The Show Choir Movement: Uses and Abuses—A Symposium
Published online: 1 October 1983
POSITION STATEMENT BY PETER TIBORIS
University of Southwestern Louisiana
What is a show choir? I believe it to have the following characteristics: (1) SATB Membership of 20-30 performers, (2) Repertoire primarily from the "Top-Forty," (3) Use of amplification, costuming, sets, and lighting, (4) Use of intricate choreography. In short, it is a group of singers and instrumentalists which performs American popular music such as one would find in clubs, showrooms, or more specifically as performed in Las Vegas. (Please note that I distinguish between show choir and jazz choir; the second will not be considered here.)
Why should the show choir business come under examination? Principally because colleges and universities strive to provide the type of leadership and musical experiences to which the community and its graduates aspire. With this activity we should ask, "Is it worthwhile? Is it educationally and musically viable? Are there beneficial outcomes? Finally, what are the uses and abuses of show choirs in U.S. colleges and universities?" I begin with the primary uses of show choirs in higher education.
1. They can be useful public relations tools for the institution in general and the department of music in particular. The college or university show choir can be entertaining and attractive to audiences because of its similarity to programs on television, in clubs, or showrooms. Because the shows are usually well received and enjoyed as entertainment, audiences tend to associate the show with the general feelings of the music department.
2. Show choirs can provide a performance vehicle for the student intending a career in commercial or popular music. While most music programs are intended for the serious performer of art music, there is a growing need to provide instruction in popular music performance. There appears in fact to be a growing need to train vocalists and instrumentalists to be studio or "Vegas" type performers.
3. Show choirs can be an excellent recruitment tool for the music program. Having a show choir indicates that the music program is diverse in that it not only offers musical training for the "serious" performer, but also for the popular artist. (Please note the proliferation of show choirs in the public school program. The undergraduate teacher education program in choral music education needs to contain college level instruction in show choir methods.) This kind of variety in the performance program adds a new dimension to the entire music program which can be pivotal in the decision process when a young person selects a college or university.
4. It allows an opportunity to combine music and dance. Because producing musical theater is usually a complex and expensive venture, producing show choirs is a useful alternative. Show choirs allow students an opportunity to combine music and dance without the necessity of mounting a musical theater production.
5. A show choir in the music program informs the public that the college recognizes and endorses various kinds of performance aesthetics and practices. Most people recognize the important impact of popular music on our culture and the strong influence of popular music in our daily lives. Serious considerations must be given to endorsing the performance and study of this activity among the serious arts.
What, then, do I consider the primary abuses of show choirs?
1. The music is superficial and lacks meaning and aesthetic depth. "Top Forty" music and choral music arrangements generally lack the complexity, unity, coherence, completeness, profundity, depth, proportion, blend, balance, subtlety, and meaning one finds in other American musical art forms such as jazz or musical theater.
2. SATB Top-40 choral arrangements are poorly done. I have found the show choir arrangements to be musically deficient since many of the best choral arrangers are not writing for show choirs. In many instances, the ranges are excessive and the voice leading is awkward. As is the case with many rock songs (Beatles, for example) the original conception provides for 3-4 voice tenor lines; converting this to SATB may destroy the commanding form established by the composer (see Langer's Feeling and Form).
3. The potential for vocal abuse is apparent. Most vocal pedagogues maintain that Broadway-belting, or chest singing, is contrary to the standard vocal technique which is nurtured in the private voice lesson. While this popular style is desirable for those hoping for a career in popular music, it can also be a menacing problem for the voice pedagogue who wishes to develop in his/her students a serious technique and vocal quality during the limited time of the undergraduate program.
4. The choreography is poorly conceived, trite, and contrived. Dance and choreography of a show choir can be one of the most serious performance problems. Most often—and due to the high costs of hiring a professional choreographer—show choirs are required to devise their own dance routines. These routines most often tend to be amateurish. Further, the typical routine usually encumbers the music that is being sung. Most music directors would be upset with an attempt by a choreographer to teach voice; why should we as music directors presume to stage dance routines? Unless one has the credentials, we should realize that this is an art form which should be best left to the practicing and tutored professional.
