The Tabernacle Choir Blog

6 Notable Changes of the Jerold Ottley Era

Jerold Ottley started his career as an educator and planned to keep it that way. When Ottley was asked to be the assistant director for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he was hesitant because of his commitment to the University of Utah, where he and Choir director Jay Welch were music educators. Ottley worked out an arrangement with the University of Utah to split his time between the University and the Choir. He enjoyed his role with the Choir, saying, “Well, this is the best of all possible worlds, because I’ll have the opportunity to work with the Choir from time to time and be associated with its development, but I wouldn’t have the prime responsibility. I could have my cake and eat it too, as it were.”

Things would soon change. In 1974, Ottley was appointed the director of the Choir within a year of being appointed as the associate director and would continue until his retirement in 1999. He would spend the next 25 years leading the Choir. After much discussion and prayer from the Choir's advisors and leadership staff, significant changes were made that would enhance the Choir. Although many changes occurred, here are six that made a considerable difference and shaped the Choir into what we know today:

1. Retirement. The Choir organization set out to take the emotion out of retirement. A change was implemented on January 19, 1978, and set retirement at age 60 or 20 years of service, whichever came first. When this new retirement process reached the first round, some members retired with 52 years of service.

2. Attendance. When Ottley took over, there were 410 members on the Choir roster, but only 325 were active participants. “Somebody would just call up the conductor and say ‘I’ve got some free time, can I come back to the Choir?’ and they would come back,” said Ottley. A mandatory 75 percent attendance policy was then put into place as well as a leave of absence policy.

3. Seating Arrangements. Before Ottley’s arrival, the only way to move forward from your current seat was for someone to retire. Ottley began rearranging seats every three months, which helped Choir members get over the sense of ownership some felt about "their" seats.

4. Auditions. Auditions were not as structured in those days. During Ottley's tenure, a much more formalized audition process was put into place, which consisted of a recorded audition, theory exam, and in-person audition.

5. Membership Qualifications. At the time, many of the Choir members had no church attendance other than Sunday School classes on Temple Square. This led to the requirement of having a recommend to attend the temple after an interview with their local bishop. After this change, Ottley acknowledged, “The Choir turned into a powerful spiritual organization.”

6. Vocal Sound. Ottley wanted to match the sound to the type of music the Choir was performing.  He wanted to appeal to a broad group of listeners and represent middle America. During Ottley's tenure, U.S. President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir "America's Choir."

Below is a recent video of the Choir performing "Seventy-Six Trombones." The song was included on the 1979 album A Grand Night for Singing from Ottley's era, as well as the 2006 collection released under the Sony label entitled The Essential Mormon Tabernacle Choir.