By Matt Parish
As show choir programs across country continue to thrive, a strong network of competitions has evolved to provide them with a national spotlight.
In the early days, handfuls of students around the country would check listings for local public broadcasting and cable access stations, looking for the replay of that year’s humble show choir competition at an Indiana school called Bishop Luers. They’d watch the taped performances to see students from halfway across the country putting on shows filled with Broadway tunes and standards. They’d check school budgets and wonder if they’d be able to make it out to Indiana one day to get their own hardly recognized programs some love for a change.
A lot has changed since then.
These days, show choir is a national phenomenon, serving as a country-wide obsession for millions thanks to decades of grassroots organization, as well as an explosion of pop culture tied up in the practice. Television programs like Glee, American Idol, Sing-Off, and more bring mountains of viewers into the fold almost every night. And as production techniques continue to grow more and more sophisticated, participation in high school-level programs is on the rise.
To accommodate this interest, a number of next-generation programs have emerged as leaders in the push for increased opportunities for these performance groups. The days of the dominance of programs like Bishop Luers and the early adopting organization Showstoppers are over, but every event put on today proudly cites those as major influences in their efforts to create consistently memorable educational experiences for students, while at the same time offering a more standardized method of national rankings. Programs like FAME, Show Choir Nationals, and Interkultur are offering choral programs unprecedented levels of exposure and professionalism, while high quality festivals like the Midwest Cup at the University of Nebraska serve as breeding grounds for the show choir programs of the future as students, teachers, and future educators network with the best.
Choral Director spoke with representatives from some of today’s most prominent programs – FAME president and CEO Joel Biggs, Show Choir Nationals president Daryl Ussery, and Midwest Cup director Peter Eklund – to get the story behind the development of each of their respective corners of this exciting part of choral education.
Beginnings of Show Choir Culture
Choral Director: We’re nearly a couple decades into what might be called the modern show choir era at this point – almost 20 years of FAME, 13 years of the Show Choir Nationals, and the maturation of several other events like Nebraska’s Midwest Cup. How did you all first get involved in this scene?
Joel Biggs: We started out doing a music festival in Branson, Missouri for all performing groups. The show choirs were unique, though, and we felt like there was an opportunity to provide them with something that they needed at the time, which was a competition that allowed them to innovate and create. We had a great response and Branson became hugely successful. At that point, our participants were telling us that it would be nice to have more destinations outside of the region, so we developed the additional competitions in Orlando, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. That’s what really set up the foundation for the Show Choir National Championship Series.
Peter Ecklund: I was in a bad high school group early on, but then matriculated to the University of Iowa, where there was a fine university show choir that was very current at that point. In the neighborhood there was a terrific high school group and, to my surprise, I was offered a teaching position right there in town. I decided I had to learn this fast. Everyone told me that if I wanted [to learn from] the best in the state, I just had to go down the street and meet that person. So I did. His name was Larry Kelly and he could not have been more helpful in terms of sharing ideas, concepts, and students. I ended up teaching in Iowa City and went with him on a trip to one of the most influential early contests, at Bishop Luers in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Because I grew up in Iowa and everybody was so choral-friendly there, I didn’t know that the Indiana culture was highly competitive. At Bishop Luers, I didn’t hesitate to go up to people and try to make them my new best friend – I’ve always sought the best and most knowledgeable and rarely if ever found them to be unwilling to share their ideas.
I transferred right into teaching high school and took over a program that had been a mover and a shaker and had suffered a couple down years. I thoroughly enjoyed that teaching experience. We never really wanted the show choir to be the tail that wagged the dog, but there’s no doubt that it gets kids paying attention. Not only that – it created balanced choirs, which I was excited about. We had three mixed show choirs. Just because of the sheer numbers that were involved, it generated a lot of national attention and created a situation where I was offered a job at a major U.S. research institution to resurrect the program here.
Daryl Ussery: I was the choral director at Homewood High School in Homewood, Alabama for 23 years. The show choir competition at Homewood High School began in 1989 and was given the name “South Central Classic.” That’s what got me interested in show choir. Show choir is just a different world than “serious” choir music, with costuming, dance, props, and scenery. It was much different when the show choir began at Homewood. There was one costume, no scenery, a back-up band, and all that was involved was singing and dancing. A lot of people still feel that if you can’t sing and dance, in today’s shows, the scenery, props, and costumes (in most cases) aren’t going to help your score.
CD: Going back to your history with the show choir world, were there any specific example that you used as inspiration?