5. Many college/university show choirs employ a full-bodied serious sound in their music, rather than the popular music chest sound that is usually associated with pop music. There appears to be an unfortunate mixing of performance practice. If the college show choir is in truth a legitimate performance medium, it needs to have a separate development, which includes the cultivation of a vocal sound that is appropriate for the style. For example, a traditional or serious operatic sound would seem to be a serious mistake when singing a piece by Barry Manilow.
6. Most colleges cannot afford to support the show choir program. Limited budgets force many show choirs to operate with the barest monetary support. How then can a quality show choir be properly financed when the production needs include vocal and instrumental arrangers, choreographers, lighting and sound technicians, and the purchase of expensive equipment including microphones, public address system, lighting, costuming, and make-up (the sum of which could easily exceed $10,000).
7. There is no instruction in colleges and universities on show choir methods and performance techniques. Except for occasional summer workshops, few institutions devote instructional time on a semester basis for show choir production techniques or methods. How can one hope to produce show choirs without specialized instruction?
8. The show choir tends to absorb a student's time. Rehearsal requirements beyond the coaching of the vocal line—dance, staging, costuming—often require an excessive amount of time spent by performers devoted to this activity.
9. The show choir can sometimes overtake the other choral offerings. There is a tendency among colleges and universities to allow the show choir to "carry" the choral program. This can be a dangerous situation which could permanently damage the choral program and possibly the music program too. Choral directors must keep such offerings in balance with other forms of choral experiences.
I would now like to propose some recommendations regarding show choirs in U.S. colleges and universities.
I strongly encourage administrators and choral directors to consider carefully the curricular, philosophic, and budgetary problems involved in producing show choirs. On the whole it is my recommendation that colleges and universities de-emphasize show choir programs until the aforementioned requirements are met. Specifically I am referring to matters of budgetary support, quality of arrangements, guards against vocal abuse, adequate professional staff, balance in the program, and balance within the student's schedule.
For an educational and aesthetically meaningful alternative to show choirs, I recommend producing and staging musical theater scenes or entire music theater works. American musical theater is an exciting and rich area for musical involvements; further, it is our original art form with deep roots in America's culture. Or I would suggest that one consider performing the solo and choral works of America's most famous composers: Kern, Berlin, Rogers, Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Youmans and Schwartz, Lane, Martin, Carmichael, Duke Ellington and the like.
RESPONSE BY GORDON PAINE
California State University-Fullerton
Let me begin by saying that I agree with most aspects of Dr. Tiboris' analysis as well as his recommendations. Since I do not bear the moderator's burden of objectivity, I will state my position at the outset. I am opposed to the growth of the show choir movement in both secondary schools and in colleges and universities. In the space available to me, I would like to explore more deeply some of the points that Dr. Tiboris raised, and raise one or two of my own.
First, I think that it is most important to distinguish between show and jazz choirs. Although I am not entirely sold on the concept of choral jazz, I recognize the challenges to technique, musicianship, and musical expression presented by good examples of this literature. Indeed, good examples of choral jazz can be just as challenging (if not more so) to the musical abilities of the performers as can good examples of "serious" choral literature. However, this is a topic for another time and place.
With regard to the uses of show choirs in U.S. colleges and universities, I think that one basic question remains to be asked and answered, a question so basic that perhaps it is easy to overlook. It is, "what does the show choir movement have to do with education?" Is not the most fundamental purpose of colleges and universities the education of their students? If one accepts this premise, where does the show choir fit in? It appears to me that whatever educational function show choirs have is insignificant compared with the other reasons for their existence.
It is true that "show choirs provide a performance vehicle for those intending a career in commercial music," but it is not a particularly realistic vehicle. I do not deny that there is "a growing need to train vocalists and instrumentalists to be studio or 'Vegas-type' performers," but it is naive to think that this will be accomplished through show choir participation. The school that really wishes to provide its students with preparation for the world of commercial music (a laudable goal) must make a substantial commitment of time, money, and talent to a comprehensive program in that area.
Dr. Tiboris suggests that a show choir can be an excellent recruitment tool for the music department. This is true, but unless one is promoting a school of commercial music, I believe that it is ultimately self-defeating. It may well be true that having a show choir "adds a new dimension to the music program" which can be pivotal in a young person's university selection process. But if we use show choirs to attract students to our schools, what type of student are we trying to attract, and to what area are we trying to attract him? If we try to bolster our enrollment with students who come to us because of our show choirs, we must commit ourselves to perpetuating a show choir program—and perhaps a complete commercial music program—to satisfy them. We are obtaining them by deceit if we have no such intention.
