The history of show choir
Table of Contents
I. The 1930’s: Making the Waring sound 3
II. The 1940’s: Waring 4
III. The 1950’s: The Golden Age of Television 5
IV. The 1960’s: Pop Culture and Changing Tastes 10
V. The 1970’s: Swing Choir Festivals 22
VI. The 1980’s: Choreography and Staging 27
VII. The 1990’s: Pop Music and Show Choir 32
VIII. 2000: Show Choir Matures 38
Chronology of Show Choir 45
Works Cited 47
This is the history of show choir. From Fred Waring to current pop music, the story of show choir and its origins won’t, perhaps, surprise the reader. However, reading this compiled information will offer insight into the sociological and cultural events that have created the phenomena that is today the fastest growing musical ensemble in music education.
The 1930’s: Making the Waring sound
In 1933, The Old Gold Cigarette Company sponsored a radio show featuring The Fred Waring Orchestra, which at that time was an all-male ensemble with members alternating between playing instruments and singing. It was later, for the radio show that Waring chose a group of men and women to be strictly singers.
Waring’s choice of music was eclectic: popular songs of the day, folk music, love songs, patriotic and holiday music, Broadway tunes, and renditions of popular instrumental songs using non-sensical syllables. Through the radio performances, Waring and his Pennsylvanians became one America’s first choral ensembles known not for singing choral masterworks, but essentially pop music. Waring claimed to be an untrained musician, yet early in life he played the violin, fife and banjo. Ex-Pennsylvanians remember that in rehearsal he could sol feg anything on sight.
It was in 1937 that Fred met choral conductor, Robert Shaw during the filming of Varsity Show. The next year, Waring asked Shaw to join the Pennsylvanians specifically to work with the sixteen voice Glee Club, a group of professional studio singers. From then on, until he died in 1984, Waring had choral directors: Robert Shaw 1939-44, Don Craig 1944-48, Lara Haggard 1948-55 and Jack Best 1955-until Fred’s death in 1984. Fred Waring did not rehearse the choral singing himself, he reasoned, that was what his choral directors were for. It was Waring’s interpretation and phrasing of the text that would go on to be known simply as The Waring Sound.
“He only conducted words,” said Louigi Zaninelli, who published under the name Lou Hayward and served as one of Waring’s choral arranger during the 1950’s and early 60’s. Zaninelli added that Waring’s arrangers were constantly frustrated because “he was always changing the written rhythms to how he spoke.” However, once the choral parts were in place, Waring added, on top of everything, his own style and interpretive stamp. Waring conducted emotions -- not just words. He was obsessed with HOW the words were said, not just the lyrics sung over a melody. The Waring Sound was not merely about choral blend and harmony, but the singing of popular American songs in English language in a manner in which American listeners understood and found meaningful.
The 1940’s: Waring Comes to Television
In 1948 General Electric sponsored The Fred Waring Show, a weekly television program that aired on Sunday nights. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians were now working in the country’s most exciting technological medium. Waring found it to be a challenge to figure out how to entertain home viewers on the early kinescope (small) TV screens. To allow the performer to have more direct rapport with the camera, the music had to be memorized. Visual elements and staging were revved up to include themed theatrical sets, costumes and featured dancers. Innovative to television at the time, The Waring Show used a motion picture-style boom-operated camera to add more visual variety and effectively follow the performers.
For nearly seven years Fred Waring produced sixty minutes of live music each week. The program demonstrated all the showmanship that Waring had become famous for: songs sung by skillful singers in high quality arrangements, tight pacing and on top of everything, his own style and interpretive stamp. Short lived as Waring’s Show was, it was considered a success. Audiences tuned in each week and the show get better each season as production values increased The show folded in the Spring of 1955 because Waring grew wary of feeding the ever-hungry medium of television. Waring simply burnt out on producing over 3,000 hours of music each year, especially at the high quality standards that he demanded. Once the television show was finished, Waring took his Pennsylvanians back to touring on the road. Touring a basic a stage show was much easier than producing new material each week. Besides, Waring liked the excitement of live performance.
In 1949, during the first year of Waring’s show, American families owned 1 million television sets. The staging, sets, costumes and great singing that Waring and his Pennsylvanians brought to American homes each week worked to spread Waring’s soon-to-be noticed influence on music education. It’s a safe bet that choral music educators were tuning in to the Waring television show. In that first year of broadcasting live Waring’s influence turned up in rural community high schools in the form of pop choral ensembles, dubbed swing choirs. The word swing came over from the 1940’s big band era, and was the popular style at the time. Surprisingly, two of the earliest high school pop ensembles did not appear in metropolitan areas which were centers for swing and pop music, but in rural Midwest communities where students were not as distracted by the draw of city activities.
Of the swing choirs that appeared, two were notable because they were the earliest and they simultaneously began within the first year of Waring’s television show. These ensembles were in Manhattan, Kansas, under the direction of Larry Boye and the other in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, under the direction of Alvin Mikelson.
The 1949 LaCrosse
Central High School yearbook, The Booster, shows a photograph of robed
singers, entitled called Swing Choir. With no question as to
Waring’s influence, the picture caption reads, “singing Waring’s arrangement of the ‘Song of Christmas,’ the newly formed Swing Choir made its first appearance during our Christmas assembly.” The 1951 edition of The Booster shows the same group with more contemporary costumes. Once again, the photograph caption is mentions Waring’s arrangements:
“Once again the Swing Choir had a very active year performing for other schools and many organizations in the city...The Swingsters did many of Fred Waring’s arrangements, and among the more popular they sang “Old Rockin’ Chair,” “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” “Land of Degradation” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Their repertoire also contained a group of light rhythmic numbers including “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “The Happy Farmer,” and “Blow the Man Down.”
Larry Boye, Director of the early swing choir from Kansas, denies that he was influenced by Fred Waring. When asked where he got his idea to form a singing/dancing group, Boye replied, “Not from Fred Waring. I had heard of Fred Waring. We didn’t have television...I just did it.” He recalled, “I really just needed something to do with my students that would keep their interest...so we put together singing/dancing shows... and the kids responded to it.” While Boye does admitted that he took his students to a Waring Summer Choral Workshop in the early 1950’s, he was unimpressed with the staging and movement ideas that were being offered. Boye said, “I wanted to see more action, more visual excitement...the kids and audiences wanted to have more going on than just moving from picture to picture.”
The 1950’s: The Golden Age of Television and Beginning of Pop Music.
Plenty of musical changes swept America during the 1950’s. Television became the new medium for entertainment. Unlike radio, TV was free to offer audiences an increased visual interpretation of musical performances. This visual information was communicated through the language of camera shots, movement, and performer’s direct rapport with the home viewers. Audiences also had the choice of many popular variety shows.
The beginnings of pop music had begun, partly underlined by the visual nature of television. During the 1950’s a dual pop music market developed along with television. First there was the music for the mature generation: Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day. Then there was the music for the new generation: Bill Haley and The Comets, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard. Fred Waring, played to the former of the two, keeping the Pennsylvanians music and performance style rooted firmly in the material that they were known for. In a changing musical world, Waring did not change. It was only a matter of time before Waring would have to respond to the shifts happening in pop music entertainment.
The commercial entertainment value of television was quickly realized by producers, advertisers, and record companies. Like dot com companies in the 1990’s, Television shows flooded the screen during the 50’s, all with hopes of attracting large audiences. Television producers of the 1950’s discovered that the more unusual the visual elements in the program, the more viewers would tune in. This, of course, served to attracted commercial sponsors. The only thing more interesting to a television audience than seeing human face is seeing a human face do something visually interesting, which usually means communicating an emotion or idea. Dancing and body movement became a basic element of 50’s TV variety programming. These programs became popular visual/musical productions:
American Bandstand (1956-89) Longest running television music variety show featuring teenagers dancing to pop artists lip synching to current hit songs.
The Ed Sullivan Show (1955-71) Introduced pop stars, Broadway’s stars, and various rock groups. [Note -- Elvis Presley’s appearance on this program was considered “too much” and program directors filmed him from the waste up to avoid showing his provocative hip movement.]
The Perry Como Show (1948-63) A musical variety show featuring the Peter Gennaro Dancers and The Louis Da Pron Dancers.
The Andy Williams Show (1958-71) A musical variety show featuring The Goodtime Singers and The Nick Castle Dancers.
The Jackie Gleason Show (1952-70) A musical variety show featuring The June Taylor Dancers in Busby Berkeley style production number designed for the television camera.
The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-59) A musical variety show featuring The Mouseketeers in weekly singing/dancing musical production numbers.
