Jason Armstrong had a choice.
He could either go to his track meet where he was expected to come in first in the 400. Or he could practice singing with his double quartet to prepare for an evening choir performance. He couldn’t do both because they were scheduled for exactly the same time.
Jason chose to sing.
“My last race was at five o’clock. I couldn’t make it because I had to be at the stake center at five. I said, ‘Sorry, coach, I have to go to my singing thing.’ He said, ‘For what?’ I said, ‘For my church.’ It kind of upset him, but I like singing better. It’s just the spirit here. It’s greater than winning a race. I’m not going to miss this.”
If you had asked Jason two years ago if he would skip a track meet so he could sing, he would have said, “No way.” But Jason’s attitude has changed. He and most of the young people in his ward and stake wouldn’t miss choir for anything.
The Rockland California Stake youth choir gave two performances for their friends, families, and teachers. Jason sang in three special numbers and joined with the whole choir for the larger numbers. These performances, with 121 young people participating, were something that grew from simple beginnings.
It all started at a fireside in the Loomis Second Ward. “The fireside was at my house,” said Amanda Groth. “Everyone was taking a break. Sister Wentzel started playing the piano, and people started singing. Everyone just liked it.”
Danée Call was also at that fireside. “A couple of us girls had a song we were practicing for a sacrament meeting. A couple of the guys came over and tried to pick out their parts. Everybody just came around and was trying to sing. Sister Wentzel said, ‘I think we’ve got a youth choir on our hands.’ We said we would love to do it. Sister Wentzel talked to the bishop, and from then on it was choir practice every Sunday evening.”
The first practice was small. Eric Harms remembers, “It started with seven guys and three or four girls. We liked to sing, but none of us were that talented. We got some of the younger kids to come.”
Those younger kids are growing up and, in turn, are inviting the new Beehives and deacons to join. First the youth choir was just Loomis Second Ward. Then the Loomis First Ward joined to perform at youth conference. Then the choir expanded to take in all the wards of the stake for four months as they prepared to give a concert. Some were worried that the big choir wouldn’t be as good or as close. Anson Call tells about what it was like to take the choir from just their ward to include the stake. “It was like a family when it was our ward. I was afraid it wouldn’t be like that anymore. But it’s exactly the same. The same message and the same spirit, just with a lot more volume.”
At first the ward youth choir sang occasionally in sacrament meeting. Then they performed at missionary farewells and funerals. Expanded to the stake, they decided to give a concert, two performances, where they would invite everyone from their families to neighbors and teachers at school. With 121 singers who were pulling every note from their hearts, the choir was great. “It was so powerful,” said Heather Wentzel, “I almost started crying. I felt like the people in the audience were going to say, ‘Oh, this must be the right church,’ because they must be able to feel the Spirit.”
When the choir is together, singing a song that means something to them, the singers talk about the chills racing up and down their backbones. “Your hair feels like it’s standing up,” said Jadon Andersen. “You feel great.” And now they love that feeling and want more.
The choir has discovered a couple of added benefits. When the Loomis Second Ward started singing together, they found that their youth activities improved. There was a camaraderie among the boys and girls. When they were doing service projects or driving to the chapel together, they would end up singing some of the songs they were learning in choir. It made them feel like a group. Choir practice was a fun way to spend Sunday evening. Brooke Wentzel said, “We always have fun together. We laugh a lot, but there’s always a good spirit there. I can see people’s eyes watering after a particularly good song.”
Another side benefit of choir was that it became a way to include some young people who either were having trouble with their church activity or were not members but just wanted to spend time with their Mormon friends. One particularly good example is Kevin Wood, now Elder Wood serving in Belgium on a mission. “I had slipped away slowly from church. Many other things in my life went downhill. I had fallen into the pit very gradually, and so when I got to the bottom, I didn’t even realize how deep and dark it really was until after I had gotten back out.”
