Mormon Tabernacle Choir President Ron Jarrett: The Music Man
May 23, 2013
If you meet with Ron Jarrett in his office at the historic Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, he will likely offer you some chocolate from the basket of wrapped candies on his desk.
“I have a passion for chocolate,” the new president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir says. “It’s not European, but it’s good.”
Besides chocolate, he also has a passion for music that began early in his youth.
President Jarrett was born and raised in Salt Lake City and remembers having a happy childhood surrounded by many good friends. It was in his local elementary school that he had his first formal musical experiences. He found out quickly that playing music was not his forte.
“When I was in about the 4th or 5th grade my parents enrolled me in the school band to play the clarinet. But I would get so nervous about playing that I would just shake! So that didn’t last long.”
His parents were persistent. They signed him up for private lessons to play the piano, and then the accordion. The piano just took too much practice, and the accordion just wasn’t suave enough for a self-conscious young man concerned about being “cool.”
“I just thought it was cheesy; I didn’t like it very much,” he chuckles.
To this day, President Jarrett can only play the piano with one finger.
Fortunately, these first unfavorable experiences didn’t completely sour his desire to pursue music. It was at West High School that he began to be heavily involved in vocal performance in a quartet called the Debonairs with three of his friends.
Living up to the name of his quartet, he caught the attention of his future wife, Lucie. They dated throughout high school and after graduation enrolled together at Brigham Young University. At BYU, their courtship took a hiatus.
“When we went to BYU she told me that she ‘wanted to look at all of the possibilities.’ So we didn’t date at all during that first semester,” he says with mock resentment.
It was then that President Jarrett left to serve a volunteer mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Southern California for two years.
When he returned, he resumed courting Lucie. As they quickly approached marriage, the stage fright he exhibited as a young clarinetist resurfaced.
“We got really serious and I asked her to marry me. But after about a week I went back to her and told her, ‘I can’t do this!’ I called it off.”
About a year lapsed before he called Lucie again, at the urging of his mother. Quickly thereafter they began dating and were engaged to be married. “This time it stuck,” he smiles. However, the ring Lucie originally bought for him remains at the Salt Lake City dump where she deposited it after their first engagement. Together they have three children, two daughters and a son.
In 1999 President Jarrett auditioned for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, where he sang for nine consecutive years, until 2008. When he speaks of his varied experiences singing in the choir, the word he uses most frequently is “fun.” He still remembers performing in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with 16-time Grammy Award-winning artist Sting. “It was a very, very fun, never-to-be-repeated experience,” he says with characteristic enthusiasm.
But “fun” does not adequately describe the breadth of President Jarrett’s feelings about music, which he believes can also be inspiring and deeply moving. He experienced this first-hand when the choir performed at a September 11 memorial service just hours after the attack occurred in 2001.
“On the night of 9/11, we were supposed to perform for a concert that evening for a convention that was in town. When we heard of the events, we were mortified, but the show was never officially called off. So we came, got dressed, and met in the specified location. They announced that the concert was going to be changed to a memorial service. So instead of the songs that we had practiced, we sang American patriotic music. It’s hard for me to describe the feelings I had watching the audience from where I sang, seeing them so engrossed with the choir and its music.”
With his emotions close to the surface, President Jarrett continued, “Music can bring the strength for people to carry on with whatever they’re dealing with. And that strength can be brought to people of all cultures and all ages, because music is the only truly universal language.”
After retiring from the choir, President Jarrett continued to serve as an assistant to former Mormon Tabernacle Choir president Mac Christensen from 2008 until May 2011.
He thought he had left the choir behind when, in 2011, he and Lucie left to serve a public affairs mission for the Church at its office in Frankfurt, Germany. It was in Germany that he received a call from the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas S. Monson. The assignment shocked him.
“President Monson called me to serve as president of the choir, and of course I couldn’t believe that. I was very teary and I tried to squeak out, ‘Thank you.’”
The assignment makes President Jarrett the first person to have performed in the choir prior to being appointed as its president.
One of President Jarrett’s primary goals for the choir is to reach out to younger audiences. He promises that there are developments in the near future that will make the Mormon Tabernacle Choir more accessible to the younger generation. He also encourages fans to connect with the choir on Facebook and Twitter, where the choir has official accounts. President Jarrett operates his own Facebook account and checks it regularly.
President Jarrett also has a very youthful spirit. Soon after he had been called as president, he joked with choir conductor Mack Wilberg about exploring genres with the choir that would resonate with younger demographics.
“I asked him if he’d ever thought of having the choir do a hip-hop song with a modern beat.” Traditionally-oriented Wilberg was hesitant. “I explained to him that youth are interested in something that has a beat to it, something that has life, and something they can relate to in their busy cycle of life. They’re not sedentary; they’re going constantly. They want to hear a rhythm that mirrors their lifestyle.” Wilberg was amused. “Well, I guess we should keep an open mind!” he said.
When he is not managing the affairs of one of the world’s most famous choirs, President Jarrett enjoys gardening, reading historical fiction, and cooking chocolate chip cookies with his grandchildren.