The Evolution of Show Choir
What does 17th century part song have to do with a 21st century TV show? How about Harrow School, in London, England and Bishop Luer’s High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana? Fred Waring and F. Ritchie Walton?
They are all part of the history of show choir.
Show choirs existed long before a fictional glee club called “New Directions” was on anyone’s radar. In fact, the term “glee” refers to a form of English part song that was popular between the mid-17th century and the early 20th century.
The first singing group that actually called itself a Glee Club formed in 1787 at the Harrow School, in London, England. Glee clubs continued to be popular in Britain until the mid 1850s. They were eventually superseded by choral societies.
In North America, glee clubs flourished at institutions of higher learning in the late 19th century–places such as Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Rutgers, among others. In the 1930s, large choirs began to undertake popular instead of classical repertoire. However, they still emulated their classical counterparts, standing still through songs. But in 1933, bandleader Fred Waring changed all that, and it was all thanks to television.
A bandleader on a radio show, Waring founded a group called The Pennsylvanians, featuring male and female singers who performed not only choral masterworks but also popular music. When radio gave way to TV, Waring’s show continued adapted to the new medium by adding set, costume, dancers, and staging to enhance the visual spectacle.
During the 1960s, though, youth-based swing choirs were formed. These choirs such as Up with People and The Young Americans received exposure through television appearances. But more importantly, they also toured, and by so doing, inspired high school students and music directors to emulate their performances. The glee club concept was taking root where it has its strongest hold today: in mid-western high schools.
“Swing choirs” became “show choirs” by the 1970s. Again, it was higher education that paved the way, with touring groups such as The Bells of Indiana and the Singing Hoosiers (Indiana University) and University Singers (Ball State University)—mostly, schools in the Midwest.
The Minstrels at Bishop Luer’s high School (Fort Wayne, Indiana) identified a need to learn from other show choirs, and hosted the first-ever show choir invitational in 1974. Seven choirs competed. Here, “The 26th Street Singers” from Marion High School (Indiana) made history: instead of emulating their classical counterparts by standing still through songs, the group won with a choreographed set of songs featuring dance styles such as modern and tap. And their music director, F. Ritchie Walton, bears the unofficial title of the Father of Show Choir.
The 26th Street Singers competed against 14 teams the next year, and won again. Their third attempt at the title was thwarted in 1976 by The Carmel Ambassadors (Carmel High School, Indiana).
The Luers-Midwest Swing Choir Invitational continued to attract more attention, and more teams, and even was broadcast on PBS, locally from 1979 to 1982, then nationally in 1983. The exposure led to more show choirs being created, and more show choir events being held.
Flash forward to today
The Luers-Midwest Swing Choir Invitational is still in existence, and annually issues 250 invitations to high schools around the U.S..
Up with People (formerly Sing Out), which was founded in 1965, Tucson, AZ, is still active with several touring casts featuring members from around the world.
The Young Americans, founded in 1962, Hollywood, CA, also continues touring today, with approximately 200 cast members from nearly every U.S. state and several other countries.
In 2009, Glee premiered on television, chronicling the trials and tribulations of a fictional glee club in Lima, Ohio, and is the breakout hit of the season.
In 2010, Show Choir Canada launches in response to the growing interest in Canada.
Every year since 2011, hundreds of middle school and high schools students have converged on Toronto to vie for the title of Show Choir Canada Champions. With each champion crowned, interest has grown exponentially, raising the stakes for each championship year to year. The popularity of the competition even inspired a Canadian Screen Award-winning documentary, Unsung: Behind the Glee.
More than a competition, the Show Choir Canada (SCC) Championships enable performers to experience the process of preparing for a performance, gaining understanding that the work is as important – and as fun – as the performance itself. Choir members are provided with a valuable character-building exercise, enabling students to not only develop further as artists and hone their skills, but also raise their self-confidence and experience the benefits of teamwork.
SCC combines the talents of the professional arts industry with the expertise of arts educators. At the helm are representatives from the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, which trains Canada’s Triple Threat talent, and da Costa Talent Management, which represents some of Canada’s leading actors, dancers, singers, and world-class choreographers.
SCC continues to expand over recent years. 2014 saw an international focus, with a UK-based adjudicator on the adjudicating panel. 550 students participated, and 2,000 spectators were in attendance to see “Splash” from Etobicoke School of the Arts “three-peat” as champions.
In 2015, the Championships opened to both community-based groups, as well as those from around the world, where during an epic competition reigning three-time champions “Splash” were unseated by newcomers “KW Glee,” proving that it is anyone’s game.
Last year, SCC welcomed Junior community-based groups for the first time and focused outreach to educators offering free workshops. The Championship was awarded for the first time to a show choir outside of Ontario: “G Major” from St George’s School of Montreal (Montreal, Quebec).
2017 will now see the addition of a pre-competitive division and the welcoming back of competitors south of the border from Minneapolis, USA, to make this year’s Championships once again truly international.
Let the glee begin.
This history was compiled from several sources, including Show Pop: The History of Show Choir by Mike Weaver, 2001