The Arthur Murray Party (1950-60) A musical show featuring Arthur and Katherine Murray and The Arthur Murray Dancers.
The Dinah Shore Chevy Show (1956-63) A musical variety program featuring The Tony Charmoli Dancers and The Nick Castle Dancers.
The Lawrence Welk Show (1955-71) A musical program featuring “champagne music” and dancing marketed for mature audiences and often sponsored by Geritol.
In 1955 television surpassed radio as an income producing medium. By 1959 the average American family watched television for six hours each day on the nation’s 85 million television sets. Ninety percent of the country had television access. Teenage TV audiences were introduced, not only to pop music artists, but to fashion and hair styles and new dances, as well. Whereas radio used to be the way that new songs were introduced, television shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show served to drive pop record sales to new heights. Television audiences came to expect to see new artists perform their music. Hal Malcolm, an innovator and leader in vocal jazz education wrote, “In the fifties, television would introduce music to people which would be increasingly listened to by the eyes and felt by the body.” Audiences began to view entertainment and pop music differently than they had during the Waring radio and early television days.
Between the 1930’s and 50’s Fred Waring dominated his area of popular music through his dedication to interpretation. The Fred Waring tone syllables became an important contributions to American choral music. When he conducted the Pennsylvanians, each performance was an original. Waring would call the song order based on the response of the audience. Furthermore, he conducted the Pennsylvanians, too, as he felt at the time. Each performance was different than the one before. Waring interpreted each phrase of text for his listeners, drawing out lyrical melodies, speeding up whimsical choruses, slowing down climactic cadences to dramatize a key change. Waring was the showman at his best when standing in front of his singers playing them, if you will, like an instrument.
In contrast, the constant, unchanging tempos and rhythms of the 50’s pop styles did not require an interpreter. Audiences enjoyed listening to these songs, not so much for the lyrical phrasing, but for the beat. It was the rhythm that created the emotional satisfaction. This music was more energized than the ballads that dominated popular music of the earlier generations. Rock and roll, for example, needed no interpreter. In fact, an interpreter got in the way of the communication between the performers and audience.
Television was quick to become the ideal medium for pop music and the music catered itself to the medium. This co-dependent relationship between pop music and television would come full circle during the 1980’s with the coming of Music Television (MTV).
Television led to the audiences growing appetite for more visual elements to their entertainment. And the new generation of music educators were part of that audience. Robert “Bob” Hills, vocal clinician and former director of choral ensembles at Eastern Illinois University recalls the growing attitude amongst young directors in the late fifties. “It seemed boring to just stand there.” He further explained, “Here we were doing music that was intended to inspire movement....it seemed silly to just stand there in rows singing.” His view was the same as other young directors at the time.
Richard Jaeger, director of choral activities at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Indiana during the 1950’s remembers putting simple staging, picture changes, step-touch foot patterns and movement combination sequences in his concert for the Indiana Music Educators Association (IMEA) in 1958. “We were going to do a medley from My Fair Lady which included the song, “Ascot Cravat”.... I added staging for the IMEA performance...when we were done I had directors coming up to me saying “What made you do that?”.and I said “I wanted to.” They were shocked. They really felt that I had cheapened choral music.”
The idea of cheapening choral music was becoming a hot-button amongst music educators, and those shocked directors was a foreshadowing as to the chasm that take place over the next forty years between directors of traditional music and directors who incorporate pop music and movement in their concerts. Traditional choral people saw the changing musical styles in the 50’s as a threat classical music. The traditionalist set up camp and in 1959 the American Choral Directors Association was founded.
The 1960’s: Pop Culture and America’s Changing Tastes
Much has been written about the turbulent sixties. The coming of rock and roll, Pop music and long hair alone, resulted in numerous books and studies on the “declining morality of 1960’s youth.” One sixties social theorist wrote that “Rock and roll is the language of Marxist politicians” and that pop music was “a form of lower-class confrontation with the establishment.” Whether or not that theory is true, rock and roll does promote change.
The sixty’s theme was about change. The new generation questioned long standing traditions held by former generations. Human rights became important and a growing commitment for social change was rising on behalf of the younger generation. Freshly graduated music educators, too, were committed to the social reforms of the sixties. One of the first things to change was the use of pop music in music education.
Pop music lyrics became increasingly diverse. Emerging attitudes about everything from politics to sex to drugs was discussed overtly or coded in sixties lyrics. Directors who were part of the pro-swing choir movement became limited in what could be usable material. Most of the published arrangements of sixties Pop were based upon vocal groups that were considered “safe,” The Beach Boys and The Fifth Dimension, for example. Broadway material was always usable since it inherently lent itself towards movement interpretation. Considering the limitations, usable Pop music did flourish throughout the decade.
As popular music became more diverse, beat driven, lyrically aggressive, pop vocalists of the previous generation struggled to make their classically trained voices fit with the current trends. The fit was often a stretch and well known singers whose popularity was slipping released cross over albums featuring remakes of 1950’s rock tunes (imagine easy listening style of Perry Como singing Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”). To effectively perform the new styles, singers had to resort to vocal techniques that were considered wrong by traditional standards.
When approaching pop and rock styles, traditional vocal music teachers incorporated the vocal techniques that carried over from their formal music training (breath support, diction, etc.) and dismissed the rest (growls, breathy phrasing, gluttural attacks, etc.) as simply bad singing. The practice of using traditional vocal techniques to produce pop styles was not yet acceptable. In the 1990’s vocal experts would come to realize that effective pop vocal styling can be taught by applying proper and healthy vocal techniques to produce the desired sound; controlling the amount of air used to produce timbres and use of straight tone or vibrato to obtain specific vocal effects. Some music educators, to add “pop-ish” rhythms and energy to their concerts without resorting to actual pop music, programmed spiritual songs, which were acceptable as “historical choral literature.”
Another important element to music educators in the 60’s was instrumental accompaniment. Unless the song was a slow tempo ballad, piano accompaniment alone did not achieve the driving beat that was essential to performing pop and rock music styles. The new music called for an electric bass and a trap-set if the choral rendition was to sound anything like the original artist recording.
In the 1960’s it became clear to the commercial music industry that there was no longer a general music audience. Music had become diversified and reflective of a more segmented society. The various styles of music emerged and became identified with social class (upper, middle, and lower-middle classes), race, politics (conservative or liberal), morality, and, of course, gender, age, and regional locales. Pop music of the 1960’s became social statements put to melodies.
Realizing the changing tastes and views of music listeners, record companies diversified and marketed their products to fit specific audience segments. The intended audience became an important factor in selling music. Music was tied labeled as black or white, middle-class or poor, northern or southern, urban or rural. Not only did record companies find new ways of marketing music, music educators, too, were challenged to find new ways to present the material if they were to continue to attract and maintain students interests in high school choral programs.
In the choral education field, commitment to 60’s social changes was mixed. Generally speaking, there was the older generation of choral directors, rooted in the traditions of Fred Waring and Robert Shaw, who did not particularly connect with the musical trends of the 1960’s. Then there was the younger generation of freshly graduated choral teachers who wanted to apply their traditional training to what was happening now. On one side were those committed to the tradition, knowledge and fine art of choral singing, while on the other side were those who wanted to apply that tradition, knowledge and art to meet society’s changing musical tastes. It was Fine Artists vs. Commercial Artists. For art schools the subject was hardly a new one.
Traditional choral people see choral music as a way to teach students the beauty of choral art. By introducing students to the works of Handel and Wagner and numerous other contemporary composers, directors reasoned that students would be induced with the unspoken emotional joy that is classical music. There is a disdain for what traditional directors see as a pillaging of the art. Popular artist’s and Broadway composers borrow from classical music to meet commercial success. Audiences are more willing to listen to pop music than classical -- evident by the increase in pop, rock, and alternative radio stations with a marked decline of classical music radio stations. Choral directors who refuse to consider the merits of pop music are merely holding on to strongly held beliefs, while directors who appreciate the value of pop music are simply doing the same. This debate between art and popularity is an old one.
Film scholars have had similar standoffs over art versus entertainment. One such debate happened as early as 1927 when The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, arrived in theaters. It was the first talking motion picture. Hollywood was briefly divided into two camps; Those who thought the idea of a talking picture was a fad and considered it to be vulgar, and those who looked at the idea as futuristic and innovative. Some studios remained committed to making silent films, staying true the art which had become cinema. Scholars and film students, today, still find aesthetic beauty and artistry in French Impressionist and German Expressionist films of the twenties and thirties. The ticket-buying public, however prefers synchronized voices when actors move their mouths. Those studios that were making “talkies” managed to enjoy profitable box office receipts regardless of the film’s artistic merits. Like most audiences, film audiences wanted to be entertained...cinema is artistic, but movies entertain us. Other art forms debate as well.
