America's Choir

All Volunteers, They Make Beautiful Music

The annual Christmas gala of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir draws crowds by the tens of thousands from all over the world. And they come to this new, 21,000-seat conference center to hear extraordinary sounds from some seemingly ordinary people.

There are people like Tom Smith, the father of three, an architect in Bountiful, Utah
"My children tell me they can’t remember when I wasn't in the choir, since I’ve been in 19 years now. But they’ve been a part of it," he says.

Or Kim Chesire, mother of five, who tests health software for a company in Murray, Utah: "My parents were members of the choir, and it's always been a dream of mine. I've always wanted to be a member of the choir. I love music. I love singing. I love sharing that feeling with people."

Or Rebecca Nelson, mother of six, a music teacher in Kaysville, Utah: "It has given me meaning. When I was younger, I was thrilled to play in bands and orchestras. But with the addition of melding the music with my faith, has meant more to me than I ever had imagined."

Charlie Rose reports on this amazing group of singers. It has been around for 154 years, since a band of immigrants fled for their lives to the west, singing all the way. When the pioneers arrived in Utah with Brigham Young in 1847, the first thing they did was have religious services. Out of that small band of pioneers, Young organized a choir to sing for their services.

Craig Jessup is the 14th music director in the choir's history. He is also a student of the Mormons' tumultuous past: The murder of founder Joseph Smith by a mob in Illinois for calling himself a prophet of God; the imprisonment of many of his followers for practicing polygamy, which the church renounced more than a century ago; and the long trek to Utah, led by Brigham Young, where this world-famous tabernacle was built to house what would become a world-famous choir.

He still remembers the first time he heard the choir: "When I was a boy, my father had broken his neck and was put in the Veteran’s hospital up in Salt Lake City. I was 4 years old. My mother brought us down here, and I can distinctly hear the sound of this choir as a young boy." He dreamed of becoming the conductor.

Practically everything about the choir is pretty amazing, from their library of well over a million copies of sheet music, to their wardrobe of thousands of outfits for their 360 members. Joining this group is not easy. You must be a Mormon in good standing, which among other things means no alcohol or tobacco use. You must tithe 10 percent of your annual income. You must live within a 100-mile radius of Temple Square. You must be able to read music and pass a series of vocal and written tests. You must maintain an 80 percent attendance record for all tours, performances and practice sessions, which take place two nights a week. To members like Tom Smith and Kim Chesire, the sacrifices are well worth it:

Even when Cheshire had cancer, she dd not miss a single practice. "I think it got me through my cancer. I think music has the power to heal, and it was on our European tour that I was able to skip some chemotherapy treatments. When I returned, my tumor had gone," she says.

Says Smith: "There's an old Chinese proverb: If you have only a dime, spend a nickel on bread, and a nickel on a flower. And it seems to me that part of life needs to have this type of enrichment. It enlarges the soul."

It does not, however, enlarge the coffers of the Mormon Church. They get money from sales of tapes and CDs. But the cost of moving such a large group on tour is so prohibitive that they only venture out every other year. They lose money.

Mac Christensen, who made his living in the men’s clothing business, is president of the all-volunteer choir. He says it has never shown a profit, but money is not the reason they perform.

"They're very spiritual," he says. "They care about one another. They care about their children. They care about the church. They care about their fellow man… And with the terrible thing that happened on Sept. 11, it's brought us back. These people, they’re dads and they're mothers, they’re doctors and lawyers, all phases of life, they’re nurses, different things that they do. But they're great Americans."

On Sept. 11, the choir was ready to cancel a scheduled concert before a convention of businesspeople. But the Mormon Church’s President Gordon Hinkley, told them to sing on.

The people needed one another. And the choir gave voice to their deepest feelings of grief, of hope, of their aspirations, of their love of country,” says Jessup. "And the choir was able, I think to give voice to all the feelings that they were having, all the terrible images they had seen throughout the day."

Christmas comes but once a year. But the spirit of America’s choir knows no special season.

"I can tell you these people will gather together and sing regardless," says Jessup. "No matter what, we will sing. We'll be here every Thursday night. We'll be here every Sunday morning."

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