Cathy Baradine had been working away from home at a summer camp. When she returned home, she was surprised when she was told that Kevin wasn’t attending church anymore. The ward had just started the youth choir. She didn’t hesitate. She called Kevin and told him she was coming to pick him up in half an hour for choir practice.
Kevin says he was bewildered enough to say yes. He now says that at the time he hated singing, especially songs with gospel themes. But he went. “I don’t remember whether the time passed quickly, or how I felt during the practice,” said Kevin. “It was as we were walking out that I remarked how I felt so much lighter. I may have even had a smile on my face. All my problems and concerns, although they hadn’t disappeared, had left my mind for a moment.” Kevin returned to church and choir practice the next Sunday and the next and the next.
For Elder Jared Roberts, now serving in the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission, choir helped him decide to serve a mission. “Choir seemed to help me start my week right. It helped us keep the Sabbath day holy, singing praises to God. It also helped me make important decisions. Having a chance to sing at many missionary farewells helped me see how important the Church is and can be to others. It was amazing how many songs we sang related to missionary work. I firmly believe that belonging to the choir helped me make the right decision in going on a mission.”
For the youth choir of the Rockland Stake, there is nothing half-hearted about their singing. They appreciate how music has brought them closer in learning to worship Heavenly Father through song. “It’s the greatest feeling,” said Deldon Johnson, “when we’re up there singing for an audience, and we know we are doing well. We just want to sing our hearts out for them.”
Every year the Loomis First and Second Wards go Christmas caroling. It’s a big event. “We had so many kids,” said Brian Rhodes, “that we were just filling the street. Since we had been in choir, we knew the harmonies and parts to some of the carols. It just sounded like angels.”
He’s right. The Rockland California Stake youth sound heavenly.
While talking about their choir, the Rockland Stake teens came up with an informal list of suggestions they would make about starting a choir.
Choose a director who likes teenagers a lot. Rockland Stake said this was more important than having a great knowledge of music. And have an assistant director, so the burden isn’t on just one person.
At first, select easy songs. And choose songs that make choir members want to sing.
Don’t be overly formal. Rockland Stake has an agreement between the directors and the teens. They will be under control at all times, but it’s okay to have fun and visit when the director is not talking and they are not singing.
Don’t have tryouts. Let anyone who wants to sing come.
Don’t make people come. Ask everyone to give it a fair try; then if they don’t like it, they shouldn’t feel obligated to come. Rockland Stake said it ruined the spirit when someone hated being there.
Split up into groups when learning parts, even in different rooms. That’s when the assistant director comes in handy, and no one gets bored.
Be consistent. Have choir practice at the same time and at the same place.
Mix the newcomers in with those who know the song. It helps everyone get to know each other, and they learn the songs faster.
Invite the new Beehives and deacons to join.
Take opportunities to perform.
She’s only 14, but April Marsh leads the youth choir in her ward through their warm-up exercises. Then as accompanist Jaci Marsh, 17, begins to play, April starts going over a new song. In the Copper City Utah Second Ward, the youth choir is run entirely by the young people themselves.
It all started when Heather Steele wanted to sing in a choir but was hesitant about joining the ward adult choir. She made the suggestion to her Young Women leaders that they start a youth choir. The bishop agreed and called sisters April and Jaci Marsh to be the chorister and accompanist. Heather was called as choir president. From then on, responsibility for holding practices and leading the choir rested on the youth themselves.
What’s it like having a 14-year-old leader? “She’s fun,” says John Kirby. “She makes jokes if you make a mistake,” says Shellie Nelson.
The choir performs in sacrament meeting. April says she gets a tingle when the choir is “sounding like the Tabernacle Choir.” Nicole Roper says, “It’s neat to see people right on the edge of tears.” John adds quickly, “It’s mostly our moms and dads.”
The bishop wanted the youth to understand the importance of worship through music. The youth choir has come to understand that. As Sarah Hardman said, “When you’re performing, you really feel the power of the music.”