In dance world there is exist conflict in opinions between classical ballet people and commercial jazz people. Martha Graham came about in the 40’s and challenged long held traditions in classical ballet by dancing barefoot and performing choreography what was earthy and sensual. Traditional dance scholars were appalled saying that Graham’s style lacked technique and was vulgar and cheapened the art of dance. There grew a small army of Graham followers and modern dance was born and was eventually accepted. However, it is the mix of modern dance, Broadway’s production jazz and street dance that has become commercial dance. This is the visually exciting dancing that is commonly seen on television, at theme parks, on cruise ships, in Las Vegas and industrial shows. Commercial dance is popular, entertaining, lucrative and, of course, scorned by dance traditionalist.
The debate between art versus commercial entertainment exists in art schools, as well. Fine artist believe that the purpose of an artistic work is primarily educate that public. The objective of fine art is to show people a new way to think about being human, to perhaps express human feeling in a new way. Fine art is never about making money. It is always about “the art” of making art. On the other hand, commercial art is about survival. Commercial artist have long found natural audiences for their artistic expressions. Their work can be seen primarily in advertising. Everything from Nike ads to Pentium Processors make use of commercial art techniques to sell their products. However, the line between artist who create for the sake of public education and those who create for pay is blurred at times. For example, Norman Rockwell, a commercial artist whose work was seen by millions each month on covers of The Saturday Evening Post (1916-1963) , is considered by many art scholars to be a sellout and not an artist, but a commercial illustrator.
The dichotomy of commercial and fine art exists in theater, as well, where traditional theater actors are suspect and critical of their television and musical theater working peers.
Music educators clashed over merits of jazz music. From early jazz in the 1920’s to modern jazz in the 1960’s, most music educators ignored its existence. In 1928 The American Bandmasters Association (ABA) organized to promote and preserve “quality musical literature for concert bands” amidst the growing public interest in jazz music. There grew a small number of educators in the forties and fifties who saw jazz as a musical adventure worth exploring, but it was not until universities “legitimized” the style in the early sixties that jazz education came about. Classically trained musicians discovered that improvisation could be taught. It came as no surprise that the ABA organization was not supportive of jazz music. After all, the classical music organization was created as a build a barrier against jazz music’s growing influence in American culture. In 1968 a group of teachers created an organization dedicated to promoting and preserving the art of jazz music, the National Association of Jazz Educators (NAJE), which would later become the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE).
The traditions of choral art can be followed all the way from its Greek beginnings to Gregorian chants, from Medieval churches to the Renaissance period, and from the Baroque period through Post-Romanticism. Early choral music was sacred and written primarily for religious ceremonies and the like. This style of traditional choral literature continued to be published all the way into the 1960’s. Classical choral concert literature crosses over easily with church literature because they are primarily one and the same. Performance of traditional choral music today recalls some of the origins of its historical past with ceremonial and formalized moods and robes.
From the beginning, composers wrote music with specific intent for its use. Handel had a specific performance setting in mind when he wrote “The Messiah.” The setting for which a Wagner masterwork is intended to be performed is quite different from that of the setting for a Broadway production number. Performance of pop, rock and show music use a different expressive approach than classical music. Traditionalists argued that choirs were not meant to move, that movement took away from the purity of the musical and lyrical content, and they were right. Movement was rarely, if ever, intended to be an expressive element of classical choral literature. Swing choir pop literature, however, often dictates the need for a visual interpretation. Movement in swing choir is an expressive element used to achieve entertainment value. Swing choirs do not attempt further the traditional concerns of choral art through pop music. Since swing choir was not adding to choral art, traditionalist found no reason to support it. This was one of the controversies that would continue to in choral music education for the next forty years.
Early swing choirs follow the trends and methods of pop culture. By 1969 there were 100 million television sets in homes across the country. Teenagers were tuning in to what was being viewed as a fresh way of presenting music performance.
Music educators who incorporated pop and show music styles in their concerts attracted students. Teenagers would get to perform the very same songs that they were hearing (and seeing) on television. Adding movement to the choral performances seemed natural and television was providing the model. Pop music publishing, swing choir staging and later, show choir production would continue to follow the entertainment trends of television and film.
Many of the 1950’s television programs were still on the air in the 1960’s. Movement, staging and dance became basic to successful TV producing. Television’s popularity was high with some of the new shows: The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78) featuring The Ernie Flatt Dancers and The Dean Martin Show (1964-74) featuring The Gold Diggers. Music educators from the 60’s recall other influences as well, Mitch Miller, The King Family, Hootin Nanny, The Mickey Mouse Club and The Lawrence Welk Show.
Fred Waring, meanwhile, was aware of the effects of television on the country’s musical tastes. By the mid-sixties, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians were still touring the country. During this time, a new Waring group was created. The Young Pennsylvanians were a contemporary ensemble made up of twenty-somethings which would later be called Today’s Pennsylvanians. The group consisted of 8 to 10 singers who performed Top Forty hits, contemporary country and easy listening music. One popular portion of their show featured a medley television commercial jingles. The Young Pennsylvanians were true to Waring’s focus on lyrics and singing. Staging was done, but not emphasized. Meanwhile, competition for Waring’s audience was making way in television.
In 1968, The Lawrence Welk Show was a thriving success. Sandy Griffith, a singer for twelve years on the show recalls, “Lawrence always programmed music that was upbeat, positive, patriotic and conservative.” Furthermore, she said that he hired the best studio musicians in LA and focused on simplicity above all else. Like Waring, Welk chose material that was popular, American standards, Broadway hits, romantic ballads and folks songs. Sandy remembers that “audiences absolutely loved him” and that he was “real down to earth.” To understand the success of Lawrence Welk one has only to compare him to Fred Waring.
While Fred Waring’s television program lasted for only six and a half years, Lawrence Welk’s show ran from 1955 (the year Waring departed from television) to 1971. The two band leaders had distinctly different philosophies on presenting popular music.
Welk’s ensembles performed songs that were arranged to be taught quickly for television tapings, with emphasis on unison, two-part and sometimes three-part choral writing. Waring’s groups performed songs that were lushly orchestrated with emphasis on musical colors and textures and often, four and six-part complex choral writing.
The Welk show commonly used pre-recorded soundtracks to which performers (singers and instrumentalists) might lip-synch or play to, thus allowing for quick post-production editing and greater performer communication with the camera. In contrast, Waring’s television show was performed live with the music memorized, thus allowing him greater control over musical phrasing and interpretation.
The Welk Show was videotaped using static camera shots; Close-ups, pans and group shots. The Waring Show was filmed using dolly and (motion picture style production) crane or boom shots to follow the movement of the show’s featured dancers and create internal movement within the frame.
Welk hired top musicians and insisted that they “make it simple.” Waring hired top musicians and insisted that they be challenged.
Both men were both successful, dedicated and very different from one another. Welk operated within the growing commercial music business as related to television, while Waring found solace in the traditional style of commercial music as related to choral art.
The success of The Lawrence Welk Show was based upon keeping the musical content elementary. Welk’s streamlining resulted in his producing a manageable show that would last for many years. Conversely, Waring’s refusal to simplify his music and high production values resulted in his tiring of television. Interestingly, former Pennsylvanians can often pin point the Waring inspired origins of Welk’s themes and musical programming choices. Peter Keifer, coordinator of Fred Waring’s America at Penn State recalls, “Welk was always using Waring’s songs, ... different orchestrations, but programmed in same performance order.” Regardless from where Welk got his ideas, it was Welk’s commercial and modified use of Waring’s traditional methods that appealed to television audiences and allowed him to bring his music to millions of viewers for 16 years. The show still airs in syndication today.
Waring’s influence appeared in university settings as well. The earliest was at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. The Bells of Indiana, an all-female ensemble directed by Eugene Bayless was followed by The Singing Hoosiers which began in 1950 under the direction of George Krueger. In the style of Waring, these were pop music ensembles that performed in a semi-traditional manner: no movement only picture changes. This was a one hundred member ensemble that later broke into a 44 member touring group, and later a 12-14 member varsity group that did movement in front of the touring group. Robert Stoll, professor of Performance and Conducting at IU, became director of The Hoosiers in 1963. The group focused on choral singing, but took on more staging and use of Broadway music under Stoll’s direction.
