Janeece Bush just can’t stop singing. She sings whimsically in the shower, intently at her voice lesson, cheerfully in Relief Society, and absentmindedly while she is working or cleaning in her apartment.
Each Sunday morning her hazel eyes, framed by blonde hair, focus on Jerold Ottley, conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The giant organ is silent. The sea of orange blouses and blue jackets is illuminated by the bright glare of television lights. The vocal army stands against the pine and bronze majesty of the 10,000 Tabernacle organ pipes. Alexander Schreiner sits ready before scores of knobs, stops, keys, and pedals. The audience hushes as the director taps the podium to signal the impending cue. The red light of the CBS camera blinks on. The white baton cuts the air, and 365 saintly voices echo hymns from San Francisco to Singapore. The Sabbath begins with a hymn.
About 20 years ago a little blonde girl with hazel eyes sat singing to her dolls in Denver, Colorado. She sang on the swing, on the teeter-totter, and jumping rope. Later she sang in her high school chorus, and in an M Men and Gleaner group. She sang everywhere. There were no fantasies about famous choirs. She just sang to let the happy out.
She still does. As her controlled soprano voice rises and falls in harmony with the men and women around her, Janeece is one in spirit with the Saints of another century who stopped their wagons an hour before sundown and sang hymns of thanksgiving to their God. As the music ebbs and swells, the great choir responds to every gesture and expression of the conductor, as if they were all stops on one gigantic musical instrument. At 22, Janeece is one of the youngest members of the choir.
A couple of years ago, international broadcasts and world fame were the furthest things from her mind. She was an attractive young Denver Mormon girl who liked to sing and who wanted to try her luck where there were a lot of attractive young Mormon men and maybe some new job opportunities. So naturally she packed up her pots and pans and sheet music and headed for Salt Lake City, singing all the way. And when she got a job restoring books and documents for the Church Historical Department, she went right on singing and humming to herself as she worked.
It just so happened that a fellow employee who heard her spontaneous snatches of song was a member of the choir and suggested that she audition. She laughed it off at first and went on singing to herself. “I was frightened,” she recalls. “I really didn’t believe in myself that much.” But the suggestion kept creeping back into her mind each time she started to hum, and before long she decided, “Well, I’ll never know unless I try.”
Richard Condie, then director of the choir, was impressed with her audition, but as is usually the case in real life, it wasn’t to be a perfect Cinderella story. She still needed some work, so she arranged for private voice lessons. Seven months of hard work later, she was ready, and she took her place in what Eugene Ormandy of the Philadelphia Orchestra has called “the world’s greatest choir.”
She soon found that some hard work accompanied the honor. Normally the choir practices every Thursday evening, running through the coming Sunday’s broadcast four or five times. But when there’s a concert in the offing, the demands increase. The choir’s Expo ’74 appearance and a recent television special on the choir each required many extra hours of work. They also rehearse the day’s broadcast twice each Sunday morning before going on the air.
Like most singing groups, they begin each practice by running through some scales to warm up. Unlike most singing groups, however, they also begin with a spiritual thought and a prayer. They don’t forget for a moment whose choir it really is. “I feel very strongly that this is the Lord’s choir,” Janeece says. “When we start to sing I can feel the Spirit unify us. I don’t believe the choir would have the sound it does if it weren’t the Lord’s choir. We’re not perfect, and we make mistakes, but when I used to listen to the choir in conference, it sounded perfect, and the reason is that the choir and the congregation are unified by the Spirit of the Lord. You can feel it.”
Each member of the choir is a representative of an entire way of life and so is expected not only to have a rich, disciplined singing voice, but to be worthy of a recommendation from his or her bishop. Janeece and the other choir members look upon their choir responsibility as a Church calling. “It’s interesting to travel and have people come up to you and talk about how famous the choir is,” Janeece comments, “because the people in the choir are so down-to-earth. In some ways it’s very similar to being a Sunday School teacher. It’s always pointed out at the rehearsals that doing our best is a responsibility we have to our Heavenly Father.
Janeece also feels that the choir’s excellence stems from the fact that the members are not merely striving for technical excellence nor are they just singing notes. “I feel that I’m singing to my Heavenly Father and to the Savior,” she says. “There’s a spirit that’s hard to explain, and I think the audience feels it too. A song can be a prayer, and it’s wonderful to have that feeling inside when you’re singing. It humbles me to realize that I’m singing a testimony.”
Choir members are keenly aware that the choir can be a powerful ambassador for the Church.
Every voice in the Tabernacle Choir is a gem, including Janeece’s. But there is no artistic arrogance. Janeece says of her fellow choir members, “They’re very humble and spiritual people. It’s a warm and wonderful experience working with them, and we have a very rewarding friendship. They provide me with a constant challenge to improve and grow, not only in my voice, but also in my personal life.
“I’ve learned a lot,” she continues, “just by listening to the people next to me, but I think that 90 percent of my growth has come in self-confidence.” To the young people of the Church she counsels, “If you have a dream, it can become a reality. If something is unreal to you—if it’s just ‘way out there somewhere’—you have no way of grasping it, but if you can put it into perspective and realize that it’s real, then you’re on your way. If there’s something you really want in life, you should go after it and not limit yourself. It’s true that we each have limits, but we seldom reach them. We limit ourselves too much because of fear. Believe in yourself. Don’t let fear stand in your way. One moment of decision can sometimes make a lifetime of difference. It just took one moment for me to decide to call Brother Condie and go for an audition, and if I had let fear override that moment, I would never have had the experience that I have today.”
And her experiences extend beyond the choir. She and several girls have formed a group that visits various wards and sings just for the love of singing.
Music is one important and exciting facet of Janeece’s life, but it is only one of many, and there’s no doubt about what comes first for her. “The most important thing is the gospel and my spiritual welfare. I’ve found that if you maintain your spiritual side, everything else will follow, and all the other blessings you really need will come.”
Janeece Bush is a very happy young woman—not because she sings well, but because she has discovered the beautiful secret behind all songs. She has discovered the joy of living with a song in her heart.