Carrying on a Storied Tradition

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By Carla DeFord

When Mike Swengel took over as director of the Mt. Zion High School show choirs in the fall of 2013, he hit the ground running – literally. Upon first meeting the members of his mixed-voice choir, the Swingsations, he took them out to the track and ran laps with them to show how physically demanding show choir is. By the end of the year he had not only maintained the 40-year tradition of artistic excellence at Mt. Zion, but he brought it to new heights. Last April, the Swingsations won the national championship at the FAME show choir competition, held at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago – quite an accomplishment for the new guy in town.

Show choir is a collaborative art form that involves the efforts of the director, choreographer, parent boosters, and many others, but when the lights go down at a competition, it’s the students who create the performance. Swengel notes that in order to do their best, they have to be comfortable in class and onstage. He believes it’s his job to create an environment in which they feel safe and accepted. When that happens, says Swengel, a quality performance can emerge.

IMG_9106Choral Director: How did you first become involved with show choir?

Mike Swengel: My high school in Harvard, Illinois, did not have show choir. My first experience with it was in the fall of 2007, when I was an undergraduate at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and did my student teaching at Waubonsie Valley High School. I graduated in the spring of 2008 with a major in music and a minor in secondary education, and for two years I took a variety of jobs in music, such as assistant director of a men’s barbershop chorus, church minister of music, teacher of preschool music, rehearsal pianist, and music arranger. In 2010 I was hired to teach vocal music at the Milton, Wisconsin junior and senior high schools, and stayed for three years. Then I attended a conference and saw that a job was available at Mt. Zion, so I applied for it. I knew about Mt. Zion through my experience at Milton, which had two competitive show choirs, although they mostly competed locally (in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa). 

I was aware of the success of the Mt. Zion show choir program and its history, which goes back over 40 years, although their choir wasn’t named “Swingsations” until 1977. When I got the job, it was very exciting. I moved to Mt. Zion with my family in August, only five days before school started. We’d just found out that my wife was pregnant with our second child. It was a whirlwind summer.

CD: Tell me about the Mt. Zion show choir program.

MS: There are four show choirs: two in the high school (Swingsations and Les Femmes), and two in the junior high school (Vocal Trax and Sound System), and I direct all of them.

I’m essentially my own feeder system, although I have wonderful colleagues at the elementary and intermediate schools that are very important to the music education of our students. Show choir is part of the curriculum, and I meet with all four choirs during the school day five days a week. The high school and junior high are in same building and share a chorus room, so I don’t have to travel between schools.

Last year, 88 out of 714 high school students, and 65 out of 383 junior high students were involved in the program. At competitions we usually go up against much bigger schools. Our students are hungry; they want to do well. They know it’s an honor to be accepted into this program. Many of them have parents who participated in it.

IMG_9062CD: In addition to the grand championship, the Swingsations also won an award for best choreography at the 2014 FAME competition. Could you talk about the process of working with a choreographer?

MS: The Swingsations have had one choreographer since 1977: Dwight Jordan. He is well known in the field and is a show choir innovator who has worked extensively not only with many show choirs across the country, but also with theme park and theatre productions in places like Six Flags Great America and Branson. He is also a cofounder of Show Choir Camps of America, which holds two one-week camps every summer.

Students choose to go to one or the other, and most of our students go to the one held at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, which is approximately 15 minutes from Mt. Zion. This year it attracted about 800 students from 25 states. The students attend daily workshops, go to concerts every night, and present a performance at the end of the week. This renowned program, which just celebrated its 35th anniversary, provides a very exciting experience for our students.

CD: How do auditions work for your high school show choirs?

MS: Auditions take place over a period of four nights. On the first night, the students learn a dance routine, which this past year was choreographed by our seniors. On the next two nights, they present vocal selections of their choosing (a cappella). On the fourth night, they perform the dance routine in small groups.

CD: And the rehearsal schedule?

MS:  In addition to rehearsals during the school day, all show-choir students have rehearsals two nights a week. When he’s available, Mr. Jordan comes down from Chicago, where he lives, to work with our students in the evening. Sometimes we have a weekend clinic, which starts on Friday night and continues with a full day on Saturday.

Each choir does three local shows a year: one in the fall, one in the spring, and a competition show at the Midwest Invitational, which is held at and hosted by Mt. Zion High School in January. I plan the fall shows during the summer. This coming year, both the high school and junior high choirs will perform on Halloween night. For the spring show at the beginning of May, the choirs will perform their competition shows as well as new material. 

 IMG_9033CD: When do the Swingsations begin working on the show they will compete with?

MS: They start to work on that show in November and December. Competition season starts with the Midwest Invitational. Last March, the Swingsations performed in the qualifying round of the FAME competition in Orlando, and in April they went to the finals in Chicago.

CD: What was your process for designing the 2014 show – picking the songs, planning the choreography, and deciding on a plotline for the performance?

MS:  Mr. Jordan and I planned the show. First we decided on the plot line, theme, and story, and then we picked the songs and created the design. What we put together was actually a mini-musical called “The One.”