JB: Honestly, our inspiration was gained from the show choirs themselves. We were in awe when we saw our first group perform. Our commitment was to put the same effort into producing our events that each of them did in developing their own show. Of course we recognize that there were so many important players throughout the years who really helped develop show choir and were instrumental in making it what it is today. The many talented directors, choreographers, and producers who still remain committed to show choir are truly an inspiration to us.
DU: The first show choir competition I remember was Bishop Luers High School. This really set the standard for how show choir competitions were done – the rules and everything. Another was Showstoppers, which was really the first national competition. They pretty well had it down – it ran smoothly and on time.
PE: Bishop Luers were highly influential, and they had great groups pulled from all over the Midwest. I think that part of it was that the local television station videotaped it and then it went out to almost national public broadcasting stations. It became such a prize to get into that top six that the groups changed quickly. A lot of groups started to copy each other, plain and simple. After I made a couple of trips out there, I came back and did similar version of that event in Cedar Rapids. My event was then quickly copied around the state. There weren’t very many competitions like that at the time. My gosh – that was 28 years ago or 30 years ago.
Showstoppers, when they started in Chicago, were getting such great groups that you’d look at the top six and there wasn’t a hill of beans difference between them. They were amazing. And putting on those shows is kind of pricey, so people really tried so hard. Then they started to develop regional competitions – I remember going to one in San Diego, and others in Orlando, St. Louis, and Nashville. I eventually took my group to one of the Showstoppers events in Nashville.
One of the main movers and shakers in the 20th century was a man in California named Frank Pooler, who consistently said that it’s very important that we expose our students to all types of music.
CD: Peter, how have you incorporated Show Choir into both your curriculum and the setup of your Midwest Cup events at Nebraska?
PE: After I began here in ‘98, I started the show choir camp, the contest, and the Big Red Singers group. Right after I arrived here, I asked, “What are the traditions?” They said there were none. We now not only host the festival here, but we also host a huge camp and we’re one of the few universities that has a school of music-sponsored show choir, as well.
In a big way, the young people coming into our classrooms now are digital natives. These students come in and not only understand programs like GarageBand, but they’ve advanced to Logic, Finale, and Sibelius. They’re able to do some pretty amazing creating.
And [Midwest Cup] is not a typical high school contest. The kids don’t just get here and perform in a gym. Their warm-up space is a beautiful auditorium itself. A lot of the groups stay right across the street at the Embassy Suites. It’s just a semi-destination sort of event thanks to a lot of the work that has been done in our downtown area.
CD: What does participation currently look like in the full FAME organization?
JB: I’d say we have anywhere between 75-100 show choirs. Since the first event nearly 20 years ago, FAME has expanded, producing competitions in Orlando, New York City, Chicago, Hollywood, Honolulu, and London. Thousands of students have participated in these events over the years. Three years ago, we introduced a new format that qualifies an official National Champion. Known by show choirs as the Show Choir National Championship Series, this program requires that show choirs compete in a qualifying round and place in the top three in order to receive a bid to the Show Choir National Finals, which determines a National Champion. The Show Choir National Champion is awarded the “Show Choir Cup.”
We just started a new program called “Marquee.” Marquee is designed for those groups who are up and coming but perhaps not quite ready for the highest level. It’s still an excellent festival. It has all the bells and whistles that you’d expect of a FAME event, but it’s designed to educate and inspire, so there is some more hands-on instruction by clinicians and music and dance workshops.
CD: How do things look currently at Show Choir Nationals?
DU: The show has run on schedule for 13 years! We allow 20 choirs per year. I wanted to start a national show choir competition that would contain very few glitches. There would be the right sound system, a stage large enough to perform any choreography, the warm-up area would be large enough to address any last minute details, enough space for scenery, and, probably most importantly, easy access to the theater.
We decided the venue must be large enough to accommodate each choir’s requirements and there was never a possibility of not having enough seating. The theater had to be comfortable – many show choir competitions are held in gymnasiums with only bleacher seating and folding chairs on the floor. Portable stages, lighting and sound systems are the norm for many high school competitions. The Grand Ole Opry House fits the bill! The house seats 4,400 people comfortably so we never turn anyone away from the show.
CD: Is Show Choir Nationals mainly a family-run organization?
DU: It is just my son Derrick, daughter Blair, and I discussing things until we work it out. Allen Bailey is also in the office every day. Beyond that, I have seven adult staff members – they were my support staff while I taught their children at Homewood High School.
Our host choir is Clinton High School’s Attaché [Clinton, Mississippi; Dir. David and Mary Fehr], who do everything from ticket sales, working the doors, providing guides for the choirs, stage set-up crews, and perform two completely different exhibition shows.