The idea of the show choir as a public relations tool for the university in general and the music department in particular is one that I find particularly troublesome. Public relations is a necessity and a very real problem, but to maintain an educationally questionable institution such as the show choir for purposes of public relations smacks of student exploitation. Assuming that an institution wishes its most positive characteristics to be seen by the public, does the show choir fill that bill? I certainly do not believe so.
Turning to the question of literature, I believe that low musical and aesthetic quality is inherent in the nature of much show choir repertoire. I addressed this question in detail in the May 1981 issue of the Choral Journal. As Dr. Tiboris suggests, it is almost impossible to achieve any level of musical sophistication in choral arrangements of pop tunes without essentially destroying the nature of the piece being arranged. There is unquestionably much artistic and aesthetically pleasing pop music, but this does not mean that such pieces can be successfully translated into the language of an SATB choral arrangement.
The potential for vocal abuse from show choirs is also one of my concerns, particularly with regard to the use of chest voice by female singers. Any voice teacher will tell you that one of the most frequent complaints of pop singers who come to study voice is that they lose their voices quickly and that their throats hurt. This is not coincidental; it is a direct result of the abuse of the chest register. A student who enters college having abused the chest register (generally by carrying it too high with too much intensity) may well find that semesters, if not years, of vocal rehabilitation are necessary in order to master the passaggio and gain the full use of the upper register. It is unquestionably true that the potential for vocal abuse exists as well in the "traditional" choral setting, but in my experience cheerleaders are the only group to have more vocal problems than young people who sing a steady diet of pop music.
One of my major concerns about the show choir movement is the tendency to take over other choral offerings. The syndrome is familiar: school A has a show choir and school B does not. The singers at school B hear school A's show choir at a festival, are turned on, and pressure their director to start a show choir. The director at school B, who may see a show choir as a way of holding enrollment (and his job), gives in, but only two periods a day are available for choir. So what must happen in order for the show choir to be established? Either it must meet before or after school, or it must displace an existing choir. In any case it must drain resources, and—as Dr. Tiboris points out, often substantial resources—from the established program.
Finally, Dr. Tiboris states that "there is no instruction in colleges and universities on show choir methods and performance techniques." This is true, to a large extent. I for one am not displeased. If colleges and universities (outside those with genuine commercial music programs) begin to take the show choir movement so seriously that they teach methods classes on the subject, it can only encourage and lend authority to the show choir movement. The last thing we need is a generation of beginning public school teachers specifically trained to perpetuate show choirs. This position is often criticized as being similar to that of the ostrich, who hides his head in the sand to ignore reality. There are those who say that "the movement is here to stay, and our beginning teachers need to be trained to deal with it." While this argument has a surface appeal, it is flawed in two ways. First, it assumes that the show choir movement is so firmly entrenched that nothing can budge it. Second, it assumes that the movement is positive and worthy of perpetuation, or at worst, benign. In my discussion, I hope that I have shown that this is not so.
Although I am concerned with the inroads the show choir movement is making in our colleges and universities, I am even more concerned with the situation in the secondary schools, where young people's tastes are molded. I speak from personal experience when I say that singing in a show choir can be great fun. But within our educational system, that fun comes at a price that is often too high.
RESPONSE BY GEORGIA A. RYDER
Norfolk State University
While agreeing with several specifics in Peter Tiboris' exposition, I find myself somewhat unwilling or perhaps unable to bring my thinking into conformity with some details of his definition of show choir. Obviously, there needs to be a common base of understanding if we are to have sensible dialogue on the subject. Nevertheless, the concept of size does have a bearing on some observations that I shall make. Before going further, however, I should make it clear that my observations are precisely that—observations—as, unlike Dr. Tiboris, I have neither trained nor directed a show choir. I brought this matter to his attention earlier, so that he would be aware of the likelihood of different perceptions.
Be that as it may, I would like to establish first that on the basis of what I have seen at my own institution, at several other institutions and also at high schools, I concur generally with Dr. Tiboris on the use of show choirs.