In 1962, The Young Americans were founded in Los Angeles by Milton C. Anderson, a former music supervisor for CBS-TV. This college aged group performed a variety of choreographed pop and show music throughout Southern California, neighboring states and abroad. Consequently, Southern California became a hub of high school swing choir activity, especially in surrounding Los Angeles area, while The Singing Hoosiers, spawned the growth of swing choir in the Midwest. Other neighboring states, too, had college show groups: Illinois had the Western Illinois University Collegians, Ohio had Scarlet and Gray. It was another Indiana school however, that would become heavily involved in the 1960’s swing choir movement.
In the fall of 1964 Donald Neuen, today a well-known conductor and Professor of Chorus and Orchestra at UCLA, joined the faculty of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. In 1965 he started The Ball State Singers, a group of 24 singers that featured elements that were cutting edge to college groups at the time. Don Neuen used amplification and 5 microphones, a full instrumental rhythm section, and like Waring, performers who doubled as instrumentalists. While the ensemble was not choreographed, the performers moved with more freedom than previous college pop choral ensembles. Donald Neuen and John Clark, his accompanist would leave Ball State after two years to form another group in Wisconsin.
The Ball State Singers kept their style of performance throughout the 70’s, but took a new direction under the direction of Larry Boye, former Associate Professor of Music Emeritus in Music Performance in the early 80’s. The Ball State Singers became a fully choreographed show group. Boye, coming from a background of producing shows and parades for Disney theme parks, brought his production techniques to Ball State. Aware that the group’s primary role, at that time, was to act as a recruitment tool for the university, Boye made the group entertaining above all else.
By 1985, Boye’s final year at Ball State, The Ball State Singers experienced controversy as they eliminated choral singing from portions of the show. The Singers became a commercial style production show featuring a large platform set, costume changes, and pre-recorded vocal click-tracks. Only the solos, small groups, and instruments performed live. Traditional choral people were not impressed. Students who performed with The Ball State Singers under Boye’s reign learned many aspects of professional show business, but traditional choral art was not one them.
Meanwhile, Don Neuen and John Clark helped to found The Wisconsin Singers at the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1967. Neuen recalls, “I did not conduct... I did not want to get between the performers and the audience...I wanted more show!” He said, “my emphasis was on great singing and great communication!” This combination of singing and communication would become basic elements to excellence in show choirs over the next 30 years
Wisconsin was home to another influential show ensemble. The Kids From Wisconsin was created in 1969, under the musical direction of Col. Mark Azzolina, former conductor for Bob Hope. John Clark made another jump to act as the group’s choral director. The Kids From Wisconsin was sponsored by the Wisconsin State Fair rather than a university. From the start, The Kids used Lawrence Welk arrangements, a sound system and full instrumental ensemble.
Meanwhile, from the Pacific Northwest came the Northwest Swing Choir Festival, the country’s first festival for swing choirs. Hal Malcolm, former Director of Choral Activities at Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon, started the festival in 1968. “I wanted to have a festival that showcased vocal jazz music,” Malcolm recalls. “But we could not use the word jazz in any kind of educational curriculum or event.” Malcolm remembers that the word competition was also forbidden at the time. “So I called it the Northwest Swing Choir Festival...with the word swing replacing jazz.”
The Northwest festival was a contest event, to be sure. The contest adjudication sheet that Malcolm created was inspired by the Nation Association of Jazz Educators (NAJE) criteria used for instrumental performance. Directors could choose to receive comments only or be judged for ranking, in which case a winner was declared. Competing groups typically performed three songs, two staged and one stand-and-sing number.
From the beginning, Hal Malcolm decided not to include staging and movement categories on the judging sheets. He remembers, “I wanted the [festival] to be dedicated strictly to good vocal jazz ensemble singing...choirs moved, but there were no points for it.” The Northwest Swing Choir Festival was created as a jazz music event. Pop and show music was commonly performed however, because few directors knew enough about jazz literature in 1968. For example, at the first Northwest festival, students from Fife High School in Tacoma, WA performed a program made up of “Give A Little Whistle,” “People,” and “Side By Side,” all Broadway music. And according to comments on the group’s adjudication sheet, “too much emphasis on staging” helped them elude the winner slot. It was Malcolm’s involvement with another festival, however, that would become the forerunner of today’s show choir festivals.
Dr. John Carrico, Head of Instrumental Music at the University of Nevada Reno had adjudicated Hal Malcolm’s swing choir festival and asked Malcolm to help him start a similar choral event in Reno, and in 1971 Carrico founded The Reno Jazz Festival. The Reno festival was different than Malcolm’s Oregon in one specific area -- the adjudication categories. In Reno, a group could compete in either of two divisions: Show-Pop or Vocal Jazz. The festival used two separate adjudication sheets, one for vocal jazz groups and one for pop ensembles. Both adjudication forms were based upon the NAJE criteria for instrumental music, but the Show-Pop sheet featured categories for staging and choreography.
Groups that added a visual element were a hit with audiences. Malcolm recalls, “the first year in Reno, vocal jazz groups and Show-Pop groups performed on the same stage back-to-back...audiences went wild when the show-pop groups performed...talented vocal jazz groups would come out and sing six-part arrangements and get just a polite applause.” The two styles of performance ensembles contrasted not only in that they required different adjudication sheets, but hat they attracted separate audiences, as well.
The following year, Carrico and Malcolm changed the festival format with Vocal Jazz groups performing at one site and Show-Pop groups at another. Directors liked the separation and sometimes brought separate groups or a single group that would perform at both venues. In 1972 Malcolm and Carrico realized something that the ACDA would not learn for another thirty years: show choirs and vocal jazz ensembles are intrinsically different genres that require different performance disciplines.
The 1970’s: Swing Choir Festivals
The 1970’s was significant to the growth of swing choir in several ways; dancing was in vogue, swing choir became show choir and competitions and festivals became the primary place choral educators went to learn about show choir. Some of the important influences that occurred in the seventies:
· In 1971, Walt Disney World Florida opens. Visitors to the park can see colorful family entertainment in the form of theme park shows. The Magic Kingdom features hourly singer/dancer performances by The Kids of the Kingdom.
· A Chorus Line April, 1975. Director/Choreographer Michael Bennett creates a concept musical about 18 singer/dancers who audition for a Broadway show. With minimal sets and costumes, the musical goes on to make Broadway history closing 15 years later after a record 6,137 performances. The show’s closing number becomes the quintessential theatrical production show finale.
· In 1975 Hal Leonard Publishing Company published colorfully packaged full arrangement packs specifically for Show Choir.
· JVC launched Video Home System (VHS) machines and tapes, 1976. VHS allowed viewers to record and playback televised programs at their leisure. VHS tapes would eventually lead to the multi-million dollar home video market, which spawned the re-release of numerous Hollywood musical productions for home rental. Educators suddenly had access to filmed choreography examples that were previously unavailable.
· John Travolta sets the country to dancing with the 1977 Paramount Pictures release of Saturday Night Fever. The film catches the public’s attention, becoming the top-grossing film of the year. Learning disco dance steps become popular with many age groups.
· Television introduces Pop vocal groups The Jackson Five and The Osmonds, and later, The Donnie and Marie Osmond Show which featured singing/dancing performances that was essentially show choir choreography.
Broadway, television and pop music’s influence on music education was inevitable. And with the coming of VHS technology, students, choral directors and choreographers would soon be able to experience over and over again, the musical productions of Broadway and Hollywood choreographers: Gower Champion, Bob Fosse, Jack Cole, Michael Kidd and Agnus DeMille -- all masters at creating theatrical dance which is often designed for singing.
The foremost school of show choir education however, appeared in Fort Wayne, Indiana under the direction a catholic friar named Father Fred Link. The Bishop Luers High School Swing Choir Contest was started by Father Fred, as his friends and students call him. “I saw what was available for marching bands...I saw the excitement it created for students and audiences, alike...I thought ‘there should be something like this for swing choirs.” Father Link’s was vaguely familiar with the Northwest Swing Choir Festival, but he had a different vision of what the a show choir festival might be. The Oregon festival focused on vocal jazz ensembles, the Reno Festival had Vocal Jazz and Show-Pop, but the Bishop Luers contest was strictly about show choir, staging, choreography, costumes, and production.
The Bishop Luers competition can be credited with creating the format from which dozens of other competitions would copy. Traditional and jazz choral events existed, but here was a new venue, a showplace for choral groups to perform pop, rock, Broadway, country and jazz music. Furthermore, dynamic staging was not only allowed, it was encouraged.
