Only a few of the thousands of kids in junior high and high school marching bands in Arizona are going to become professional musicians and odds are long on any becoming the next Louie Armstrong or Benny Goodman. But Cliff Bentley is living proof that the marching time and music study can pay off with something really rewarding.
Bentley is a graduate of Mesa Junior High School and Mesa High School and for the past 11 years has been singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City.
"Marching band in junior high and high school is where I learned the music theory stuff I needed to know to be in the choir," said Bentley in a telephone interview Monday.
He is one of 360 members of the Tabernacle Choir and 110 members of the Orchestra at Temple Square that will be performing Friday and Saturday at US Airways Center in a signature event of the Arizona Centennial Celebration.
Three members of the choir with deep Arizona roots - Bentley, Jan Petersen and Clark Edwards - talked this week about how exciting it is for them to return home and offer the choir's unique blend of classical hymns and patriotic songs as part of the state's 100th birthday. It is the Tabernacle Choir's first performances in Arizona since 1967.
Most Arizonans that are familiar with the choir likely listen to the live half-hour broadcast, Music and the Spoken Word, on the radio. It is the nation's longest-running network program, having run continuously since 1929. The broadcast takes place every Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m. in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.
The "theory stuff" that Bentley talks about is pretty important because having a pretty face or strong voice isn't enough to get you in the choir. Becoming a member of the all-volunteer choir is not an easy matter. It requires a rigorous two-hour written test on musical knowledge, an audition tape and finally a face-to-face audition if the earlier hurdles are cleared. Often it takes four or five tries to successfully become a member.
And it isn't a commitment to be taken lightly. The choir in 2011 performed more than 50 times and had more than 300 rehearsals.
But for long-time Arizonan Clark Edwards it was a lifelong dream to be a part of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He was born in Provo, Utah, but his parents moved to Arizona when he was one. He attended Waggoner Elementary School in Tempe, Kyrene Junior High School and Corona del Sol High School. After a church mission to Winnipeg, Canada, he attended the American Institute of Court Reporting in Phoenix.
Shortly after his marriage in 2006, he decided he should pursue his dream to sing with the choir. He moved his family (he and his wife now have a son, Noah, 3) and his career as a freelance stenographer and court reporter to Salt Lake.
Edwards had been a member of the all-state choir in Arizona in high school as well as the Arizona Mormon Choir. So a strong voice does help.
He is excited about the upcoming Arizona performance.
"Every song is designed to appeal to the masses," Edwards said. "As a member of the choir I am a member of the masses as well and I just love every one of them."
Some examples from Edwards are "76 Trombones," "Gloria," "Cum Sancto Spiritu" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
Jan Petersen lived in Mesa all of her life. She attended Lowell Elementary School, Mesa Junior High School, Mesa High School and Mesa Community College. She said she grew up in a family that loved choral music.
She said it was a dream of her late father to see the Tabernacle Choir come to Arizona. He even served on a committee to get the idea rolling, she said.
As a longtime choir member she has been part of performances in England, France, Belgium, Italy and Spain. But she said the most memorable concert was in Jerusalem.
"My heart still pumps thinking about it," she said.
That is because the choir performed for all religious leaders in the region - Jewish, Christian and Muslim. She said there was tension in the room when it started but by the end everyone was smiling and the room was filled with love.
The mother of four daughters now awaits with excitement this weekend's performances.
"Arizona is basically the foundation for who I am today," Petersen said.
She said her all-time favorite choir song is "God Bless America," which the choir always performs.
"The classical songs that touch the soul," she said. "They bring out the best in everybody; they move emotions. I think you'll really enjoy them."
She said being part of the choir is humbling and it is amazing to work with "genius conductors in the vocal instrument."
Bentley, the former marching band member, also loves the classic songs, such as "Gloria" and remarked that "The Pilgrim Song" arranged by Ryan Murphy "is just beautiful."
Bentley attended Edison and Longfellow elementary schools, Mesa Junior High School, Mesa High School, Mesa Community College and Arizona State University. He plans to move back to Arizona when he retires.
He said he had always loved to sing and joined choirs in Arizona and in Texas when his career as a computer programmer took them there.
"I kind of stood out with the vigor in which I sing," said Bentley.
Then a career move to Utah began fate. He noticed a newspaper article about the choir needing new male members. He said his wife encouraged him to pursue it in 2000. He submitted an application with a recording and then a year later made it into the choir.
"I love to sing and I love my membership in the church," said Bentley.
But he said it was his wife's encouragement that made it happen.
"My wife said to me ‘when you are serving in the church you are a better man,'" he said. "It turned out to be true."
What made her support even more remarkable is that they have nine children - and two of them were still in diapers when he applied to the choir.
"I asked my wife, ‘Are you sure?'"
One of the signatures of the Tabernacle Choir doesn't tour with it - the glorious pipe organ at the Mormon Tabernacle. It weighs more than 50 tons.
The choir travels with a digital electronic organ with more than 30 speaker cabinets and a two-man crew that sets it up everywhere they perform. Richard Elliott, principal organist at the Mormon Tabernacle, says not to worry as its sound is patterned after the Tabernacle organ and does a wonderful job of "giving us that signature sound."
In 2003 the Tabernacle Choir appeared with the Boston Pops at the annual Fourth of July celebration in Boston. Keith Lockhart, director of the Boston Pops, said then: "If the Boston Pops is America's symphony then the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is America's Choir."
Tickets for the 8 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday are available at the U.S. Airways Center, 201 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix. Cost ranges from $25-$75. Information: (602) 379-7800 or www.usairwayscenter.com.
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