PUBLIC RELATIONS. I have found that they do serve excellently in the public relations mechanism for universities, though I have not assumed that the participants are necessarily students in the music schools of those universities. In some instances, unless membership is limited to music majors, such groups seem particularly attractive to students who are not music majors but believe themselves to have the requisite abilities. The extent to which membership in the choirs is affected by the above remains open to question and this, in turn, leads to the question of whether membership should be limited. My present role being one of respondent, I can only pose that question and move on.
RECRUITING. I quite agree that show choirs can be effective vehicles for displaying the diversity of music programs (thus, by inference, the breadth of thought) and for exemplifying the kind of training to be provided by those universities offering programs in commercial music. We know that students' decisions to enter or not to enter a program are effected by much more than the handsome literature almost universally disseminated. Statements of college mission and philosophy somehow lack the impact of a stage presentation where most students are concerned.
MUSIC AND DANCE COMBINED. The combination of music and dance is a "natural," both in the popular and classic sense. This positive observation provides a pivot on which I turn to certain of the negatives which Dr. Tiboris has labeled abuses. These concern essentially (1) an imbalance in the artistic level of performance, (2) budget, and (3) exploitation.
CHOREOGRAPHY. To avoid poor choreography, which has been cited as an abuse, four alternatives come to mind. The first of these, which has inherent administrative problems, is to solicit the partnership of a dance instructor. This solution is far-fetched unless the instructor is at hand, no overload results, and time permits. The second is to use the assistance of an advanced dance student—if time permits. The third, though advisable, does not accomplish the aim; it is to delay the show choir program until good dance instruction is available. This brings us to the option suggested by Dr. Tiboris: consider musical theater, in scenes or entire works. The latter of these adds even more elements requiring professional expertise, i.e. acting and stage production. Considering the above, there are no easy solutions and depending on particular circumstances at a given institution, the choices can be mean.
BUDGET. Where budget is concerned, containment within modest limits need not perforce negate the effectiveness of a show choir. For instance, a choir membership of eight to not more than fifteen balanced voices may develop a repertoire that does not require elaborate technical support, and as a bonus will increase the group's touring flexibility as well as capability. The focus may be more on the vitality of performances than on elaborate production.
VOCAL ABUSE AND GROUP EXPLOITATION. Vocal abuse is a serious matter indeed and exploitation of voices is no more forgivable than exploitation of the show choir itself. As to the former, I can and do echo the statement that specialized vocal instruction is imperative to the achievement of appropriate style. But I add the thought that individualized coaching, which is clearly limited by a choir of 20 to 30 voices, can be greatly helpful and more likely attainable with a smaller group. As to the concern for exploitation of the show choir itself, diplomacy or at the least political sophistication is necessary to ward off excessive exposure of that group by administrative request for public relations purposes. If the choral director is in control, responsibility for a balanced program rests there.
CONCLUSION. If I may use a hackneyed but terse expression, the "bottom line" is that a badly voiced, artistically imbalanced, or over-exposed show choir is worse than no show choir. Where any of the above prevails, colleges and universities would do better to redirect the use of student and professorial time. With this thought, I arrive at a position of support for the recommendation that show choirs not exist unless or until the requisite means are available. At the same time, I advocate for American music and the inclusion of its popular styles in a comprehensive array of music offerings. For this reason, I hold the opinion that the investment of time, talent, and ingenuity, if required in lieu of money, is a justifiable commitment to the development of a truly good show choir.
RESPONSE BY ROBERT E. STOLL
I am grateful to have the opportunity to exchange views on this issue. The subject is difficult to pursue because of the lack of a precise definition of what a show choir is, and the broad generalities associated with its praise or condemnation. I shall strive to offer my thoughts on some of the subjects, following the order of Dr. Tiboris' position statement.
The position defines a show choir and notes that it is distinguished from a jazz choir. What is described, however, is only one of several kinds of show choirs. The choir as described is centered around "Top Forty" and Las Vegas shows. Other show choirs center around several decades of repertoire from the Broadway and Hollywood musicals and/or several decades of American popular music. Any limiting of definition to such a narrow band as "current top forty" would indeed be unfortunate.
USES. I would agree that some show choirs have become useful public relations units for their institutions. In my experience most such groups represent the institution at large or the alumni association rather than the specific school or department of music. It is unfortunate if the public does not understand that the offering represents only one phase of music at the respective institution.
