An intriguing suggestion about LDS music

Out to dinner with a friend last night, we got to talking about the LDS General Conference just concluded.  (Sorry, folks, this post is going to be really Mormon-y).  We basically agreed on which talks really moved us (both of President Uchtdorf’s, Elder Holland’s), which ones we could have lived without (that one by that one guy), and so on.  And, of course, we talked about the Historic Moment, the first woman to say a prayer in General Conference.  Which, we agreed, was something both remarkable and unremarkable, both simultaneously.

And then my friend made what struck me as a most interesting suggestion.  We were talking about the Tabernacle Choir, and that one, uh, interesting ensemble the gals wore, the Pepto-Bismal pink outfits, with the identical costume jewelry.  And my friend said, “what if, instead of a visual backdrop of a choir, wearing identical (unattractive) outfits, we saw empty choir chairs.”

Here’s his thinking: the music in Conference is always, always provided by choirs from Utah.  An MTC choir, a BYU choir, a multi-stake choir; the Tab does most of the music, supplemented by other choirs from Utah.  And usually, the ‘other choirs’ are always much more interesting visually, because they don’t worry about the dresses all being the same.  I mean, I get TV producers wanting that uniformity; all that pink behind the GA seats.  But it’s kind of dull, and the message it sends is maybe a bit unfortunate.  Here’s President Uchtdorf:

Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold—that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities.

To paraphrase: diversity rules.

And diversity rules even more now, as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints becomes increasingly international.

I remember a Daily Show some years ago, during the Olympics, when Jon Stewart did a ‘this is Utah’ bit.  We saw a visual of the Tabernacle Choir singing at General Conference, all those white faces and then one lonely black guy, as a voice-over intoned ‘Utah is a state of great diversity.’  It got a big laugh, as it should have done.  To be sure, the Choir has gotten more diverse, at least ethnically/visually, in recent years, but uniformity remains the norm.  But in fact, I live in Utah, I live in PROVO, and in my neighborhood and my ward, I see a lot of diversity.  I think it’s awesome, particularly since nobody makes any big deal of it.

But here’s my friend’s suggestion: why couldn’t one session of General Conference feature music by a choir from Brazil?  Why couldn’t another session feature singers from Ghana?  My friend has, as it happens, spent some time in Ghana, and he tells me that the music in their meetings is terrific–Ghanians are not afraid to really sing.  (That could not really be said of my ward, unfortunately.)  A choir from Ghana would be terrific.

Now, I can see how there might be some financial difficulties with flying 300 singers in from Ghana.  But that doesn’t matter anymore, does it?  The technology to broadcast a choir from Ghana isn’t even all that complicated. Folks in the Conference Center could certainly see that Ghanian choir on the CC video screens, and cutting to Ghana for the Church-wide broadcast would be child’s play.  The only objection would be visual–the long shots would show empty choir seats.  Big deal.

For the Saints in Ghana, or South Korea, or Japan, or Brazil, or Mexico, the opportunity to sing in a choir in General Conference would be an experience they would never forget.  As for the image of the Church, it’s completely win-win.  The reputation of the Church is ‘white-bread conservative Western-American church.’  Which just is flat-out not true anymore.  More LDS people read the Book of Mormon in Spanish than read it in English–the future of the Church is international.  Which is exactly as it should be. You know, ‘stone cut out of the mountain without hands’ and all.

It’s possible that the television producers involved with conference might object.  The conference broadcast has a certain recognizable visual style, one that folks are used to.  The very slow tracking shots sweeping across the faces of the altos fading to three-shots, cross-fading to medium shots, cross-fading to the long shot they use for establishing. The lighting glancing off the bald foreheads of the tenor section.  There may be objections to shaking things up.

But the advantages of actually demonstrating diversity (which exists, which actually does describe where the Church really is these days) surely outweigh what amount to aesthetic objections.  I’ll grant that it’s difficult to make Conference look like good television.  Livening things up with a choir from Brazil could only help.

42 thoughts on “An intriguing suggestion about LDS music

  1. Scott

    Empty seats doesn’t need to happen. There are always tons of people begging to get into conference. I am sure those seats could be filled with overflow congregation no problem. Although they would not be uniform, and you would run the risk of some random person “acting a fool” back there while Elder Oaks is delivering his discourse.

    Reply
    1. Nathan Ellis Rasmussen

      I’ve been in those choir seats. Couldn’t hear a word clearly. The sound system drives small speakers among the choir seats, but it gets muddled with the echo from the back of the hall. Plus they gave us super-strict rules against anything that could distract eyes from the speaker: Taking notes, looking up scriptures, putting your hand to your face for any reason.

      Reply
  2. N Wilson

    Or just let the Tab choir sit there; let the folks from Brazil, or New Zealand, or Zimbabwe do every other number.

