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Singing His Way to Success

Music, Faith, and Scholarship

John Richardson spends his weekends in an unlikely place — at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City as a cantor. When he isn't leading Catholic congregations through mass, John is a senior Honors student with a History major, finishing up his Honors work and undergraduate degree. He will embark on his master’s degree at the University of Oxford in the fall on a choral scholarship. Before he leaves for England, he is filling his time by singing at his BYU Honors graduation and defending his thesis entitled “The Spanish Use of Music in the Spiritual Conquest of the Nahua Peoples of Sixteenth-Century Mexico.” When we caught up with John, it was clear that his perseverance and excitement for new opportunities led him to become the inspiring leader he is today.

Rihanna is the first thing that John remembers about joining the BYU Honors Program. Hoping to attend the Cambridge Study Abroad Program, John came to the Honors Office and upon hearing about the Honors mission, “Where Have You Been” by Rihanna started playing in his mind. The interdisciplinary focus and the community of great minds drew him in, and he committed to the program as a junior. It was an incredible hustle to finish the Honors curriculum in time for graduation but despite the craziness, John still left a strong legacy in the Honors Program. His Great Questions essay focused on understanding inevitability through kitchen decor, culture, and economics. His thesis fills a gap in understanding about Catholicism and conversion during the times of the conquistadors. Through these efforts and more, John has made an impact on the Honors community.

Inversely, the Honors program made an impact on John and his life choices. While attending the Cambridge Study Abroad to study history in 2018, John took every chance to listen to famous choral groups in England. His parents raised him on choral music as his mom rocked him to sleep to the sounds of the King College Choir and his father forced him to be part of his church choir while growing up. After listening to the King’s College Choir in person and Trinity College Choir at Cambridge, John knew that he wanted to pursue choral singing despite how niche it is. The cathedral acoustics and sacred music awoke a longing in him to be part of that world. Of his time at Cambridge, John expressed, “Being with other driven students from BYU in that beautiful place...was the raddest experience of my life.”

At BYU, John’s passion for music grew as he attended concerts put on by the School of Music from choir to big band performances. His love for music was not reciprocated, at first. After auditioning and being rejected from a couple musical groups, John could have given up. Instead, he took that as a challenge to prove himself. After music lessons, he worked his way up to performing in the selective BYU Singers and in BYU’s jazz band as a trombone player. John’s advice is to get a School of Music Student Pass if they are available again in the Fall. Apparently, they are inexpensive, provide two tickets to every musical event, and are the perfect date night activity. Who knows, maybe you could end up singing in an Oxford choir one day too!

Success at BYU was not John’s only end goal — he wanted more. After seeing a job posting for a cantor position at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, he quickly applied and was hired. John admitted that as a Latter-day Saint, there was a massive learning curve. As a cantor, he was supposed to lead the Catholic congregation through mass but truly, they knew the service better than he did! Through humility and an open mind, he quickly learned and grew. The organist at the cathedral, Dr. Gabriele Terrone, keeps John on his toes and ensures that John is always perfecting his skills.

Despite the challenges, John thrived on the interfaith connections similar to his passion for the interdisciplinary aspect of the Honors program. The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City focuses on selecting excellent musicians for cantors regardless of faith just as Honors focuses on providing an excellent education regardless of discipline. As a Latter-day Saint, John learns new ways to worship and witnesses inspiring acts of faith from the congregation weekly. Just as his congregation serves him, he gives back as well. As a missionary, John learned Spanish in Quito, Ecuador. He uses his Spanish skills weekly at Spanish mass to help Hispanic parishioners worship.

This open-minded perseverance served John well when he was applying to choirs at the University of Oxford. Despite unclear application processes and snubbed emails, he pressed forward and will be singing with the Queen’s College Choir on a choral scholarship in the Fall. John is incredibly excited to be part of a choir led by Ralph Allwood, a conductor he has looked up to all his life.

Exploring new realms was also major drive behind John’s thesis choice. He studied the role of music in the spiritual conquest of the Nahua people in modern-day Mexico. Scholars have analyzed the role of guns, germs, and even theatre, but few have researched the importance of music in this conquest. Seeing this intersection between two of his passions, John jumped at the opportunity to fill the knowledge gap. He learned that music, especially drums, trumpets, and singing, were key to Nahuan rituals. This love of music helped conversion efforts when Catholic masses began to be sung in Tenochtitlan. The Nahua people could hear the music and recognize it as sacred. John felt connected to the topic because the Catholic hymns he sings as a cantor have been critical to deepening his own connection to God. When he sings the Ordinarium texts (included in every Catholic mass), John admitted that he often has to suppress a smile because he just feels an overwhelming elation.

John’s story is a clear testament to the importance of perseverance and curiosity in having a successful Honors experience. He also endorses enjoying the journey and making your Honors experience fun! In a recent episode of BYUradio's "In Good Faith," John talks about music and faith, and how both can transcend the boundaries of denominations to lift the human spirit. You can listen here.