Certain show choirs are so constituted that performance skills developed within them can contribute to the preparation of future performers for the concert, opera, and musical stage as well as for clubs. Others are so narrow in scope that there is no adult professional counterpart.
If the show choir is used as a recruitment tool, I should hope it would be honestly represented as only a part of a total program. A show choir in the music program tells the public only that the music program has a show choir, nothing more. It is the quality of that show choir which speaks to aesthetics and practices. The import of popular music along with other popular arts is undeniable. It is a shame to know Copland and not Sondheim, or vice versa; Steinbeck and not Al Capp; Picasso and not Kliban. Many arts have a popular form, and when these popular forms are "borrowed," they contribute to and become a part of the wider artistic expression, e.g., Ravel's use of jazz, Bernstein's use of rock, Menotti's use of cabaret songs, Picasso's use of paste and paper.
ABUSES. Under the category of abuses the position paper points to the superficiality of the "top forty" music. Any music designed for rapid consumption will have elements that are superficial. Since this is true, directors of show choirs who are "serious" about "popular" will use little of that repertoire and will build programs with other genres of popular music.
There are few really good arrangements of any music, whether folk, art, or popular, including some musical theater choruses. Few arrangers of folk material created works of art as did Brahms, Kodály, Copland, and Dawson. And the American popular song has had more than its share of quickie "charts" scored to make the afternoon press run. The "top forty" suffer most but other popular forms are faring better. It must be stated that there is a growing group of arrangers who are making artistic settings of popular material which are intelligently made for the voice.
The potential for vocal abuse is present in much choral music, not just "top forty" although it cannot be denied that the problem is compounded when the group is driven by the electronics of guitar, bass, and keyboards and the questionable "ideal" of the original recording. Voices driven to abuse through the shouting of either Beethoven or Beatles is criminal. So too is allowing the emaciated, unsupported breathy sounds of some microphone-bound pop singers.
Two points must be made. First, the choral director must understand the human voice not only to avoid its abuses but also to realize its potential. Singers must be made aware of their volume potential, and taught not to sing louder or softer than possible while maintaining good vocal production. The potential for varying tone colors is vast. So too is the potential gained from varying the vibrato, from the rich natural vibrato for Brahms and Rodgers, to the controlled vibrato of Palestrina and Peurling.
Second, an artist selects from reality to create his artistic reality. A painting does not look like a photograph because the artist has been selective in what he recreates. So too the choral artist is selective in what he uses to recreate from an original version of a popular piece. The tone qualities need not be copied. The suggestion of a breathy sound can come from soft, supported singing, little vibrato, and soft consonants. The brassier sounds of Broadway can be brought to life with bright tone colors, bright vowels, and crisper consonants. All this short of belting.
Using a "serious opera sound" for Barry Manilow's songs is indeed not appropriate. Neither is it appropriate for a Brahms motet. Nor is a Brahms motet sound appropriate for a Stravinsky Mass or a Victoria motet. However, it is possible, with selectivity, to manifest most styles with musical integrity through the well-produced human voice. Style, after all, is also created with phrasing, appropriate diction, and rhythmic realities.
Movement to music is an ancient art and can be desirable in a theatrical format. The main abuses I find are (1) overuse—all numbers choreographed and a movement for each beat of music; (2) inappropriate movement for singers—moves that hinder the proper use of the voice; and (3) inappropriate style—"disco" choreography to a religious jubilee or jitter-bugging to a rock song. This area of movement to music also requires stylistic integrity.
Show choirs can be expensive. Some institutions cannot afford them. If show choirs are desirable, then instruction should exist. Several schools offer some instruction. I teach such a course.
Students' time is absorbed in many ways. They must learn how to be selective. A well-planned activity from which one can learn is not a waste of time. The show choir can only be considered as a supplement to a full range of choral activities and in no way should it overshadow the traditional concert programs of a choral department.
My own musical eclecticism does not allow me to condemn any genre of musical expression. Rather it forces me to concentrate on the quality of that expression. My own educational sense tells me that this genre, whatever we think, will not "go away." Therefore I am compelled to strive to improve its lot, while also striving to guide students to an appreciation of all choral expressions.
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