Pure, soaring notes reverberated through the cavernous Conference Center Auditorium on Tuesday night as about 170 people sang the hymn “Come, Ye Children of the Lord.”
They were all members of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, the premier performing troupe of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It marked the first time they had rehearsed together in 19 months — and, like choir member Staci Dame, they were more than ready to sing their hearts out.
Rehearsals were one of the many casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that the prestigious musical group didn’t perform live during the past three General Conferences, which became all-virtual gatherings.
But now, while taking a number of safety measures, the choir is looking forward to singing in person at conference sessions next month, with “Come, Ye Children of the Lord” set to be the first number, even though audiences still won’t be permitted.
The ‘Swiss cheese’ approach
Choir President Mike Leavitt, Utah’s former governor and former secretary of Health and Human Services — said in a news release that his plan to resume choir activity is like stacking slices of Swiss cheese: each slice has holes, but the more layers of protection there are, the less likely it is that the virus will get through.
This “Swiss cheese” strategy includes:
• Requiring all performers to be vaccinated. Choir members who are not vaccinated or who are immunocompromised can be granted a special leave until conditions improve.
• Allowing only half the choir to sing at each session of General Conference to accommodate social distancing.
• Testing all performers and support personnel for COVID-19 before each rehearsal and performance.
• Wearing masks except when actively rehearsing or performing.
Depending on how successful the choir’s safety plan is, these same rehearsal and performance procedures may be applied to the Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells at Temple Square, the choir’s companion ensembles.
The resumption of live broadcasts of “Music & the Spoken Word” — the choir has been airing reruns of its weekly show, the longest continuously running network broadcast in radio history — as well opening rehearsals and performances to the public, may follow later this fall.
If the plan proves ineffective, however, the choir will again pause rehearsals.
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In an interview, Leavitt said COVID-19 has been impacting the world for a long time now and will continue to do so for some time to come. The choir, therefore, has to balance carrying out its “sacred mission” and staying safe.
And as a former secretary of Health and Human Services, he said he’s applied both his own and others’ experience to the choir’s safety plan.
When the group performs live next month, “I believe people will sense normality is on its way,” Leavitt said. “And it may be a different normality, but it will demonstrate that we can, in fact, stay safe and enjoy the components of our life that we’ve come to know.”
Choir Medical Director David Palmer added that only a few people have requested to take special leave from the group.
The safety plan also required choir leaders to consider the danger posed by the large inhales and exhales inherent to singing.
James Sutherland, a choir member and a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Utah, was suited to be on the choir’s safety committee in this regard: His expertise is in how particles and droplets move through the air, he said. He even helped the Utah Symphony get back to rehearsing.
“Singing is about one of the highest risk activities you can do with an airborne disease. especially because we don’t want to be masked [while] singing,” Sutherland said. “It changes the sound quality. ... So really the only options are [being] fully vaccinated and then making sure that COVID doesn’t get in the building.”
He added that scientists and medical professionals don’t have a reason to lie about COVID-19. It’s important, then, that people trust science, get vaccinated and wear their masks.
“If we do those simple things,” Sutherland said, “we can go a long ways to being more safe and reducing the spread.”
Those “simple things” are easy sacrifices for choir members who are thrilled to be rehearsing in person again.
Dame, a choir member from Layton, said music is a daily part of her life, so when rehearsals stopped due to the pandemic, it was “gut-wrenching.”
Coming back, then, felt like regaining something she’s been missing for so long. Being in the choir, she said, is about more than just singing and enjoying the company of her fellow musicians.
“Our mission here is to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ and to be able to share our message with the world,” she said. “And it’s going to feel great to do that again.”
When people hear the choir next month, Dame added, she hopes they’ll stop, listen and pay attention to how they’re feeling.
“Music can really penetrate your heart in a different way than the spoken word,” Dame said. “I think that [listeners] will receive answers that they need and peace in their home that they may not have had.”