A show choir (originally known as a "swing choir") is a group of people who combine choral singing with dance, sometimes within the context of a specific idea or story. It is most prevalent in the Midwestern United States, and was popularized by the American television show Glee. Unlike sports, no official national or state sanctioning bodies exist to regulate the performances or standings.
Show choir is primarily performed as a school activity in the USA. It is usually done as a co-curricular (as part of a class, as well as outside of the school day) or an extracurricular (completely outside of the school day) activity. In addition, some show choirs are formed in organizations outside of school. Though usually a high school activity, the art form has grown and expanded to all levels of school from elementary through the college/university level.
While there is no standard requirement for the number of performers, show choirs typically contain between 30 and 60 singer/dancers, but it depends on the size of the school and the discretion of the director. Larger schools with a more advanced program may have more than one show choir. Unisex show choirs usually compete in a separate division, with the exception of an "open" division, during which unisex and mixed groups compete against each other.
Show choirs traditionally wear a costume, though the definition of what is considered a costume in show choir is very broad and ranges from jeans and a T-shirt to extravagant period costumes or flashy dance-wear. It can be very conservative (such as tuxedos and ball gowns) or very edgy (such as modern or revealing clothing). Additionally, many larger show choirs include two or more costumes in their show. Participants typically wear stage makeup and shoes conducive to dancing (often "character shoes"). In the Midwest and on the East Coast, woman participants will generally do their hair to look identical. Californian show choirs do not generally have identical hair. Otherwise, from the costumes to the stage makeup, show choir members often look uniform during most shows.
The choir usually has a backup band ("jazz" or "combo" if it includes a Horn Section) providing instrumental music to complement the voices. The instrumentation varies from song to song and choir to choir, but a common show choir band consists of guitar, bass, drums, trumpets, trombone, alto sax, tenor sax, piano, and synthesizer. Some bands include violins or even cellos. Many larger show choirs typically have a larger combo to accompany them. The band is usually out of sight, however the occasional show will have part of the band on stage at certain points.
A "Tech Crew" (or "Stage Crew") is standard with most show choirs, as they assist with and handle the lighting, sound, and stage setup. Show choir crew also help in the creation and management of costumes. During the show, the crew can do several things from helping performers change costumes, manage props, hand out microphones and other duties set out in the choreography and design of the show.
One problem that arises with show choir is a lack of male members. Due to the stigma that the performing arts is a more feminine activity, many teenage boys are discouraged from participating in show choir. Males also tend to not be drawn to show choir because the activity seems less successful than other high school activities, such as sports. A lack of males can cause choirs to lack in vocal performance because they do not have enough pitch variety. In order to achieve rich melodies, choirs need males of all voice ranges from tenor to bass. After a study done by the Choral Journal  another alarming factor that has caused there to be a lack of male vocalists in show choir is choir director's lack of investment in the issue. Many choir directors have accepted the fact that they will always have less males in their choir, therefore very few make an attempt to reach out to males in the school. By not making an effort to change this issue, directors unintentionally support this issue. By reaching out to males and creating more of a supportive community for high school boy, more males will likely participate in show choir.
Some participants believe that show choir is a sport due to the dancing aspect; in West Virginia and Illinois it is currently pending as a physical education credit. Some physical education teacher groups have come out against the move, saying that P. E. should be about more than one type of physical activity. Some participants of show choir also have come out against the move. However, it has failed to gain sport designation in any state to become state-sanctioned and by definition is a performing art, not a sport.
Many show choirs participate in competitions, sometimes called "invitationals" (though most are not invitation-only events) or "festivals". These competitions are often held at the high school where the "host group" attends and sometimes performs as an exhibition, though some events are held at auditoriums or other facilities that can accommodate larger crowds and provide better acoustic performance.
