
Mathias’ audition came right after Thanksgiving, meaning that after consuming turkey and mashed potatoes, the musician traveled back to his BYU office to practice and prepare for his intensive two-day audition.
“My family just knew to not expect to see me around very much,” he said. “Usually you don’t get (music) until about two weeks before the audition, simply because that's about (how far in advance ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ is) planned so they want to see what you can do quickly.”
For his audition, Mathias was given six pieces: five in advance and one when he arrived at the Tabernacle to test his sight reading and improvisational skills. All the practice, interviews and tests proved worth it when it was announced earlier this year that Mathias would join Richard Elliott, Clay Christiansen, Andrew Unsworth, Bonnie Goodliffe and Linda Margetts as a Tabernacle organist.
A dream come true
Mathias was 8 years old when he began playing piano — an instrument he recalls begrudgingly practicing at the request of his persistent and encouraging mother. Around age 12, he became drawn to the large sound of the pipe organ and throughout his teenage years discovered his passion for music.
“I just fell in love with the (organ) and that hasn’t stopped. I still love it,” he said. “I came to realize that doing music was really what I wanted to do and what I felt like I should be doing, so (I) took a leap of faith and went after it.”
This realization led Mathias to go on to receive a doctorate in organ performance from the University of Kansas and to play the organ for the Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, before winding up at BYU in 2014.
“In this day and age, if you’re an LDS person trying to make a living playing the organ, the job market is not fantastic,” Mathias said. “Your career possibilities are pretty much university teaching — which those jobs are quite difficult to get today — and so the fallback for most people is playing the organ in another church professionally. And I did that for some years while I was a graduate student and had wonderful experiences doing it.”
Reflecting on those early Sunday mornings along the paper route, listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to make it through, Mathias realizes that becoming the newest Tabernacle organist and getting to accompany the choir on a regular basis is the fulfillment of a longtime dream.
“In my dreams I thought that being a Tabernacle organist would be pretty amazing but knew that chances were slim,” he said. “It’s just a great privilege to be able to use what I do to enrich people’s lives by sharing music.”