CD: It seems important for a lot of directors that they’re able to temper the competitive nature of show choir, often with extra events and activities with the other choirs and judges during competitions. How are show choir events able to handle that?
JB: At our Finals, we have created one day this year that’s dedicated to learning and education. Each group will have an opportunity to be onstage and perform in front of all seven judges that will give them immediate feedback after the performance. It’s really a unique opportunity to learn and then implement what they have learned the very next day in the National Finals round.
In addition to our judging component, we also have workshops provided by individuals who perform Broadway music or people who are generally involved in the industry, as well as educators from various universities. Education is more than just an essential element of what we do – it is the reason we do what we do.
DU: Our main goal continues to be education. We want to provide the very best educational experience for these groups that we possibly can. We are all about education: how to be a good singer, a good dancer, and a good audience member. We continue to strive to help directors with their jobs on a daily basis.
CD: Offering training to music teachers-to-be must be a factor, as well.
PE: I think that a lot of heads of choral departments at a lot of colleges and universities want to ignore this animal, and what that creates is a lot of unprepared [young choral directors] who are basically coerced into starting these ensembles by parents or administrators, and they’re thoroughly unprepared to do it. I thought it would be important for us to have these types ensembles that let the students have a big, important hand in planning, arranging, rehearsing, choreographing, choosing costumes, and figuring out who to bring in.
Show Choir Culture Today
CD: Now that show choir has been through several generations of evolution, what’s important to note about show choir culture?
DU: If you know anything about show choir, you know that show choirs support show choirs. Show choirs sit in the audience and support the other groups. They might feel that a group may have the “upper hand” over them, but they really support each other.
PE: A lot of these kids that I have coming in the door at my college program come from high schools where, I hate to say it, the show choir really drove the bus. Now, we’re saying it’s time to do the Verdi “Requiem,” we’re going to do the Brahms “Requiem” again, we’re going to do “Messiah,” and we’re going to do Hindemith. It’s a different animal that walks in the door these days, there’s no doubt about it.
How would you track the big changes in the show choir culture recently?
JB: At our events, we’re starting to see a lot of start-up show choirs that are just getting on track now. But it does take some time to develop a show choir and get to the point where you feel like you can really compete with some of these groups that have been around for years and established that tradition. It has been fun to watch groups from other countries get involved, as well. Last year we hosted a show choir from England at one of our events. This year we will have one join us from Canada and another from Argentina.
There has been a shift in the type of music that’s been performed. You used to hear a lot of Broadway tunes and traditional show choir music. Although there is still some of that, you hear a lot more of the popular music now.
DU: I would say maybe in the last eight years or so, it started shifting to the more creative styles. Choirs in certain areas of the country evolve more rapidly than in others in respect to all the theatrical elements being incorporated in their shows. I still maintain that it is about how well a group sings and how well they dance.
PE: And I don’t think you can ignore the impact that YouTube has had. Almost immediately, anybody has access to just about any type of music. When I get on my own choral website, I might think, “My gosh, who are these 20,000 people that have been watching this song?” I just saw a listing of some of the most important and best futuristic jobs to have – one of them is directing music. It’s because of the way music right now is permeating our culture in every respect. And there’s no doubt about it – it’s been said that the number one scripted comedy show in the world is Glee. That’s certainly going to have an impact on people all over the world.
As these walls between genres come down, how is that manifested in the sets that you see at festivals lately?
PE: It invites a tremendous amount of creativity. I still think it comes down to a question of making great music. Can you keep it appropriately underneath the bigger educational umbrella? You don’t want it to become an after-school club or a summer club – you want it to truly be a part of the school curriculum.
The technical aspects of these shows are certainly always advancing.
JB: With the addition of sophisticated riser platform systems that enable groups to stack these risers and get all kinds of platforms and configurations out there, it’s become much better, visually. Obviously the performances have become much cleaner with more precision since these groups are driven to perfect their art. There are more costume changes, higher energy, special effects, fog machines, LED lighting effects, staging, and props that you’d expect to see at a regular musical theatre production.
PE: Of course you see more high-end lighting usage in shows. A lot of that started in California, and good for them. How exciting that is. Does it get kids involved? Heck yes. That’s important.
What are the long-term effects of this kind of growing organization on the students’ lives?
JB: We’re seeing a lot of students who participated in our events years and years ago now leading their own show choirs. Other former participants are succeeding in every way you can imagine; certainly in the arts and education, but also medicine, business, civic leadership, and so much more.