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How does the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square sound so good? Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy explain (+podcast)

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is under the direction of Mack Wilberg and associate director Ryan Murphy.
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is under the direction of Mack Wilberg and associate director Ryan Murphy.
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Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: Music is a universal language which transcends culture and nationality. For more than a century, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square has used that language to influence millions around the world. The 360 voices, the orchestra, under the influence of two dynamic directors, demonstrate how a volunteer organization can achieve the extraordinary. Music director Mack Wilberg and associate music director Ryan Murphy join us for a unique conversation about leadership, inspiration and the transformational power of music on this episode of "Therefore, What?"

"Therefore, What?" is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for The Deseret News. And this is "Therefore, What?"

All right, we're very pleased today to be joined by Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy from the Tabernacle Choir. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us, we're really excited to have this conversation and to help people see just a little bit behind the choir and behind the two people who bring that choir together in a most extraordinary way. This choir has been called America's Choir, it has a rich history, traveled the world, people readily recognize the sound and the symbols of the choir. And so Mack, you've been doing this for almost two decades now, between associate and now as the director for the last nine years or so. Give us a little historic perspective. What has that been like for you?

Mack Wilberg: Well, since I have been with the choir, almost 20 years, as you've already stated, I've seen an evolution of the choir over the time. I mean, the choir will always be the choir. And as we always say, we stand on the shoulders of the many, many who have come before us. But in order to, of course, stay relevant and be something that people want to continue to listen to, and be hopefully inspired by, one has to evolve. And so with that evolution, of course, it was the creation of the Orchestra at Temple Square, which has become a very important part of what the Tabernacle Choir does. And then we also have the Bells on Temple Square, which from time to time join us. And then I think one thing that has highly influenced the evolution of the choir is the building of the Conference Center, of course, that was completed in 2000, which is about the same time that I became a part of the organization, and that has, I think, played a profound role in how the choir has continued to evolve over the years.

BM: Yeah, I want to drill down with that just a little bit. Mack, it's really intriguing to me, because most people don't think of the Tabernacle Choir as innovative. Yet you just described some very innovating components to it. As the leader, how do you bring everybody along through that kind of innovation and change?

MW: Well, first and foremost it's about the music. The music is really important. And the music drives everything, of course, that we do, our weekly broadcasts of "Music and the Spoken Word," to that important role that the choir plays at General Conference twice a year. And then all the other things that come in-between those events, from either week-to-week or twice a year. And, you know, you're always striving for it to be as perfect as it can possibly be, given that we only rehearse 2 1/2 hours a week, on Thursday evenings. And we perform, usually between 300 and 400 pieces a year. Which is a lot of music on very little rehearsal. And so it's always a challenge. But there's a lot of joy that goes with this challenge. And with performing really, from week to week.

BM: Yeah, fantastic. Ryan, let me bring you in. I had the opportunity to watch you practice in one of those very short practices. I was amazed at the speed at which you move through that rehearsal. You were rehearsing for an Easter performance and "Music and the Spoken Word" and a host of other things that were coming on. Ryan, you've been the associate director for almost a decade now. Since 2009? And how do you keep up with that pace? That was just mind-boggling to me. You brought everybody in, and it was like boom, and off to the races you went.

Ryan Murphy: Yeah, I'd say the choir has to work very, very quickly. And a lot of times I get in front of the choir. And I know, I've got three minutes, seven minutes to fix something, to make something ready for the broadcast. So it is a very fast timetable. And I think one of the things that we've done to help with that is we're actually very, very picky. I wish I could find a better word, but our audition process is rather difficult. It's about an eight-month process to get in the choir now. And we have to have people that can read music quickly and produce very quickly. So that's part of that, for sure.

MW: I think sometimes people think that the only big requirement to be in the Tabernacle Choir is to have a beautiful voice, right? And while that is indeed very important, even almost more important is that those who are members of the choir have to have a particular skill set in order to really survive in the choir. Because we move at such an intense and fast pace, that unless you have the skills to be able to do it, it's not going to probably be a very pleasant experience.