Aware that some audience members might not know just what a swing choir is, Father Fred wrote an introduction for the 1975 contest program:
“WHAT IS A SWING CHOIR? As you will discover tonight, it is many things. There are as many varieties of swing choirs as there are directors. Perhaps the simplest definition of a swing choir is that it is a “choir that swings.” This description has two parts. The first is the most basic, and each group shares this in common. The group is a choir. This means that the members sing together, usually in harmony; and if it’s a good choir, the different voiced are balanced, rhythmically together, expressive, etc. You can see what is expected of a good choir by looking at the different categories on the judging sheet contained in this program. The second element of the description is that the choir “swings.” This is where the variety comes in. For most groups this implies singing a “lighter” type of music, music conducive to movement and special accompaniment. Along with the piano or organ, most swing choirs add rhythm and bass guitar and some percussion to their accompaniment. Some directors use extensive choreography, dance routines, special lighting effects and other show stopping techniques. Other directors choose to have their groups sing in a more formal way, concentrating on winning their audiences with good vocal production and very simple movement. Each is valid if done well.”
The contest was an instant hit and word spread fast. The news was quickened by television. By the second year (1976) WBGU-TV from Bowling Green, Ohio televised an edited version of the contest throughout the Midwest. By 1982, the Luers competition was aired in all 50 states. And by 1985, the 10th Annual Luers broadcasts won national recognition from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and was chosen to represent United States public television abroad. The contest was aired in the Soviet Union and met with wide acclaim from Russian television viewers.
Bishop Luers winners set new standards for swing choirs. The results, singing and dancing ability of groups became increasingly better with each year. Staging went from simple step-touch patterns to all out production jazz dance steps and tricks and lifts. To be successful at Luers, groups demonstrate skill in five areas: singing, playing (instrumental accompaniment), movement, showmanship and general effect (transitions, pacing, and show design). Luers required a balanced theatrical package made up several performance disciplines. Groups who were named Grand Champion of Luers received a six foot tall trophy and enjoyed a certain prestige in the show choir world. All in all, the ensembles who succeeded at Bishop Luers taught the show choir world new ways to view choral performance.
Ron Hellems, director of the Carmel Ambassadors, in an interview with WBGU-TV said “To win at Bishop Luers is to win anywhere.” Because the contest was televised, directors and their groups became “stars” not only amongst their peers, but in their communities and nationwide, as well. By the mid-eighties Bishop Luers was the most prestigious event of its kind.
The number of show choir competitions increased in popularity throughout the following decade. Competitions filled several needs that were not being met by traditional music concerts. First, show choir contests were learning grounds where ensembles could perform before a critical panel of judges and be critiqued on the vocal and dance and instrumental aspects of their shows. Secondly, show choir contests were thrilling for audiences, so attendance was usually high. Through ticket and program sales, concessions and souvenirs, contest hosting schools and parent booster groups found that the events were excellent fund-raisers. And finally, show choir competitions became akin to sports events with teams, fans, uniforms, strategic and creative plays, fumbling and recovery, player entrances and exits, risk, points, and even an annual season which ran from January to April.
By the end of the next decade, show choir directors would become full fledged show producers, hiring out most of the show’s elements: choreographers, arrangers, costumers, travel companies, and set building dads. By departmentalizing the major show elements, directors could tend to any signs of ailing vocal production Thus, in the eighties, show choir becomes an expensive ensemble to operate.
The 1980’s:Choreography and Staging
Driven by Bishop Luers success, other contests sprung up around the country with the majority being in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Some high school choral directors saw show choir as a way to attract students to their traditional choral programs, making membership in concert choir the prerequisite for getting in the show group. Smaller choral departments simply combined the groups so that the concert choir did traditional literature as well as pop and movement. This bait tactic was vastly successful. Students who might not have joined choir otherwise, were drawn by the music they recognized.
However, controversy began when some directors abandoned traditional music literature all-together and challenged their students primarily with Pop and Broadway music. While some students and communities were happy with the results, traditionalist were quick to condemn show choir as the ruination of music education. Many choral music educators were concerned that show choir would turn choir into movement/performance discipline rather than a singing discipline. Whereas show choirs were meant to attract students to traditional music, there was fear that show choirs were by-passing traditional choral art and simply becoming disciplines unto themselves -- the tail wagging the dog. Choral purists had a valid argument. Even though the Luers contest showcased some outstanding groups, there were only a few directors who actually understood how to achieve a professional balance between the elements of vocal, instrumental and dance. The majority of show choirs popping up around the country were struggling to figure it out.
Few directors knew anything about staging or directing an instrumental ensemble. Colleges were not teaching these skills. Universities trained vocal music educators only in classical voice and choral conducting, leaving very few graduates prepared for the vocal challenges that pop and show (commercial music) production required. Trial and error may have lead some directors to figure out how to adjust their classical training to pop diction, but directors’ lack of commercial music knowledge became obvious when percussion, electronic instruments, microphones and choreography were added to the mix.
Directors often simply guessed their way through. They stumbled around and often got the balance of voice, instruments and visual elements askew. Unstructured, illogical and/or obstructive staging was common. Audiences could barely understand lyrics due to muddy and incomprehensible (densely scored) instrumental accompaniments and poorly written arrangements. And changing from traditional choral robes and tuxedos to contemporary costuming resulted in all forms of fashion assault. With so many new elements to manage, the quality of vocal production often times slid towards mediocrity. Directors let the “tail wag the dog.” Regardless of the strong performance traditions coming out of Bishop Luers, it was the growing mass of stumbling directors that fueled the traditionalist view that show choir was fad that was detrimental to choral music education.
Meanwhile, the 80’s brought with it television programs that provided hope to the show choir movement. Educators watched weekly television for ideas. Popular shows of the 80’s include,
· Solid Gold (1980-1988), a Top 40 weekly show featuring the Solid Gold Dancers.
· The Tracy Ullman Show (1987-1989) featuring weekly production numbers choreographed by Paula Abdul, who would later become famous for her innovative movement style
· Black Entertainment Television (BET) (1980 to present) a twenty-four hour music program featuring R & B style music videos which included a variety of urban dance styles; Hip Hop, Funk/Groove and Street (a dynamic dance club style defined as punchy, quirky, and “groovy”)
Mostly, however, it was Music Television (MTV) (1980 to present), that would influence show choir choreography trends for the next twenty years.
Between 1980 and 2000, MTV aired over 19,000 music videos. Most of which featured choreographed lip-synching artist with dancers and cinematic interpretations of lyrics. Filmed dance and choreography was presented in new ways. Mainstream movies such as Flashdance (1983) and Staying Alive (1983) took on the style and look of MTV’s quick cut editing. Pop star, Michael Jackson’s 14 minute video “Thriller” set new standards for production and commercial choreography. Other milestones included Jackson’s “Beat It” and Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation”. MTV and its sister Pop music program VH1, today remain the primary sources for the latest trends in commercial choreography.
During the 1980’s, choral directors demand for staging education grew. The old Fred Waring style of swaying and only changing positions every now and then was not enough. Several staging experts emerged to fill the need. John Jacobson, choreographer and author for Hal Leonard Publications published numerous staging books, videos and written notes on staging and choreography. Sally Albretch, choreographer, author and composer for Alfred Publishing, also published staging booklets and notes. Albretch and Jacobson flew from choral conventions to reading sessions across the country to sharing their knowledge of movement and staging. It was the competition circuit however, that produced one of show choir’s most prolific choreographers.
Dwight Jordan began his career in 1978 as a high school band director at in Mt. Zion, Illinois. He got involved in choreography as more of a challenge than a vocation. Jordan’s annual schedule is packed with a variety of show related activities including directing and developing entertainment for Six Flags Parks and live show venues in Branson, Missouri. He is best known in the choral world as co-founder of Showchoir Camps of America, the country’s leading summer program for choral staging and show choir techniques. Since the early eighties, Jordan’s work as a choreographer has helped to define a presentational and dynamic style of ensemble dancing that marries vocal production.
Jordan has made considerable effort to address the concerns of traditional choral people who believe that movement and choral singing do not go together. Their argument is two-fold. First, singers cannot move and sing correctly at the same time and secondly, movement distracts from the music. Responding to the criticism that movement takes away from singing, Jordan points out, “If you actually look at what is going on....I [only put] dance in the holes.” To describe the Jordan’s choreography, the singing and dancing do not often mix. When lyrics are important, Jordan keeps the movement to a minimum, employing the use of step touches, swaying, ball-changes, generally low energy foot movement. However, when the lyrical phrase ends and the instruments take over, Jordan creates a whirlwind of upper-body movements: spins, jumps, partnering steps and arm extensions. Indeed, this technique of has become the primary way in which show choir productions balance vocal, instrumental, and visual elements.
