Secrets of General Conference from a Former Member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir





My mother was a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for over fifteen years, retiring seven years ago. As most people know, Choir Members are called and set apart as Musical Missionaries. Just like full-time missionaries, choir members must apply and meet religious standards. There is also a rigorous audition process.

People often ask, “Do you have to be a fabulous, professional musician in order to become a member of this choir?” Yes, you must meet certain criteria. However, just being a professional musician does not guarantee a spot; it’s a calling, so the spiritual aspect must fit. Some amazing singers have not gotten in for whatever reason—maybe it wasn’t their time, perhaps the Lord needed their talents in other ways.”

In her nearly two decades as a part of “America’s Choir,” my mom sang in 30 General Conferences, never missing one. She remembers, “Conference was a highlight of my time in the choir.” Thus, each April and October she becomes nostalgic, recalling memories of singing and preparing for some of her most favorite performances. Although she now enjoys watching General Conference from home, she shares some memories and behind-the-scenes secrets from “MoTab.




General Conference Is Much Longer than a Few Sessions for the Choir.

Music is chosen months in advance, but we would have to learn it in only two weeks. Many people think the choir works on the music for conference much longer, forgetting that "Music & the Spoken Word" is essentially a weekly concert. There isn’t time to focus solely on General Conference for very long. 

The choir does have extra practices starting the week before Conference week. Instead of one weeknight practice, the members met on Tuesday and Thursday for the week before Conference. We would arrive at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning before the 10:00 a.m. session to rehearse and do a camera run-through for all songs. Then, we'd sing at the 2 hours of conference that morning.  Immediately following that session, there was a rehearsal for Sunday.  

On Sunday morning, we had to be dressed and in our seats by 7:00 a.m., which meant many members were leaving their houses before 6:00 a.m. There was a song rehearsal and a camera run-through for the Music & Spoken Word broadcast and for all the conference songs. After a quick break, we returned back to our seats by 9:30, in order to be ready for the next session of Conference to begin.  After that morning session, choir members would wait for all the general authorities to leave the building. We enjoyed watching them leave, as many would wave to us, smiling and sometimes shaking hands. We would then rehearse before breaking for lunch, return for the afternoon session, and even rehearse after that! (No wonder my mom would could home so exhausted!)

Candy Helps the Choir Stay Awake During General Conference.

With little time between Sunday sessions of Conference, the choir used to eat lunch at the Lion House. Then, it was decided that no one should have to work on Sunday to feed the choir, so boxed lunches were provided. (The women were even asked to bring aprons, so as not to spill on the dresses while eating in the conference center's little theatre!) When the weather was nice, some choir members could be found eating lunch on the roof of the conference center, as we did not have time to leave the building before we had to be back in our seats again.  

As you can imagine, by Sunday afternoon, after being awake and singing for many hours and then full from the provided lunch, we were pretty worn out. One secret to avoid falling asleep in our seats involved candy! I remember bringing in sour gummy candies, cough drops, throat lozenges, and other candies to help stay awake. I also used to bring my bag, with a journal and a few other items, to be used when the lights went down on the choir and the focus was turned on the speaker. (Due to security reasons, members of the choir can no longer bring in bags, so they must be even more creative in bringing items to help stay awake!) Sitting in the dark, tired from an early morning, and listening to the soothing sounds of speakers could make just about anyone begin to doze off, so thank goodness for some sweet or sour candy to suck on! 


The Clothes Are All Kept at the Tabernacle.

In the women’s dressing room, each female member of the Tabernacle Choir had a number and a corresponding closet-like hanging space at the Tabernacle. For each performance, each member checked their calendars in order to know which dress to wear. Choir members did not have to pay for their outfits, even the jewelry. (The exceptions when my mom was a member were comfortable, black shoes, as well as a personal pair of pearl earrings that the women each purchased.)

There were wardrobe committees, which were callings, for both the men and the women. Part of the women's committee's responsibilities included passing out the necklaces to the sisters as we left the locker room, already dressed. When new members join the choir, fitting dresses is another huge responsibility of the wardrobe committee, who spent hours making sure each members' dresses were well-fitted and performance ready. The men's wardrobe committee took care of the suit coats and the ties in a similar fashion.