BM: Yeah, I want to talk about that skill set requirement. And Ryan, I'm gonna start with you. And then we'll go back to Mack on this. I want to get both your takes on this. A lot of these people who try out for the choir, they've been soloists, they've performed locally, they've performed in high school or college, they have some of that soloist background, and you're really asking them to do something very — how do you take all those unique, individual voices and really make them one?

RM: Well, I think you're absolutely right. It's great if someone has a soloist background, but we are not looking to sound like a group of 360 soloists. We have to match all those voices together. And so it is a different skill set. And it does take a lot of time preparation. And as part of the process coming to the choir, they participate in a choir school for four months. And that's kind of all about making the voice work in our situation. When you were talking about the innovations of the choir, I was thinking about the internet and how the choir has its own YouTube channel now. And just about everything we do gets put online, and everything we do has a microphone over it. And so the quality has to be very high. And we certainly want voices that can work together and give us the best possible sound.

BM: How do you see that, Mack?

MW: Well, very much as Ryan has already stated, I always tell those — and remind the choir from time to time that 95 percent of everything that we do as a choir and an orchestra has a microphone involved. And that makes a huge difference in the way that one has to approach. Otherwise, if our singers, particularly, are not thinking in terms of being a part of the entire ensemble, and not as a soloist, then we end up indeed with 360 soloists, and it's not going to sound very good.

RM: Essentially, everything we do is like we're in a recording session, because of that microphone element.

MW: And one other, I think if you would like to call it an innovation, is that actually when I became associated with the organization, and not because I became associated with the organization, but it was something that was already in place. And that was the beginning of what we call our choir school. And then our Temple Square Chorale. On Tuesday evenings those who are being prepared to become members of the choir sing in the chorale. And then on Thursday nights, they have classroom instruction. And that's where they learn how to make their, if you will, soloistic voice fit into the whole. And I think it's very instructive. And because of that, those who then are eventually accepted in the choir come in, and they can stand in the loft from the very beginning and make quite a significant contributions, which is exactly what we need them to do.

RM: Yeah. And we actually have a new group of singers that will be coming in a week from this Sunday night. First rehearsal. So yeah, we've just finished that process and have new singers coming in now.

BM: And maybe you can comment, Ryan, with that new group coming in. You also have a group of veterans that are leaving at the same time, is that right?

RM: We do. We have choir retirements once a year, and that's actually going on this Sunday. Yeah, it's very difficult. Because there are people that we come to know and love and that have made a great contribution. But there's also many people that want to be in it and so we have to make space.

MW: People have to retire from the choir either at 60 years of age or 20 years of service. Whichever, of course, comes first. And yeah, it's always sad.

BM: Yeah, I bet. That's a lot of ground to cover, and always hard to replace. And that renewal process with new folks coming in is always fascinating. Mack, I want to start with you on this question. And I've been thinking all day today about how to frame this. And I think it's one of your unique gifts that you brought in as director. And that is that it's easy for someone to sing a song. It's difficult to sing a testimony. Or it's easy to perform a piece of music, it's much more difficult to perform a principle or create space for that feeling. And it's something that you brought with you to the choir in a very unique way. But I wanted to get your take on how do you think through that? What does that mean? How do you play that out with the choir,

MW: I always feel like that everything has to be in place technically. We spend a lot of time talking about pitch and intonation. Because I always say great choirs sing in tune. Those who are not as great don't sing as well in tune. And there's not a fine line, it's either in tune or it's not. And so the technical aspects, there's intonation, and that's affected by resonance, and by vowels, so that all the vowels are matching, all those sorts of things. And then there's precision, that everybody's singing together. And that's one of our huge challenges because there's so many people. And we're also in the Tabernacle or the Conference Center, both of which it's difficult to hear each other, in either of those spaces. And so, you know, a great musical ensemble is one that can hear each other really well. And so that's something that we struggle with, but we work a lot with, we work on rhythmic precision, all those sorts of things. And so there's these technical elements. And I always say if the technical elements — you've given everything you can possibly give in order to make things as perfect as possible. And you've done everything you can possibly do, then it can go the next step. And the next step is what you were just talking about.