Staging and choreography is what defined the show choirs from other choral music ensembles. In the 80’s, show choir productions incorporated the show production methods of theme parks: costume changes, special effects (use of foggers and CO2 blasts), backdrops and large props. Making all these elements and approximately 60 people (40 singer/dancers, tech crew members and instrumentalist) operate coherently in a 40 by 40 foot playing area takes ingenuity and planning. Directors and choreographers were challenged to create within the given the perimeters. Space was needed to choreograph 40 people. The traditional three step choral risers hindered forward and backward foot movement and proved insufficient, a different type of platform was needed.
In 1980, the Wenger Corporation, makers of staging platforms for professional and educational markets knew that show choir was growing. Their sales of 4x8 foot stage platforms were suddenly climbing to new levels. Responding to this growing market, the company created the Encore Staging System: a set of wooden triangular platforms of varying heights that could be formed into geometrically interesting shapes. The system included an optional sound (mixer, mics, and speakers) and lighting package. However, even this Encore System did not prove durable or spacious enough for the ever-growing demands of singing-dancing groups. In 1988, Wenger introduced Versalite to their offerings and Wenger’s educational division was quick to realize that the lighter, more flexible platforms were suitable for their show choir customers.
In an interview, Elizabeth Haak, Product Manager for Wenger’s Versalite product said that show choir customers were requesting levels and dance space, and the old “beefed up folding table” type platforms were too heavy and cumbersome. She recalls, “(with Versalite) a group’s choreography is not limited by the platforms...directors can build platform formations that compliment the staging.” Haak also admits that anytime she wants to road test new improvements to the Versalite products, she calls a show choir. She said, “Show choirs are very tough on our products. Twenty-four kids dancing is a large load ... if our platforms can pass the show choir test... well, we’ve accomplished something.” To be sure, Versalite platforms are among the most widely used staging equipment today.
Several industries were effected by the growing interest in show choir in the 80’s. Show apparel and costume companies produced glossy catalogs of their costume designs and travel companies lined up competition venues in destination cities from Orlando to Hawaii. Photographers, video, light and sound companies competed for the jobs of capturing “the excitement” of weekend competitions, national festivals and summer camps, show choir workshops and reading sessions appeared around the country, and music publishers saw a growth in demand for pop and show choral arrangements.
During the 80’s, Hal Leonard Corporation came to dominate the market for choral music education. The company supplied current pop and Broadway arrangements as well as their own original titles, all arranged by one of the companies staff or contracted writers. Leonard’s select mix of pop song titles and marketing savvy has made the Emerson, Shaw, Lojeski, Billingsley and Brymer household names in music education. Beyond the work of arrangers, writers, and editors, Hal Leonard’s publishing operations are run by a bottom-line driven management team.
In an interview, Emily Crocker, Vice President of Choral Publications for Hal Leonard Corporation said that there are primarily two markets for the Leonard’s choral titles. There are directors who want highly complex arrangements that are written for staging, and who are willing to spend considerable time and money, and then there are directors who focus on volume, performing a variety of literature from sacred to pop to madrigal to jazz and/or secular music. Hal Leonard markets to the latter of the two markets.
Despite the growth of pop and show music titles in the 80’s, Crocker admits that Leonard’s concert titles has increased more than choral pop and show publishing in during the late-90’s. Crocker says that today’s pop music offers less material from which educational publishers can pull from. Indeed, during the eighties, Hal Leonard along with other major choral publishers constantly revived songs from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. The big selling song titles in the eighties came from movie soundtracks and Broadway. Much of today’s pop music, Crocker points out, is electronically beat driven, lyrically inappropriate, and/or lacks strong melodies for creating choral harmonies. Leonard is not alone in meeting the challenges of today’s music. Warner Bros. Publishing, too, struggles to make current music usable for the educational choral music markets.
The 1990’s:Pop Music and Show Choir
Music of the 1990’s, became more challenging due to the new technologies in digital recording. With the assistance of digital editing, sampling, and digital signal processors, record producers could create technically sophisticated recordings that would be impossible to perform live. Prior to the 90’s the recording industry’s producers of pop and rock were concerned with capturing the “excitement of live performance” when making recordings. During the 90’s however, pop recordings became concerned more with technical perfection and high quality production value. One trend in the industry was to speed up the final release mix of the recording to give it an “edgier, hotter feel.” Because pop music was increasingly being designed for the studio rather than the stage, pop artists were challenged when taking their hit recordings on the road. Fans and concert goers commonly noticed the simplifying that sometimes occurred in live pop performance. Publishers and choral directors were challenged, as well to recreate that “edgier, hotter feel” while performing pop choral arrangements.
During the 90’s, music educators came to expect studio quality rehearsal/demo recordings. Choral Pop demos that match the excitement and flavor of the original artist’s recordings, however, often did not fall well within the natural vocal registers of teenage singers. What may sound great for brass instruments may sound weak when sung by anyone other than the professional singers on the demo recording. Choral publishers today complain that there is not enough usable material being written that translates well for pop choral arrangements and tend to steer clear of all except for the obvious cross-over song titles.
Directors and choreographers who work in the competition area of show choir disagree with the notion of today’s music being unusable. With harmony-oriented “boy bands” and pop artists dancing more than ever, today’s pop music offers plenty of suitable material to choose from. Due to lyrical content, there are songs that must be passed over, but melody, harmony, rhythm, and “hooks” still remain to be the key elements for making pop songs that sell. The challenge is arranging the material to allow for vocal integrity, while maintaining the modern style of the music.
Publishing companies generally create song arrangements based on the original artist’s recording with adjustments made for ad lib vocal styling (which do not transfer well for a 30 member chorus). The custom arrangements used in competition have to meet the needs of choral vocal production as well as instrumental and visual production. Directors who commission such arrangements know that the material will be scrutinized by judges, so there is extra effort to make the orchestrations and choral writing impressive.
The typical contest arrangement may involve two or three key changes, fast moving horn riffs, instrumental features (dance breaks), electronic special effects (synthesizers) and/or special auxiliary percussion. Pop and show choral arrangements strive for a satisfying balance between singing and instrumental features for dancing. Directors who attend competitions also wish to be original and innovative, so using published stock arrangements does not offer the exclusivity that competing directors demand.
Hal Leonard does not try to meet the needs of competition show choir. The high end of the competition market is a niche that spends considerable time rehearsing complex production numbers and intentionally strives for originality and complexity. The mass choral market, on the other hand, is more eclectic. Leonard’s success comes from catering to directors who need music for a variety of different ensembles. Leonard’s customer may buy music for a concert choir, a freshman choir, an SSA and/or TTBB choir, a madrigal or chamber chorus, as well as a pop or jazz choir. In any case, rehearsal time and funding is spread across several ensembles, making complex (time consuming) competition-level arrangements impractical. Furthermore, state-run organizational contests select contest literature annually and sacred or secular traditional choral adjudicators are not concerned with originality or innovation.
Simplified pop and show choral arrangements from publishers helped to create a stereotype that shows choirs are musically inept. When asked about Hal Leonard’s straight forward style of pop arranging, Crocker said “The majority of the market for show music wants arrangements that sound good, are quick to teach (with a rehearsal/performance soundtrack) and are easy to program... and that the students will like.” Crocker admits that the level of difficulty has decreased, “Eighth graders, twenty years ago would be singing more challenging music.” She summed up her thoughts with “Whenever we publish something a bit challenging it doesn’t sell...through the numbers, directors tell us that they want simpler, easy to teach, popular, recognizable songs that will prove successful with audiences and school administrations.”
Throughout the 1980’s to the present, publishers responding to mass market sales have helped to create the controversy surrounding the integrity of show choir music. Richard Jeager, a former high school director from Indiana who entered music education in the 1950’s, now retired, draws the conclusion, “today’s show choirs are very good at singing in glorious one part harmony!” He added, “Kids today are more interested in movement than in singing.” It is no surprise that many traditional choral educators feel the same way. And they are right. Society has become increasingly visual and students are interested in movement.
Directors who wanted to do more sophisticated pop and show literature that students could move to, reached for long out-of-print copies in their libraries, adapted Broadway musical scores or arranged material themselves. Interestingly, it has been a compounding of social factors that proved most responsible for the simplifying of pop and show choral publications.