A new dress was a huge undertaking. It required lots of discussion and planning, at great cost. A wardrobe committee, consisting of both men and women, worked diligently in making the decisions on the dresses and matching ties. They looked at types of fabric, designs that are flattering to all shapes and sizes, how the colors would look on camera, and many other factors. The color of dresses we see in person often looks different on camera. For example, the dress which is called "Fuschia" by the choir actually looks red on camera. That must be a big reason why certain colors are never chosen.  

People often think choir members have all their outfits at home, but everything is kept at the Tabernacle, ready and chosen long before being worn for General Conference.




The Choir Sometimes Takes Song Requests.

In certain sessions, General Authorities sometimes request specific hymns. For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley often liked the choir to sing “The Morning Breaks” as the opening song at the Saturday morning session. He also wrote the words to “My Redeemer Lives,” so the choir sang that one several times. Another example, President Packer liked “Come Unto Him,” which was sung in his honor. I imagine that certain hymns are requested to accompany specific talks. These are only a few specific examples, as there were possibly many requests that members of the choir don’t know about. 

Not every song for General Conference is memorized. All songs for tours are, but there isn’t enough practice time beforehand to memorize everything for conference. When a song the choir already knew was planned, whether requested or not, it made memorization much easier. It’s interesting to watch, now, which songs are memorized and which are recurring favorites.


The Choir Sometimes Knows What the Prophet Is Going to Say Before He Says it.

At one April conference session, my seat was positioned just right to see the teleprompter rolling. I could read it when President Hinckley was announcing new temples to be built. As I read slightly ahead of his speaking, I saw “Texas,” and figured it would be San Antonio or another bigger city, but then I saw, “Lubbock,” and broke into tears. As fellow members around me kept asking, “Sister, are you okay?” I tried to hold back the tears and explain the significance of that temple being announced, in that city, of all places, the place where I gained a testimony of the gospel and was baptized a member of the church. I sobbed through the closing hymn of conference, grateful for another "tender mercy" from the Lord.   





Having participated in several tours, fifteen years of weekly broadcasts, and 30 General Conferences, the latter was always a highlight for my mother. “We felt the blessings from preparing," she says, "both spiritually and musically, as well as from prayers of people who were also preparing to hear us sing. You don’t sing in this choir to seek for your name to be known. You feel the blessings of being a part of a bigger whole, being able to touch the hearts and bring the spirit to all who hear. I loved knowing that these General Conferences go out to the world.”

 “I loved singing in the Tabernacle,” she relates. “That is when the people came to us. Before each broadcast, a “welcomer” would recognize special visitors, as well as ask how many people were visiting for the first time. Every week, the great majority of people in the audience were there for the first time. Really? How could almost 90% of the audience be here for the first time? It was hard to believe that so many visitors had never seen us before. After singing, I would often try to go outside and to try to talk to people, asking about their stories and where they were from. That is when I felt most like a missionary.” 

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If you didn’t get a chance to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in action over this month’s General Conference, remember that there is a weekly broadcast of “Music & the Spoken Word,” as well as a weekly practice, open to the public.


You can listen to and learn more about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir here, and don’t forget to check out the FAQ’s for even more “secrets.”




Melodee is a Texan by birth, a Texas Aggie by choice, the wife of a fellow Aggie, and the mother of three boys, who joined her family through the help of both modern science and divine intervention.  A former elementary math and science teacher, she is now working as a stay-at-home mom, an author, an amateur decorator, a crafter, a blogger, and a holiday enthusiast.  On May 27, 2014, Mel added, “breast cancer survivor” to her bio.  However, on July 30, 2015, cancer came back with a vengeance.  As Melodee continues to fight Stage 4 breast cancer, she believes in miracles and hopes to share her faith with others.  




2 comments

  1. Thanks for this article. I'm curious to know if the men's wardrobe committee tied the men's ties in the trinity knot for them, or if they had tutoring lessons to teach all the men to tie it themselves. I've never been to one of their rehearsals before, but hope to one day.

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  2. I loved this, Melodee. And I love and miss your mom. Thank you for sharing.

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