Competitions can be as small as a showcase of a few groups from the immediate geographic area or they can feature many groups from multiple states. Because of the vast difference in sizes of the competitions, they can last a single afternoon or span an entire weekend. Competitions may separate competing choirs into different divisions. These divisions are often determined by age, skill level, size of the school or choir, and/or gender of the participants. The different divisions may take place at a different time, day, or at a different location or venue, though usually within the same school or close geographic area. There are three main divisions: Varsity (or Open), Unisex, and Prep (or Class A) or Large Group, Small Group, and Unisex. Within each division, there may be different subsections based on the size of the group, the size of the choir, or how successful the choir has been. Largely, the decision of where to place a choir is made by the director of the competing choir.
Show choir sets can be presented in a multitude of ways from the more traditional approach to ultra theatrical performances that tell full length stories. These performances done by choirs, or "sets," are created by the choir's school director and possibly outside performing arts professionals. As this art form has grown, more schools have attempted to create quality performances that can be compared to professional shows.
Many competitions include a preliminary round and a finals found. The finals round commences after the preliminary awards are complete, where the top groups perform again in order to compete for the title of Grand Champion of the contest. The number of performing groups in the finals round is up to the hosting school, but typically 5-6 choirs participate. Those groups are sometimes given the opportunity to take suggestions, either from scoring judges or separate experts called in to give suggestions made during the preliminary round, and make adjustments to their finals performance in order to earn a better score. Hosting schools do not compete in the competition for ethical purposes.
The adjudicators, usually called judges, at almost any competition are experts in the show choir field. Often they are directors from other choirs, choreographers, arrangers or performers from Broadway-style musicals. The judging is subjective and is based on the scoring style selected by the hosts with some competitions placing more emphasis on strictly choral aspects, while others incorporate more emphasis on the entire show including the choreography, band, and show design. Depending on the competition, the judges may only judge in their area of expertise (a choir director judging vocals, while a choreographer judging dance), or they may judge everything. Additionally, a separate judge may be added to the panel to judge the bands, and/or to select outstanding performers for separate awards.
During competitions there are also individual, or solo, competitions. They take place during the competition, and they take place in a different area than the main competition. Winners are announced, and they may perform at the start of the nighttime finals performance.
Characteristics of a performance
Most show choir "shows" or "sets" consist of a variety of songs, often including several choreographed, fast-paced pieces and one slower piece performed with limited or no choreography. This slower number—usually a ballad—exists primarily to showcase the ensemble's singing ability. In California, it is a requirement that at least one minute of any one set be sung a cappella (it is usually one full song in the set), though this is not a standard in the rest of the country. More often than not, the a cappella selection is also the ballad, as it is much easier to sing unaccompanied while holding relatively still. In the Midwest, it is becoming popular to set one song aside as a "novelty" piece, designed to make the audience laugh. "Concept" or "story" shows that unify all of the songs together in a common theme are becoming more popular across the country, especially in California.
Within a song, vocal lines typically alternate between unison or octave singing, and two-or-more-part polyphonic harmony. Songs are chosen, adapted, and arranged from a variety of sources including popular music, jazz standards, and Broadway musicals, but rarely make use of classical music. Original music has also been performed by a small number of groups. Additionally, there is often at least one solo in each performance by a standout singer in the group.
Competitive performance sets range in length, but are usually timed to total between fifteen and twenty-five minutes. Shows generally consist of, but are not limited to, approximately five songs.
Show choirs have seen a rise in popularity since the American television series, "Glee" was released. The television show is based around the workings of a fictional show choir. The television show does not accurately represent the environment of a real show choir. Professional baseball player Kyle Schwarber participated in show choir when he was at Middletown (Ohio) High School.
For many high school students, show choir is a large commitment that takes over a large part of a school year. For some, show choir is part of the school curriculum and is a class taught during the day. For others, it is an extracurricular activity that requires practice to take place before or after school. Practices may begin as early as the summer for some, while other choirs don’t start until much later. The competitive season takes place from January until March or April, with competitions held across the country every weekend during that time.
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