BM: I think that's such a fascinating principle, because most people think about choirs as the singing component, but you're actually saying the listening component. Emotion is certainly a part of any music-making. But in order for it to really be exactly that, it has to be technically as perfect as you can make it. And then I always say the Spirit then can kick in at that point and do the rest.

RM: I'd also say that one of the great gifts Mack has is his beautiful arrangements. And so he can take a song that people have sang for years, and all of a sudden orchestrate it and put it in a new arrangement that sort of makes people hear it like it's a fresh thing. And I think some of the feeling comes through with the beauty of those arrangements.

MW: Ryan does the same.

BM: Ryan, let me ask you, you're clearly a teacher at heart. Because I see that just in your approach to those practices. How does that play into all of this? I want to go back to Mack's comment about the listening. Because again, we don't think about choirs as listening, we think about singing and projecting. But he's saying listening. How do you teach that?

RM: Well, I think with a group this size, it's easy for the singers to feel like they're anonymous, or that they can fly under the radar with certain things. So we are always trying to teach principles that make our rehearsal go faster so that they're kind of learning things and skills that when an issue comes up in the music, they have a tool set to sort of fix things on their own. And that's one of the purposes of the choir school as well. But I do think rehearsal is actually a great teaching opportunity as well.

MW: We have a phrase we use all the time, which I actually borrowed from another colleague, which is listen louder than you sing. And as soon as you say listen louder than you sing, it's amazing what happens — particularly if something's not going so well, or you're trying to fix something and it's not working. You just say, Please listen louder than you sing. And it's amazing what can happen.

RM: And in groups of that size, it's easy to do the opposite sometimes.

MW: Over-singing can be an issue.

BM: Yeah, that's a great principle for everybody, musical or not, to listen louder than you sing. That's great, great insight. Before we dive into some of the arrangement work, because that's such a big thing. Again, you both bring really unique gifts to the table. Again, watching the rehearsal the other night. I was just astonished, Mack, you went to the piano towards the end of the rehearsal, and you were playing your left hand and leading with your right, and then mid-measure, you changed and started playing with your right hand and leading with your left. How do you do that?

RM: Just a showoff.

MW: I've been doing that for years. And I don't even think about it. I found very early in my career that being able to be at the keyboard, especially when you're teaching a piece, you can just save all sorts of time in doing so. And as we've already said, we have every second of our rehearsals planned out. And we don't really waste a moment. We really do very little talking except to get instruction about something that needs to be fixed. And sometimes we have to give instruction as to how, perhaps, we can approach fixing the problem. But our rehearsals are intense in a good way, I think.

BM: And Ryan, I want you to pick up on that in terms of as the leaders, to have that kind of intense practice takes an immense amount of preparation from the leaders. How do you guys attack that?

RM: We usually do coordinate exactly what we're going to do and the amount of time we have on each thing. And like Mack said, it's perfectly mapped out each night. We don't have the time to waste. And I think people feel like we're using their time to its best advantage when they come, which is important for a volunteer organization to feel like that we are using every minute the way it should be used.

MW: Yeah, we have high expectations of our choir members and our orchestra members as well. And hopefully, they sense that. You know, it's just not simply a matter of becoming a member of the choir and sitting there and singing. It's much more involved than that. And you know, it's really a privilege and a blessing to be able to work in an organization where all of those musicians are volunteer musicians, which is amazing. It is really an amazing thing in the end. You know, from time to time I have to remind myself of how grateful I am to be able to have that opportunity.

BM: Yeah. I want to jump now, Ryan had mentioned this being able to arrange hymns and literally have them sound as if it is something new. And I want to drill down because you both do this, and have done so on your latest album, which we'll also talk about, "Let Us All Press On." You have some of those arrangements that were just great refreshing and rethinking in terms of some of these classic hymns and songs. And as a guy who that just boggles my mind to think how you would write on a piece of paper, the notes that the violins and the trumpets and the sopranos and the basses and the cymbal guy all know what to do. Just when you start that process, where do you begin on an arrangement?