Linda Snyder, a high school choral director from Martinsburg, West Virginia, postulated that it was the coming of the middle school concept that caused music teachers to need simpler music. Middle school students receive choral music only briefly during the exploratory period from 6th through 8th grade. Students are introduced to liberal arts from drama to music to art, computer tech and shop. Snyder also said that in middle school, often times, the choral department serves as a “dumping ground” for students who are not necessarily interested in music. Using simpler music is necessary to let them be successful quickly. In contrast, students with instruments can take band classes throughout the entire middle school level, a policy based upon the idea that anyone can be taught to sing, but learning to play an instrument takes longer.
Ed Lojeski knows about the social factors associated with choral publications. Lojeski has personally published over 1200 of Hal Leonard’s choral titles. He began his career as a musical conductor for Johnny Mathis and The Lettermans and moved to teaching in 1964. Lojeski began arranging popular songs for his choirs as a way to attract students to his program. He was the first composer/arranger to develop choral octavos that contained separate bass and drum parts for rhythm section. Due to the their sing-ability, Lojeski’s arrangements have been consistent best sellers for Leonard’s educational publishing division for over thirty years.
Lojeski describes his goals as an arranger, “If my arrangements were ever simple or repetitive, that’s ok. I never tried to impress anyone with my cleverness...it was always more about the educational value.” Lojeski agrees that choral pop and show music publications today are simpler than earlier publications. The reasons, he says, are multi-layered, “Budget cuts in school arts and music programs have lead to administrations hiring choral directors who might also teach band or other subjects...the more teachers are stretched beyond their subject, the music has to become simpler to accommodate volume instead of quality or complexity.” Lojeski adds, “The level of newly graduating music educators has changed...reading rhythms, musical phrasing, interpretation and sight reading...these things aren’t as strong as they were thirty years ago.”
Another of Hal Leonard’s contracted writer/arrangers, Mac Huff began his career writing for staged productions. “What’s going on visually, is always in mind when I write,” says Huff. He estimates that only about five percent of the choral market is concerned that today’s choral publications are too simple. Huff agrees that music educators are constantly pushed for rehearsal time. Easy-to-learn arrangements are more practical when there is no time and a lot of material to teach. Huff contends that regardless of the simplicity of the material, arrangers want to believe that their work still maintains a certain level of integrity. He points out that it is harder to arrange economically, than it is write with no-holds barred and hope performers can handle the demands of the chart.
If directors want harder music, Huff says, “...the more difficult arrangements are out there. Of twenty-five arrangements I do each year, two or three I would consider demanding.” He adds, “The choral market doesn’t hear of the harder pieces because distributors don’t promote them...and distributors don’t promote them because they don’t sell in large numbers.” According to Mac Huff, Ed Lojeski and Emily Crocker, the publishing business is strictly market driven, “If directors want more challenging arrangements, buy the ones that appear. If those types of arrangements are not bought, the supply will dry up.”
Publishers strive to give show and pop arrangements a more sophisticated sound by producing high quality accompaniment tracks. Although rehearsal/demo tracks are primarily used to attract distributors and choral directors at reading sessions, the tracks have become important to choral programs at smaller schools. Hal Leonard’s Showtrax tapes and CD’s allow directors from limited talent pools to have professional sounding accompaniment for their concerts. These recordings, produced with professional studio players, add production value that would not otherwise be available. With the push of a button, directors can have orchestral strings, a full brass section, tympani and percussive effects, always in tune and ready to rehearse. Always bottom-line driven, producers publishers demo/rehearsal CD’s give each recording the WISMac test. WISMaC is a studio lingo acronym for Will It Sell More Copies.
2000: Show Choir Matures
The American Choral Directors Association’s attitude on show choir has, over the years, been more tolerant if it hasn’t always been kind. Diana Spradling, the current National Chair for Jazz and Show Choirs, has been appointed to act as liaison between music educators and the ACDA. She has formed a repertoire and standards committee to help bring the organization up to speed with trends happening in music education, jazz ensembles and show choir. The organization has yet to create a mission statement as to show choir or jazz choir fits into the ACDA’s vision. Spradling’s job is to help the organization see that vision. Today, Show choir is the only high school choral ensemble for which the ACDA has no criteria for excellence. Spradling is trying to change that, as well. There is a bigger problem, however, that Spradling will have to tackle if she is to bring the organization up to date.
Choral directors who head show choir ensembles believe that the ACDA lacks basic understanding of the medium, a belief supported by the organization’s lumping of vocal jazz and show choirs together. Schools who have show choirs do not usually have vocal jazz ensembles, and vice versa.
Vocal jazz, in the purest sense, is about harmonic singing, improvisation and syncopated rhythms. The genre uses musical arrangements (at times a capella) that primarily serve to demonstrate the abilities of the performer’s vocal skills. It also uses swing and show tune standards featuring II-V-I chord progressions that are conducive for improvising over. A vocal jazz ensemble might sway or step touch, or perhaps add minimal movement to communicate a point, but rarely will the performers step away from the microphones or perform dance steps. It is possible to describe the style further by going into esoteric explanations of emotion and feeling that is created jazz choral writing, the reason for musical inflections and the various style techniques of close micing. But for the purposes of this writing, vocal jazz is about standing and singing.
Show choir, too, is about singing. After that, the ensembles take opposite routes to reach their goals. Besides using pop, rock, and Broadway arrangements, show choirs rarely use vocal improvisation. Show choir borrows from theater to use improvisational acting as a means to communicate lyrical ideas and/or character. Show choir draws from other non-vocal disciplines, as well. Namely, orchestrations designed for dance presentation and instrumental features that are created to be interpreted through choreography. Furthermore, show choirs require platforms and space for staging and the ensemble may use colorful themes, sets, costumes, and props to create visual spectacle.
Show choirs unique incorporation of non-musical elements and primary use of pop music and Broadway arrangements is what confounds the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA). The organization is currently not equipped to deal with show choir’s main elements.
The American Choral Directors Association’s website, www.acdaonline.org, is making an effort to meet the interests of its members who direct show choirs. The site does offer a link entitled, “Jazz and Show Choirs,” but unlike the other choral ensembles which the ACDA recognizes, the “Jazz and Show Choirs” page offers no information, no mission statement, nothing except an apology for being “under development.” And while there is a link entitled “About the ACDA,” which describes the organization’s mission and its members by listing every type of choral ensemble imaginable, there is no mention of show choirs. Despite the website’s emptiness, the ACDA can claim credit for the fact that a page for jazz and show choirs even exists at all, and as such, is a step towards meeting members needs.
Arguably, the ACDA was founded in 1959 as a response to pop and show interests that was creeping into choral music. The organization’s origin was dedicated to the preservation and education of classical choral music. To embrace, support, and encourage show choirs and the performance of pop music is intrinsically against everything the ACDA was created to do. The ACDA is a fine arts organization that continues to fight to make classical choral music relevant and meaningful in an ever-changing world where commercial music dominates public tastes. The organization is a necessary gate keeper against the ever-growing onslaught of pop music and trends in arts programs downsizing.
Such dedication to classical choral music does not mean that the organization is stuck in a rut or somehow out of touch with today’s music. Far from it. The ACDA is aware of the world’s changing music cultures and has opened the eyes of American music educators to it, as well. Since the 1960’s social changes, the organization has brought multi-cultural and ethnic music to education and thus helped to meet the diverse needs of choral teachers and their communities. The organization is responsible for introducing to American audiences thousands of songs, from traditional to current, from Brazilian secular music to African nature songs, from Jewish wedding songs to Russian and Spanish folk songs.
Creating an organization, such as the ACDA, for the preservation of fine art is necessary for passing on historical knowledge and the tradition of art. Fine artists have never concerned themselves with popularity, entertainment, or profit. Fine arts mediums, everything from music to sculpture, normally make only enough money to sustain their own pursuit. Fine arts has traditionally been used to beautify society, and to portray the dramas of heaven and earth. Pop art, on the other hand, falls within the definition of the commercial medium, which intentionally seeks to appeal to the masses, make money (of course), and, seemingly, to alienate the traditionalists.
Show choir is a commercial-style vehicle that uses the techniques and methods of tradition choral art to educate and to entertain. To accomplish these goals, show choir borrows from the fine arts of theater and dance, arguably, to the same extent as it borrows from choral singing. By 2000, show choir has become a hybrid pop ensemble that bares little comparison to its origin of performing sacred literature in robes. Show choir’s educational value comes from its application of commercial theater and commercial music disciplines. And fine arts and commercial arts depend upon each other to exist. To concentrate on the beauty and aesthetics of musical art, as traditional musical education does, and to forget how it applies to the modern world, is like looking at a field and not noticing the horizon.