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  3. Sid Sharma

    Well, how about broadcasting GC from Brazil, or Ghana? I bet it wouldnt cost that much. BTW, I attend Church in Michigan, and I am the only Indian member that I know in our Stake. And, it can be lonely, when Ward members choose to no even make eye-contact with me. Maybe cause I am different.

    Reply
      1. Deborah Collingridge

        I’m from MI too…I’m sorry that you’ve had a bad experience in your ward. Come to Saline!

        Reply
    1. Cameron

      I have an Asian friend in a small Indiana ward who feels the same way. As always, it takes some of the members longer to figure out the right way to proceed than it takes the institution as a whole.

      Anyways, I’m sorry the people in your ward aren’t as welcoming as they could be.

      Reply
    2. WhiteEyebrows

      This is a great idea, too. I work for a global company, and we routinely have our company meetings from offices all over the world. It sure does make people feel more a part of the company. I see no reason why we have to always see GC from the meganacle – except that the local congregation would all look like UN members with earpieces to be able to hear the simul-translation in their native tongue.

      Reply
  4. Aaron Shorr

    Great idea. I converted a few years ago at age 37, and the sea of white faces in conference was always a turnoff for me. While we get flashes of color in the MTC shots now and again, I think varied choirs would really invigorate members in other countries and show the world and more importantly the US membership how diverse our tent really is.

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  5. Amy Gabbitas

    And how about other musical numbers besides just a choir singing. Instrumental music is completely appropriate and it would show wards and stakes that they can utilize it more in their local meetings.

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    1. Juliathepoet

      So like this, although hopefully fairly large groups. I would hate conference to become “Mormon Stars Singing” the songs.

      I think this could be incorporated in one number, and it would be great to have choirs and groups sing in different languages. I have several friends who came back from foreign missions with favorite hymns not in an American hymn book, and not ever going to be sing by MoTab, but that would make members from other countries so excited to hear!

      Reply
  6. Nathan Ellis Rasmussen

    The conference satellite feed already includes audio of non-local origin, on various language channels. Some interpreters are on site, but some are remote, and their voice goes over the Internet to Salt Lake to be put on the satellite feed. However, last I heard it, remote interpretation audio had very obvious compression effects, so it seems like there’s a bandwidth challenge. Doing full video and quality audio for a remote choir is more bandwidth, and puts stricter requirements on latency (you expect some lag in interpretation, but not in music). So it might be tough to pull off. I say it’d be worth it, though.

    Reply
    1. WhiteEyebrows

      Ever heard of satellite? Sure there’s a noticeable delay (like when reporters toss back and forth), but delay doesn’t interfere as much in a broadcast like this as much as bad internet latency would.

      Reply
    1. Cameron

      The wisest idea would be to pre-tape the remote choir in ideal conditions beforehand and display the edited footage. It’s not as good as having a live choir, perhaps, but you avoid any issues of transmission, subpar equipment, etc.

      Reply
      1. Julie

        Yeah, I agree. Skirts around any time zone issues, as well. I’m sure any choir would sound fabulous at 3AM on a weekday their time, but not as good as at a more appropriate time.

        Reply
  7. Stori

    I think this would be wonderful. Maybe the remote choir wouldn’t have to sing live, but could be pre-recorded (time zone issues, plus no lag since it would be streaming from the same source location).

    Reply
  8. anon tonight

    This blog author’s idea is brilliant and needs to happen. And I don’t think the Church would be strapped that financially to fly in a choir from around the world maybe once a year. Or to even showcase choirs in the United States from non-English speaking wards.

    Mormons need to showcase their diversity not just to “nonmembers”, but also to its own body of the Church. For example, my dad’s ward shares a building with a Korean ward. When the Korean ward was scheduled to perform musical numbers for the other congregations, my Dad thought, “Oh this will be nice. How sweet.” I don’t think it was a racial thing, but just an anticipation based on the sometimes squeaky quality of many typical ward choirs. Well, the entire English ward was blown away with their level of professionalism and polish. What a powerful thing that could be for all of Mormonism.

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

    Eric –
    Great idea! It’s sad when the clothing of MoTab detracts from their music. I didn’t know the color Dusty Rose still existed in the apparel industry. You forgot the unfortunate corsages (along with unfortunate costume jewelry). Maybe an email/letter campaign? Seems to work well 🙂

    Reply
  10. Melissa

    Love, love, love this idea. I don’t understand why we are so musically hidebound. This would be incredible.

    Reply
  11. Kristen

    I love this idea. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this idea. They could even film choirs from other states or countries singing a number ahead of time, and then show it as video during musical number time (especially because of the time difference). It would be so easy to send a camera crew. Then then world could hear the beauty of the Saints singing in so many places, and hymns in their own languages…wow. That would be so powerful. My heart could burst at the thought! I wish the whole world could hear the strong, beautiful voices of the Malagasy people (people from Madagascar) singing the hymns. I hope this idea makes it to the people who could pray about it and possibly see it through.