We also have an instrumental combo that accompanies the Swingsations, and last year I worked closely with its director, Zach Garrett. It’s important for us to have live music, and unlike some other show choirs that might hire outside professional musicians, our combo members are all students. In April, they won an award for best rhythm section. This year I will be directing the combo, as well, so I’ll be rehearsing that ensemble in addition to the four show choirs.

CD: What makes a championship performance? 

MS:  When students audition, they show us what they’ve got, and we try to feature their strengths in our show. For example, if we’ve got an incredible gospel voice, we’ll try to take advantage of it. Last year we had an unbelievable number of solo singers, so I didn’t want the show to have just two main characters and a bunch of back-up singers. I wanted to feature several soloists.

Our 2014 show told a story about teenagers looking for “the one,” that is, the perfect romantic partner. The plot was easy to follow, and people could relate to it. Being a universal story, it was more malleable and less specific than many others; we were not locked into the plot of a fairy tale or a movie. Also, it didn’t go in a dark direction; it was a happy show that made people smile.

CD: What’s your approach for starting the new school year?

MS:  Every year there’s an incoming group of freshman, so I always say, “Let’s see what we can make with these new ingredients.” At first I concentrate on icebreakers and team building. I want to create a feeling of community in the classroom because each of those students will be counting on the others, and they need to feel as if they belong. We pick a song everybody knows and concentrate on harmony and breathing. I ask them to sing while listening to those around them and focusing on the sound they’re producing.

To work on breathing, I sometimes have them hold their breath to see who can hold it longest, or hold their breath and do jumping jacks. I tell them show choir is no different from any other fall sport; they have to train for it. They need to have a healthy lifestyle, which means eating right and getting enough sleep.

When I ran the track with the Swingsations, they thought it was a joke or a punishment. They were saying to each other, “Are we in trouble already?” I just wanted to show them that show choir is strenuous. I asked them, “Do you have the focus to maintain that level of physicality during a performance?”

When they’re competing, they have to fill a huge venue with sound, and project their voices over the electrical instruments accompanying them. The judges are 100 feet away, so they have to change their understanding of what singing and breathing feels like. It’s important for them to learn to sing with their mouths open and with a different awareness of what their bodies are doing.

CD: How do you achieve a singing style that works for competitions? 

MS:  I try to teach them that you don’t have just one singing voice; you can manipulate the colors of your voice to get different sounds. The students come up with definitions of colors that help us describe music in a physical sense. I ask them, “What is a yellow sound? What is a blue sound?” I call this teacher-led student discovery.

We do exercises like singing with a funny voice that sounds like a chipmunk or with a nasty voice that’s as unpleasant as possible. We try adding “space” to the voice to produce a bigger and more appealing sound. We talk about the biology of the muscles so they can be more aware of how the voice is produced.

To reinforce the concept of style, we talk about the difference between singing in church and on a Broadway stage. We pretend we’re opera singers, but sing pop music, and I ask them how we can make it sound right. We also listen to audio clips of opera, spirituals, and Broadway singing to show there’s more than one type of vocalism. I’m always looking for the teachable moment.

 CD: Do you have a particular method for helping the students reach their potential as singers?

MS: I tell them that if they trust me and put their faith in the group, we can make something very special. They need to know that they’re among friends, that no one will laugh at them or tell jokes behind their back. To be successful, they have to go just outside their comfort zone and put themselves out there or they’ll get in the way of their own potential. If they think there’s competition within the group, it won’t work; the ship will have no rudder. Dealing with the social issues that students have at this age is one of my biggest challenges.

Some of the songs in the 2014 show were, in a sense, self-medicating for the students because they presented opportunities to have conversations about social awkwardness. We were able to explore problems they sometimes struggle with and realize that it’s possible to make fun of yourself and not take things so seriously all the time. At the FAME competition, one of our songs won an award for most original selection.

CD: Let’s talk about adjudication at competitions.

MS: The judges are usually professional choir directors, choreographers, and/or performers. What’s exciting about the regional competitions is that the students perform twice: the first time is during the day, and then there’s a break for dinner. During the break, I get the judges’ score cards or audio comments, and I can make changes to the show based on their feedback. They’re basically telling us, “If you do this, I might give you more points.” For example, one of the judges wanted a featured couple to make eye contact more often, so we made that change. The show is organic, and we can make cuts and additions during the season.

CD: How is your parent booster network organized?

MS: There’s a booster organization for each show choir, and the parents automatically become members. Swingsations has 46 members, so that’s 46 sets of parents involved. Their main job is to raise money for the group’s activities. They are in charge of ticket sales for the fall performance, held in a nearby church, as well as the spring show and the Midwest Invitational, which are both held in the high-school gym. They also raise funds for travel by holding auctions, selling refreshments at performances, and so on.

CD: What’s your vision for the future of the Mt. Zion show choirs?

MS: The Mt. Zion community is building a $20-million performance space and sports complex that will be attached to the high school and will include a 1,500-seat auditorium. With a projected completion date of January 2016, this facility will make a big difference to the Midwest Invitational and to our show choirs.

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