Show choir has graduated many successful performers and professionals working in the commercial music industry today: Heather Headley (Lion King, Ragtime and Aida), Lance Bass (N’Synch), Sarah Litzsinger (Beauty and The Beast), Ben Wright (Into The Woods), Larry Rabin (Forever Plaid), Andi and Rich Taylor (Disney), to name but a few. Traditional choral singing certainly played a part in their success stories, but it is not hard to imagine that it was their show choir experience that introduced these people to the performance disciplines, endurance, confidence in body communication and expression that would become their careers.
In the late 90’s, a group of directors, choreographers, and festival producers, who found the ACDA ill-equipped to serve the needs and interests of show choir, formed a not-for-profit organization which they called the National Association of Show Choirs (NASC). The members sought to set standards and criteria for adjudication and provide a national resource for show choir information. And like the ACDA, the NASC would host a national event featuring honor show choirs, special interest sessions for adjudicators, directors, and administrators.
The ACDA is dedicated to the fine art of choral music. The organization aims to help music educators to instill a curiosity in students and teach them how to appreciate music. Years later, the belief follows through, those students will later become the parents who support music and arts programs. The NASC was created as a commercial arts equivalent.
When the NASC was announced at a summer camp to over 200 music educators, the response was mixed. Some directors thought the idea of a separate show choir organization, outside of the ACDA, was a good idea, as the organization could help bring national exposure and respect to the genre by setting standards for which directors and their groups could learn and become better. On the other hand, other directors were defensive and mistrusting. And they felt that the ACDA should be making the decisions about what is best for show choirs. They were also concerned that the NASC might try to take over the ACDA role.
The newly formed show choir organization, of course, had no interest taking over anything from the ACDA. The NASC mission statement spells out the organization’s goals:
The National Association of Show Choirs is an organization of music educators, adjudicators, middle and high school music programs, and other institutions to ensure the survival of quality and well-rounded performing arts education in public schools. Through national association and focus on the show choir genre, the NASC seeks to promote and recognize musical, theatrical, and choreographical excellence through the use of standardized measurements of technical and artistic achievement.
The ACDA is a classical music organization that is primarily concerned with maintaining the art of traditional choral music. And the ACDA’s has been forced by some of its members to include jazz and show choir under its organizational umbrella when actually the ACDA was created as an traditional alternative to the very music these ensembles specialize in. Just as the ACDA is not prepared to address the concerns of show choirs, the NASC is not interested in addressing the needs of concerts choirs.
The NASC organization was seen by some educators as a logical answer to their frustrations with ACDA and its treatment of show choirs. Today’s choral directors who head show choirs look past the ACDA for adjudication criteria, pop literature, staging ideas, or festivals. Rather, directors with an interest in show choir find this information by going to summer camps and workshops, competitions, or simply networking amongst themselves.
Not surprisingly, show choir competitions continue to offer the best and most innovative show choir production in the country. More than merely choosing a winner, show choir adjudication festivals (whether for ranking or not) can offer to show choirs an environment where students and directors can learn professional entertainment techniques, share information, and showcase their particular style of choral/theater productions to an interested and appreciative audience. Because the traditional choral world offers no respect and no comparable opportunity, Show-Pop ensembles remain to this day, eager and committed to simply performing music and dance for each other, finding sanctuary and respect amongst their peers.
Dr. Ron McCurdy, President of the International Association of Jazz Educators has challenged music educators with his vision of the future of music. In the opening article of December 2000 IAJE Magazine, he writes:
“...If we are to survive as music educators, we must diversify our curriculums, recognize the importance of technology as it relates to the dissemination of music, re-educate faculty, and strive to produce a more versatile student...[We must] think and respond more seriously to “life after college”...To accomplish that goal we must force ourselves to think, teach, and evaluate students in ways once thought to be unconventional. Music education has not maintained a connection with technology, contemporary genres of music, and innovative teaching techniques that allow our students to gain an “edge” in the very competitive field of music.. One colleague stated, “Our function in not to prepare students for jobs but merely teach the mechanics of music and, in the process, instill a deep appreciation for the art form.” While that sounds noble and partially true, the reality of the situation is that students are looking for careers in music upon graduation. Institutions can no longer maintain solely a narrow mono-cultural curriculum that ignores the American folklore, hip-hopness, syntax, vibe, and synergy in today’s American and global societies....Leaders must acknowledge technology, business of music, remain open-minded as to other genres of music, and operate more from a consumer posture (students’ welfare being in the forefront) rather than teaching only what is familiar to them. This kind of thinking will require schools to operate outside of their comfort zones. It will mean (in some cases) radical changes that will cause come colleagues to resist.
CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER OF SHOW CHOIR HISTORY
PAGES INSERTCHRONOLOGICAL IERT (PAGE 2)
American Choral Directors Association. About the ACDA webpage. 5 Feb. 2001
Anderson, Doug. Personal interview. 23 Jan. 2000.
Booster, The. LaCrosse Central High School yearbook. Lacrosse: 1948.
Boye, Larry. Personal interview. 28 Sept. 2000.
Brown, Charles T.. The Art of Rock and Roll. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1983.
Butler, Kevin. Personal interview. 4 Jan. 2001.
By Way of Introduction. Bishop Luers First Annual Contest Program. Feb. 22, 1975.
Fort Wayne: Luers, 1975.
Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Harry and Wally’s Favorite TV Shows.
New York: Prentice-Hall, 1989.
Clark, John. Personal interview. 29 Dec. 2000.
Crocker, Emily. Personal interview. 29 Dec. 2000.
Griffith, Sandy. Personal interview. 30 Dec. 2000.
Green, Stanley. Hollywood Musicals Year by Year. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 1990.
Gulsvig, Paul. Personal interview. 1 Feb. 2000.
Haak, Elizabeth. Personal interview. 23 Jan. 2000.
Haley, Chuck. Personal interview. 30 Dec. 2000.
Hellems, Ronald. Personal interview. 28 Sept. 2000.
Hills, Robert. Personal interview. 26 Sept. 2000.
Holman, Sona, and Lillian Friedman. How to Lie About Your Age. New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1979.
Hoover’s Guide to Media Companies. Austin: Hoover’s, 1996.
Huff, Mac. Personal interview. 1 Feb. 2001.
Invitational Story, The. Bishop Luers Swing Choir Invitational program.
27 Feb. 1999. Fort Wayne: Luers, 1999.
Jaeger, Richard. Personal interview. 29 Dec. 2000.
Jordan, Dwight. Personal interview. 2 Jan. 2001.
Lojeski, Ed. Personal interview. 4 Jan. 2001.
Link, Father Fred. Personal interview. 12 Jan. 2001.
Keifer, Peter. Personal interview. 2 Feb. 2001
Malcolm, Hal. Personal interview. 2 Feb. 2001.
Mountford, Fritz. Personal interview. 26 Sept. 2000 and 4 Jan. 2001.
Mountford, Fritz. The Art of Entertainment. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 1991.
MTV and TV Guide Present the 100 Greatest Videos Ever Made. Viacom Press Release, 29 Nov 1999. Internet: Viacom, 1999.
Neary, Kevin, and Dave Smith. The Ultimate Disney Trivia Book. New York:
Neuen, Donald. Personal interview. 26 Sept. 2000.
Spradling, Diana. Personal interview. 27 Dec. 2000.
Spradling, Diana. Selected Papers from the 2000 ACDA Repertoire
and Standards Committee on Jazz and Show Choirs Meeting. 5-6 Aug. 2000. Kalamazoo: Spradling, 2000.
Stoll, Robert. Personal interview. 28 Sept. 2000.
Schwartzhoff, Gary. Personal interview. 5 Feb. 2001
Terrien, Tom. Personal interview. 26 Sept. 2000.
Thorn, Jeff. Personal interview. 26 Sept. 2000.
Tober, Tara. Personal interview. 6 Feb. 2001
Tuleja, Tad. Popular Americana. New York: Stonesong, 1994.
Zaninelli, Louigi. Personal interiew. 27 Sept. 2000.
Wetterau, Bruce. The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies.
New York: Stonesong, 1990.
Michael Weaver, (Bachelor of Music, Commerical Music and Applied Piano, Millikin University. Master of Fine Arts, Film Directing, Columbia College Chicago), is a freelance director/choreographer, adjudicator, choral and dance clinician for regional and national performance arts workshops. He stages and directs a variety of show-related projects annually from coast to coast.
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