MW: Well, you have to begin with the with the initial tune and text, I mean, that's really what drives it. For instance, if it's a more vigorous hymn in tune and text, you're certainly not going to set it as though it's very slow and meditative in nature. And so that really is where you start. And then I think a lot of it is your inner ear. And just, you know, I always say we all come into this world with gifts and certain talents. And there's so many things that I could not do. But this is one of the things that I can do. And it's sort of part of your nature, as I said, your inner ear, your innate nature, if you will, to be able to sort of hear these things and kind of imagine them and I think it's interesting when you said, you know, the cymbal crash. Yeah, that's true. You do hear those things when you're putting pencil on paper.

BM: Yeah. Ryan, how about for you?

RM: Well, I wish there was an easy answer. For me, there's not. I wish there was but the inspiration comes in flashes. And sometimes I'll know what the ending is going to be first, or I'll know what the introduction is going to be. Or I'll have an idea about a key change or whatever. So I wish it was the same thing each time. But each one is a little bit different. But I think what Mack said is right, you want to stay true to the essence of the hymn. You don't want it to sound like something completely foreign to people. But you want to give it a new suit of clothes and help people to see it in a new light. And I think that's what this CD does.

MW: Many times you may not be particularly fond of a particular tune and text, but sometimes there's a specific need for something. And so in some ways that becomes a bigger challenge but there's a little joy in that challenge as well.

BM: As a guy who regularly sits in front of a blank computer screen, knowing I need 800 words, a little bit of that writer's block, do you get composition block? How does that play out? How do you work through that? Because that's to me just such a massive undertaking, all of the parts and pieces. How do you get past that?

MW: I think anytime that you sit down at for us, it's a blank piece of manuscript paper. Yeah, it can be a little daunting. But you just forge ahead. And sometimes you like what you've done, and sometimes you don't. And the thing that I always think is unfair, is sometimes you do something you think, oh, that was subpar. And then everybody loves it. It's just not fair. And then sometimes you do something that you think is really great, is your best work. And it doesn't catch on. So I've sort of given up trying to predict even though sometimes it's frustrating.

RM: We've talked about sometimes the best ideas don't come when you're sitting down to write. They come when you're mowing the lawn, or I wrote a whole piece walking the track once, in my head. Sometimes a little distraction is a good thing. You can't always force it.

MW: Mowing lawns, driving in the car, being in the shower, it has something to do with where your mind goes. You can really get some of your best ideas doing some of the most mundane things.

BM: So what did you write on the track? I want to know.

RM: Actually, "Standing on the Promises" was all written walking around the track, which is funny. It's on this CD, but it was written about 10 years ago, but recorded for the first time by the choir.

BM: Well as you look at the album, again, there's just some beautiful, beautiful pieces on there. Mack, what's your favorite? I know it's hard.

MW: I'm trying to remember what's even on the CD because we actually recorded the CD last fall, so there's a lot of water under the bridge since then. You know, I don't really have a favorite. I always say my favorite is the piece I'm working on at the time, or perhaps for the piece I'm rehearsing at the time. Yeah, so having a favorite really doesn't fly with me so much. I don't really have favorites. I know that's a cop-out.

RM: I'll tell you one of my favorites of his. Also a cop-out. I love his arrangement of "Love Divine," which is on the CD. I just love how it just builds, it starts a capella with the men and then builds and builds and builds to this great climax. And I think the words are just incredible. And the setting is great.

MW: There is an example of a great tune and a great text. Sometimes you get a great tune, but not a great text. And sometimes, more times than not, you get a great text and not a great tune. This is a hymn where the text and the tune are what we call a perfect marriage. It's just a wonderful hymn.

BM: I want to talk for just a minute about traveling with the choir. I mean, that's like taking a small city on the road, by the time you add in the choir and the orchestra and the support folks. Describe going on tour with the choir, there's no roadies, as I understand, but how do you make that all sing and dance?