    Reply
  12. Kristen

    Apparently me and the person who commented right before me (I didn’t see it first) triple-love this idea. 🙂

    Reply
  13. Tom Mathias (in Minnesota)

    I think the reason the choir is always from Utah has to do with having an organist that is authorized to touch that awesome organ. The Conference Center is very versatile, however, and something could be done to hide the empty seats quite easily. Maybe even adjusting the lighting so they fade into shadows.

    As for the remote choir, there would be a lag of a few seconds, which would hardly be noticeable during the transitions. Piping in over the satellite would be a piece of cake. Many of the chapels throughout the world have been equipped with dishes that can transmit as well as receive. That’s how they do CES firesides from chapels in remote locations.

    I think people would love it! Maybe we should all suggested it to our leaders to be passed on to Salt Lake.

    Reply
  14. WhiteEyebrows

    I agree with every word, except when you said Brazil. I went on my mission there, and there is DEFINITELY NOT a culture of singing in the church there. I’d be much more interested in the Africans.

    Reply
  15. JA Benson

    Good thoughts. I don’t think there should be a problem flying a regional choir to Utah twice a year. The church has enough money to build a two billion dollar mall; they have money to fly a choir.

    Reply
  16. SteveS

    The Saints Unified Voices choir directed by Gladys Knight would LOVE to perform at a session in conference… Unfortunately the Utah church isn’t quite ready for that!

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  17. Cameron

    In the 1970’s or 80’s they had a choir from the Islands, that was one time and maybe they had more from elsewhere as well

    Reply
  18. Jen

    I realize I’m not going to win the popular vote here by my comments, but it’s my opinion. I understand your perspective and do think displaying diversity within the church is beneficial for members and non-members worldwide. I think the church does a great job of that with the Ensign and our General Leaders who are called.

    For MOTAB- Did I think the pink was the best choice? No. I focused on the hideousness for about 30 secs because I knew for myself that if I chose to focus on that, I’d be missing the mark. And I realize they aren’t as diverse as an Ensign edition, but making it into the choir is no easy task as well as $$ required from the choir members. If the church would require the choir to have a certain number of choir members based on ethnicity rather than the work it takes to become a choir member, then the church would in my eyes, be missing the mark and would fall into the worlds views of entitlement.

    I know the church has lots of money, but to me, I don’t think it should spend money just because it has it. Many people I know struggle to pay tithing. On a world level, I know of some who gave their last peso in faith. In general, knowing these funds are used for temples, materials, and church buildings really help those strugglers because they feel they will be making a difference for others (on top of it being a commandment). I think to fly choirs in, pay for food, pay for hotel stay so they can sing a few songs that we enjoy because of diversity isn’t necessary and would take those sacred funds from areas of church expansion. Plus when church members see tithes spent on things not needed, it can become more difficult for those strugglers and for members to recognize the funds as sacred.

    Reply
    1. Shawn Lalliss

      Jen,

      If you read the article it isn’t suggesting flying in choirs. It even stated that would be a lot to do and so the option was to have the church have a choir IN Brazil, Ghana or somewhere else and cut to them with technology and watching it. That is why the article states there would be empty choir seats. The choir would be in Brazil and not in the seats in the Conference Center.

      However, I do agree with you on the effort needed to join the MOTAB choir. It is difficult and a person must have immense talent in music. I looked into it once and there are tests one must take, vocal tests, written tests, and performance tests. Not just anyone can make it into the choir.

      I like this idea though of a bit more diversity and having different options. 🙂

      Reply
    2. admin Post author

      I do think perhaps you may have missed my point: I wasn’t really suggesting that we fly choirs in, nor was I suggesting that we re-think the choir audition process. The technology exists to showcase choirs all across the globe. And since essentially no one not of our faith reads the Ensign, showcasing diversity at Conference time could only be beneficial.

      Reply
  19. Diana

    I hope “someone” is reading these suggestions–they are constructive and inspiring. In spite of the restricted GC repertoire (somebody cuffed Mack Wilberg to the hymnal as soon as the Olympics were over) MoTab achieves a beautifully refined sound which is fully appreciated by few. But they hardly represent the e pluribus unum of a global church. The challenge: how to mix it up while retaining what is good. It would mean a lot to those watching from around the world to see themselves represented in the proceedings, and music is the universal spiritual conduit. This one’s a no-brainer–make it so!

    Reply
  20. Jef (@3rdeye9)

    I’m waiting for the day the GAs take conference on the road… like the Olympics ya know? A different city around the world every-other-bi-annual conference or something… that’d be better than transplanting choirs back and forth. Just send the 12 and company!

    Reply

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