Wenhao Mu had skipped work and gone to the train station only to discover he was at the wrong station.
The previous day, Mu and his wife, Wejing She, heard the BYU Singers perform when the group stopped in their city during its 2015 China tour. The BYU Singers performed a joint concert with the university choir Mu was then an assistant choir director for and in which She sang. This allowed them both a close-up experience with the BYU Singer’s quality of sound and quality of character.
For example, Mu appreciated how the BYU singers collaborated with each other, how they responded to the conductor and how they were “so willing to share” their confidence and happiness.
“We had never attended a concert like that,” Mu said. “They were so humble. They respected us very much. … Whatever they were doing on that day in China was to try to achieve that extreme excellence in choral singing, and they were so polite and so willing to interact with us.”
Mu was so impressed by the BYU Singers that he took time off from his job as an architect the next day in order to see them off at the train station, “but sadly, I went to the wrong station.”
Mu thought that day might have been his last chance to see the BYU Singers for a long time. Four years later, however, not only are Mu and She BYU students themselves — both have joined the ranks of the BYU Singers.
“The experience, it’s unique,” Mu said.
‘You have to move on’
Mu and She’s journey to BYU really began in 2013, when Mu, who had not yet met She, traveled to Dallas for the American Choral Directors Association conference. Though he was then studying for his master’s degree in urban planning, he was also the assistant choir director for his university’s choir.
The trip, which Mu said included about 40 people, was arranged by an American businessman who was also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Following the conference, the businessman arranged for Mu’s group to travel to Utah, where they attended Music and the Spoken Word on Sunday and met with Craig Jessop, the former director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, then known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The group then went to BYU, where they listened to the BYU Singers perform in the Harris Fine Arts Center.
“The campus just gave me that feeling: peaceful, quiet (and) safe,” Mu said. “And people were so friendly and warm-hearted.”
Mu met She upon returning to China and they married in 2014. He graduated from his master’s program and began a job as an architect while She worked as a high school teacher. However, he spent weekends continuing to work with his university’s choir and orchestra, which is how in 2015, Mu and She came into contact with the BYU Singers during the joint-concert with Mu’s university choir.
Wejing She said Ronald Staheli, then the BYU Singers conductor spoke to her and Mu after the concert. Mu told Staheli he was working as an architect but wanted to study music, and he was confused about his future. Staheli took Mu’s hand and said, “You have to move on. Don’t give up.”
Wejing She said it was a fatherly gesture, and though they’d only known him for two days, they could feel Staheli’s love, encouragement and support.
“I think that was the moment that we made the decision of, ‘OK, we need to apply,'” She said.
Mu said he realized he couldn’t continue with both architecture and music and decided to apply to music school in the U.S. He felt if he was rejected, it was OK because he would still have a job, “but if I can make it into one of them, my life is changed.”
Mu was accepted to BYU and another school and said he “pondered a little bit” when deciding where to attend, as the other school was well-known for its choral activities. However, the excellence of the BYU Singers, his positive impression of campus during his 2013 visit and the Church’s choral activities were large parts of why he ultimately chose BYU.
Another reason Mu and She chose BYU is because during Mu’s 2013 campus visit, he learned how much the Church values families. As families are “the most important thing” in Chinese culture, Mu said, he and She thought moving to Provo as a married couple would make transitioning to a foreign country easier.
They came to Provo in August 2016, and Mu began studying for his master’s in choral conducting while She applied for and was accepted that year into the master’s in music education program. Mu joined the BYU Singers in 2016 and She joined in 2018.
Andrew Crane, who became conductor of the BYU Singers in 2015 after Staheli retired, said Mu sings baritone and She sings first alto and is the alto section leader. He called them both “absolutely first-rate musicians” with “excellent ears and musical knowledge.”
“Personally, they are extremely conscientious, hard-working and kind,” Crane said. “Everyone loves Wenhao and Wejing.”
Why they sing
Coming to Utah wasn’t without its challenges for Mu and She. When they first arrived in Provo, She booked an Airbnb for three days so they could find housing, but when those three days were up, they still hadn’t found a place to live.
However, Mu said they received lots of help from the community. After posting about their problem on Facebook, a family took them in for three weeks while they searched for housing, giving them food, driving them to see housing options and helping them get familiar with Provo.
Wejing She said deciding to study abroad was a difficult decision because they both had careers in China and they weren’t sure what their future would be like. However, she said though they’ve had their difficulties, coming to the U.S. has been “like an adventure” and the glass has always been half-full during their time in Provo.
“The whole atmosphere here and the friendship from those friends on-campus and off-campus … always gives you hope in your life,” she said. “I have hope from a lot of things: from friends, from music, from singing with these ensembles (and) from the understanding of the faculty. A lot of things here are just so lovely.”
Additionally, although they’re not members of the Church, Mu said they understand the relationship between music and spirituality.
“(The BYU choir conductors) all are trying so hard to reach the personality or reach the soul of the singers,” Mu said. “So I felt that all of the singers… in the ensembles at BYU are cultivated by the beauty of music and their souls are touched by the beauty of music.”
Mu said most of his friends in China don’t have specific religious beliefs. During summers at home when he works with the friends’ choirs, he plans something similar to a devotional for each choir, where he explains that he goes to a religious university where they pray before each rehearsal. These prayers are not simply asking for success, but are expressions of gratitude for blessings such as the beautiful music, the preparation of the choir conductors and the audiences they sing to. Then he’ll ask the Chinese choirs if they have those feelings of love and gratitude when they sing together, because “that’s the true meaning of singing together.”
Mu said he’s also given lectures to music teachers and choral conductors in China, and though he doesn’t emphasize the Church, he tries to help them understand the uniqueness of the BYU choral program in ways they can comprehend. For example, he recently recorded some of BYU’s rehearsals and concerts and shared them online with his Chinese friends, and “they love the sound, (they) love the music and they can feel the power of this kind of excellent singing,” he said.
Although the BYU Singers won’t be part of the upcoming tour of China this May involving multiple BYU performing arts groups, Mu said he’s discussed China’s cultural, political and religious situations with Crane. While the BYU Singers won’t be missionaries in a traditional sense, he said they will be missionaries by way of sharing art like they were during their 2015 tour of China. Mu said while the BYU Singers didn’t mention the Church, God or anything else religious during that tour, they were still “actually sharing some love and the power of God, or of someone who is always taking care of us.”
Mu has had his own traveling experiences with the BYU Singers, touring with the group in Vietnam and Indonesia in 2018. He called this experience “like a miracle” because he heard the BYU Singers on its 2015 international tour and then was able to participate in its next international tour.
“We shared every day why we traveled from the other side of the globe,” he said. “Because we would like to let more people feel the love of God (and) feel the overwhelming power of music.”
Several people even approached Mu after a concert in Indonesia and asked how they could study choral music at BYU.
“I told them my story,” he said. “I told them ‘If you love music, you need to try, and BYU is really the right place for you to study choral music.'”
Hope from BYU
Both Mu and She said BYU has been the best student experience they’ve ever had.
“We are very grateful for the experiences here, that we’re not just students but we are respected by everyone, and the teacher is not the one who holds the power and overpowers students. They always support students and love students,” She said.
Mu is now in his third year at BYU and graduates in April, while She is in her second year and graduates in August. Mu has applied to seven doctoral conducting programs in the United States and was recently offered a full scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He’ll start their Doctor of Musical Arts program in conducting this fall.
He said one of the most important things they’ve gained from BYU is hope.
“We don’t know what our future will be like,” Mu said. “But we are able to have hope in our lives. That’s what we get from BYU.”