RM: Well, luckily, we don't have to get too involved in the logistics.

MW: We have very little to do with that, except to talk about where we're going, and the halls that we'll be performing in. But yeah, if it were up to myself, it would never happen. But honestly, we have a fantastic support system with the choir, a wonderful staff who really spend several years and many, many hours in planning these things before they're executed. And I have to say they come off so beautifully. And as Ryan has already said, we have very little to do with it, we can take very little credit for that. It's a wonderful thing to only have to worry about the music. I've been in situations where not only do you have to get the music on the stage, but you had to make sure that the risers are there, and the music stands are there, if you need a chairs, you know, you're there, you're moving them, you're counting them. And we're spoiled, I was gonna say we're very blessed. We have a fantastic support system.

RM: But what I will say is we do worry about on tour going to a different hall. Every time we sing we're in a new space, getting used to a new environment, a new acoustic and so that's really the weight of what we do on tour is making sure the choir can adjust to each new space, which is almost like starting over because you hear things differently.

MW: And every hall is different. And you have to make adjustments all the time.

RM: We have quite a lengthy rehearsal in the hall as we move to each new space to get used to it.

BM: That's fascinating, it's almost like the basketball coaches going into a different stadium every other day. You have to get your team ready in a very different — no home-court advantage. those.

MW: However, sometimes when we go into some of these really magnificent concert halls, we actually hear each other better than we do when we're in the Tabernacle or the Conference Center, which is always kind of a treat for us to be as close together as we can possibly be and hear each other so well.

BM: You've had so many moments, again, in halls famous and historic, in so many different spaces. Are there any moments that jump out to you, as you look back at some of those performances, again, around the world, in a particular hall or a particular setting where you just kind of felt everything came together in a significant way?

MW: For me being in, for instance, Vienna, where some of our greatest composers have stood and conducted their own works. To be in that hall, choir and orchestra. I mean, was pretty special. We were in the Berlin Philharmonie, I think that's what it's called. Which is where the Berlin Philharmonic performs, one of the great orchestras of the world, and to be in that space and making music. Incredible experience. Carnegie Hall.

RM: He took my answers.

BM: So describe that for us. When you're in Vienna, give us a sense of the emotion, what's going through your head?

RM: Well, that was one of those moments. You know, a lot of times like I said, you move to a new hall and you're thinking, how do I balance this? How do I make this sound the way it should? In Vienna, it was just kind of like you went out there and it was just beautiful. And a great hall can do that. And the choir just sounded as good as I've ever heard it in that space.

MW: There's a reason why great halls are great halls.

RM: It's just easy to sing in them. You don't have to do much. And it sounds great.

BM: As we wrap up the show today at again, it's "Therefore, What?" for a reason. And so the people who've been listening and following along, the people who are going to listen to this album, what is it that you hope they think about, what you hope they'll think different? What do you hope they'll do different? What do you hope they'll appreciate different? As again, as people listen to this moving forward?

MW: As we put together this album, I think there were a couple of things on our minds, because we didn't just randomly select, in this particular case, hymns. I think that the subtitle of the album is "Hymns of Praise and Inspiration." And I hope people will feel joy, they will feel like that they can continue, and that there are moments where — all of those things, of course, are part of being inspired. And then there are a couple places that people can meditate, if you will, or think a little bit in terms of what life is all about, particularly in the hectic life that all of us lead.

RM: I'd say my answer is similar. There's an arrangement of "Rejoice, the Lord is King" on this CD. And the words from that always strike me, and it's rejoice in glorious hope. And that's the word that comes to mind with the CD, I think. I hope that people will feel hope. And I think that's something that's severely lacking in today's world. And I hope that when they listen, it sort of renews their faith and their hope.

BM: Mack Wilberg, Ryan Murphy from the Tabernacle Choir. Thanks so much for joining us on "Therefore, What?" today. Great principles, a lot of great things to think about. Thanks for joining us. Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is "Therefore, What?" Don't miss an episode. Subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today. And be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, What?"

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